Save money, support democracy

As the Egyptian Constituent Assembly nears completion of its first draft of a new national constitution, worrying rumors have emerged indicating that the Egyptian military and its dealings will remain shrouded in secrecy with little-to-no oversight by civilian elected authorities.[1] If true, this will represent complete continuity with previous regimes’ policies that exempted the armed forces from having to present their budget for parliamentary approval. In the past, information regarding the military’s financial assets and involvement in the national economy was extremely difficult to come by. Most facts and figures published by international sources regarding the army were mere speculation, extrapolating from the amount of funding provided by the US for military aid to offer estimates of the scope of their influence. Since January 25, 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has come under increased scrutiny but has yet to shed any additional light on the murky world of army-run industries and financial endeavors. Until there is a reasonable level of transparency, and the army exhibits a willingness to submit to civilian oversight, it is unwise for the United States to maintain its prior levels of military funding.

The US relationship with the Egyptian military, which includes the provision of over a billion dollars a year in aid, is a complex and convoluted issue that cannot be addressed in its entirety here; nonetheless, it bears resemblance to tricky foreign policy situations the US has faced the world over. With its steadfast support for the SCAF, the US government is choosing the welfare of the military elite over average Egyptians. “The U.S. wagered that a military-led transition would facilitate (and manage) the democratization process while safeguarding U.S. interests,” says Shadi Hamid in The Atlantic, “In essence, it was the same Faustian bargain that had defined American policy for decades — for example in Latin America during the Cold War or in Pakistan today —  but updated for the Arab Spring.”[2]

Such a deal, however, is fundamentally contrary to the ideals the US claims to be promoting in Egypt and throughout the Arab world, and while the Egyptian military may conceal their activities, the open American backing of the SCAF leads the Egyptian people to conclude that the US is not committed to a civilian democratic transition at all. For as long as the SCAF and the Egyptian military leaders control key industries and financial sectors, they control the economy along with the military, leaving little leverage for the civilian government. Consequently, any elected body will be subordinated to the SCAF and subject to the whims of powerful army interests.

Jeremy Sharp of the Congressional Research Service points out that Egypt’s military rulers “may be betting on the resignation of the international community to accepting its fait accompli, as foreign nations fearing the spread of instability in an already volatile region may choose what they perceive as the lesser of two evils by supporting Egypt’s government rather than seeing it fail.”[3] This scenario is highly plausible, yet devastating for those in Egypt who wanted to believe that the US had come to endorse their populist, democratic revolution in the end. Rather than rewarding SCAF for its intransigence and clear rebellion against US directives, including the demands to obey the will of the people and to facilitate a transition to civilian rule, the US must be firm in its resolve to back the Egyptian people at large over the military elite. Not only would the US rejection of the opaque military system that has run Egypt for decades bring life back to the revolutionary spirit of the country, it would also signal US favor for democratic transitions elsewhere in the Arab world. Save money and support democracy, it’s a win-win solution.


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