There has been some discussion of this working paper on coups and democracy. The authors have done some valuable work in this paper, and their findings provide some reason to hope that Egyptian military rule might lead to a more representative government. The authors couldn’t have know this when they wrote the paper, but the practical problem for the U.S. is summed in one line in the paper:

In fact, since 1997, the US President has been bound under an act of US Congress to suspend foreign aid to another country in the case of a coup d’etat.

We can all agree that Egypt has just experienced a coup, albeit a “soft” coup that the U.S. welcomed. Does that require the administration to suspend aid to Egypt? It would seem so. Even if it is a “coup for democracy,” which is debatable, isn’t the U.S. still obliged to halt aid to a government when the military seizes political power from a technically elected leader? Can the administration just pretend that it isn’t a coup and avoid the problem? If not, it seems that one of the mechanisms created to discourage military coups may end up undermining the one tool that the U.S. might have to encourage the military to give up power. The relevant section, Section 508 of the Foreign Operations Appropriation Act, states the following:

None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree: Provided, That assistance may be resumed to such government if the President determines and certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office: Provided further, That the provisions of this section shall not apply to assistance to promote democratic elections or public participation in democratic processes: Provided further, That funds made available pursuant to the previous provisos shall be subject to the regular notification procedures of the Committees on Appropriations.

Perhaps the Egyptian military gets off on the technicality that Mubarak stepped down, or perhaps we aren’t taking seriously the idea that he is a “duly elected head of government,” but if the law applies it would prohibit assistance to any part of the Egyptian government.

One of the paper’s findings is that post-1990 states that receive Western foreign aid are more likely to move from military rule to democratic government. The authors write:

Our empirical section uses data on foreign aid as a proxy for Western pressure to hold elections post-1990. We find results consistent with our argument. We show that dependence on Western aid tends to make countries more likely to hold competitive elections after coups – but this result only holds for the post-Cold War set of cases. We get no relationship between aid and the speed with which elections are adopted for the period between 1960 and 1990.

Democracy and governance funding would not be prohibited, but as Anne Mariel Peters explains in this article this funding isn’t as valuable as its advocates make it out to be:

Most of the debate around these programs has focused on the dollar amounts and the terms of delivery. But a more useful debate might focus on the fundamental question of whether they work. And here, the evidence is thin. Between 2005 and 2009, when democracy and governance funding was at its peak, in the widely used Freedom House ratings Egypt retained a steady “6” in political rights and a “5” on civil liberties, placing it squarely in the “not free” category. On media freedom, between 2005 and 2008 Egypt vacillated between “partially free” and “not free.” If anything, the 2005-2009 period saw greater crackdowns — with the detention of journalists, revelations of police brutality, the imprisonment of Ayman Nour, and amendments to the Constitution that expanded the use of military courts, restricted political party activity, and prohibited independent candidates for president.

Before we start throwing money we don’t have to bolster Egyptian political factions that may have no significant constituencies in Egypt, we might consider that the people who have been railing against funding cuts have a vested interest in increasing the amount spent on these programs regardless of their merit or efficacy. Likewise, it is appropriate that the U.S. review all of its aid to Egypt and determine what can be eliminated. If continuing aid to Egypt is, in fact, illegal because of the military takeover, that isn’t something that should simply be passed over with the polite fiction that the military is overseing a “transition.”