LET IT FLOW

01.13.14

Congress to Give Egypt $1.5 Billion in Aid

New legislation dropping on Monday will free the Obama administration to send money to Cairo after last year’s military coup put a freeze on the cash.

Congress is preparing to allow the Obama administration to give more than $1 billion dollars to the Egyptian government and military, despite the fact the generals perpetrated a coup last summer and are suppressing opposition ahead of a nation-wide constitutional referendum.

The House and Senate are set to unveil a year-long spending bill that will loosen restrictions on U.S. aid to Egypt and negate the law that prevents the U.S. from funding a foreign military that has conducted a coup against a democratically elected government. The Obama administration has been lobbying Congress for permission to give the aid to the Egyptian government. Several senior senators had been working to make sure that aid was conditioned on the Egyptian government pursing a path toward democracy and respect for the rule of law.

But now, with the Egyptians speeding toward a Constitutional referendum that will cement the rule of the military-led regime and with the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the opposition ongoing, most of those conditions could be lifted by Congress or waived by the Obama administration.

Video screenshot

Dive into Egypt's voting booths with this photo of democracy sort-of at work.

For experts and congressional officials who have followed the Obama administration’s clumsy and often incoherent policy on Egypt, the potential easing of restrictions on aid represents only the latest unfortunate twist in a failed effort to preserve U.S. influence in the Arab world’s most populous country.

“When the omnibus bill is passed, there’s going to be legislation in it that in effect is going to give the administration a waiver from the coup provisions and allow them to restore aid to Egypt,” said Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ever since the Egyptian military ousted and jailed ex-president Mohamed Morsi last July and began its campaign of arresting opposition leaders and protesters, the Obama administration and Congress have been withholding most of the $1.5 billion in annual aid the U.S. gives Egypt, most of which goes directly to the country’s army.

“I think there’s a sense of giving up on Egypt [inside of the Obama administration], on the Hill as well,” said Dunne. “There’s a sense that ‘Oh well they tried a democratic transition, it didn’t work, but we don’t want to cut ourselves off from Egypt as a security ally, so let’s just forget about the whole democracy and human rights thing except for giving it some lip service from time to time.’”

The law prevents the U.S. from funding a foreign military that has conducted a coup against a democratically elected government.

Congress is set to unveil the omnibus spending bill for the remainder of fiscal year 2014 Monday afternoon. The Daily Beast obtained the text of the section that deals with U.S. aid to Egypt. It states that the president must certify that Egypt is “sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States,” and “meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.”

Following that certification, Congress would allow Obama to give the Egyptian government $250 million in economic support. Also, Obama could give the Egyptian military $1.3 billion in two installments: $975 million after Egypt holds its constitutional referendum and $576.8 million after presidential and parliamentary elections.

Secretary of State John Kerry would have to certify “that a newly elected Government of Egypt is taking steps to govern democratically and implement economic reforms,” according to the text of the legislation. Kerry would also have to submit a comprehensive, multi-year strategic review of military assistance to Egypt and report back to Congress on the trials of former Egyptian leaders such as Morsi.

Egypt’s constitution referendum will be held January 14-15 amid charges of widespread voter suppression and intimidation by the Egyptian government security forces. Human Rights Watch detailed those abuses Monday, which included arrested the leaders of the political organizations who are campaigning against the ratification of the constitution.

“There’s no doubt that the referendum will pass because the people who are opposed to it won’t vote. For the first time since 2011 there is really questions about whether this is a free and fair vote,” said Nathan Brown, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It already seems criminal to challenge a constitution that hasn’t passed yet. This is a degree of shamelessness and a degree of accountability that really is a return to the pre-2011 era.”

Experts also point out that the new legislative language would override the existing law that prevents the U.S. from funding any military that has perpetrated a coup. Although the Obama administration decided not to say whether it believed Morsi’s overthrow was a coup, they have quietly followed the law and lobbied key congressional offices for legislative relief that would allow them to resume to flow of aid to Egypt.

Key lawmakers, including Patrick Leahy and Lindsey Graham, heads of the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee, had been the loudest critics of the administration’s effort to ignore the anti-coup law and continue giving billions to the Egyptian government and military. Last August, Graham and John McCain traveled to Cairo and publicly declared the takeover was a coup.

But both senators appear to have backed off their position that the aid to Egypt should be halted or at least heavily conditioned. Leahy’s office declined to comment and Graham’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.

“In six months, the appropriators went from railing about human rights and democracy to giving the military a blank check to continue its return to Mubarak-era policies. They are essentially endorsing a failed administration policy that many of them initially agitated against, with little to no public discussion,” said one senior GOP senate aide.

The language was negotiated behind closed doors between appropriators and leadership, without the consultation of key senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which had just approved an Egypt aid bill with extensive restrictions in December by a vote of 16-1.

Several congressional aides said the administration had been quietly working with key House and Senate offices on the new language. Elements of the pro-Israel lobby have also been on Capitol Hill lobbying for a resumption of U.S. aid to Egypt.

There has been long-standing tension over Egypt aid between the White House and the State Department, with the State Department leaning more towards support of the military-led Egyptian government. On a November trip to Egypt, Kerry defied National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s orders to publicly raise U.S. objections to the trial of Morsi, who stands accused of murder and other serious charges.

In October, the administration announced a partial suspension of Egypt aid and said it would not deliver planes, tanks, and missiles to the Egyptian military pending actual progress in the areas of democracy, human rights, and respect for the rule of law.

“They are in many ways saying the right things,” one senior administration official said in October. “It’s important to us to see those things actually happen.”

But now the administration seems to be backing off their insistence that the aid flow be linked to positive progress in Egypt, rather than just any kind of progress to a new government system. Experts see that as a return to the failed U.S. policies that guided U.S. interactions with Egyptian dictators for several decades.

“Frankly I don’t think there’s been that progress and it wouldn’t be realistic to claim so. On the aid front, the administration is adhering to the old status quo and wants to make sure the funds can go through uninterrupted while the situation in Egypt is deteriorating,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “The administration seems to be turning a blind eye towards a lot of things that are going on in Egypt and that is part of how we got to where we are now.”