For the past three decades, Egypt has received an average of $2 billion a year from the United States, making it the biggest recipient of American foreign aid besides Israel.
But with the country now at a critical stage in its transition toward democracy, that aid is in peril — as U.S. lawmakers threaten to block assistance in response to Egypt’s crackdown on pro-democracy groups, several of them well-connected nongovernmental organizations based in Washington.
“We are very clear that there are problems that arise from this situation that can impact all the rest of our relationship with Egypt,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Munich on Saturday. “We do not want that.”
Under new conditions imposed by Congress, the Obama administration must certify that Egypt is taking specific steps toward democracy before disbursing $1.3 billion in military aid. But a senior Obama administration official, who was not authorized to speak by name, said there is currently no way to certify that all conditions are being met.
“We’ve told the Egyptians that we’re in a very difficult situation,” the official said.
That message is being hammered home by the State Department, the Pentagon and — in a rare show of bipartisanship — Republican and Democratic lawmakers, many of whom are meeting with a delegation of Egyptian generals visiting Washington. In discussions, U.S. officials — from President Obama to the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo — have repeatedly warned of the consequences if Egypt doesn’t change course.
Thus far, the Egyptian leadership appears unmoved.
“The perception that this aid only benefits Egypt is wrong,” said a senior Egyptian diplomat on condition he not be named. “This is an ongoing investigation by the independent judiciary. How can the U.S. say you want democracy in Egypt and then say next that the Egyptian military should squeeze the judge to do this or that?”
Egyptian officials have asserted that their investigation of the American NGOs reflects their concerns that foreign meddling has been driving ongoing protests. But authorities’ recent decision to bar several members of the nonprofits from leaving the country — including Sam LaHood, the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — has only worsened matters.
At stake in the growing rift over the issue is a fragile post-revolution relationship between the United States and Egypt. U.S. aid to Cairo began flowing in 1979 following Egypt’s peace deal with Israel. Over time, assistance to the Egyptian military became a routine, almost sacrosanct transaction.
That changed last year in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. In a bid to keep the country’s military on the path to democracy, members of Congress, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) tacked on conditions to U.S. aid to Egypt. The new rules required that the State Department certify that Egypt is committed to fair elections and abides by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and enact policies to protect “freedom of speech, association and religion and due process of law.”
While the Obama administration objected vociferously to those restrictions at the time, they have become the key leverage in its talks with Egypt’s leaders. Under the new law, the White House could waive the certification requirement on national security grounds, but senior officials say a waiver would be politically impossible given the current ire in Washington over the crackdown on NGOs.
The crisis was sparked by Egyptian authorities’ decision to raid the offices of several U.S.-funded organizations that train politicians and political parties and promote accountability and transparency in governance.
Several of those NGOs have strong ties to Washington’s traditional power centers. The International Republican Institute, for example, has as its chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who will meet with the Egyptian generals in Washington next week. Former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) is on the board of the National Democratic Institute, another group that was raided. And on Friday, 41 members of Congress released a joint letter criticizing Egypt’s leaders over their treatment of NGOs.
In a sign of growing tensions, lobbying firms representing Cairo in Washington severed their contract last weekend after coming under fire for trying to defend Egypt on the issue. (Egyptian authorities countered that it was their decision to cut ties.)
“I don’t think the military leaders fully appreciate the seriousness of what’s happening,” said a staffer in Congress, where the anger at Egypt has been the most intense. “They think eventually the U.S. will back down; that we need them more than they need us.”
The Egyptian crackdown on NGOs is fueled in part by centuries-old resentment over perceived foreign meddling.
Senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group whose political party dominates the newly elected parliament, have expressed support for the investigation.
Such NGOs are sowing chaos, said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a senior member and spokesman for the Brotherhood. “They are paying money to some youth to incite violence and make riots everywhere,” he said in an interview. “The foreign hands are very clear.”
Michele Dunne, an Egypt expert at the Atlantic Council, said the crisis is in many ways a reminder that the U.S.-Egypt military relationship needs to be reevaluated.
“It began as this big payment to maintain the peace treaty with Israel, but the 30-year relationship has just left each side feeling underappreciated and resentful.”
Londoño reported from Cairo. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.