News that Washington will suspend a sizeable chunk of military aid to Egypt was met with little more than a shrug from Egypt watchers and analysts who said the decision was unsurprising.
The move to trim part of the $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt had been in question since the US issued a warning in July when the military ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
For many, it was all talk not action.
“I don’t see it as any more than a symbolic slap on the wrist,” H. A. Hellyer, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Global Post.
In the short run, as this Associated Press editorial argues, “the suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid will have little effect on Egypt’s military and its ability to defend itself. The cutoff probably will not do much damage to most of the companies with contracts to build such weapons.”
Indeed, a report by Al Jazeera revealed that US military aid has flowed as normal to the Egyptian cities of Damietta and Alexandria since the coup began, despite warnings.
Some also said the slap on the wrist decision avoids the real debate at the heart of the aid. Jonathan Guyer of the Cairo Review explains:
If we agree that American assistance doesn’t do much, then why continue it? The basis of this gargantuan military aid package is the 1979 peace accord between Egypt and Israel; that should be the topic under discussion rather than the idea of “leverage” in the abstract.
If Washington is going to cut aid, it must carry out the policy change with a bang, not a whimper.
On the flip side, for supporters of the military-backed overthrow, the announcement inflamed tempers. Naguib Sawiris, the politician and billionaire who has never been short on opinions, started a Twitter row:
Cutting military aid to Egypt is an arrogant counterproductive action! Do not underestimate the pride of the Egyptian people!
— Naguib Sawiris (@NaguibSawiris) October 11, 2013
But a healthy dose of realism from a few Egypt commentators doused Sawiris’ outburst:
— arabist (@arabist) October 11, 2013
How is US cutting its military aid to #Egypt arrogant? It seems that expecting aid without conditions is far more arrogant.
— Matt Bradley (@MattMcBradley) October 12, 2013
For all the discussion of symbolism and how much impact the aid cuts will make on Egypt, the US undeniably has a significant amount of fire power in the Middle East. The decision to suspend some aid, in and of itself, is a big deal that will influence other major donors in their attitude toward Egypt.
Aside from Gulf aid (and I’ve been clear about why that’s not a great idea in the long-run here and here) Cairo has pretty much lost the confidence of every major donor. Washington’s announcement is a nail in the coffin for the European Union, the World Bank and the African Development Bank who have been closely monitoring developments.
Of course, the US is just one of many countries and institutions that provide military and financial assistance to Egypt, as the chart compiled by the Center for Global Development shows below. Even though, taken as a whole, European bilateral aid plus EU assistance is double that of the United States, the US is still the single largest contributor and has huge voting power at other international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, where the country’s quota on the board is the largest. The US can stop Egypt getting the help it needs when it undoubtedly asks for it in a few years, if not earlier.
Whether Egypt likes it or not, even a symbolic decision is damaging to Cairo’s ever-withering reputation in the eyes of the international community.
The only saving grace is that those in Egypt’s government realise how detrimental the US decision is to its chances of securing other aid and make moves to speed up the election process and be rid of the the military’s undemocratic rule.
But somehow, with condemnations of the US coming fast and steady from all parts of the administration, that looks very unlikely.
Instead, as Cairo isolates itself more and more it further drives itself into the power-hungry hands of the Gulf.
That’s a question I put to around a dozen Egyptian businessmen over the weekend, all of whom responded with a resounding “Yes”.
Here’s some snippets of conversations I had with a few of Egypt’s business community over the weekend (some appeared in this story for The National newspaper):
Nassef Sawiris, billionaire and head of Egypt’s biggest listed company, Orascom Construction Industries: The previous government had lost all economic ties with the majority of Arab Gulf governments and tourism has suffered tremendously because of conflicting messages [from the former Islamist administration]. This one of the biggest failures and resulted in a decline in foreign reserves. I hope the new government will be inclusive to all Egyptian political sectors.
Mahmoud Abul Eyoun, former governor of Egypt’s Central Bank: I’m very optimistic. We need a government to set the priorities for solving the internal and external imbalances. Rebulding the confidence among the Egyptian business comminity will create momentum for attracting foreign direct investment and portfolio investment.
Alaa Arafa, chairman of Egyptian clothing conglomerate Arafa Holding: The economic situation will take at least 6 months after the violence stop to show some signs of improvement. Everybody is ready to pay the price of freedom. The army is a great support to the people.
Mohammed Badra, board director at Banque Du Caire (Egypt’s third largest commercial bank): All of us are very happy, because at least we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. I think the army will guard the implementation of the road-map. We are hoping the security situation will improve and tourism returns so that we can have an improvement in the [credit] rating of the country.
For many businessmen, the military-backed political transition gives the country its best opportunity since 2011 to create a technocratic administration that has the expertise to tackle Egypt’s economic problems and lure back investors.
This says more about the failures of former president Mohammed Morsi, who was widely accused of doing nothing to prevent a looming economic collapse, than support for the military.
Still, the unwavering optimism that the military’s actions were good for Egypt’s economy, was astonishing (especially in light of the divisive atmosphere today as a result of the tragic killing of 42 Egyptians).
The early signs look promising: the stock exchange made its biggest gains all year, rising 7.3%, the long queues for fuel seemed to have miraculously disappeared, and the hope that an economist (now slated as London School of Economics-educated Ziad Bahaa El Din) would be made prime minister shook off any doubt that the army was overreaching its role.
In fact, the stock market rose only because of positive sentiment from local traders, while foreign investors sold heavily. Meanwhile, Egypt’s fuel crisis has not gone away and remains a genuine problem, but the panic that drove thousands to fill their tanks has subsided. And the business community is still holding its breath and counting on the army to keep to their strict six- to eight-month timeline for a handover to a civilian government.
It’s unclear who is calling the shots here and uncertainty is no good for business.
The only silver-lining to the removal of Morsi is that negotiations with the International Monetary Fund had hit a stumbling block and perhaps, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party out of the way, some progress can be made.
Over all however, Egypt’s economic outlook is much worse than it was a week ago. Credit ratings agency Fitch became the latest to downgrade Egypt, saying political tensions are likely to set back the country’s economic recovery.
Egypt is unlikely to exceed growth of 3% next year, analysts at Fitch say.
It is baffling to see so many high profile businessmen and women describe what is happening as a positive for the country. The military merely seized on an opportunity to overthrow an elected president in a coup (yes, some of you disagree, don’t shoot me) which has created more division than any time under Mohammed Morsi.