Confronted with popular protest, the country's unelected rulers have doubled down on repression, jailing peaceful activists and killing dozens of civilians who have the gall to exercise their rights. Those who state security forces haven't killed for demanding democracy have been tear-gassed and brought before the perverted justice of a military court, even as the ruling clique promises the world and its red-eyed subjects democratic reform. Eventually.
Were it Syria or Iran, the rhetoric from Washington would be stern, aggressive even. But since the repressive ruling clique is the military junta in Egypt, the lectures are timid – and coupled with a handout. Indeed, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just announced, the Obama administration is waiving a legislative requirement that made military assistance to Egypt conditional on its rulers "implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law." This allows the U.S. government to send Egypt's rulers $1.5 billion in taxpayer money, more than 85 percent of which is explicitly set aside for the armed forces.
If one only pays attention to what politicians say, ignoring what they do, this may come as a surprise. President Barack Obama, after all, has voiced support for the Arab Spring. He gave a speech in Cairo full of lofty words about the people of the region's legitimate democratic aspirations. So why would his administration lavish a regime that cracks down on pro-democracy forces with money for weapons?
Simple: for America's weapons makers, there's big money at stake. According to "administration and congressional officials" speaking to the Washington Post, some of the biggest lobbyists for sending our tax dollars to Egypt are military contractors – BAE Systems, General Dynamics, General Electric, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin among them – "eager to keep lucrative contracts attached to the annual aid." These companies kept Hosni Mubarak's military well stocked with fighter jets, tanks, armored personnel carriers, Apache helicopters, anti-aircraft missile batteries and aerial surveillance aircraft. For them, military rule is just good business.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, is in lockstep with its contractors and "does not want to risk its ties with the Egyptian military," according to the Post. So that takes care of the military-industrial complex. And it doesn't hurt the munitions-for-Egyptians cause that said military has pledged to buck popular opinion and maintain close relations with Israel.
So with generals and General Electric whispering in his ear, Obama – not exactly the type to challenge military-industrial consensus – will be sending more than a billion dollars to subsidize regime that has killed hundreds of people in the year since former dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.
"Given the human rights violations in Egypt, the US State Department cannot in good faith certify to the US Congress that the Egyptian government is protecting human rights," Amnesty International wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Egypt's military rulers, while promising a transition to civilian control, have "engaged in a wave of repression that has broken the promise of the uprising that began in January 2011 for a new future for the country," according to the group. There have been killings of "numerous civilians," along with the persecution of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their Egyptian and American employees for the crime of sowing discontent with seditious calls for civilian rule.
Clinton's response: Whatever. On Friday, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland confirmed that Clinton had approved transmission of the aid on the grounds of "regional stability," simply ignoring petty concerns about democracy and systematic human rights abuses.
"Secretary Clinton has certified to Congress that Egypt is meeting its obligations under its Peace Treaty with Israel," Nuland said in a statement. "The Secretary has also waived legislative conditions related to Egypt's democratic transition, on the basis of America's national security interests, allowing for the continued flow of Foreign Military Financing to Egypt." When push comes to shove, the demands of militarism trump the desire for democracy every time.
That's the message even from most liberal Democrats: Democracy's great and all, but it takes a back seat to stability and preserving the status quo.
"The interest of Egypt and surrounding area as well as the United States is well served by a strong and stable Egypt," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi during a recent trip to the region. "To the extent that that [military] assistance is in furtherance of that stability, we will certainly be there."
It sounds like Pelosi didn't talk to many Egyptians on her trip, for they would have told her that if the U.S. had $1.5 billion just laying around, it would be better to use that to boost Egypt's economy than its military. But that request would not go down well with the U.S. weapons makers who contribute to Pelosi and her colleagues' election campaigns. And for the most part, it's just not how foreign aid works.
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy is one of the few senior Democrats who have called on the Obama administration to withhold funding for tyranny in Egypt, that task having largely been left – strangely enough – to conservative Republicans. In a letter to Secretary of State Clinton, Tennessee Senator Rand Paul and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann call for freezing the aid, saying that dispersing it now "would send the wrong message to the Egyptian government that U.S. taxpayers will subsidize the Egyptian military while it continues to oversee the crackdown on civil society and to commit human rights abuses."
That's an argument both fiscal conservatives and liberal humanitarians should theoretically be able to get behind. But when Paul offered an amendment on the Senate floor to freeze the military aid, it was California Democrat Barbara Boxer who blocked it from being put to a vote. "We need to be smart and strategic when we have people in harm's way in another country," she lectured on the Senate floor, which makes perfect sense: if confronted with a repressive regime, it's best to stay cool and subsidize its tools of repression.
In a recent report on post-Mubarak Egypt, the U.S. government's Congressional Research Service noted a "tension" that has long existed in America's relations with Egypt "and is expected to continue unabated and perhaps amplified as a result of the revolution": the "pursuit of U.S. national security interests," on the one hand, "the promotion of American values and universal human rights" on the other.
Here's the thing, though: a bandit is no less a bandit because he talks a lot about being a saint. One's true values are reflected in one's actions, not words. And in the case of U.S. relations with Egypt, under Obama just as much as George W. Bush, those actions have been firmly in support of dictatorship and repressive – but pro-American – rule. Unfortunately, that doesn't cause a tension with our values: it exposes them for what they are.