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Why Obama suspended aid to Cairo: It’s about the neighbourhood

The Obama administration has suspended parts of its large-scale military aid to Egypt because of the new regime's brutally harsh tactics aimed at supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The military today appears to have gone beyond anything conceived by President Hosni Mubarak during his decades-long rule. The extent of the brutalism of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's new regime in repressing the Brotherhood is remarkable. Over the past few months, Gen. al-Sisi's insensitivity and seeming arrogance have struck senior American officials visiting Cairo. The forthcoming trial of deposed Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, set for Nov. 4, is the latest example of the military leadership's determination to rule with an iron fist. The detention of John Greyson and Tarek Loubani focused Canadian perceptions of the harsh treatment even foreigners receive in running afoul of the authorities. Blood on the streets is the underlying harbinger.

The Egyptian tradition is authoritarian. In retrospect, it's clear that the "Arab Spring" was a cataclysm. Arab societies have been unable to develop or sustain the requirements of pluralism and accommodation that we in Canada normally take for granted. This is the case along the entire Egyptian spectrum. The Brotherhood's brief rule, while largely unreported in the international media, echoed well-established autocratic practice.

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Egyptians are in the midst of a profound crisis. The military, preoccupied with maintaining its privileged political and economic position, saw its influence threatened under Mr. Morsi. His gradual Islamicization of Egyptian society was a red flag for secularists, the threat being that the Sharia law provisions of the Morsi constitution would slowly become the norm. Minority communities, Coptic Christians in particular, saw themselves as victims of a resurgent Islam. The country's business community felt that foreign investment was at risk. Security, predictability and a beneficent status quo were qualities Mr. Morsi could not or would not provide. So, in the eyes of the military elite, he had to go.

What surprises many is not that the military took over but that its repressive practices seem so absolute, even recognizing the uncertainty pervading Egypt today. This begs the question of whether the meat cleaver will become the Egyptian norm in containing political and civil discontent.

And it is for this reason that Barack Obama has intervened using the threat of a cutoff in American aid as a lever to persuade to accept pluralism, if not full democratization, as a goal. The American measures announced on Oct. 9 were limited to the postponement, not a cut, of $585-million in military assistance and $260-million in civilian aid. Over the last few weeks administration officials have been increasingly frustrated by the seeming indifference of the military in Cairo to strong U.S. representations urging the regime to show sensitivity to human-rights requirements. Such demarches were rebuffed by the Egyptians in assertive, even brusque, language.

It is unlikely that protests, seen by the regime as threats, will sway Gen. al-Sissi and his compatriots. They have a world view that does not foster democratization, even were it possible. In very bad straights economically, they have turned to the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia for support giving them a buffer against any American postponements or cutoffs. Egypt is currently in receipt of sizeable financial transfers ($18.8-billion in late September alone) from its Gulf and Saudi allies. They support the military's ambitions, so concerned are they by the threat of Islamic radicalism. Jordan and Israel have similar preoccupations, the latter most immediately with the breakdown of governance and the rise of radical groups operating in the adjacent Sinai Peninsula. Nor do the Israelis want to see any return to a Morsi-like government which supported Hamas, its Muslim Brotherhood counterpart, in Gaza. The Jordanian monarch, King Abdullah, fears his own Brotherhood.

Regional concern also extends east: The Gulf states and Saudis are possessed by fear that any Washington-Tehran rapprochement will be at their expense, allowing Iran to pursue successfully its own imperial ambitions. A close alliance has developed, even if much denied, between the Saudis, the Gulf states and Israel on security matters, and as such constitutes a formidable pressure group in Washington, warning of the dangers not only of going too far with Iran but no less of penalizing Egypt, given its privileged position as the keystone of stability in the Arab world. The Israel lobby in Washington will have influence on the degree to which the administration deviates from Israel's desired norm.

Mr. Obama is thus caught in a dilemma, feeling the need to respond to Egyptian human-rights abuses but hampered by long-term U.S. strategic interests, which dictate positive relationships with the regions status quo powers, with Egypt at the forefront as a secure, confident collaborator. It is these interests any administration will ultimately protect whatever Mr. Obama's wish at the moment.

It would be so much easier for Washington if the Egyptian military were to show some sensitivity and avoid unnecessary brutality, spurning the meat axe where the scalpel would do. This is what the present U.S. intervention is designed to achieve.

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Michael Bell is the Paul Martin Senior Scholar in International Relations at the University of Windsor. He has served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, to Egypt and to Israel.

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