Editorial Board

Obama’s Confused Policy on Egypt

The promotion of democracy and free markets are central elements of U.S. foreign policy. They are the reason the U.S. bars aid to governments that seize power in a coup, and why President Barack Obama’s decision to cut aid to Egypt is the right one.

Yet the message sent by the partial reduction in Egypt’s annual $1.5 billion package is also confused, and therefore likely to be ineffective. The administration’s efforts to soothe Egypt’s military leadership, and its continued refusal to use the word “coup” to describe the overthrow of the country’s elected government on July 3, muddy the stern signal the U.S. is trying to send to Egypt’s rulers.

Yes, administrations often prioritize more immediate national interests than democracy promotion. But when they must choose between interests, there should be compelling reasons for overriding core U.S. principles. In Egypt’s case, they aren’t there.

One vital U.S. goal in Egypt is to maintain the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel. Cutting aid might in theory prompt the Egyptian military to abandon the treaty -- though this is unlikely, for the simple reason that it wouldn’t be in Egypt’s interests.

A second goal is to promote stability in a region that remains critical to the price of oil. Yet General Abdelfatah al-Seesi’s policies are having the opposite effect. He has inflamed the third or so of his country’s population that considers itself Islamist, offered solid evidence to the Islamist view that democracy is a game they are invited to play but banned from winning, and created a cause for which al-Qaeda-style radicals can recruit for an insurgency in Sinai.

A third U.S. interest lies in promoting a healthy and open Egyptian economy. This shows little sign of happening either, as instability deters investment. Even with the $12 billion pledged by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, the economy is expected to grow by at most 3 percent this year, less than half the average pace in the years leading up to President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011.

U.S. financial aid and the provision of high-end military equipment are not rights that Egypt enjoys. They also haven’t secured the U.S. much leverage over al-Seesi. Obama has recognized, correctly if late, that the only way to make the aid useful is to show that it can be withdrawn.

Obama has suspended deliveries of large-scale military equipment to Egypt and frozen about $260 million in cash aid. Still, he would do well to go further. He should end an unseemly piece of hypocrisy by describing what happened in Egypt as a coup, making clear that the U.S. won’t tacitly endorse tactics that have resulted in the deaths of well more than 1,000 Egyptians since July 3, with 51 more protesters killed last weekend.

What about the useful aid that will continue now but would be cut off if the U.S. finally called a coup a coup? Congress could carve out exceptions for the support that should keep flowing -- for example, for security along Egypt’s border with Israel and counterterrorism efforts.

The U.S. has halted military aid to allies before, without severing or permanently damaging relations: Turkey after its invasion of Cyprus in 1974 is one example; Indonesia after government massacres in East Timor in 1991 and 1999 is another. The world won’t end if the U.S. delivers a similarly clear message to Egypt.