Aki Peritz is the senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way and author of Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda.
Egypt's tenuous steps toward democratic governance are stumbling – badly. The country is lurching toward financial ruin, brutal street protests are erupting between political factions, the president indulges in anti-Semitism, and the Muslim Brotherhood continually cracks down on opposition forces and the media using tactics similar to those of the Mubarak government. Coptic Christians remain targets for discrimination and physical attack, and the number of women being publicly assaulted is exploding.
More ominously, bread rations will be slashed this summer, portending new riots. And depressingly, secular political forces do not seem to be coherently organizing to challenge the Brotherhood at the ballot box, as liberal opposition leader Mohammed el-Baradei has called for a boycott of upcoming elections.
Now, there is a steady drumbeat by certain members of Congress to reduce or withhold altogether $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt until Cairo gets its act together – or until the Muslim Brotherhood relinquishes power. This would be a mistake for America. Why? Because what some in the House and Senate and others forget is that we don't really have a credible alternative for governance of the world's largest Arab country.
First, we provide Egypt almost exclusively with military aid – about $1.3 billion annually (about $200 million goes to improving economic conditions in the country). While the military's reputation has suffered lately, it nonetheless remains one of the few secular institutions in a fragmented political landscape. While top military officers are hardly "d" democrats, they did return to their barracks after the revolution – exactly the action that America wanted. Egypt's military needs the aid to keep its troops paid on time. Cutting this funding won't further stabilize the situation.
America also spends about $1 million annually on International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs, which bring Egyptian and other foreign officers to the U.S. for training. This infinitesimally small amount of yearly aid does wonders for our foreign policy, as it means America has access to top military men around the world. As CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis recently informed Congress, "The value of American military-to-military relationships is evident when you compare the transition in Egypt with events in Libya and the ongoing brutality in Syria."
The U.S. also expanded military aid in part to maintain the Israel-Egypt peace. This money is mostly funneled back to U.S. defense businesses, as Egypt purchases M1A1 Abrams tanks, F-16 jets, Apache helicopters, and anti-aircraft missile batteries, among other equipment. It's a win-win for everyone: We help maintain (an admittedly cold) peace in a volatile region, and U.S. businesses make money. What's not to like?
As much as outside observers are apprehensive about the Muslim Brotherhood's actual long-term intentions vis-à-vis Israel, Morsi has not done much to change the situation. Since taking office in 2012, he has yet to violate or change the peace treaty between the two nations. Furthermore, he helped broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in late 2012.
Most interestingly, Cairo has been hard at work smashing the tunnels that run from the Sinai to the Gaza Strip, which were used to bring weapons into Egypt, but also to smuggle goods that nourish Hamas's mini-state. According to the Economist, "Gleeful Israeli soldiers say that their coordination with their Egyptian counterparts at the border is better than under Hosni Mubarak's old regime."
And many of the alternatives to Morsi & Co. are certainly worse. A complete state breakdown is in no one's best interest, except for criminals, terrorists and those who profit from disorder. Despite political infighting, the ultraconservative Salafists – whose al–Nour party controls a quarter of Egypt's parliament – are well-organized and unsympathetic to Western interests. The fighting in Cairo and Port Said could spread to other areas, crippling any government. The prospect for total chaos is very real.
And America has real security requirements with Egypt beyond keeping the peace with Israel. For example, U.S. Navy ships often transit through the Suez Canal; if it were closed, our vessels would have to sail around Africa to arrive at the Persian Gulf, crimping our capabilities in the event of, say, a conflict with Iran. Because of our aid, the U.S. military can also use Egyptian airspace.
Few say Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are perfect – or even particularly desirable – partners. But they were more or less democratically elected, and wishful thinking will not transform them into a liberal government, nor will it erase Egypt's systemic problems.
Punishing Morsi may feel satisfying, but it could weaken the state to the point of failure. Religious conservatives will not vanish from the Egyptian political landscape. In the absence of real alternatives to this government, gutting Cairo's foreign aid would be worse for the region, our allies, and our interests.