FPI Bulletin: Now is Not the Time to Cut Assistance to Egypt and Libya

September 14, 2012

From FPI Executive Director Jamie M. Fly and Policy Analyst Patrick Christy

A small group of lawmakers in Washington, led by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), are calling for the United States to end all foreign assistance to Egypt and Libya in response to this week’s tragic events in Benghazi and the attack on the American embassy in Cairo.  Washington should investigate these attacks and the perpetrators responsible for these heinous crimes should be punished accordingly.  But a premature end to all U.S. assistance to the emerging democratic governments in Libya and Egypt would be counterproductive and hurt America’s short and long-term interests.
First, cutting all U.S. assistance to these North African nations would undermine their nascent efforts to establish representative and democratic governments.  Washington has provided $170 million in assistance to Libya since February 2011 to strengthen Tripoli’s government and aid its democratic transition.  But Libya’s public institutions are still weak as they attempt to emerge after 42 years of oppressive rule under Muammar Qaddafi.  This is in part because of the international community’s unwillingness to follow the NATO mission that helped the Libyans overthrow Qaddafi with a post-conflict force on the ground to help keep the peace in the chaotic aftermath of the conflict.
While the U.S. currently provides more than $1.5 billion in aid per year to Egypt, a dramatic cut-off in funding could prompt the new Morsi government to break ties with Western partners in favor of less-savory regional powers. As FPI Director Robert Kagan writes today in the Washington Post: "If Egypt’s economy crumbles, is the nation going to become less radical? Is it more likely to uphold the peace treaty with Israel? Is it more likely to be a force for moderation in the greater Middle East?"
In Egypt, recent events underscore the need for Washington to retool assistance and communicate priorities.  With a population of over 80 million, the success or failure of Egypt’s transition towards democracy will likely be a deciding factor in the future of the Arab Spring.  Yet thus far, the administration has been slow to define red lines in its relationship with the newly elected government in Cairo.  President Obama must make clear to President Morsi that future cooperation and aid will be contingent on Cairo’s ability to protect the U.S. embassy, compliance with Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and respect for women’s and minority rights.  Cutting off support to Cairo would only serve to diminish U.S. leverage in Egypt.
In Libya, Washington should demand Tripoli’s assistance in the investigation into the Benghazi attack and in efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.  Additional military and other security assistance may be required to help the Libyan government counter militant and extremist groups within its borders.
In both Libya and Egypt, eliminating security funds would undercut key U.S. interests.  To be sure, radical militants exist—as they did prior to the Arab Spring—across the region.  News reports state the attack in Benghazi was likely the result of a coordinated effort by groups with possible links to al-Qaeda.  The United States must continue to use aid and training opportunities to advise and improve Libya’s security capabilities in order to push back against these radical groups.  Likewise in Egypt, continued cooperation and aid will assist efforts to counter radicals in the Sinai Peninsula.
This week’s attacks are a tragic reminder that extremist elements exist throughout the Middle East, despite these countries' progress towards representative democracy.  But it should not lead policymakers in Washington to reconsider all gains of the past two years across the Middle East.  What the region needs is not hyperbolic rhetoric from American officials, but strong, assertive American leadership from both the White House and Congress. 
Many Egyptians and Libyans have bravely stood up to the radical elements that orchestrated these attacks and are continuing to do so.  As these countries continue the long struggle towards democracy, lawmakers in Washington would do well to assist them and not take actions that will undermine our interests and abandons the very cause that the public servants who lost their lives this week worked so hard to advance.

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Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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