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The limits of power

On Wednesday the U.S. announced that President Barack Obama had suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt in response to the military government's bloody crackdown that has left more than 1,000 protesters dead and thousands more jailed or forced into hiding. Aides to the president say the suspension of aid is temporary and aimed at demonstrating American displeasure with the generals' attempt to abort the fledgling democracy Egyptians were trying to construct after the fall of former strongman Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

But while the U.S. may wish to leverage the aid it gives Egypt's military to nudge its current leaders toward returning power to an elected civilian government, there's been little sign the generals are listening or, if they are, that the prospect of a suspension of U.S. aid will do much to alter their behavior.

When the Egyptian military toppled the country's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in July, U.S. officials resisted calling the takeover a coup, though it plainly was. That's because to do so would have required the administration to suspend some $1.3 billion in annual military and other aid to the country. Mr. Obama and his advisers were understandably reluctant to sever those ties, given the long-standing relationship between the two countries and Egypt's strategic importance as the most populous Arab country in the volatile Mideast.

Instead, President Obama urged Egyptian General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the country's top military officer and the leader of the coup, to quickly appoint an interim government composed of all the country's political and religious factions — including the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by Mr. Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party. The hope was that such a government could steer the country back onto a path toward a stable democracy.

But since then Mr. al-Sissi has ordered the arrest of hundreds of Brotherhood officials, declared martial law, killed peaceful protesters allied with Mr. Morsi and sought to dissolve the Brotherhood entirely as a political movement by seizing its assets. Nor have Egypt's military leaders given any sign they are the least bit interested in returning the country to civilian rule.

That leaves the utility of suspending U.S. aid up in the air at this point. Egypt's generals may actually be far less concerned about not getting a few dozen or so more tanks, fighter jets and attack helicopters than they are about maintaining the military's position as the most powerful political actor in the country. That consideration has been a constant in their calculations ever since the fall of Mr. Mubarak, and it seems unlikely to change regardless of what the U.S. wants.

If the generals have to accept a "temporary" — and largely symbolic — loss of access to the Pentagon's largesse in order to hang on to the reins of power, chances are they will continue to gladly go their own way. In any case, oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which despise the Muslim Brotherhood, have already said they are willing to make up for any loss of U.S. military assistance with billions of aid dollars of their own. No doubt Russia and China will also seek to take advantage of any U.S.-Egyptian rift to increase their influence in the region.

That's why the U.S. announcement that it is suspending aid may be too little and too late to force Egypt's military to alter course. However much America prides itself on the strong relationships it has developed over the years with Egypt's top military officers, it's clear that for Mr. al-Sissi, institutional self-interest trumps friendship. The army turned on Mr. Mubarak two years ago once it became clear that his continued presence threatened to not only destabilize the country but to undermine the authority and prestige of a military that had supported him for decades. If the generals were willing to give Mr. Mubarak the boot in order to save themselves, it's little wonder they're willing to ignore the wishes of their American friends.

We find ourselves in a situation where the aid we give Egypt's leaders isn't giving us influence, and neither is the threat of withholding it. Under those circumstances, the only rational course is to cut off entirely any aid that serves to support a brutal dictatorship. As it stands, the president's action is likely to accomplish little more than to demonstrate the limits of American power while failing to stand up for American ideals.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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