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Business as Usual

Obama’s State Department fails Egypt’s revolution.

Since the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year, the Egyptian military—which occupies a key role in the new government—has not exactly distinguished itself on questions of human rights. According to Human Rights Watch, security forces continue to assault and imprison activists who criticize the military. Protesters are regularly beaten and in some cases killed, and the government’s abhorrent treatment of women is becoming a major cause for concern. On March 9, according to Amnesty International, Egyptian security forces detained 17 female protesters for four days, subjecting some of them to electric shocks and “virginity tests.”

Attacks on the press, meanwhile, have grown worse, not better, since the new government assumed power last February. In 2010, Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt one hundred twenty-seventh in the world in press freedom; in 2011, it placed one hundred sixty-sixth. The story of one reporter and photographer, Mostafa Alaa El Din, is typical: In February, an army major confiscated El Din’s camera, broke his cell phone, and beat him with a tear-gas launcher after he inquired about a detained colleague.

And it isn’t just Egyptians who have suffered: In February, authorities charged 16 American NGO staffers with illegally accepting foreign funds and failing to register with the government. Seven of them were prevented from leaving the country until early March.

Yet, despite this long list of open abuses, the Obama administration recently decided to proceed with $1.3 billion in military aid to the Egyptian government. To release the aid, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to waive a legal requirement that Egypt had met basic U.S. standards for respect of human rights.

Why would the State Department so brazenly turn a blind eye to human rights concerns in Egypt? Some of the reasons might be geopolitical: Our aid guarantees that Egypt’s military will continue to maintain a peaceful border with Israel, and the military has generally been an ally in the fight against terrorism. But there appears to be another reason as well: One State Department official justified the decision to The New York Times in part by pointing out that American jobs are “reliant on the U.S.-Egypt strong military-to-military relationship.” In other words, if the aid money had been withheld, defense companies like General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin would have seen a disruption in their production of tanks and F-16 fighter jets, thereby prompting layoffs in an economy still struggling to create jobs. According to both companies, close to 700 people could have been let go—many of whom live in states important to this fall’s election.

If this really was a key factor in the decision to release the aid to Egypt, then it is a rather crude example of the United States setting foreign policy based on the needs of defense companies and their employees here at home, rather than realities on the ground in other countries. And it should go without saying that U.S. defense companies and the Egyptian military are two constituencies that do not exactly need more support from the U.S. government.

Supporters of the administration’s policy might point out that, if the State Department had not released the aid, the government could have owed as much as $2 billion in penalties to these same companies. But the fact that this penalty itself exists is a testament to the outsized, and often unconstructive, influence wielded by these contractors in Washington.

According to the Times, Secretary Clinton personally favored a partial waiver—which would have led to the disbursement of only some of the aid—in order to persuade the Egyptian military to hold fast to its promises for a peaceful transfer of political power to the newly elected government. This would have been a wise compromise, one that might have allowed us to preserve Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel, look out for some American jobs, and still provide incentives for the Egyptian military to improve its disastrous human rights record going forward.

Unfortunately, the administration didn’t opt for this more nuanced approach. There may be better and worse justifications for our current policy; but none of these justifications should have so completely trumped our commitment to Egyptian liberals and to core principles of human rights. By blindly disbursing military aid to Egypt—no matter the violations of its government—the United States has positioned itself on the wrong side of Egyptian history.

This article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine.