The Obama administration asked Congress on Tuesday to find a legislative work-around that would keep Washington’s aid to Egypt flowing, calling the assistance crucial to U.S. interests in the region.
Although the administration has refrained from calling the July 3 ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi a coup, it has begun negotiating with congressional appropriators over aid in recent weeks in light of a U.S. law that bars Washington from providing funds to governments that came to power through force.
The administration will probably need a legislative waiver to keep military aid and civilian assistance programs for Egypt running, according to congressional staffers.
U.S. officials found a largely receptive audience during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday morning. Some lawmakers objected to the White House’s rationale for temporarily halting delivery of some forms of military aid to Egypt, but most spoke in favor of continued assistance to Cairo, saying that it was the best of bad options.
“While we would like a democratic partner for our many security interests in the region, we need a partner,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), the committee chairman. “We should push and pull with what influence we have.”
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, said the military’s removal of Morsi, an Islamist criticized as failing to govern inclusively, “replaced one autocratic government with another.” But he argued that a partial suspension of military aid would not encourage democratic reforms in Cairo.
“In fact, I think it’s more than likely to have the opposite effect,” he said. “That military cooperation is important. We’ve spent billions of dollars. We’ve cemented relationships. Let’s use them. Let’s not destroy them. Let’s use them.”
Beth Jones, the top State Department official overseeing Middle East policy, asked lawmakers for “legislative flexibility so that we can continue the programs that we think are terribly important.”
The administration announced this month that it would temporarily halt the scheduled delivery of F-16 fighter planes, A1 Abrams tanks, Apache helicopters and Harpoon missiles ordered by the Egyptian government. The White House said the suspension sought to encourage Egypt’s military-
installed government to make good on its promise to rule democratically and hold elections soon.
There is little evidence that the strategy is bearing fruit. Cairo has tightened control of the press and is seeking to limit public protests.
The Obama administration has continued sending military equipment and funding civilian assistance programs using money that had been obligated before the coup, said a congressional appropriator who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the administration’s approach. But once that money — several hundred million dollars — is spent in coming months, the administration has concluded that it will be forced to suspend aid or run afoul of the law.
“There is no way their lawyers could have found otherwise,” the congressional appropriator said.
Officials at the Pentagon want to maintain a robust military-to-
military relationship with Egypt and fear that a disruption of the $1.3 billion in yearly military aid that Egypt has come to expect could have long-lasting consequences.
Derek Chollet, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the relationship remains strong and has paid dividends in recent months. Just weeks after Morsi’s ouster, he said, Egypt granted the USS San Antonio passage through the Suez Canal within 24 hours of a request; others ships must wait as long as 23 days to get clearance.
“The U.S. military is able to respond to contingencies and conduct operations throughout the region because of expeditious overflight rights and Suez Canal transit,” he said. “This can be critical to mission success.”
Some lawmakers expressed concern that the White House’s Egypt policy over the past year, which they criticized as muddled, has eroded the influence that Washington has spent decades and billions of dollars building in the strategically crucial nation.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) was sharply critical of the administration’s tacit support for Morsi’s overthrow, saying that the United States responded similarly after Chile’s coup in 1973, which led to an era of brutal repression and the disappearance of thousands of people.
“Am I to understand from that that the United States government is saying: Even if you win a free and democratic election, if you alienate people in your government, it’s okay to overthrow it?” Connolly asked Jones. “Because I can think of some American administrations that might qualify for that.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.