Obama administration disinclined to suspend military aid to Egypt

Hours after Egyptian soldiers killed dozens of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, the Obama administration on Monday called on the military to exercise “maximum restraint responding to protesters” but said it was disinclined to suspend military aid to the Arab world’s most populous country.

“I think it would not be in the best interest of the United States to immediately change our assistance programs to Egypt,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “We are reviewing our obligations under the law, and we will be consulting with Congress about the way forward.”

The administration has sought to cast itself as a neutral party as the crisis in Egypt has escalated since last week’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi as president. It has declined to characterize the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-allied leader as a coup, saying a legal review is underway to determine whether what occurred in Egypt meets that definition. It has also been unwilling to formally declare that the detained leader is no longer president.

As the government wrestles with semantics and legal questions, a growing number of lawmakers and experts say that after years of threatening to make its annual $1.5 billion aid package conditional on democratic reforms, the United States might have little leeway this time around.

“The law states that no aid can be delivered to the government of a country whose duly elected head of government has been removed by a decree in which the military played a key role,” said Stephen McInerney, the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “To me, there’s no wiggle room here.”

Under current law, the United States could keep aid to Egypt flowing only if Congress were to pass a special law or the military-appointed government in Cairo were to organize elections and cede power before the next funding cycle, McInerney said.

American lawmakers who last week applauded Morsi’s ouster and said they had great faith in the Egyptian military are likely to reassess their position after Monday’s bloodbath. The incident marked the deadliest confrontation between security forces and demonstrators since Egypt’s popular revolt in early 2011 and led the Muslim Brotherhood to call for a popular uprising against the nation’s vaunted military.

Even before Monday, some lawmakers had argued that aid must be suspended.

“Reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who heads a panel that has oversight over the State Department’s foreign aid budget, said immediately after the military deposed Morsi on Wednesday that as a matter of law, financial assistance would need to be cut.

The Egyptian military has received the bulk of U.S. aid, about $1.3 billion each year since Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The aid has been rendered in the form of tanks, fighter planes and other materiel, which have made Egypt a regional military power. For much of the past two decades, Egypt has had little need to project the military might U.S. taxpayers have enabled.

Still, it has done so at critical junctures since the revolt that ousted autocratic President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The military muscle was on display last week after the coup as fighter jets flew in formation over Cairo in maneuvers that military supporters hailed as celebratory and critics saw as an ominous threat.

Much of the non-military aid from the United States has been frozen in recent years because of a dispute between Washington and Cairo over a crackdown on pro-democracy groups that receive U.S. funding.

Fearing a steeper escalation of violence, Carney on Monday called on both sides to show restraint and condemned what he called “explicit calls to violence made by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“During this transitional period, Egypt’s stability and democratic political order are at stake,” he said. “Egypt will not be able to emerge from this crisis unless its people come together to find a nonviolent and inclusive path forward.”

Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the Obama and George W. Bush administrations made the cutoff of aid to Egypt something of an empty threat. This time around, she said, Washington should clearly lay out what kind of a transition to democratic rule it would need to see to keep the aid flowing.

“As a matter of policy, the U.S. has tried over and over again since 2006 to use conditionality as leverage without invoking conditions.” she said. “It didn’t work with Mubarak, it didn’t work with [interim military rulers] and it didn’t work with Morsi.”

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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