Why Obama Should Postpone Giving Advanced Weapons to Egypt: A Guide for Congress
By Barry Rubin
They were celebrating in Cairo the arrival of four new U.S. F-16s and the likelihood that the United States would give $2 billion in aid to Egypt this year.
Yet given the ongoing violence in Egypt and the Islamist regime’s declaration of a state of emergency in three governates—a policy it and other opposition groups always rejected under the previous government—it is reasonable for the United States to postpone military gifts of F16s, advanced tanks, and other weapons to Cairo.
Regarding the state of emergency—and the state of democracy in Egypt--Mohamed Al-Kholi, a member of the upper house of Egypt’s parliament that approved the proposal, tweeted, “It is clear the Islamist-dominated council rejects listening to any kind of opposition and that it is just interested in rubber-stamping Morsi’s authoritarian measures.” Emad Gad, a political analyst for the state-controlled al-Ahram newspaper, warned, “The mobilization of [the] Shura Council [upper house of parliament] to endorse Morsi’s authoritarian measures offers renewed proof that the council exists solely to rubber-stamp Morsi’s decrees and promote the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood.” That was especially brave, by the way, since Gad knows the Muslim Brotherhood will soon be choosing his new boss [see below].
And here's another point that to my knowledge hasn't been used in Congress yet. Last November, the International Monetary Fund suspended discussions on a $4.3 billion loan to Egypt for two months because of the unrest in the country. The talks are now being renewed but the loan still hasn't been granted. If the IMF can suspend negotiations over domestic repression in Egypt--and in that case it could be argued that a delay hurt ordinary Egyptians--the United States can certainly do likewise in a situation where no Egyptian citizens will be hurt by a delay in providing planes and tanks to the military.
What are the arguments raised in Congress so far for stopping the arms' transfer? Senator Rand Paul remarked:
“I think it is a blunder of the first proportion to send sophisticated weapons to a country that allowed a mob to attack our embassy and to burn our flag….I find it objectionable to send weapons…to a country that allowed a mob chanting ‘death to America’ to threaten our American diplomats.”
This makes sense but is still a marginal position in Congress.
Senator James Inhofe added a second argument:
“For decades, the U.S. has had a good relationship with Egypt, training their troops and working together to maintain peace and stability in the region… Under Muslim Brotherhood President Mursi, this relationship has come to a halt. We need to continue to support the Egyptian military, which Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood have currently distanced themselves from. Egypt’s military is our friend—Mursi is our enemy,”
A third argument is one regarding Egypt’s stance toward Israel but the Egyptian government can argue that it formally maintains the peace treaty. There are other signs of trouble, for example the government prosecutor’s office has now claimed that Israel has created a massive conspiracy to destroy Egypt’s economic facilities.
Fourth, military aid--Egypt gets $1.3 billion a year--and gifts of advanced weapons are given to countries that actually do something for the United States. It is clear that Egypt's new regime will not support U.S. policy toward Iran nor promote the Arab-Israeli or Israel-Palestinian peace process. The main thing that the Egyptian regime did for the United States was supposedly to help broker an Israel-Hamas ceasefire. For this, the Brotherhood government is endlessly praised by Obama Administration officials including Kerry in his confirmation hearings.
Yet all that this amounted to was Egypt saving its Hamas client from a worse drubbing by Israel. As for Egypt cooperating in blocking arms from reaching Hamas over the Egypt-Gaza border, this cooperation remains to be seen.
And then there are the statements by President Mursi and other top Egyptian leaders evincing antisemitic and anti-American hatred. What is especially noteworthy is the remarks of Fathi Shihab-Eddim, a top regime figure who—no less!—is responsible for appointing the editors of state-run Egyptian newspapers and made—no less!—on January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Shihab-Eddim said:
“The myth of the Holocaust is an industry that America invented.”
Note that he did not say it was a Zionist-invented industry. The statement is thus a direct attack on the United States, to be linked with Mursi’s saying a few hours earlier that Jews controlled the American media, to be linked with Mursi saying that Jews were the offspring of pigs and monkeys as well as other things he and Muslim Brotherhood leaders have said.
