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.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

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