US should rethink how to help Egypt

Why not provide more for bread and less for bullets?

The US Congress is now in the process of considering its $21.3 billion 2007 foreign aid package. A significant portion of American foreign aid has traditionally been allocated to Israel and Egypt. Though the process is well under way, the Senate has yet to weigh in, so it is not too late for members of Congress to ask themselves: Wouldn't it be wiser to direct US support for Egypt away from the military sphere, toward Cairo's domestic needs? While I'm not about to tell my American colleagues what decisions to take, especially regarding the hard-earned dollars of American taxpayers, I do want to share my concerns about Egyptian military intentions. And I admit that I was disappointed that the House has reportedly refused to reduce aid to Egypt by $100 million. As matters now stand, Egypt gets some $1.7 billion, including $1.3 in military aid. FOLLOWING THE 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty the US undertook to provide significant military and economic assistance to both signatories. However, 27 years later, Israel and Egypt each face entirely different types of threats. Israel must address severe military challenges from Palestinian and Hizbullah terrorism, as well as conventional and non-conventional threats from our immediate neighbors - not to mention Iran. For that reason policy makers have already agreed that American assistance to Israel needs to be gradually shifted away from economic and toward military aid. EGYPT, IN contrast, faces no existential threat from either its neighbors or other regional actors. Unlike Israel, it doesn't even have to contend with serious border incursions. Moreover, Egypt has now achieved decisive military superiority over any other Arab or African nation thanks to two and a half decades of US efforts to modernize Egypt's forces. While Egypt is a military powerhouse with no real enemies, however, the country continues to face severe socioeconomic challenges resulting from a lack of adequate educational and social-welfare infrastructure. This dangerous domestic reality has contributed to the further strengthening of the radical Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist groups that support al-Qaida and the theology of global jihad. In short: Egypt's main challenge is social and economic, not military. Any objective observer has to wonder: Why has an impoverished country like Egypt funnelled so much treasure into its military even though it faces no apparent military threat? Egypt's relentless military buildup has put me among those Israelis who are beginning to suspect that Cairo might view the Middle East peace process as an opportunity to weaken Israel and tilt the overall balance of power against the Jewish state. Here are the questions that particularly concern me: • Why did Egypt vehemently oppose the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty? • With 90% of the weapons smuggled to Palestinian extremist militias arriving from Egypt, why has Cairo seemingly turned a blind eye to this flow? • Why, after so many protests, is anti-Semitic content still so prevalent in the Egyptian educational system and media? IT'S IMPOSSIBLE, moreover, to ignore the fact that Egypt's massive military build-up is aimed solely at Israel. Most of the large exercises conducted by the Egyptian army, especially since 1996, seem to simulate war scenarios involving Israel. More and more of Cairo's military installations and logistical support centers seem to have been shifted to the country's north-east, on both sides of the Suez Canal - meaning closer to Israel. Supporters of continuing massive US military aid to Egypt claim that authoritarian regimes need state-of-the-art weapons systems as a sign of strength to bolster their position against domestic foes. But looking at Syria or Libya it would be hard to argue that their long-term survivability has been undermined simply because they possess obsolete Soviet MIGs, and not modern F16/F15 aircraft. It would be equally specious to suggest that the regimes in Egypt or Saudi Arabia are genuinely more stable because they are armed to the teeth with the latest American technology. I understand that members of Congress make budgetary decisions on the basis of what is best for US interests. On that basis, therefore, I would respectfully suggest that senators concerned with preserving stability in this part of the world help our two countries with their most essential needs. That means providing security assistance to Israel, which faces undeniable, even ominous external military threats; and badly needed economic assistance to Egypt, whose main threats are plainly domestic. Earmarking most of the monies Egypt receives for civil society would in no way weaken Egypt. But the prospect of immeasurably improving the lives of millions of ordinary Egyptians would make Israelis more secure. The writer, an MK, served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the 16th Knesset.