Egypt's existential agony

PORT SAID, EGYPT - MARCH 9: Egyptian soldiers stand guard at the Suez Canal as Port Said residents look on after the announcement of the final verdict in the case of the Port Said football massacre, on March 9, 2013, in Port Said, Egypt.
Ed Giles/Getty Images

This post originally appeared in National Journal.

On Sunday, President Obama played golf and lawmakers debated the future of military and economic aid to Egypt. That much you already knew.

What you probably didn't know and what explains the predicament of reducing or eliminating U.S. aid to Egypt (which runs about $1.5 billion annually) is this:

While Obama was hacking his way through his last 18 holes at Martha's Vineyard and lawmakers were dissecting the definition of a coup, the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and two accompanying destroyers and cruisers passed through the Suez Canal.

Where was the Truman heading? The Arabian Sea.

Why? To provide air support for U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan.

The Truman will soon replace the USS Nimitz and its carrier group. The Nimitz will soon request permission to pass safely and swiftly through the Suez on its way back to the United States. Significantly, Egypt not only grants permission to U.S. vessels to pass through the Suez, it allows U.S. Navy vessels to jump to the front of the line.

Nautical line-jumping is not the basis on which U.S. policy with Egypt can or should be based. But it's not a trivial consideration. Even after most U.S. forces leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the Navy will need to patrol the Arabian Sea. Doing so requires regular and unmolested access to the Suez Canal.

In the early days of Mohamed Morsi's government, the Suez Canal was handled as it always had been--professionally and with U.S. line-jumping favoritism protected. That was a confidence-building measure, as was Morsi's move to clamp down on anti-Israeil violence in Gaza and his commitment to the Camp David accords. That led the Obama White House to believe it could deal with Morsi, but his relentless consolidation of power on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood proved fatal internally and externally.

Now, the White House is paralyzed by the question of what do with what remains of unspent U.S. aid to Egypt in the face of the transitional military government's massacre of civilian protesters. The U.S. urged the military to avoid bloodshed, practically begging it to select any of numerous possible gestures to diffuse the situation: release Muslim Brotherhood prisoners (including Morsi) arrested after a Hogwart's-like coup-that-must-not-be-named; allow Morsi to briefly return to power, resign, and bless a democratic transition process; or choose alternative members of the Muslim Brotherhood with which the military would negotiate a move toward new elections. The military rejected all options, humiliating U.S. and European Union diplomats and exposing the true divide between the U.S. and Egypt.

Obama and his advisers believe the Arab transition (no one at the White House calls it the Arab Spring anymore) is worth preserving and Egypt can play a role in demonstrating that democracy--though uneven in its application--can take root. The Egyptian military cares far less about democracy than it does about breaking the back of the Muslim Brotherhood. For the military leaders at the head of the transitional government, the Muslim Brotherhood equals terrorism and crime and must be suppressed. It will kill in the streets, arrest the living who will not relent, and use every strongman tactic the region has come to know and loathe to cement its hold on power. Then, theoretically, it will turn back toward democracy.

The White House has been trying to coax that transition since Morsi was sacked, but the two sides are not speaking the same language. The Egyptian military wants a blood-soaked victory and then will decide how a democracy can grow. The White House fears the blood-soaked victory will never be fully realized and Egypt is on a slippery, perilous road to a protracted civil war. (Note: Hollywood never made a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby sing-along comedy called The Road to Algeria.)

The game is not just about U.S. aid--about $600 million is left in military assistance this fiscal year and about $260 million in economic aid. It's also about International Monetary Fund loans and direct foreign investment. The military's evocation of a domestic war on terrorism against the largest and best-organized political party (that's why Morsi won!) jeopardizes U.S. aid and makes the prospect of future IMF loans highly suspect. As for outside foreign investment, an internal war on terrorism threatens tourism and imperils any sense major Egyptian cities can function as future commercial hubs.

Even so, the military is betting it can survive. And its use of neighboring Arab nations as a temporary cash cow serves to reinforce this perception-cum-illusion. The simple fact is Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates can provide cash. But the U.S. can provide cache'--the kind that works wonders at the IMF and in foreign investment circles. If the U.S. pulls out of Egypt, it will mean a lot more than losing $1.5 billion in military and economic aid. It will mean a lost economy and a deepening sense of hopelessness among apolitical Egyptians who crave a functioning economy. That will lead to more street protests and deeper unrest.

The White House has been preaching this long-term message to the Egyptian military since it jailed Morsi. But the military only sees a short-term war on terrorism and an existential fight for Egypt's future. The future is genuinely at stake and U.S. influence and leverage has proven insufficient to the task.

Perhaps it always would have been. Either way, the White House feels besieged by events it cannot control or even minimally direct ... even as the Nimitz begins to plow its way to the Suez.