Coup D'Aid

The Case For Cutting Off Aid to Egypt

07.11.13 9:00 PM ET

In a Bloomberg column, Jeffrey Goldberg offered four sensible sounding reasons why the U.S. should not suspend its aid to Egypt. But, really, there's only one big reason for actually cutting off U.S. aid: American law dictates we do so. This puts me in league with John McCain and Elliott Abrams—two figures I'm often at odds with—in actually recognizing that, no matter the reasoning to keep aid flowing, there exists a legal imperative to not do so. 

U.S. public law 112-74, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, contains a provision renewed every year for decades that bars aid to any government in which a democratically elected leader was unseated by a military coup. The law halts aid to "the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d'état or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d'état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role." No matter what one makes of Mohammed Morsi, or the authoritarian power-grabbing he did as president, what happened in Egypt clearly fits that description.

Goldberg wrote that there are "loopholes" to the law, but there's really only one for democracy promotion aid; the language is otherwise unambiguous. The law itself mandates the cut-off and, in those instances where aid hasn't been revoked, according to an analysis by Max Fisher, it's mostly just been flouted. (There has been at least one "exception," when Congress passed a law specifically exempting Pakistan.) Just disregarding laws you see as inconvenient not only contravenes the democratic value of rule of law, but sets a poor precedent for nations around the globe, including Egypt.

Aside from the heady debate about, as Abrams put it, remaining a "nation of laws" in order to encourage the same in Egypt, several little discussed factors should strengthen the case for cutting off aid. Dispensing with some of the objections helps to illuminate this case.

A common complaint is that such a move would reduce American leverage. Where was this leverage over the military before it carried out a coup? Before the decades of repressive military rule under Mubarak? Who knows. More to the point, an aid cut-off could actually increase leverage. Here's how: P.L. 112-74 stipulates that "assistance may be resumed to such government if the President determines and certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office." 

Since the Egyptian military's "road map" for this transition stipulates that new elections should take place within six months, that actually means Egypt might not lose out on much aid at all. "Military aid to Egypt for 2013"—which constitutes the bulk of the cash—"was already disbursed back in May, and there likely wouldn’t be another round of funding until next spring," reported Brad Plumer. That quite nicely corresponds with the military's timetable, meaning the military aid would actually flow on schedule if the promised elections are held and power turned over. Some of the paltry non-military aid to Egypt might get stalled, but even the portion of non-military aid dedicated to democracy promotion can still slip thought because it is exempted in P.L. 112-74.

Another common objection goes like this: Egypt is in tough economic straits, and cutting off both military and economic aid could plunge the whole economy—and society—into a chaotic tailspin. (Because the military dominates the economy, controlling between 10 and 30 percent of it, the military aid factors in here too.) Along with various members of Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry made this point: "A hold up of aid might contribute to the chaos that may ensue because of their collapsing economy," Kerry said. "Their biggest problem is a collapsing economy."

The U.S. gives about $1.5 billion total in aid to Egypt. Since Morsi's ouster, Gulf Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates pledged $12 billion—which appears to not be directed solely at the military. In other words, the Gulf Arabs have already rushed to fill the breach, with more—and more flexible—aid. The Egyptian economy won't be peachy keen any time soon, but U.S. aid, in the context of the Gulf Arab money, will hardly make or break it.

Considering that so few of the objections to cutting off aid hold water and, what's more, American law clearly mandates doing so, keeping the aid flowing makes little sense. The messaging here is perhaps of paramount importance: since doing so barely disrupts disbursements, an aid freeze should be implemented to put the military on notice. And the Egyptian people need to be aware that cutting off aid shows that Americans do care about them, and about returning political power to their hands, rather than those of the military where it today resides.