by John Washington
Money doesn’t solve, salve, cure, stabilize, forge peace, make or keep promises. And aid packages, no matter how much they’re needed or with how much philanthropic goodwill they’re sent, will not help anyone by themselves. It matters as much in whose hands the money falls as fast as it flows. The United States State Department should have considered this when deciding to continue to fund and arm the Egyptian military regime.
As pivotal as Egypt has been as an historical ally and an advocate for various degrees of peace in the region, and as necessary as the country may be as a counterweight to the militant authoritarianism of Iran, the United States cannot afford to fund another oppressive regime. Or, rather, it can afford it, but it shouldn’t. And funding is what the Obama administration and Hilary Clinton are doing: sending 1.3 billion dollars of military assistance to the military regime despite clear evidence of human rights abuses.
Since 1979 annual U.S. military aid to Egypt has grown, according to the State Department’s own statistics, to over $1.3 billion dollars a year. A few months ago, because of increasing concern of human rights violations, when we allocated this year’s $1.3 billion package we did so contingently, based on the implementation of “policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.” And yet, as detailed in a letter from Amnesty International urging Clinton not to send more money and arms to Egypt, “Egyptian security forces have killed numerous civilians, and the Egyptian government has demonstrated a systematic failure to rein in security forces and stop the attacks on Egyptian and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Egypt.”
The United States willingness to spoil an abusive regime with riches in the hope that short-term stability will lead to democratization has been tried and tried again in Latin America. Looking at the current dilemma in Egypt through the lens of the U.S. support of the dictatorships in Nicaragua and El Salvador (Guatemala and Honduras serve as strong examples as well) should make startlingly clear that “short term stability” at the cost of an oppressed and abused populace does not lead to long term stability or an end to internal (or regional) strife.
Despite the many differences, there are some significant similarities between the U.S.-Egypt and U.S.-Nicaragua relationships. In both Nicaragua (from the thirties to the late seventies) and in Eygpt (from the eighties until today) the United States has funded, armed and trained the national armies. In Nicaragua it was the Somoza regime that was the backbone of U.S. support in the region during Central America’s tumultuous 20th century. In Egypt it was Mubarak and his henchmen Americans hoped would be an Israel/U.S. friendly counterweight to Iraq and Iran. Nicaragua was seen as important ballast against U.S. fears of not only the communist spread, but also Central American dissatisfaction with the euphemistic “Good Neighbor Policy” which the U.S. implemented to keep Central America un-self-sufficient enough to bow to North America’s economic whims. That is, mostly, ship bananas, coffee and cotton north at low and U.S.-favorable prices. The parallel here with Egypt, especially since the Camp David accords, is that the U.S. pressured the country to act as a key ally (and basically an American Army base) in a region full of vicissitude and potential political disorder, as well as an important importer of U.S. grains (more than $2 billion a year).
But one of the morally defining and pertinent similarities in relations with the two countries is the U.S.’s willingness to overlook humanitarian crimes while continuing to pour in arms and money. In the twilight of the Somoza dictatorship (whose family had ruled Nicaragua as its personal fiefdom for more than forty years) President Carter came into office in 1977 stressing Human Rights as the guiding light of his foreign policy. In the same year, at the pressing of Carter, a team from the Oranization of American States (OAS) went to Nicaragua to investigate human rights violations and suddenly Somoza seemed to be on the verge of being cut off from his indiscriminate benefactor, the United States government. And yet, still in the same year, despite chilling reports of violent political suppression from the OAS team, the United States sent $2.5 million dollars worth of arms to the country. Somoza used the weapons in September of 1978 to, in fear of being ousted, destroy towns and kill thousands of people. “Amnesty International declared,” as detailed by Walter LaFeber in his classic work, Inevitable Revolutions, “that in some areas all males over fourteen years of age were murdered systematically.” That is, despite Carter’s supposed stance for human rights, the U.S. continued to fund atrocities. In 1979, again quoting from LaFeber, only “two months before Somoza fled, the United States supported his request for a $66 million loan from the IMF. U.S. officials somehow hoped to prop up the Somoza regime, but not prop up Somoza.”
