When Egypt’s first democratically elected president was tossed out earlier this year, the White House stopped short of calling it a coup. Doing so would have forced an end to the $1.3 billion that the U.S. sends in military aid every year — and changed the course of its relationship with its strongest Arab ally in the region.
But that was before Wednesday, when the military-led interim government stormed two camps full of former President Mohamed Morsy’s supporters. More than 525 people were killed and 3,717 wounded in the bloodiest day in Egypt’s recent history, officials there said.
Will the carnage in Egypt change the U.S. policy toward the most populous Arab country? The short answer: We’ll have to wait and see.
To understand why, one needs to appreciate the importance of Egypt in U.S. foreign policy. The United States helps Egypt because it’s one of only two Arab countries — along with Jordan — that made peace with Israel. In return, Egypt gets a billion dollars each year of U.S. taxpayer money for military and civilian programs. No other country except Israel gets more. That aid buys Washington an ally to depend on in a turbulent region.
It’s not just the peace process and regional stability that the United States is interested in. Egypt controls the Suez Canal, a crucial sea route used by more than 4% of the world’s oil traffic and 8% of all seaborne trade. So far, the canal is running smoothly. But a disruption there could end up hitting Americans in the pocketbook, not to mention impact the safe passage of U.S. military ships and equipment.
Then there’s business for American companies, intelligence cooperation — and the military relationship. “The reality is that the Egyptian military has not only been a source of stability for the United States in an otherwise turbulent Middle East, but it has also been a cash cow,” said Khairi Abaza, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Currently, the Egyptian military relies on U.S. military equipment, training and services. This reliance means that Egypt is essentially a client of the U.S. military complex, and aid money is in fact re-injected back into the U.S. economy.”
“The United States faces a really tough dilemma now,” Middle East analyst Robin Wright with the Wilson Center said. “What to do about the most important country in the Arab world, the cornerstone of the peace process, a country that has received over $30 billion in U.S. aid since the peace process began in the late 1970s.”