3 Things You Need to Know About What's Going on in Egypt

If you’ve been trying to closely watch recent events in Egypt, your head may be spinning. Turmoil continues to rock the country in the aftermath of the July 3 military coup that overthrew former President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood movement who is now being held incommunicado by Egypt’s ruling generals. From the killing of Islamist prisoners to the ambush on Egyptian police officers in the Sinai region, events continue to move at an insanely fast pace in the Arab world’s most populous country.

U.S. policy towards Egypt has also been closely watched, particularly in the aftermath of the military’s violent clearing of two Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins which led to the killings of hundreds of supporters of the Islamist movement.

Here are three questions--and answers to them--to help you understand the most recent events in Egypt, with a focus on American policy.

1. What is U.S. policy, in general, towards Egypt?

Egypt has been a bedrock U.S. ally in the Middle East since 1979, when the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was signed. The signing of those accords signaled a decisive break from Egypt’s past policy of aligning with the Soviet Union and also ended the possibility of Egypt fighting Israel in wars, which had occurred three times before Camp David.

Since 1979, the U.S. has delivered $1.3 billion annually in military aid to Egypt. The aid has helped Egypt’s military to become a powerful force in the region, though the armed forces have largely stayed out of armed conflict since 1979. The aid delivery to Egypt brings a number of benefits to the U.S.: protection of America’s number one ally, Israel; access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace; and money for U.S. weapons companies.

Post 9/11, Egypt and the U.S. continued to have close ties, with former President Hosni Mubarak imprisoning and torturing prisoners at the behest of the U.S. during the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program. The 2011 revolution which overthrew Mubarak led to little change in U.S. policy, though. While the U.S. eventually threw its weight behind Mubarak’s ouster, it kept up its close relations with the Egyptian military, which continued to take action in line with U.S. policy, like destroying tunnels leading into Hamas-controlled Gaza. Still, the U.S. did establish contacts with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi won presidential elections in 2012.

2. What are the most important recent events in Egypt?

On July 3, in response to street protests calling for Morsi’s removal, the Egyptian military stepped in and implemented a coup. It effectively heralded a return to military dictatorship, though the military had been the most powerful actor in Egypt even while Morsi was president.

In response to Morsi’s removal, Muslim Brotherhood supporters and opponents of the coup began to protest  the military and created sit-in camps around the Rabaa mosque and Nahda square in Cairo. The military and the police warned of breaking up the sit-ins for days after they were established, and also killed dozens of protesters. But international powers tried to negotiate with the Brotherhood and the ruling generals in order to come to an agreement and an end to the stand-off. The negotiations broke down, though, on August 7.

The next week, Egyptian security forces forcibly broke up the sit-ins. They invaded the camps with tear-gas, bulldozers, armored vehicles, live ammunition and snipers. About 600 people, at least, were killed by Egyptian security forces, while dozens of police officers also died during clashes sparked by the security forces’ actions.

Turmoil continued in Egypt over the next few days. Protesters were killed while marching against the military. Police officers in the Sinai were killed reportedly by Islamist militants. And former dictator Hosni Mubarak may soon be released from prison.

3. Has U.S. policy changed towards Egypt in response to the violence?

The short answer is no, at least not decisively at the moment. But the longer answer is more complicated.

A key question in the aftermath of the Egyptian military’s violence was what the U.S. response would be. Since the removal of Morsi from power and the military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the U.S. has rhetorically urged restraint to the ruling generals. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel repeatedly called General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the military, to caution against violence using against Islamists. He didn’t listen.

President Barack Obama announced August 15 that his administration was suspending joint military exercises scheduled to take place with the Egyptian military. And today, the U.S. took preliminary steps to curtail economic aid to Egypt, though that’s a small fraction of the overall aid to the country.

But the military aid will continue to flow. That’s the most important indicator of U.S. policy, and for now that hasn’t changed one bit. So while U.S. rhetoric escalates against the brutal violence unleashed on Egyptian civilians, the money to the military talks more.

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