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Robert Naiman: Legally the Obama administration is obligated to cut aid to Egypt after the military coup, and the longer the US waits to take a stand the less influence it yields to stop the Egyptian security forces brutal repression

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Despite the brutal killing of hundreds of peaceful protesters in Egypt last week, the United States government has still decided not to cut off aid to Egypt. The U.S. Air Force actually awarded a contract to General Electric to upgrade the Egyptian Air Force’s fighter jets. The deal is worth nearly $14 million. And if the U.S. were to cut off aid to Egypt’s military–as required by U.S. law, considering the coup–that would mean that the Egyptian military would stand to lose $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance.

Here to get into the details of U.S. aid to Egypt is Robert Naiman. Robert is the policy director at Just Foreign Policy, and he has a recent piece out in Truthout titled, “If We Cut Aid to Egypt’s Military, Would We Die?”

Thanks for joining us, Robert.


DESVARIEUX: So, Robert, first give our viewers a sense of the law behind the way aid works for different countries.

NAIMAN: So, first of all, there’s a big law. The overarching law is in the Foreign Assistance Act, says that U.S. aid to any country must be suspended if the democratically elected government is overturned by a military coup, and cannot–U.S. aid cannot resume until the president certifies to Congress that a democratically elected government has taken office. So according to law, U.S. aid–almost all U.S. aid, except for democracy assistance, including all military aid should have been suspended in early July after the coup.

But there are other laws. There is the Leahy Law that says that U.S. aid has to stop to any military or police unit alleged to be involved in gross violations of human rights until those allegations are addressed. There’s the Arms Control Export Act. So there’s myriad U.S. laws that restrict military and economic aid to gross abusers of human rights.

The Obama administration in the last few days has put out signals that it intends to comply with the law. And, in fact, there’s the AP report that there’s a cabinet meeting about cutting some aid. So the situation is still in flux. I wouldn’t say that the administration has decided going forward not to cut aid. In fact, they’re spending signals in the opposite direction, indicating they are moving to cut at least some military and economic aid.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s talk about your piece in Truthout. Let’s work with the assumption that most Americans want to see Egypt having a stable democracy. You write in your piece that when it comes to democracy in Egypt, the Pentagon and the majority of Americans have fundamentally different interests. Can you please explain for us what the Pentagon’s interests are? And how do they differ from the majority of Americans’?

NAIMAN: So The New York Times had a report on August 16 last week saying, you know, why the Pentagon was reluctant for the United States to cut off military aid. Remember, the threat of cutting off military aid is something that’s been in the background the whole time that the United States and Europe tried to negotiate with the military regime to prevent the crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and to get them to negotiate inclusion of the–[incompr.] inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood, you know, the former democratically elected government, in Egypt’s political system. So what happens with this is very crucial.

Now, what The New York Times told us was, hey, look, this looks different from the point of view of the Pentagon, because the Pentagon has special privileges, special benefits in Egypt. And they highlighted two. One, they talked about overflight, that the Pentagon has nearly automatic military overflight with Egypt. In other countries, they have to ask for permission maybe a week in advance. In Egypt, it’s nearly automatic. And the second thing they highlighted was priority access to the Suez Canal. The Pentagon [incompr.] Suez Canal, very busy waterway. Pentagon warships can cut to the front of the line, as The New York Times put it.

So those are–you know, clearly you can see, if you’re the Pentagon, those a great things. And, in fact, The New York Times gave a specific example. They said that–they pointed out that before the Iraq War, the Turkish parliament had voted to [incompr.] the U.S. from using Turkish territory and airspace for the invasion of Iraq, whereas the Pentagon was able to use Egyptian airspace and the Suez Canal for the invasion of Iraq.

And I think this illustrates how the interests of the Pentagon and the interests of the majority of Americans are not necessarily the same. After all, many if not most Americans opposed the war in Iraq, depending on how you look at the polls. And certainly afterwards, the majority of Americans opposed the war in Iraq.

So if there is a trade-off between supporting democracy and human rights in Egypt and the Pentagon’s special privileges, the majority of Americans might not necessarily see it the same way as the Pentagon. If the Pentagon has to ask for permission a week in advance to overfly Egyptian airspace, [incompr.] the majority of Americans that might not be such a terrible consequence of enforcing a U.S. law that requires that U.S. aid to the Egyptian military be cut off.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, let’s say that President Obama does decide to cut off aid to Egypt. Do you think the U.S. actually yields enough influence in Egypt, especially when you think about the competing countries, like–or I should say competing interests, like places like Saudi Arabia that are really backing the Egyptian military and are funding them with billions of dollars? Do you think the United States actually has enough influence in the region to yield some power in all this?

NAIMAN: Well, there’s no question that the U.S. has some influence. There’s no question that the U.S. influence is limited and there are other actors. So far we’ve seen that–according to the New York Times‘ reports of the negotiation, the Egyptian military, which was being pressed by the U.S. and Europe not to engage in this crackdown, and being encouraged by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. to go ahead and try to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, decided to go with Saudi Arabia. So clearly the U.S. influence is limited.

But–and I think it’s important to remember that part of what is–a key part of what’s limiting U.S. influence is the contradictions in U.S. policy. So far, the Egyptian military has not seen the United States as wielding a credible threat, because they have not believed that the U.S. would cut off military aid, no matter what they do. So U.S. was saying, you know, like, this could jeopardize military cooperation with the United States. The Egyptian military has not believed them.

So [incompr.] you know, people are saying, well, U.S. influence is limited [incompr.] hasn’t been tested, because the Egyptian military doesn’t believe that the U.S. will follow through on the threat. So if the U.S. showed that it is willing to follow through on the threat, then the world will be different than it is today. We can’t know what the outcome will be, but we can know that, you know, essentially the Egyptian military has called the bluff of the United States, as it were, and now we need to decide whether we’re going to (A) follow through on our threat, (B) comply with United States law, and (C), you know, [incompr.] there is a deep problem in U.S. foreign policy if the Muslim–the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which is a major political force in Egypt, if it is prevented from participating in Egypt’s political life by state violence, that has implications for U.S. foreign policy throughout the Muslim world, because there is a competing force in the Muslim world, there’s a competing narrative to the Muslim Brotherhood, and that’s al-Qaeda, which hated the Arab Spring, because it was a repudiation of their ideology that democracy is worthless and we have to use violence. So if the Egyptian military is allowed to crush the Muslim Brotherhood with violence, it’s a validation of the al-Qaeda narrative. That’s very dangerous for the United States. The United States wants the al-Qaeda narrative to lose and for Islamists in the region to participate in democratic governance and reject al-Qaeda violence.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s just finish up really quickly, Robert. Let’s talk about another actor, Israel. And there are reports coming out that AIPAC is actually lobbying members of Congress to support the Egyptian military. Can you talk a little bit more about the role of Israel in this decision?

NAIMAN: So it’s also been reported the Israeli government has been lobbying Western governments, like the Saudi government, to back the Egyptian military. This is very unfortunate. And I think that, you know, just as the Pentagon has different interests than the majority of Americans, so the Israeli military leadership, I think, has different interests than the majority of Israelis. In fact, the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt did not stop security cooperation with Israel, did not touch the Camp David peace treaty. So I think it’s not in the long-run interest of the majority of Israelis for the Israeli government and for AIPAC to put themselves on the side of [incompr.] of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, ’cause the long-term interests of the majority of Israelis is to normalize their relationship with public opinion in the region, not be on the the side of repression.

DESVARIEUX: Thanks so much for joining us, Robert.

NAIMAN: It’s good to be with you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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