The New York Times reported last week:
The Obama administration on Wednesday announced a modest and temporary freeze on military assistance to Egypt, even as American officials emphasized their desire to avoid rupturing a security relationship that stretches back more than three decades.
To signal its displeasure at the Egyptian military’s bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, officials said, the United States would withhold the delivery of several big-ticket items, including Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts and F-16 warplanes, as well as $260 million for the general Egyptian budget.
But annual U.S. military aid to Egypt is at least $1.3 billion, which means over the generals will continue to receive significant financing from the U.S., over $1 billion, in violation of U.S. law. The Times then adds that the U.S. is “balancing its interests” by continuing aid “for counterterrorism programs” and “efforts to protect its borders”.
Keep in mind that the Egyptian military has cracked down murderously on demonstrators, calling those protesting the coup in which they overthrew the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, “terrorists”. Egypt has also been complicit in Israel’s collective punishment of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip by keeping the Rafah border crossing closed, with occasional respites.
The Times quotes an Obama administration official explaining the temporary and partial scaling back of support for the Egyptian military:
“This is not meant to be permanent; this is meant to be the opposite,” a senior administration official said. “It is meant to be continually reviewed.” Still, the official added, “it’s fair to say that holding up hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance is a pretty clear message.”
What sent “a pretty clear message” to the generals was when they announced that they were going to crack down on the “terrorists” protesting their coup and the U.S. replied by assuring them that they would continue to receive support from Washington. What sends a “pretty clear message” to them now is that the lion’s share of support they receive from the U.S. is continuing. The Times addresses this further down the page:
“The administration is trying to have it both ways, by suspending some aid but continuing other aid,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who is chairman of the subcommittee that appropriates aid to Egypt. “By doing that, the message is muddled.”
Some experts said the moves were meant to be more symbolic than substantive.
“This is not a signal to the generals to get their act together,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It is an effort by the administration to say, ‘You did what you did, and we want to keep working with you, but there is some price to be paid for not listening to us.’ ”
“At the end of day,” she added, “it is a pretty symbolic price.”
It is “symbolic”, indeed. The Obama administration does not want to be viewed as completely indifferent to the generals’ murder and other oppressive actions. At the same time, neither does it wish to upset the status quo. For instance, as Haaretz reports:
Israel fears that cutting aid to Egypt could affect the peace treaty between the two countries, signed in 1979, which brought Cairo into Washington’s sphere of influence. Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel.
In recent months, Israel has tried to convince the White House that punishing Egypt for the latest violence between the government and protesters was secondary to preserving the peace deal.
“As long as the American aid flows to Cairo, the Egyptian regime can ward off criticism against preserving the peace treaty with Israel,” Israeli officials told their U.S. counterparts.
That is to say, as long as the American aid continues to flow to the generals, they can continue to suppress the Egyptian people, whose public will would upset the status quo the U.S. and Israel seek to maintain if the Egyptian government actually respected it. The government might, for example, stop granting special privileges to the U.S. military with passage through the Suez Canal (the U.S. would have to wait in line like everyone else) and military overflights over Egyptian airspace. It might permanently and completely open the Rafah border crossing to help ease the collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza committed by Israel with U.S. support. For Egypt to have a representative government that acts according to the will of its people, rather than brutally suppressing them, just will not do.
Hence the purely “symbolic” move by the Obama administration, which does indeed send a clear message to the generals that, while they should perhaps avoid additional massacres, they may nevertheless continue to preserve the status quo by ruling with an iron fist, as Mubarak had done with U.S. backing for three decades prior.