(Evan Vucci/AP)

“The way we make decisions about assistance to Egypt is based on: Are they in fact following rule of law and democratic procedures?  And we don’t make those decisions just by counting the number of heads in a protest march, but we do make decisions based on whether or not a government is listening to the opposition, maintaining a free press, maintaining freedom of assembly, not using violence or intimidation, conducting fair and free elections.”

— President Obama, remarks at a news conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, July 1, 2013

We became interested in these remarks after reading an article in The Daily Beast that argued that the president’s statements offered a “revisionist history” of how the administration has handled human rights in Egypt.

During the Arab Spring in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earned Two Pinocchios for claiming that the administration had promoted civil society in Egypt when in fact funds had been cut for civil society groups not registered with the Egyptian government, as part of an effort to curry favor with the regime then headed by Hosni Mubarak.

A generous interpretation of Obama’s statement would be that this was intended as a shot across the bow — a signal to both now-ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the military that the United States would be watching closely and apply the standards outlined by Obama accordingly. As we said, that would be a generous, forward-leaning understanding. What if we look in the rearview mirror? How would Obama’s remarks hold up to scrutiny?


The Facts

Using the State Department’s handy foreign assistance dashboard, we see that U.S. assistance to Egypt amounts to about $1.5 billion a year. Almost all of that — $1.3 billion — is aid to the Egyptian military — which many would say just organized a coup against an elected, if deeply flawed, leader. Very little U.S. aid actually goes to democracy promotion. 

The military aid has been a core part of U.S. assistance ever since the signing of the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979. (Update: the accords were signed in 1978; the peace treaty was signed in 1979.) All told, the United States has provided nearly $72 billion in aid to Egypt between 1948 and 2011, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. Some $42 billion has gone to the military.

Since 2006, Congress has sought to condition military aid to Egypt depending on its progress on democracy and human rights, but included a waiver that an administration can use for national security reasons. Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice executed the waiver during the Mubarak years, even though the Bush administration had a robust human-rights agenda.

Both Clinton and John F. Kerry, the current secretary of state, have also signed similar waivers, even though Congress demanded that the secretary of state certify that Egypt was maintaining the peace treaty with Israel and “supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion, and due process of law.”

Kerry’s waiver, signed in May, was done so quietly it was not even announced. Human rights groups have denounced the waivers as undermining support for democracy in Egypt.

In other words, Congress handed possible leverage to the administration, and the Obama administration has declined to use it.

Earlier this year, Kerry also announced the first installment of a $1 billion pledge Obama had made in May 2011 to support Egyptian democracy. Kerry said the United States would provide $190 million to stabilize Egypt’s budget and also create a $60 million fund to support small business. That announcement released some funds that had been frozen by members of Congress concerned over the direction of Morsi’s government; about $260 million remains on hold.

The administration has had an ambivalent relationship with the Morsi government, and one could argue that the White House has dragged its feet in terms of providing promised aid to the Egyptian government. For instance, $550 million in debt relief has been publicly pledged, but the Obama administration has not yet officially notified Congress. The State Department’s annual human rights report on Egypt, meanwhile, describes in detail the country’s difficult transition to democracy.

But at the same time, the Morsi government did not have to pay any apparent public price for its anti-democratic actions, including the prosecution and conviction of 43 nonprofit workers, including 16 Americans.

Another telling detail: Morsi launched more prosecutions against reporters and authors for the crime of “insulting the president” than Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, Gamal Abdel Nasser and previous rulers put together, according to a human rights organization. Morsi had ordered 24 cases, compared to a total of 14 in the previous 115 years.

Yet, in Tanzania, Obama said “decisions [on aid are] based on whether or not a government is listening to the opposition [and] maintaining a free press.”

The administration — and Congress — will now face another difficult decision. Under the law, U.S. aid (except for humanitarian assistance and help for elections) is cut off whenever “the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree or ... a coup d’etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.”

 The law does not give the administration specific waiver authority from this provision and further says aid can only be resumed once the president certifies a democratically elected government has taken office. (Update: Section 614 of the Foreign Assistance Act does allow a waiver from other provisions, but limits total aid to a country in a year at $50 million.)

Of course, there may be ways around this language, but it likely will be difficult given how the administration has cut or limited aid to Mali and Honduras after coups in those countries. Obama announced late Wednesday that he had “directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the Government of Egypt.”


The Pinocchio Test

Policy toward the Morsi government may have been a difficult balancing act, but the Obama administration has clearly failed to live up to the criteria outlined by the president, except in a limited, possibly foot-dragging, manner.

Congress handed the administration tools to signal its displeasure about lack of progress on democracy through cuts in aid. But whenever a choice needed to be made, the administration decided to set human rights considerations to the side.

Three Pinocchios

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