The Wrong Way To Sway Egypt

There are many in Washington who think that Egyptian politics turned around last spring because of President Bush’s demonstrated resolve to promote political change in that country. They further believe that the leadership in Cairo reverted to its bad old ways when Bush’s attention strayed.

They are wrong on both counts. Profound change was never in the air in Egypt. Some Americans may have been ebullient about changes afoot there, but Egyptians’ level of political participation told a different story: Fewer than 5 percent of the electorate bothered to vote in last May’s referendum on allowing multi-candidate elections for president, and perhaps 20 percent voted in the presidential election itself.

Misreading this history causes many to believe that the United States should turn up the pressure and condition its aid to Egypt on continued political reform. This is a move that makes sense on its face. It also happens to make bad policy. The U.S. government should continue to press hard for reform in Egypt, and it should closely scrutinize the aid package. But linking the two would be counterproductive, if not disastrous.

Like the aging villas in downtown Cairo, U.S. aid to Egypt is the fading legacy of another time. In the 1970s, when peace between Israel and any of its Arab neighbors was a fantastic dream, and when picking Egypt off from the East Bloc was a major coup in the Cold War, Egypt was worth every penny of the billions of dollars in U.S. aid that it received.

Three decades later, the Soviet Union is gone, the Arab League has embraced a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and al-Jazeera’s maps label Israel as such. Egypt helps the United States in a wide number of areas — especially with regard to counterterrorism cooperation and Arab-Israeli peace issues — but it is increasingly difficult to find instances in which Egyptian assistance has been vital to the success of a critical U.S. mission.

Meanwhile, more than $60 billion in U.S. assistance over 30 years has engendered little goodwill on Egypt’s streets. According to a Gallup poll released last month, 72 percent of Egyptians believe that the United States is not serious about improving economic conditions in the Middle East — U.S. assistance notwithstanding.

The United States may well decide to reduce assistance to Egypt on the merits. But reducing it as part of a conditionality scheme would not only not work, it would also be damaging.

Studies strongly suggest that foreign aid conditionality works best when it concentrates on objective measures of actions that are controlled by a small group of people. Conditioning preferential interest rates on monetary reserve targets is a perfect example. Tying assistance to democratization is exactly the opposite. Democratization is notoriously subjective, and the product of millions of small decisions every day. By many measures, especially freedom of speech, Egypt is far freer than it was even three years ago. But the brutal repression of street demonstrations in recent weeks is a sign that freedom of action lags behind. Measuring either one with precision is impossible.

Outside of the academic literature, there are other reasons political conditionality is unlikely to work with Egypt. First, even millions of dollars in aid are unlikely to persuade the Egyptian leadership to roll the dice when it feels its very survival is at stake. The breakdown of public order in Iraq further undermines the confidence of Egypt’s leaders that Americans’ judgment is better than their own in this regard. Second, Egyptian officials feel outsiders are deeply naive about the threats posed by local radical groups, which many of Egypt’s oppressive measures seek to curtail. Third, for more than a century Egyptians have been hypersensitive to foreign diktats because of the country’s long history of occupation.

Thus far the Egyptian government has discredited advocates of democratization as foreign agents while gaining domestic credit for defending the nation against foreign intrigue. In any highly public spat over whether Egypt has met U.S.-imposed conditions, citizens would almost certainly rally around the government, and our friends would be isolated. In addition, the Egyptian government would be far less cooperative on a variety of important security issues, significantly increasing the cost of U.S. military and intelligence operations. There is no question that the Egyptian government would rather harm its own interests than be humiliated.

Conditioning aid might make us feel better, but it would not change Egypt. We need a less flashy but more effective approach. We do need to redesign the aid program, but we should do so in a way that allows Egyptians to claim victory while diminishing the overall amount of aid.

We also need to have our security and intelligence professionals work with their Egyptian counterparts to reach common understandings of common threats, especially with regard to radicalism and violence. Such efforts should simultaneously seek to reach agreement on the kinds of political activity that are not threatening to public order.

Finally, the United States needs to continue to press for greater openness and participation in Egypt. The world is changing, and the old methods of political control no longer work. The Egyptian government knows this, and it is seeking to adapt. Its efforts may be insufficient or ineffective, and it will have to live with the consequences. Our role should be to encourage and prod. Getting into a public spitting match with the Egyptian government would have precisely the opposite effect.

The writer directs the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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