The decision by Egypt’s highest court to dissolve the first democratically elected parliament in decades, followed by the Egyptian military’s evisceration of the powers of the civilian president, marked the end of the Arab Spring in Egypt. No matter who is ultimately declared the winner of last Sunday’s disputed presidential election, the cause of Egyptian democracy is in peril.
Unless these moves are reversed, the next phase could be a military dictatorship even more restrictive and brutal than Hosni Mubarak’s. It’s time for the United States to use its leverage — in the form of military aid, long considered the price of Egypt’s adherence to the Camp David Accords — to push the country back on the path to democracy.
Three months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Egypt’s military caretakers the benefit of the doubt. She allowed $1.3 billion in US assistance to be placed in an interest-bearing bank account in New York for Egypt’s use, even though Egypt’s military council had not met democratic conditions that Congress had placed on the aid. One reason Clinton waived the conditions was that the aid was to be spent on defense contracts in the United States, which translate into American jobs. The US government would be obliged to pay big penalties if those defense contractors aren’t paid on time. But, in light of the recent turn of events in Cairo, Clinton’s decision has proven to be a mistake.
Now, some on Capitol Hill argue that the United States should take the extraordinary step of curbing access to Egypt’s account in New York. Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who authored the conditions on Egypt’s aid that Clinton waived, believes that swallowing the cost of penalties to US defense contractors would be better than sending a message to Egypt of business as usual.
Withholding any of the military assistance that has flowed since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979 risks alienating a country that has been an important ally in a vital region. Indeed, little would be gained by simply walking away. But the military aid is a powerful tool; refusing to use it at this point would be to accede to unfettered military control in Egypt for the foreseeable future. Egypt’s military needs a nudge — and a firm threat — to loosen the reins of power.