As the streets of Cairo smoulder and the Egyptian people brace for further violence, throughout Washington the cry is: “Cut aid to Egypt.” Such an appeal may be emotionally satisfying, but it would be a terrible policy miscalculation.
To its credit, the Obama administration appears to understand this. Its strong condemnations of the killing of demonstrators and limited punitive measures have struck the appropriate balance between expressing American values and protecting American interests.
First, it would be totally ineffective. The Egyptian military receives the overwhelming bulk of American aid. But it doesn’t need it. Gulf states have pledged up to $15 billion to the new Egyptian government.
Second, it would undermine the American strategic relationship with Egypt. Salivating at the opportunity to make an inroad, Vladimir Putin wasted no time in announcing joint military exercises with the Egyptian army.
Essentially, any ending of aid would mean the United States turning its back on the only group in Egypt that is a well-established partner.
The US has more leverage in Egypt than it may think. But if it cuts off aid, it will be left with very little indeed. This would greatly complicate American strategic relations in the broader Arab world by reinforcing the notion that the US does not stand by its friends.
This complaint was wrongly levelled against American policy when it supported the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. But now the socio-political dynamic is reversed: the US, slightly belatedly, supported the Egyptian people’s demand to be rid of Mr Mubarak, but it would now be opposing their evident determination to be rid of Mr Morsi.
A sizeable number of the Egyptian people have made it clear that they are out of patience with the Muslim Brotherhood, both in office and in their subsequent campaign of unrest.
Having lost domestic legitimacy, the Brotherhood is banking on a nationwide destabilisation campaign to win itself new international backing and to recoup some of its political losses at home.
Perceived US support for this effort would reinforce a widespread misapprehension that Washington backed the Brotherhood all along, and tried to get it into power and to keep it there. While this is false, policies that unwittingly reinforce this conspiracy theory are profoundly unwise.
Third, such a cut-off would be a breach of understandings underpinning the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. A key inducement to Egypt was the American long-term military aid commitment. Breaking that would probably not prompt Egypt to abrogate its peace treaty, and increasingly close security ties, with Israel. Those are strongly in Egypt’s own national interests and likely to prevail.
But it would make the US the first of the three parties to the original Arab-Israeli peace treaty to break a fundamental pillar of its commitments. Is that really the precedent to set as it embarks on an intensive effort to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, or for talks with other Middle Eastern countries on various issues, including Iran?
The “unreliability” factor in this case would be radically different from support for the popular uprising against Mr Mubarak. It would place the US not on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of the strategic calculus of its regional partners and interlocutors. No one can seriously advocate that the US should demonstrate it respects Arab public opinion and supports its friends while simultaneously backing a cut-off of aid to Egypt.
But US military aid programmes are not necessarily what they seem. Most such aid, including to Egypt, is dedicated to the purchase of American military goods. They are a workaround skirting American and World Trade Organisation regulations that otherwise bar such subsidies.
An even more serious strategic and economic factor – one often overlooked by many commentators and analysts – is the preferential treatment for American vessels passing through the Suez Canal. An obvious means of retaliation that the Egyptians could, but probably wouldn’t, use, is to revoke that preferential treatment, which is a courtesy.
But if they did, this might force US aircraft carrier groups and other vital naval deployments to use the distant Cape of Good Hope, costing precious time and money, and diminishing the rapidity of deployment. Much US commercial shipping also enjoys preferential treatment in the canal, and the loss of this could cost billions of dollars to US financial interests.
Finally, there is the question of consistency. Under the rule of Mr Mubarak, the armed forces, and Mr Morsi alike, there were numerous abuses, massacres, arbitrary actions and extra-constitutional moves. At no point did anyone raise the issue of a cut-off of aid, precisely for the reasons outlined above. So, why now? Charges of hypocrisy will be difficult to refute or deflect.
If the US wants to wash its hands of Egypt and let it drift into other orbits, or simply declare defeat and go home, so be it.
But no serious American administration, including President Obama’s, is going to take such a drastic and reckless step, no matter how many people without direct responsibility for the consequences of US foreign policy advocate such a blunder.