Why Do We Continue to Arm Egypt?

Pushed by Congressman Tom Lantos (D California) the GAO is forcing the Departments of State and Defense to do something that is almost impossible—justify America’s massive annual ($1.3 billion) military aid package to Egypt. Conceived essentially as a reward to Egypt in return for signing a peace agreement with Israel, the United States has continued to pour money on the Egyptian military to the tune of $34 billion since 1979.

Theoretically, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, the money is to “shore up” Egypt’s position as a key American ally in the region. However, the GAO notes that there is no measure for determining how much, or even whether, the continued military assistance helps accomplish this goal. What the military assistance really does is support two goals of the Egyptian regime, neither of which is, at least according to official American policy, in line with American objectives.

The first thing the continued aid does is prop up the corrupt and authoritarian government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, now entering his second quarter century in office, has effectively parried American attempts to pressure him into democratic reforms, while he grooms his son for a very non-democratic presidential succession.

The second result of the $1.3 billion dollar annual gift of weaponry is to bolster Egypt’s ambition to once again challenge Israel militarily. Yet Israel poses no threat to Egypt, and she faces no military significant military threat from any other foreign power. Israel’s continued retrenchment into an ever diminishing state is just the opposite of what a theoretically aggressive enemy state might do. But the Egyptian military continually trains against an “enemy to the east” (Israel). To the extent Egypt does face military challenges, they are irregular, coming from Islamic radicals in the Nile delta and the Sinai peninsula. Yet, Egypt’s efforts to root out Islamic guerillas in Sinai has thus far been facile at best, especially considering that the peninsula is, and has been since 1979, a declared military zone. Despite these troubles, the Egyptian military’s choice of American weaponry (advanced fighter planes, missiles and tanks) reflects its obsession with Israel, not a realistic appraisal of actual military problems.

So why does the United States continue to lavishly equip the Egyptian military, when doing so effectively undermines our own foreign policy goals? Possibly the American policy advocating democratizing Egypt is really just a rhetorical flourish, while our real objective is to keep Murbarak (and his designated successor) in power, in preference to risking an Islamic takeover. There are also the defense contractors to consider, who benefit from the steady market that Egypt represents for their product. And finally, there is simply inertia. In the grand scheme of things, the $1.3 billion doesn’t seem to be doing much harm and represents a tiny proportion of the overall U.S. budget. Cutting it drastically or switching it over to non-military aid (as Lantos proposes) would require an actual recalibration of American goals in the region, and that my friends is work.

In the meantime, it’s easier just to keep the aid spigot flowing and hope that all those F-16s, M-1 tanks and Harpoon missiles don’t end up fomenting a war, or arming the Islamic radicals that may eventually rule there anyway.

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