Yesterday the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bill conditioning aid to Egypt. In brief, it requires the United States to cut off aid following a coup unless: 1) The president waives the restriction on national security grounds and certifies that Egypt is heading in the right direction on democratic government, or 2) Egypt meets a list of restrictions including implementing the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, working on counter terrorism, supporting a transition to democracy and elections, respecting freedom and minority rights and abiding by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Riot police take positions as students of Cairo University, who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, shout slogans against the military and interior ministry during a demonstration at the main gate of the university around Al Nahda square in Cairo November 24, 2013, to commemorate the passing of 100 days since security forces cleared the vigils in support of ousted President Mohamed Mursi at Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda squares. Egypt's interim president signed into law on Sunday a bill that rights groups have said sharply curbs the rights of citizens to assemble and protest peacefully. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST EDUCATION) Riot police take positions as students at Cairo University, who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, shout slogans against the military and interior ministry. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

A few words about the conditions. The new Egyptian government is actually fulfilling the first two rather ably, cracking down on Hamas and, according to Israelis, patrolling the Sinai. As for the NPT, as soon as the president allows a rogue state like Iran to keep some illegal enrichment he and Congress can waive the NPT goodbye. Why should any state that has played by the rules continue to limit itself when the international scofflaw gets to keep enriching?

The rub here is of course on the progress toward democracy, elections and individual freedoms. The current government has been bad on all fronts, but it is far from clear that immediate elections are in Egypt’s interests or ours. It didn’t go well when the Muslim Brotherhood got into office, as you recall. If elections would only put them back in power then it’s hard to see how Egypt ever becomes stable.

It is good to set expectations, particularly if the president seems unable to. But the progress toward democracy and our ongoing aid need to be considered within the context of what else is going on in the Middle East including the return of Russia as a major force. If we don’t give aid to Egypt will it send Egypt into Russia’s arms? If so, we’d be reversing 40 years of successful efforts to keep Egypt within a pro-American bloc, a feat first undertaken by Anwar Sadat. Moreover, if Egypt is cracking down on Hamas and thereby acting as a barrier to Iranian-backed mischief this is to be encouraged.

The line between pushing a friendly government to reform and irresponsibly pushing it over the cliff is often a fine one. It strikes me that either by legislation or presidential waiver we should be measuring progress realistically and considering the totality of Egypt’s behavior. Without security there is no stability and without stability there is no democracy. And elections are the end point, not the beginning of a more robust civil society.

In short, sanctions legislation should not be so tight as to strangle the government and it is up to the administration to exercise its discretion, and if need be its waiver authority, to keep the government on its feet so it can head in the right direction. Moreover, it strikes me we have done a poor job of talking to and working with the current regime to provide guidance, assistance and technical aid (which is exempted from the sanctions). Carrots as well as sticks need to be used.

Above all we need to understand that progress toward a freer and more prosperous Egypt is a process that will take years, not months. Slow and steady should be our mantra.