There is a similar dilemma ongoing in U.S. State Department’s relation with Egypt today: how to prop up the “stability” promised by the Egyptian Army, but not the Army as regime.
“Egypt’s transition to democracy is not yet complete,” the New York times reported State Department Officials as claiming, “and more work remains to protect universal rights and freedoms.” But how is sending “tanks, warplanes and other weaponry” going to protect universal rights and freedoms? Here we have the same dubious argument that we saw in Nicaragua in the late 70’s: that more guns will somehow calm an already violent government.
What first provoked the (always unlikely) possibility of U.S. withholding military aid was the detention and imposed travel ban of 19 Americans accused of funding civil non-profit “pro-democracy” organizations without going through the proper governmental channels. The Mubarak-era law requires all foreign funding to go first through the government and then, after potential approval, only to officially licensed organizations. There were expectations that this kind of stifling government control had ended after the fall of Mubarak, but despite the petty despotism, plus a host of very real abuses, including, according to Amnesty International, the exclusion of women from government office, the excessive use of tear gas, the continuation of Emergency-State laws and even the murder of protestors, the U.S. State Department deferred to “the importance that assistance to the Egyptian military has to the U.S.”. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stated that aid money would enable the U.S. “to have influence at a time when the military is undergirding this transition until it can get to a place where we can have a hand off to an elected government.” This is either blind trust (in a military with a long and recent history of abuse) or the thin veiling of U.S. fears that a non-U.S. friendly and not triumphantly pro-Israel party (the Muslim Brotherhood) will take full control of the government. It’s a real possibility—that the Muslim Brotherhood will add muscle to its already strong ruling power—but it should be for the Egyptian citizens to decide, not U.S. arms makers or a seemingly unsympathetic Hilary Clinton.
What Egypt may face, if we continue to fund and arm the military, are not only fraudulent elections, but ongoing turmoil, the further devaluation of American esteem in the country and the region, and the potential recipe for another (and much bloodier) revolution.
By late 1979 President Carter seemed to have completely forgotten his self-touted stance on human rights. In El Salvador, as hungry peasants started organizing and took heart from the downfall of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, Salvadoran President Romero violently cracked down on his people. Though he was overthrown by a right-wing junta, the new rulers merely continued his brutal practices, acting swiftly and violently to establish and attempt to maintain control. Tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered. Political assassination became commonplace. A beloved and outspoken bishop was shot in the heart while giving mass in a hospital chapel. And still U.S. aid continued to flow. “In early 1980,” again quoting from LaFeber, “Carter asked Congress for $5.7 million of military supplies to ‘help strengthen the army’s key role in reforms.’” Except for the pricetag, Carter’s logic here is perfectly Hilarian. And yes, the money was sent. By the mid-1980’s U.S. military aid to El Salvador increased to two million dollars a day. The reforms, however, never came. Instead El Salvador began more than a decade of brutal civil war. Over 75,000 people were killed and countless were disappeared. The United States, during the Carter and Reagan administrations were funding these murders and disappearances because (among a host of economic reasons) they didn’t want leftist (potentially Kremlin-tied) governments in power. But American preference, even if American hegemony is in question, should not be the deciding factor in the internal politics of a foreign sovereign nation. Perhaps it’s time for Middle-Eastern/Asian/Latin American countries to pass a reciprocated Monroe Doctrine to keep us out of their hair.
Our decision in Latin America to fund abusive military governments was much worse than just spoiling a misbehaving regime, we were also sending a message to the people who rose up in hope for a better future. Whether they were in the villages and jungles of Nicaragua and El Salvador, or in Tahrir Square or Alexandria, we are telling the people that they are not our interests. That our interests are elsewhere. That we support the state above its people. It’s a recipe, as it was in Nicaragua and El Salvador, for more and much bloodier revolutions down the road.
If the U.S. wants stability, if it wants an ally, we should find a way to ally and fund the Egyptian people, or we should keep our hands off and our weapons out.
– John Washington is a Fulbright Fellow living in Mexico City. He has published on upsidedownworld.org, wordriot.org,thesmartset.com and in Voices of Mexico, among others. One of his essays was recently selected as a Notable Work for 2011′s Best American Travel Writing.