Aiding Egypt’s Faux-Democracy

The recent omnibus bill sets ‘broad and lame’ conditions for resuming aid to Egypt’s military.

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An election worker points to a ballot tagged " disagree", at the end of the second, final day of a key referendum on a new constitution, inside a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. The vote is a milestone in a military-backed political roadmap toward new elections for a president and a ballot-box test of public opinion on the coup that removed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power last July.

The early tally is coming in, and it looks like a landslide: Unofficial results show more than 90 percent of Egyptian voters approving their country's new constitution.

Of course, it's pretty easy to run up such an overwhelming margin of victory when, for instance, activists pressing for a "no" vote are arrested and charged as criminals. Or when major opposition parties are essentially banned and their leaders thrown in jail. And that's what's happening in Egypt, as the military, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, attempts to legitimize last year's coup against the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi. Mohamed El Dahshan, a senior research fellow at the Harvard University Center for International Development, writes that the military, in its zeal to ensure voter approval of the constitution, "has all but given up any pretenses of a democratic process."

That's why it was so discouraging to see the so-called "omnibus" appropriations bill, which will surely be signed into law by President Obama, essentially clearing the way for the resumption of U.S. military aid to Egypt. Under the bill, Egypt will be eligible for about $1.5 billion in U.S. taxpayer-funded largesse.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But wait, doesn't U.S. law say that military aid can't go to countries whose leaders have assumed power via coup? Yes, it does, but the omnibus creates a carve-out for Egypt (note the phrase "notwithstanding any provision of law restricting assistance for Egypt"), instead giving discretion to the Secretary of State to determine whether certain benchmarks regarding "a democratic transition" have been reached.

In a very helpful piece, Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, lays out how the bill "reflects the desire of diverse entrenched interests to keep the decades-old aid program going, with little if any regard for what the deterioration in Egypt's internal situation means for U.S. interests." Speaking to U.S. News, she calls the conditions placed upon the aid "broad and lame." Human Rights First also criticized the bill, saying it "fails to address many of biggest issues in U.S. foreign policy, such as attaching clear human rights and democracy conditions on aid to Egypt."

The only saving grace, Hawthorne explains, is that the bill says Egypt may be given aid "up to" a prescribed amount, leaving open the possibility that the administration can give it out a bit at a time, rather than all at once, in order to entice baby steps towards a real democracy.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

But this brings us back to the same question that led to the debate over whether military aid to Egypt should be suspended in the first place (a step which the Obama administration only took belatedly, and still without admitting that what had occurred in Egypt was, in fact, a coup): Is this aid buying the U.S. anything worth having? I'd argue no. Instead, recent events have proven the theory that aid gives the U.S. "leverage" over Egypt, or that Egypt will fail to uphold its international obligations if the aid spigot is closed, demonstrably false.

Repellent as Morsi's government turned out to be, the coup seems to have put Egypt back on a road towards a "democracy" that is not controlled by the voters, but rather by entrenched military and police interests. Egyptians, understandably weary from years of political and economic turmoil and without meaningful political opposition, are voting for a constitution that keeps the military free from civilian control and enshrines some of the same abuses present during the reign of former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Sure, votes have been cast, but that's only democracy in the loosest sense of the word.

As such, there's no reason for the U.S. government to bless the process. If the State Department does resume military aid to Egypt's at this point faux-democracy, it will show once again that the more things change, the more they really do stay the same.

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