Soon, Secretary of State John Kerry must decide if the United States should continue its $1.5 billion in economic and military aid to Egypt. Military aid has been temporarily suspended, and the 2014 Budget called on Secretary Kerry to make sure Egypt has “taken steps to support a democratic transition” before restarting the flow of dollars. Some say that the United States should maintain the aid pipeline to maximize negotiating leverage. Others point to human rights violations, including the mass sentencing of 529 Egyptians, and think it is time to reassess U.S. strategic interests.

We asked six experts, “Should Secretary Kerry certify that Egypt is ‘taking steps to a democratic transition’, and continue aid?”

Steven A Cook- Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Any objective analysis of the situation in Egypt clearly demonstrates that the country has not “taken steps to becoming a democracy.” In their effort to establish control in a turbulent political environment, Egyptian leaders have resorted to increasing levels of repression, coercion, and violence.

The Egyptian leadership and its lobbyists will likely argue that Egypt—under extraordinary circumstances of violence and terrorism—is fulfilling last summer’s “roadmap,” pointing to a new ostensibly more democratic constitution and coming presidential and parliamentary elections. It is true that the Egyptians will adhere to the roadmap, but this is quite beside the point given the broader development of renewed authoritarianism. It will thus be hard for Secretary Kerry to make a case in good faith that Egypt is meeting congressionally mandated conditions for the resumption of aid.

Still, while withholding assistance may be what the Obama administration is legally required to do, this does not mean that it would be good policy. The leverage that might have once been derived from docking Egyptian aid is greatly diminished when the Egyptians have access to alternative and more generous sources of aid, at least in the short run. Once more, cutting is not likely to make Egypt more democratic or less unstable.

Michele Dunne, Senior Associate, Carnegie Middle East Program

Michele Dunne
Dunne is an expert on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East.
More >

Secretary Kerry cannot certify that the government of Egypt “is taking steps to support a democratic transition” at present, assuming the legislative conditions are taken seriously. Kerry can, however, certify that Egypt is sustaining strategic cooperation with the United States and Israel, which will allow much military, counterterrorism, and economic assistance to continue, including payments to American defense contractors.

What cannot go forward without the democracy certification is new weapons deliveries and cash budget support paid for with FY14 funds. If the U.S. were to resume this type of assistance, it would be a clear signal of approval for Egyptian government policies. Instead, we should wait until it becomes clear whether Cairo will reverse the repressive measures taken since the removal of Morsi. Continued repression threatens to lead Egypt into a dark tunnel of insurgency and instability, a course no responsible ally should encourage.

The argument for restoring assistance to Egypt generally is that it would give the United States more influence over Egyptian decision makers—a doubtful proposition based on the record so far. President Obama expressed understanding of the broader implications of the decision when he told CNN in August 2013 that “the aid itself may not reverse what the interim government does. But I think what most Americans would say is that we have to be very careful about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that we think run contrary to our values and our ideals.”

Stephen McInerney, Executive Director, Project on Middle East Democracy

The administration has two decisions to make: first, whether to resume aid from Fiscal Year 2013 suspended since last summer, and second, whether to certify to Congress that the Government of Egypt is “taking steps to support a democratic transition in Egypt,” in order to also deliver up to $975 million in new FY14 funds. Previous statements from the administration and Congress make clear that either of these steps would be inappropriate at this time.

In October, the administration announced it was holding the delivery of FY13 military aid and cash transfers to the Egyptian government “pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections”. In January, Senator Patrick Leahy noted that “if the military continues its repressive tactics, arresting democracy activists and does not hold free and fair elections, the [FY14] certifications will not be possible and U.S. aid will be cut off.”

Resuming aid amid considerably increasing repression and anti-democratic steps in Egypt would affirm the perception across the Arab world – held by governments and independent actors alike – that U.S. rhetoric on democracy is insincere and not backed by action or policy. It is exactly this perception that undermines U.S. leverage. As such, the administration should continue to hold aid until previously identified conditions have been credibly met.

Leila Hilal, Director of the Middle East Task Force, New America Foundation

Egypt has been second largest US foreign assistance recipient for more than 3 decades. The first is Israel. This aid triangle is directly tied to the Camp David peace accords. Without a rethinking of the US-Israeli relationship, and the role military contracts play in setting US foreign policy priorities, it is near to impossible that the US would dramatically shift course on aid to Egypt, right or wrong.

Nevertheless and irrespective of Egypt’s authoritarian revival, the notion that the US can be effective and engineer change by leveraging foreign assistance is flawed. First, successive administrations have demonstrated that the US will not jeopardize security partnerships in the Middle East for democratic values. Nor would it matter if it did.

There is little evidence to suggest that withholding aid significantly impacts domestic decisions of authoritarian regimes. This reality is amplified with respect to Egypt given Gulf backing. Since the elected Morsi government was deposed by Egypt’s army last summer, Saudi Arabia has pledged $5 billion the UAE $3 billion. Rather than expend political capital by threatening a withholding of aid unlikely to materialize or make a difference if it did, the administration should invest in building regional frameworks that end divisions and enable progress and stability.

Lina Khatib, Director, Carnegie Middle East Center

Lina Khatib
Khatib was director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Previously, she was the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

Egypt is regressing back to authoritarianism after a brief period of optimism following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. US foreign policy towards Egypt since the January 25 Revolution has indirectly supported this regression. When the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, the United States overlooked Cairo’s human rights violations and continued to send aid to Egypt on the basis that the government there was democratically elected.

When President Mohamed Morsi was toppled in July 2013, the United States once again continued to provide Egypt with aid, largely on the basis of shared security interests. In the meantime, human rights violations in Egypt appear to be on the rise. The message the United States is sending through its foreign policy is that human rights violations do not matter as much as strategic interests. This is the same trajectory that had been followed by the United States before the Arab uprisings of 2011, and which had allowed numerous autocratic regimes in the region to prevail, secure in their alliances with the US.

US foreign policy faces a vast decline in credibility if it has learned nothing from the Arab uprisings. Regardless of whether the uprisings have achieved democratization or not, they highlighted serious grievances among Arab citizens. The United States must demonstrate awareness of their righteous demands, and implement aid policies that make accountability to one’s citizens a key condition for countries eager to receive US aid.

This article was originally published on the Weekly Wonk.