This is not just rhetoric but their political analysis: Evil, subhuman Jews bent on world conquest and destroying Islam are running the United States but at the same time America is the centerpiece of the conspiracy to destroy Islam.
The truth is that there is not a lot of difference between the political concepts of Iran’s leaders and those of Egypt’s leaders on this point. The difference is that the Brotherhood is much smarter at using the United States whereas Iran’s rulers continue to antagonize it. This strategy works so well that the U.S. government in effect protects the Brotherhood regime in the Gaza Strip from being overthrown and is about to put the Brotherhood regime into power in Syria.
It would be easy to compile many pages of profoundly anti-American statements made by Brotherhood leaders and media over recent months and years yet such things don't seem to appear or at least to be factored into the American debate. For instance, the Brotherhood consistently supported terrorism against American forces in Iraq and leaders frequently speak about America's decline as a reason for advancing the jihad to more and more places.
All of these points perhaps should be but are not sufficient to stop the sale. But are their additional arguments that validate doing so? Events in Egypt have now provided such a rationale.
It is, of course, vital to maintain good relations between the United States and Egypt and especially with the Egyptian military. As Inhofe suggested, though, these two things are not identical. While there is less hope of the army blocking the Muslim Brotherhood government than many outsiders think—its top priority is its own economic well-being; there are Islamist sympathizers in its ranks; the Brotherhood will eventually appoint the top command—that possibility still exists.
At this moment, the Brotherhood wants the army to intervene to put down opposition demonstrations and riots. The armed forces is reluctant to do so even though the top general warned that the country’s future stability was at stake. For the United States at this moment to postpone weapons’ sales would send a signal to the army that it cannot count on unlimited U.S. backing if it does the Brotherhood’s bidding. The generals will think: These idiots in our government are messing things up to the point that we might not get more American goodies. Why should we send forces into the streets to shoot down citizens for such leaders?
There is another good rationale that can be used. While the president is elected and a constitution has been adopted, parliamentary elections must be held again for the lower house. It could be argued by the U.S. government that until the full parliament is in place, Egypt will not be fully democratic and the provision of weapons can be postponed until then, in a few months.
And here’s one more. What do U.S. intelligence reports say about the security of weapons provided to Egypt? Is there a danger of their falling into the hands of Salafist, including al-Qaida-linked, terrorists, including soldiers?
Remember the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in which members of the Egyptian military participated. While terrorists are not likely to take off in an F16, other weapons are more vulnerable. And then there’s the possibility of the theft of technology that might wind up in the hands of America’s enemies. This should be a real consideration and I’ll bet there are some very interesting reports about such things in the Pentagon.
Because of recent events, then, the postponement of sales—which a month ago seemed a mission impossible--becomes a possible realpolitik American response when before this point it was arguably against U.S. interests. With the Obama Administration proclaiming its allegiance to human rights and democracy that added point should affect the thinking of congressional Democrats.
Will the sale be stopped? Almost certainly not unless there are more dramatic events. The president generally gets what he wants in foreign policy and most Democrats are simply afraid to cross Obama even if they disagree with him.
Nevertheless, a credible attempt should be made to postpone the sale if for no other reason than that would lay the basis for a possibly more successful effort the next time, when the Egyptian government’s radicalism will be even more visible.
A second reason for this effort is to show the Obama Administration that there is a price for its policies and that the strategy it is following undermines U.S. interests. If it is going to back the Brotherhood then the contradictions in this position should be exposed to the American public and members of Congress should be forced to take a stand. Democrats on Capitol Hill who back the White House on other issues might well realize that they need to curb it on foreign policy lest it damage both America and their own political careers.
Of course, the White House will not change course, just as it didn’t do so when demonstrators were being repressed in Iran. Having just pointed an all pro-Islamist team, Obama has doubled down on his policy. But he should have to pay for such behavior in public opinion and the loss of congressional support.