In a move opposed by some Israel advocates, a key Senate power broker is threatening to reduce American military aid to Egypt in response to the recent power grab by Egypt’s military council.
Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s panel on foreign operations, has put into question the continuation of American taxpayer dollars flowing to Egypt’s military. Leahy’s threat is opposed by the Obama administration, so far. But even the administration now seems to be looking for ways to pressure the country’s military leaders to cede power as Egypt struggles with its attempt to transition into a democracy, more than a year after a popular uprising led to the ouster of Egypt’s longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak.
In a June 15 statement, Leahy, a Democrat, voiced his distress over the Egyptian military’s recent moves to gut efforts to build democratic institutions. The senator’s office said he communicated his concerns to the State Department but has yet to hear any response. In the statement, Leahy said he “would not want to see the U.S. government write checks for contracts with Egypt’s military under the present uncertain circumstances.”
Although it did not explicitly lay out a plan to freeze funds, Leahy’s message to the administration was picked up by international press as a clear sign of American pressure on Egypt’s military council.
Like any individual senator, Leahy has the power to put a hold on the release of appropriated aid money still in the pipeline should he choose. Congressional sources said the senator would rather negotiate with the State Department and reach an agreement on using the aid as a lever to ensure the Egyptian military lives up to its commitment to transfer power.
Pro-Israel advocates, by and large, do not support such a move. They have long championed aid to Egypt from the United States not just as an Egyptian interest, but as an Israeli interest, as well. Historically, the two have been linked politically since 1980, when the United States brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Even now, aid to Egypt is viewed as a key component in ensuring Egyptian adherence to its peace accord with Israel.
“The assumption since 1979 has been that the dependence of Egypt’s armed forces on American aid and equipment will cement the army’s support for peace with Israel,” said Steve Rosen, Washington director for the Middle East Forum and a former top official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “The army was to serve as the guarantor for peace if things go wrong.”
Disappointment was on the rise in Washington as news came from Cairo confirming what some have warned about for months — that the Egyptian military would do everything in its power to delay, and possibly even overturn, the country’s shift to democracy. On June 15 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the provisional authority running the country since the toppling of Mubarak, disbanded the entire parliament following a ruling of the constitutional court determining that a third of the seats won in the elections were not in order. Two days later, the military council, known as SCAF, amended Egypt’s temporary constitution in a way that would strip key responsibilities from the elected president. It also declared that it would appoint the committee that will write a new constitution for Egypt.
The military moves were seen by Egyptian and foreign observers as blunt steps to curb the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has emerged as the winner in recent elections.