America’s relationship with Egypt took off in the late 1970s, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, when President Anwar Sadat cut off ties with his Soviet suppliers and—still needing the support of some superpower—switched to the West’s agenda, even going so far as to sign a peace treaty with Israel (a move that may have got him assassinated). Egypt soon became the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid (topped only by Israel), one result of which was the tight relationship between U.S. and Egyptian military officers, which continues to this day.
However, because the Cold War is over, very different dynamics drive the politics of the Middle East, and while relations with the United States are an important factor in Egyptian politics, they are far from the only factor, not even in strictly monetary terms. Within days of President Morsi’s ouster, the crowned heads of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates—the leaders of the region’s anti-Islamist alliance—agreed to give Egypt a total of $12 billion in grants and loans (eight times the amount of U.S. aid this year).
This points to the fallacy of McCain’s thinking in particular. If the United States pulled its aid, it would be a hardship for Egypt, but it wouldn’t be disastrous. (A bit of awkwardness here is that U.S. law requires cutting off aid to any foreign government that takes power through a military coup. This is why the Obama administration has devised lots of ways to avoid calling Morsi’s ouster a “coup,” even though that clearly is what it was.)
The fact is, if Washington wants to maintain some influence in Cairo, if U.S. officials and generals and potential investors want someone in Egypt to pick up the phone when they call, they have to ante up.