President Obama’s understated condemnation of the escalating violence in Egypt struck a sadly familiar hollow tone, the latest in a long line of examples of the West’s subjective appliance of moral standards around the globe. Clashes between the Egyptian Military Government and Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the last week have seen hundreds die at the hands of the authorities without a significant rebuke from the United States.
A stable Egypt is important to the Western World, not just as one of its strongest allies in the Middle East, but geostrategically, the Suez Canal in the Sinai peninsula is the single most important choke point for international trade and supply of Middle Eastern oil to Western markets, connecting the Medittereanean and Red Seas and allowing trade to flow from East to West. The Suez Crisis of 1956 when the canal was briefly nationalised by President Nasser showed the reliance of the West on the passage – and while subsequent international laws guarantee that both commercial and military ships can use the “in time of war as in time of peace”; clearly this provision requires that the Suez Canal Authority maintains its autonomy and Egypt does not reneg on its international obligations. Following the announced month long State of Emergency, the Egyptian military has imposed a nighttime curfew which is hampering berthing of vessels along the canal’s length.
The US government grants Egypt $1.3bn in annual military aid in order to maintain influence in the region, given the Egyptian military’s historically strong influence on national politics. This appears to be the greatest leverage that the United States has in the current crisis; and explains why the US government has been reluctant to describe the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi as a “coup” – US law states that aid must stop to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree”. Republican Senator and former Presidential candidate John McCain has stated his opinion that the events amounted to a coup and aid should be cut off. While there is a degree of political posturing in his analysis and he is free of the sensibilities that come with holding office; it shows that the position adopted by the Obama administration is not universally uncontested.
Following deeply unpopular, lengthy, and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and mindful of both the unpopularity of the US abroad, and the relatively low importance Americans ascribe to international affairs, Barack Obama has pursued an almost isolationist foreign policy, preferring words to actions, and usually taking the path of least resistance.
The biennial “Bright star” military training exercise with Egypt has been cancelled, and the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt has been halted; but these are relatively minor moves designed only as a small rebuke to the Egyptian government which will have limited impact on their strategic calculations. It is the suspension of the military aid grant that would both in real terms undermine the viability of the Egyptian Army’s position and send a clear signal both to Egypt and the world that the US will not tolerate the deaths of more than 500 Egyptians at the hands of the authorities in a single night.
Suspension of aid would not end the bloodshed; and the US fears that the money could be found from alternate sources in the gulf; and US influence would be replaced by Saudi Arabian, who have a vested interest in seeing pan-Arab Islamism repressed.
But if the United States continues on with its current course of action – blithely calling for restraint and ignoring a humanitarian crisis which is already well underway, without taking any significant action to show that it condemns the heavy handed nature of the Egyptian Military. Not only will it diminish its own credibility in attempting to defuse the crisis, but its staunch commitment to inaction will only embolden the Egyptian military to carry on unchecked at the cost of untold lives.