Center for Strategic Communication

The Egyptian military’s bloody crackdown on internal dissent
in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s overthrow is understandably raising
alarm among Western countries. The most loud calls for policy change aim at the
relationship between those governments – especially the U.S. – and the Egyptian
military itself. As Egyptian armed forces fire automatic weapons into crowds
and prisoners die in transfer, providing material support to the Egyptian
military strikes many as immoral, and given U.S. laws regarding coups, illegal.
Not only that, though, many see military aid as an indispensable form of
leverage that the U.S. might exercise to halt or at least attenuate the
military’s repression.

There are many good reasons the U.S. might not want to
provide $1.3 billion in annual support to Egypt. These may include the
aforementioned legal and moral prohibitions against providing aid to a
repressive military. One might also consider that, the 1979 accords aside, that
the “hold me back, bro” expectations of military support to prevent
Arab-Israeli conflict rings increasingly hollow when Israel is conducting airstrikes
against militants in the Sinai with covert Egyptian cooperation
Additionally, while Egypt’s military did participate in the Gulf War, its
increasing domestic challenges along with its lack of interest in (and preparation
for) military operations abroad beyond state-on-state confrontation  mean its military may be diminishing in
utility as a regional partner for the U.S. While there are doubtless advantages
to maintaining military aid (and military-military ties inextricable from
them), it is fair to ask if they are worth the expense and these other

What American military aid does not buy is effective leverage
in a domestic crisis. Josh Sislin usefully
sketched out a framework
for thinking about when military aid is and is not
useful as a technique of leverage in 1994. He noted that positive inducements
are generally more useful than punishments and threats – and that alternate
suppliers may weaken those. Egypt does have alternate suppliers. America weaned
Egypt off of Soviet military aid, after all. More recently, Russia and China have tried to expand
their already
contributions to Egyptian military purchases. He also notes that
for understandable reasons, compelling a foreign government rather than
deterring it is more difficult (Egypt obviously being a case of the former),
and that enacting domestic policy change, especially over regime-survival
relevant issues that put vital interests at stake, is going to be harder than
foreign policy change. Not only that, but contrary to expectations, military
regimes  (after quantitative analysis)
are less susceptible to arms transfer influence than civilian governments.
Sislin concluded that “no matter how noble American efforts are, getting a
recipient government to be more democratic or advance human rights is very

Consider also that American military equipment’s cost should
not be confused with its importance to the regime. While the
Abrams tanks, AH-64s F-16s look good in military parades
, to the extent
main battle tanks, attack helicopters and fighter aircraft are useful for
putting down urban disorder or even a full-blown insurgency, none are
irreplaceable, whether by cheaper weapons in the same class or different
weapons entirely. Egypt’s large domestic military industry provides the
essential tools for repression– small arms and ammunition – and years of aid
gives Egypt significant stocks of spare parts for keeping a reduced but
probably sufficient fleet of vehicles operable.

Not only that, but the disagreement within the U.S.
government, and the spinning and maneuvering surrounding the decision to quietly
slash aid
, all provide additional reasons for the Egyptian military to
doubt that a long-term cessation of aid is likely enough to alter their
short-term survival calculations. Indeed, it may even increase the Egyptian
military’s incentive to rapidly crush opposition and present the U.S. with a fait accompli to force the restoration
of aid. Or perhaps even more troublingly, a cutoff of aid that is far more symbolic
than practical may embolden the opposition more than it weakens the military,
encouraging an escalation in clashes. Sustained
violence is jointly produced
, and such a scenario, where both sides may see
incentives to increase action, are particularly dangerous.

Again, this not intended to be a stoplight for debate about
U.S. policy towards Egypt. As I mentioned earlier, the wisdom of American
military aid involves much more than its leverage over the current crisis.
However, the unfortunate tendency to confuse moral signals and practical
influence, along with insufficient scrutiny over the efficacy of arms transfers
as leverage generally, exaggerates the degree of U.S. influence over Egyptian
regime behavior. Americans must understand that their security aid is unlikely
to trump a regime’s survival interests. Particularly as we try to outsource
security provision to allied and partner regimes, and particularly since we
rely on opening spigots of military assistance to secure that cooperation, we
should be forewarned that while these policies may give us some culpability,
they do not provide reliable techniques for taming brutal regimes.