With the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the United States holds sway over Egypt’s political future thanks to its strong ties with a military it helped build over three decades, experts said.
Egypt watchers said the massive USD1.3-billion annual US military aid package to the country has largely paid off over the years — yielding cooperation on counterterrorism, the Middle East peace process and safe passage through the Suez Canal. Many warned against bowing to calls for freezing the US funds.
"There are tremendous risks," said Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security.
"At the very least, you need to keep military to military exchanges and contacts because you never know how valuable those relationships might be in the future."
Scores of Egyptian officers have conducted joint operations with their American counterparts, studied at American war colleges and developed personal relationships with US officers.
Washington is keen to avoid repeating past mistakes on Pakistan, from which it cut military aid in 1979 and the 1990s over Islamabad’s nuclear weapons program, only to find itself with only very limited ties to the Pakistani military in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Yet Elliot Abrams, a senior State Department official under presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, said Washington should use the aid as leverage to counter any undemocratic moves.
"We’re not going to pay for the suppression of democracy," he told a congressional hearing this week. "Now is the time to signal to them this aid is conditional."
The Bush administration sought to condition parts of its aid package to human rights progress in Egypt, but those efforts were "not particularly effective" because Bush’s war on terror trumped its freedom agenda, noted Exum.
Washington has given Egypt an average total of USD2 billion per year, making it the second largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel since Cairo signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979.
"It was always going to be very hard to cut the aid anyway, because the way it was written into the Camp David Accords, if you cut the aid to Egypt, that is tantamount to canceling the agreement," said Kent State University professor Joshua Stacher.
But for now, the peace treaty at the heart of Israel’s national security strategy appears to be safe, with Egypt’s newly ruling military vowing to abide by the agreement as it promised to transition toward more democracy.
A 2009 secret diplomatic cable released by whistleblower WikiLeaks noted that Mubarak and Egyptian military leaders viewed US military assistance as the "cornerstone" of ties between the two militaries and as "untouchable compensation" for keeping the peace with Israel.
"The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the US military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace," the cable added.
But Friday’s collapse of an autocratic regime seen as one of the most powerful and stable in an otherwise volatile Middle East after just 18 days of a popular uprising has also sent shockwaves through a region now gripped by political unrest.
As President Barack Obama’s administration stepped up pressure on Mubarak, Saudi Arabia threatened to bankroll the regime if Washington withdrew its support, according to The Times.
Though it has played a limited role in the weeks-long crisis, the US Congress holds the purse strings and a handful of lawmakers have called for cuts to the aid.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs a panel that oversees foreign assistance, warned Friday that the lavish aid package could be "at risk" if the military thwarts a democratic transition.
Stacher noted that the military, which has been a major force in Egyptian regimes since it overthrew the monarchy in 1952, has benefited a great deal from billions of dollars in funding with virtually no strings attached.
"It’s very unlikely that the military is going to give up massive political influence, as well as their economic interests in the country, which are extensive, and return to the barracks," he said. The military runs a wide range of commercial enterprises, from food to construction.
He cautioned that the military and Mubarak, a former air force chief, were essentially two faces of the same coin.
"While this is a tremendous victory for Egyptians, I’m not sure we’ve seen a regime change," said Stacher. "Now the hard part starts because they have to stop continued military rule."