The Obama administration’s decision to suspend some of its military aid to Egypt is long overdue. It is, however, still only a symbolic gesture, one that Washington acknowledges will have scant impact on either the regime’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood or the pace of a return to democracy in Cairo. Rather, it is a carefully calibrated balancing act between the need to preserve US interests in the region and the desire to uphold the democratic values it purports to champion.
Had the decision come three months ago, immediately after the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi, it might have carried some weight. Instead Washington refused to use the word coup – and indeed continued to do so even as it unveiled these belated sanctions. Meanwhile, Egypt’s military-backed regime has moved at its own pace. Measures paving the way to a return of normal government are likely to be approved in a forthcoming referendum. But with most Brotherhood leaders behind bars and Islamic media outlets shut down, that means little.
On the very day that Washington delivered its tardy slap on the wrist, Cairo announced plans for Mr Morsi’s trial and declared that Egypt “will not surrender to American pressure”. Indeed, the US move may even boost the regime’s popularity, reducing what many see as a humiliating foreign dependency. Nor will it greatly affect the security balance in the region. Israel frets that such a cut might jeopardise the 1979 treaty upon which its subsequent “cold peace” with Egypt has rested. In fact, not much is likely to change.
What Washington wants is to resume full military assistance to Cairo, and the referendum may give it a pretext for doing so. Not only will this temporary interruption in aid end up by pleasing no one. It will also demonstrate how little influence the US wields in the most populous Arab country. To have any real impact, it should have been done months ago.