As the situation escalates into a full-fledged confrontation between the Egyptian military and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Washington is once again playing catch-up with its own clients.
Happy to see the back of the Islamists, the US administration refrained from referring to the military overthrow of President Morsi as a coup even when influential members of Congress recognised it as such.
The Obama administration wanted the coup to work; it did not want blood on its hands. But if they hoped to appease and influence the military, they were wrong.
The generals adamant on containing, if not breaking the Brotherhood, saw the political challenges facing Egypt as security problems that require the use of force.
They imposed emergency laws that allows more control, but in reality it led to more escalation.
As they prepared to publicly crackdown on Morsi’s supporters through force, Washington remained largely silent.
US calls for restraint, dialogue, and a return to the ballot box seemed more rhetorical than practical or effective.
America’s eagerness to maintain a close relationship with the military and remain relevant in the country has prevented it from taking a clear stand.
Investing in the Egyptian military
Egypt is a “major non-NATO ally” with the military to military liaisons at its core. Egypt’s military relationship with the West took off after the 1979 Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt, rendering Egypt the second-largest recipient of its bilateral assistance after Israel.
This required, among others, a major military and financial investment that totalled $66bn since the peace treaty. The American wooing of the Egyptian generals has cost the US $1.3bn a year since 1987.
In 2011 – the year of the revolution – Egypt received almost a quarter of all of America’s Foreign Military Financing funds.
The American-Egyptian courtship has resulted in, among many things, an Americanised Egyptian defence force.
Over 500 Egyptian officers benefit from the American military education system every year. These include top Egyptian officers, including the country’s defense chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who went to the US Army War College in Pennsylvania, as well as the commander of the Air Force, Reda Mahmoud.
The education stints of the Egyptian officers in US military colleges, the training programs, and the joint military exercises have led to enduring ties between the establishments of both countries.
Two positions add to one
The question then is, with the Egyptian military having been an acutely embarrassing partner of late – what was Washington supposed to do?
Should it have presented it with an ultimatum? Cut aid, after years of lavishing the military with significant funds?
The conventional wisdom among the Middle East policy establishment, especially those allied with Israel is that Washington needs to maintain a close relationship with the military at all times.
Some claim that the Egyptian military is an indispensable and reliable ally in a sea of turmoil, and supporting it serves US national security interests. For them, the emerging civilian forces – popular as they may be- whether Islamists or secular – are neither reliable nor friendly.
Others argue that refraining from criticising the generals allows Washington to exercise some degree of influence over their decision-making.
Washington’s newly appointed Middle East “peace envoy”, Martin Indyk, argues that the US should be communicating with the military of the Arab world’s “largest, militarily most-powerful, culturally most-influential, and geostrategically most-important country” through private channels, and not work against it.
Some within the minority of the Washington establishment advocate severing relations with the Egyptian military if it doesn’t refrain from violence. They see any perceived complicity between the US and the authoritarian Egyptian military to be harmful for US interests in the long-term, especially since it allows for a backlash among Islamists in the region.
But it seems far-fetched that this warning would be heeded in Washington. Would freezing aid make sense at a time when the US is fast losing its relevance in the region?
Already losing its leverage and influence, notably regarding the dramatic events taking place in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and the region in general, Washington is not about to give up one of its few strategic pillars in the Middle East.
The Egyptian military is privy to all of this and understands all too well its own utility for the US in the region.
For example, what if Egypt chooses to be the one to walk out? I reckon there would be major panic in the American capital and no less in Israel.
After all, isn’t Egypt what helps America maintain stability in the region and help preserve Israel’s security?
The way forward…
Washington would’ve liked to see the generals refrain from violence, empower the civilian government, allow for a quick return to the democratic process, and eventually return to the barracks.
But the US did not voice its opinion loud enough, and didn’t make it clear to the generals that failure to heed their advice has consequences.
As the spiral of violence gets underway on Egypt’s streets, America needs to show the value of its leverage over Egypt’s military.
The White House statement and Secretary of State’s condemnation of the violence is hardly a good start. Everyone has condemned the violence; even the Egyptian generals!
Neither pillow talk in private nor regrets in public are useful to stop the escalation.
True leverage over a client starts with America telling the Egyptian generals: end the emergency law, stop the violence and allow a return to the ballot box. Or else.
Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and the author of The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.
Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara