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Washington’s response to the news was mixed. The administration, while expressing concern, did not outline practical measures against the Egyptian military. In Congress, the response was harsher.
Leahy, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees foreign aid appropriations, made clear that the Egyptian military’s actions threaten the future of American military assistance to Egypt. The military’s stance, he said in his June 15 statement, “obviously throws into question the future of the transition.”
Last year, Congress passed legislation sponsored by Leahy that set conditions on aid to Egypt to ensure that the country pursued a transition to democracy. The law allows the administration to waive these conditions for national security reasons.
Aid to Egypt reached $1.3 billion this year, as Congress added to the annual military assistance another $300 million in civilian aid aimed at helping post-revolution Egypt rebuild its economy and create jobs. Pulling the plug on military aid would primarily affect the Egyptian army, but experts believe that the effect will be mainly symbolic. Most of the aid appropriated for this year has already flowed through the pipeline to Cairo, and Leahy could block only the remaining sum, which congressional sources estimate is less than half of the $1 billion military aid component.
Nevertheless, such a move would “send a very strong message that we are no longer betting on the army, which at every step has made the wrong turn,” said Eric Trager, an expert on Egypt at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Strong as it might be, Trager doubted that the Egyptian military would get the message. “The military establishment doesn’t believe the U.S. will go ahead with the cut,” he said. “The only threat they see to American aid is if peace with Israel is overturned.”
An Egyptian source with close ties to the government in Cairo backed up Trager’s analysis. “Using the assistance package as a means of pressure will have zero impact on the transition. Zero impact,” said the source, who asked not to be named.
A cut in aid could also complicate Israeli and American interests, since the Muslim Brotherhood, now poised to take the presidency, has made clear in the past that any slash in assistance from the United States could lead to canceling the peace accord with Israel, because the aid was part of the peace package promised by the Americans.
Israel and its backers in the United States still feel that military aid to Egypt is important. “Israelis aren’t going around asking themselves, ‘Is Egypt democratic?’ they are asking themselves, ‘Is Egypt going to become an enemy?’” Rosen said. Aid to the military, still viewed by Israelis as the strongest force in Egypt supporting peace with Israel, is a necessity in the view of Israel and its Washington advocates, he said.
Pro-Israel lobbyists have not launched a concerted effort against attempts to stop aid to Egypt. But several activists said that it is clear to all relevant congressional offices that Israel supports the continuation of the aid.
A spokesman for AIPAC did not return calls regarding this issue.
A full-scale offensive against Leahy’s initiative may not be warranted. The idea to cut aid has been raised in the past and was blocked each time by the administration, with the backing of pro-Israel lobbyists.
Most recently, in late March, the State Department informed Congress that it would waive conditions on American aid to Egypt and go ahead with the full aid package, as allowed under the security waiver provision in the law.
This time around, the administration is taking a less Egypt-friendly approach: It is using Leahy’s statement as a stick against the Egyptian military, without coming out in favor of an aid cut. The State Department made clear in its daily press briefing that any military actions to curb Egypt’s democratic transition could affect “all aspects” of relations between the United States and Egypt. The military’s decisions and policies are “going to have an impact on the nature of our engagement with the government and with the SCAF moving forward,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland warned.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org