A new source of friction has emerged between the United States and one of its top Mideast allies, with Egyptian officials expressing alarm about a move by the U.S. Senate to link military aid to Egypt’s performance as a democracy.
The Senate bill would withhold up to $1.3 billion in U.S. aid for 2012 until the secretary of state certifies that Egypt has held democratic elections and is protecting freedoms of the press, expression and association.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr warned about the consequences of such a move during meetings this week with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and White House officials.
“We called on them to intervene,” said a senior Egyptian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic exchanges. Those U.S. officials “know the value of the partnership between the United States and Egypt and how much such conditions and language would be detrimental to future cooperation.”
Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and the military assistance has been viewed as near-sacrosanct. But the Senate move shows the potential changes afoot in the relationship in the wake of the February uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Clinton assured Amr that the administration opposes the Senate conditions, which the Appropriations Committee approved this month.
“We will be working very hard . . . to convince the Congress that that is not the best approach to take,” Clinton said at a news conference Wednesday.
“We support the democratic transition, and we don’t want to do anything that in any way draws into question our relationship or our support,” she said.
The Obama administration says the aid has given Washington leverage at key moments — such as when the Egyptian army had to decide whether to crack down on the burgeoning revolution. The military aid has also undergirded the peace treaty with Israel, U.S. officials say.
The Egyptians say that they will hold free elections but that the Senate measure sends a bad signal at a delicate time. The military is in power during the run-up to elections, a turbulent period that has included continued protests and an attack by demonstrators on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.
“If you insert new conditions, hinting at the fact the military aid might be touched in the future, this signals to the Egyptian military [that] the United States is not as solidly behind us as we think,” the Egyptian official said.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), head of the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid, said that the Egyptian people and their military leaders had agreed on the need for democracy.
“The days of blank checks are over, and it is in the mutual interest of the Egyptian people and the United States to reinforce these rights as conditions for our aid,” he said in a statement.
Egypt has also complained about an increase in American democracy aid to nongovernmental groups. U.S. officials say the assistance is aimed at training aspiring politicians on the nuts and bolts of elections.
Correspondent Leila Fadel in Cairo contributed to this report.