The Middle East Channel

Cashing in after the coup

Rarely is there a single discrete event that provides the ultimate test case for understanding the interests at play in U.S. foreign policy decisions. When the Egyptian military placed former President Mohamed Morsi under house arrest after he allegedly failed to agree to a referendum on his presidency, this was a coup d'état. It was also as close to a smoking gun as any theorist of International Affairs could ever hope to witness -- robust evidence that U.S. military assistance is aimed primarily at generating private corporate profits, not influencing Egypt's military leaders or maintaining regional stability.

The July 3 coup d'état may have been accompanied by unprecedented popular support, but our normative rejection of coups as a legitimate method of resolving political conflict is based on a consensus that the armed forces should always be subordinated to an elected civilian leadership and never acquire the status of an institutionalized political actor. This is the basis for the U.S. law that requires the cessation of aid to countries where the military has played "a decisive role" in deposing a "duly elected head of government ... by coup d'etat or decree." Which is to say that all aid must be suspended regardless of whether that head of government is removed through widespread military violence or merely spirited away in the custody of the armed forces. The events that took place in Egypt meet this definition without question. The fact that defense equipment financed with U.S. military aid continues to flow to Egypt in the immediate aftermath of Morsi's removal is a flagrant violation of this edict, and the bill just put forth by House Republicans that keeps Egypt's $1.3 billion in military aid intact but excludes the $250 million in economic aid traditionally dispensed alongside it is nothing short of outrageous.   

Of course, the U.S. legal code and norms of global governance -- and the ordinary human beings that such rules and regulations are meant to protect -- are not actually the pillars of Washington's military aid policy. In reality, private sector defense firms are the only actors whose interests are served by continuing U.S. military aid to Egypt, and arguments to the contrary do not stand up to even the most superficial critique. The claim that a halt to military aid would jeopardize the cold peace between Israel and Egypt is ludicrous, as decades of carefully orchestrated U.S. military aid to both countries has produced a perpetual arms buildup in which Israel always maintains the upper hand. Egypt's military decision-makers would never go to war with a better-armed Tel Aviv; the rationale that led to that action in previous decades -- to bring Israeli leaders to the negotiating table over the Sinai -- no longer exists. And any observer of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process can tell you that Arab leaders' vague claims of military support in favor of the Palestinians is pure posturing. Transitioning the aid packages in both countries to consist of economic assistance as opposed to military assistance would therefore not threaten the stale peace that exists between the two countries. It would, however, fundamentally alter the nature of military procurement in both countries, as each would likely seek out cheaper alternatives to U.S. weapons. Such alternatives are more abundant than ever before -- partially owing to decades of outsourced production and joint ventures between U.S. and foreign producers.

Nor has Egypt's military aid package somehow rationalized the armed forces' procurement strategy. The Egyptian military is required by law to spend its roughly $1.3 billion in aid each year to purchase weapons made by U.S. manufacturers -- some as likely to end up gathering dust in a warehouse as to see any use in combat operations or training activities. The 2011 contract for 125 new tanks from General Dynamics will add to an Egyptian arsenal that already exceeds the number of tanks in all of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa combined. Those additional F-16s scheduled for delivery in the coming weeks are impressive when they're flown in formation over crowds gathered in Tahrir, but less impressive when one considers that many of Egypt's neighbors possess either more advanced aircraft, anti-aircraft missile systems that can reliably engage the F-16, or superior command and control platforms. Egypt's 2009 aid-financed purchase of armed coastal patrol boats to guard the Suez Canal against piracy is one of the few recent sales of U.S.-built equipment with an objective tactical justification. But Egypt's military planners are savvy enough that they would purchase these even absent U.S. military aid, since nearly one-third of the state's revenue is generated from canal traffic. In fact, when the military is spending its own funds it does purchase these items. In 2011 Egypt purchased four additional patrol boats for use in the canal -- it just bought a cheaper version from Turkey instead. Similarly, when Egypt needs aircraft for training purposes, it buys the wildly popular (and very cheap) K-8 trainer produced by China and Pakistan. Clearly Egypt's military does not need to be incentivized to buy the right equipment ... it just has to be incentivized to buy American equipment. And apparently the only way to guarantee that outcome is by flooding Egypt's Defense Ministry with U.S. taxpayer dollars.

U.S. military aid seems no longer designed to secure leverage or influence over Egypt's powerful generals. (Either that, or Washington policymakers have a lackluster understanding of those generals' preferences). What the military likely wants is a viable domestic defense industry with the hope of building export markets. And given Egypt's 1,100-plus collection of the regionally popular M1 series tank -- a variation of which is in service in Iraq, Morocco, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia -- the best way to please the generals would be to assist in Egypt's efforts to sell surplus tanks. In fact, the military chief of staff under former President Hosni Mubarak explicitly requested U.S. permission to sell some of these tanks to Iraq in 2010, a move that the embassy staff in Cairo supported. But reselling Egyptian tanks to Iraq doesn't make money for General Dynamics or its legions of subcontractors and suppliers.

In the fall of 2012, the Iraqi Army took delivery of the final tranche of 140 M1 series tanks. These came not from Egypt's surplus store of tanks, but from General Dynamics's U.S. factories -- at probably twice the price per unit. Small wonder the leverage that U.S. policymakers are supposed to get over Egypt's generals in exchange for billions of dollars in taxpayer funded military aid never seems to materialize. Because the generals know the continuation of their aid package depends not on maintaining rapport with elected officials in the United States, but on the lobbying efforts of defense firms that cash in on contracts with Cairo.

