A U.S. decision to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt will create new friction in Washington’s already uneasy relations with the military-backed government that ousted the first democratically elected Egyptian president. And the consequences won’t end there.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that President Barack Obama “has been clear that we are not able to continue with business as usual. … We will announce the future of our assistance relationship with Egypt once we have made the appropriate diplomatic and congressional notifications.”
In an interview published Wednesday in the Egyptian press Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the military effort that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, said his country would not tolerate pressure, “whether through actions or hints.”
Whether the cuts are deep or symbolic, the move will anger Persian Gulf states, push Egypt to seek assistance from U.S. rivals and upend decades of close ties with the Egyptians that that have been a bulwark of stability in the Middle East.
The U.S. has been considering such a move since July, when the Egyptian military ousted Mohammed Morsi, the nation’s first democratically elected president. Ensuing violence between authorities and Morsi supporters has killed hundreds.
The scheduled Nov. 4 trial of Morsi on charges that he incited the killings of opponents while in office is adding to the turmoil.
The planned aid cut also underscores the strategic shifts underway in the region as U.S. allies in the Gulf forge ahead with policies at odds with Washington. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, are strong backers of Syrian rebel factions and were openly dismayed when the U.S. set aside possible military strikes against Bashar Assad’s government. The Gulf states also feel increasingly sidelined as Washington reaches out to their rival, Iran.
U.S. aid to the Egyptians has a long history. Since the late 1970s, the country has been the second-largest recipient — after Israel — of U.S. bilateral foreign assistance, largely as a way to sustain the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty.
The United States gave Egypt $71.6 billion in assistance between 1948 and 2011, according to a Congressional Research Service report issued in June. That included $1.3 billion a year in military aid since 1987. The rest was economic assistance, some going to the government, some to other groups.
How much will the loss in U.S. aid matter?
Egypt has other allies who may be able to fill the financial void. In fact, Saudi Arabia and some of its Gulf Arab partners have provided a critical financial lifeline for Egypt’s new government, pledging at least $12 billion so far and aiding in regional crackdowns on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. On Monday, Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip in a sign of the importance of the Gulf aid and political backing.
But Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said he isn’t convinced that Saudi Arabia, for instance, is interested in providing the amount of long-term aid that Egypt has received from the United States for more than three decades.
The Gulf states, generally, will express their disappointment over any cuts in U.S. aid to Egypt, he said.
“The Gulf states aren’t happy because they think that not only has Egypt not done anything wrong, but that Egypt has done a lot of things right in snuffing out the early flames of political Islam,” Alterman said. “They will feel that the U.S. in the interest of … democracy is acting against its own concrete interests and the interests of its friends.”
“Countries like China and probably Russia will likely see this as an opportunity to find new markets and to build a new relationship,” he added.
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