A law passed by Congress in December forbids funding unless the State Department certifies that Egypt is making progress on basic freedoms and human rights.
But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is close to announcing plans to bypass those restrictions on national security grounds, according to senior administration officials and others who have been briefed on the deliberations but were not authorized to speak publicly. The administration believes failure to provide the funds would risk worsening already fraying ties with Egypt’s leaders, most notably the Egyptian military, which still controls the country.
Under the plan, which could be announced as early as next week and was first reported Friday by the New York Times, Egypt would not receive the full $1.5 billion all at once, as has been the practice for decades. The administration would instead dole out the funds in smaller portions to preserve leverage over Egyptian authorities, officials said. The plan would also allow for the continuation of U.S. defense contracts that provide American jobs.
With a presidential election coming in Egypt, officials said they are especially hesitant to release the full amount until they see what kind of government will be receiving it.
The plan comes after weeks of crisis caused by criminal charges filed by Egyptian authorities against a handful of pro-democracy workers from the United States and other countries. The charges were condemned by U.S. leaders and provoked heated anti-American rhetoric in Egypt.
The immediate dilemma was resolved this month when Egypt allowed the foreign workers to leave the country after posting bail. But the criminal charges remain against them as well as Egyptian staff employed by the same nonprofit organizations.
According to administration and congressional officials, representatives of the defense industry, who are eager to keep lucrative contracts attached to the annual aid, have been among those lobbying behind the scenes to resume U.S. funding. The Pentagon, which does not want to risk its ties with the Egyptian military, one of its major allies in the region, also has pressed the case.
“There’s been enormous pressure from the Pentagon to unfreeze something before payments to contractors go past due,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch. “But this whole argument that American jobs are at stake just is not appropriate here when we’re talking about human rights. This sends the wrong message that the crisis is over and has been solved.”
“That’s not a negligible factor. If contracts can’t be paid, production lines will shut down and jobs will be lost,” acknowledged one senior administration official. “But those aspects have to be balanced against other factors such as our ability to work with the new government, how much democratic progress has been made and where we still have concerns.”
The plan is likely to draw strong criticism from Capitol Hill, which has been highly critical of Egypt’s treatment of nongovernmental organizations and protesters.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the main sponsor of legislation passed last year that tied funding for Egypt to progress on democracy and rights, said he was deeply disappointed.
“I believe a waiver would be a mistake,” he said. “The new conditions are intended to put the United States squarely on the side of the Egyptian people who seek a civilian government that respects fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, and to clearly define the terms of our future relations with the Egyptian military.”
Other rights groups, including Amnesty International, also urged Clinton not to resume the aid.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Clinton has not yet reached an official decision but added: “We want to support a more democratic and a more prosperous Egypt. And we want to see the region stay secure. So those are a lot of things that have to be kept strong and kept in balance.”
The relationship between the United States and Egyptian militaries, Nuland said, “has also enabled us to have influence during this period of transition.”
While Egypt’s generals have lobbied to resume the aid, the country’s new parliament in recent days has discussed the possibility of rejecting it, even though it does not have the authority to do so.
“I don’t know that it even makes sense for the U.S. to be pushing aid on Egypt,” said Michele Dunne, an Egypt expert at the Atlantic Council. “Given everything that’s happened of late, we ought to take a fresh look at the whole U.S.-Egypt relationship and the military aid package.”