Shana Marshall is associate director and research instructor at the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University.

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The Middle East Channel

Arab League supports Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's peace efforts have gained support from the Arab League, signaling greater prospects for direct Israeli and Palestinian peace talks. Kerry met with representatives from the Arab League in Jordan in his sixth trip to the region attempting to reignite negotiations that have been stalled for nearly three years. Despite "very significant gaps" between the Israelis and Palestinians, Kerry said yesterday, "we have been able to narrow those gaps very significantly." The Arab League released a statement saying Kerry's ideas "lay the proper foundation to start the negotiations." The Arab League support shows likely backing by the Palestinians for a resumption of talks. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is meeting with Palestinian leaders Thursday to discuss resuming negotiations. Palestinians have insisted Israel freeze West Bank settlement construction as a precondition for talks. On Wednesday, Israel approved the construction of over 700 new settlement homes in Modiin Illi, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Israel has appealed to the EU to stop the release, planned for Friday, of new guidelines blocking grants, prizes, and funding to West Bank entities. Israeli President Shimon Peres urged the EU to delay publishing the guidelines while peace talks are "within reach." He appealed to the EU, "Don't bring forward irresponsible sanctions that will sabotage peace negotiations."

Syria

Momentum in Syria appears to be shifting toward President Bashar al-Assad. While analysts do not believe Assad can regain control of all of Syria, the government has retained control of the capital, Damascus, and has been solidifying its hold over major northern cities. At the same time, there has been increased infighting and a loss of territory by opposition fighters. While Assad is receiving continuous military and financial backing from Russia and Iran, in addition to the participation of Hezbollah fighters, the opposition continues to experience delays in international support. Commander of the opposition Supreme Military Council General Salim Idriss said, "We are really in a very critical situation, and we don't understand why our friends delay and delay and delay and hesitate to support us." On June 13, the United States committed to send weapons to the Syrian opposition after determining that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. However, the initiative has been stalled in Congress. Additionally, Britain appears to be retreating from its pledge to send arms, although Prime Minister David Cameron has not made an official statement on the subject. Meanwhile, a Syrian helicopter reportedly fired four rockets into the pro-rebel region of Arsal in eastern Lebanon early Thursday, in a further instance of spillover of the Syrian conflict into the neighboring country.

Headlines

  • Morsi supporters continued protests Wednesday gathering outside the Cabinet building in Cairo as the interim government, which received tacit backing from the U.S. and Arab League, moved forward with plans to amend the constitution.
  • After days of clashes with Islamist fighters, Syria's Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which has links to Kurdish militants in Turkey, has seized Ras al-Ain on Syria's northeastern border with Turkey.
  • Dubai police have reportedly arrested a man who recorded and posted on YouTube a video of an Emirati man beating an Indian expatriate van driver.

Arguments and Analysis

'Alas, Nobody Lives There Anymore' (Bassem Yousef, Tahrir Squared)

"This 'victory high' and arrogance that you see in the private media is the same sort of behavior that ended the Brotherhood's era, and overthrew their popularity. We are now repeating the Brotherhood's same mistakes. It's as though we have the memory span of a goldfish.

I could write volumes on the lack of intelligence on the part of the Brotherhood and their corruption of both religion and politics, but that is another battle that requires different tools. We are losing this battle before it has even begun: those who claim to be freedom fighters and have been denouncing the fascism and discrimination of the Brotherhood are now contributing to the building of sympathy towards them. They are a disgrace to the principles of freedom they claim to stand for. We are returning par excellence to the atmosphere of the nineties when we settled for 'the security option' and the media corruption and let the chests rage with a fire of hatred, and allowed extremism to deepen day after day. I do believe that shutting down the Islamist channels [last week] was an important decision during a sensitive period, but I'm now calling for their return. Let them talk as they wish; it has only served to make people hate and be repulsed by them. Do not give them the chance to play the victim. What are you afraid of? Of their discriminatory media rhetoric? Or of their public political stupidity?

My dear anti-Brotherhood liberal, allow me to remind you that just a few weeks ago you were desperately complaining about how grim the future looked, but now that you have been 'relieved' of them you have become a carbon copy of their fascism and discrimination. You could respond by saying that they deserve it; that they supported the security forces and used them to overpower you, to cheat and spread rumors and widen sectarian strife. But is that really your argument? Have you made of their lowly ways a better alternative for you than abiding by the principles you have stood by for so long? They lost their moral compass a long time ago- do you want to follow suit?"

'Why the Prawer Plan is just a Continuation of the Nakba' (Yousef Munayyer, The Daily Beast)

"The Nakba is not a moment in time. The Nakba is an ongoing process.

The Nakba is an experience of dispossession that transcends both time and space. Indeed the depopulation of Palestine of most of its native inhabitants from 1947-1949 did not merely become dispossession when an individual was forced from his home or his land. Rather, the dispossession became cemented when, after hostilities, a new state -- the state of Israel -- enforced this dispossession by preventing the return of refugees and razing their houses to the ground so that they would have no homes to return to.

In short, the experience of the Nakba is the experience of someone else forcibly determining your territorial identity. Who you are and where you are from becomes secondary to where the state wants you to be.

With this in mind, it is easy to understand how the Prawer plan is nothing more than the continuation of the Nakba in another phase. The full plan calls for the removal of 35 'unrecognized' villages home to some 70,000 ethnically Palestinian Bedouin living in the Naqab.

Unrecognized? You might ask, unrecognized by whom? Certainly the 70,000 Bedouin who live there recognize the villages they live in; it is the state, the state of Israel, that refuses to recognize them."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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