The Egyptian military’s murderous crackdown on supporters of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s democratically elected president who was deposed by a military coup in July, calls for an unambiguous response by the Obama administration.

President Obama took relatively easy but necessary steps by canceling a planned joint military exercise, condemning the violence and calling for Egypt’s military to move toward a restoration of democracy. Now Obama needs to send a stronger message to Egypt and the rest of the world by suspending U.S. military aid to the country.

The United States sends about $1.55 billion annually to Egypt. Military aid accounts for about $1.3 billion. Any expenditure, particularly of this magnitude, should advance U.S. strategic interests. It’s clear now that U.S. investment in Egypt is no longer paying off. This country’s repeated calls for a calm and peaceful resolution have been ignored.

Now it’s in America’s strategic interest to suspend military aid. Not doing so risks placing the country once again on the wrong side of history in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.

For years, the United States was closely associated with the repressive regime of former President Hosni Mubarak (who may soon be released after an Egyptian court ruling on Monday). The United States should not appear to undergird a counterrevolution that re-establishes a military dictatorship. Rather, this country must act upon the principles it claims to stand for.

The Obama administration was right to criticize Morsi’s increasing authoritarianism. Indeed, suspending military aid doesn’t suggest support for Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood movement he led.

Instead, resuming U.S. aid should hinge on conditions suggested by the “Working Group on Egypt,” a coalition of thought leaders from intellectual institutions like the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, the Council on Foreign Relations and others.

Among these conditions: The Egyptian state’s use of force against peaceful protesters stops; the state of emergency is lifted; all political prisoners are released unless credible evidence of violent crimes is presented to the judiciary, and the current Egyptian regime demonstrates a credible commitment to an open and fair political process including freedom of assembly, association, expression, and the participation of all citizens acting peacefully in the return to a democratically elected government and the establishment of a democratic system of governance.

Egypt will not soon turn into a Jeffersonian democracy. But the United States should not blithely bankroll tactics it rightly criticizes in other nations. As for losing leverage, what did the aid buy? And would suspending payments more likely get the attention of Egypt’s military rulers?

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have strongly backed the crackdown and are likely to fill the funding void if U.S. aid is suspended. But aid is more than money; the retinue of respectability Egypt receives with its association with the U.S. military cannot be replaced by another authoritarian Arab government.

As for the impact on Israel, it’s highly unlikely that Egypt’s new rulers, contending with the crisis in Cairo, would abrogate their country’s decades-old peace treaty and enter into an unwinnable war.

The Obama administration could do what it should have done in the wake of the July coup: Call it just that, which would trigger a clause in the Foreign Assistance Act that states that no U.S. aid (besides democracy promotion) can go to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état” or where “the military plays a decisive role in a coup.”

The Foreign Assistance Act should be followed. But it shouldn’t take linguistic precision to recognize the blunt instrument that is the Egyptian military, and how bankrolling it is inconsistent with American interests.

The Obama administration should suspend military aid instead of suspending economic aid, as it is now considering. And if it doesn’t take that necessary step, Congress should act instead.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Follow the editorial board on Twitter | FacebookPinterest | Google+