Congress sets up fight over aid to Egypt

United States Secretary of State John Kerry (L) greets chairwoman Rep. Kay Granger R-Tx. (R) before testifying at the House Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Mar. 12, 2014.

House and Senate appropriators have taken sharply differing tacks regarding Egypt, setting up a cross-party battle on the future of US assistance.The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote June 24 on an aid package that maintains military aid at current levels while giving the administration new powers to continue aid flows even in the case of a military coup. The equivalent Senate panel meanwhile voted last week to cut military aid by $300 million while creating new hurdles for the administration.

The sentencing of three journalists to lengthy prison terms on June 23 however is prompting soul-searching on the House side.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., is expected to offer an amendment on June 24 that would cut and restructure American aid to Egypt — slicing nearly a third from the security assistance package that is currently the centerpiece of that aid and putting much of the savings into economic assistance, including enhanced support for education, democracy and civil society programs, assistance for independent media and targeted aid for the Sinai peninsula.

“The conviction of the Al Jazeera English journalists is one of a string of disturbing signs that Egypt is not undergoing the hoped-for and promised reforms, and is backsliding towards a reprise of the Mubarak era — when Islamists were repressed and secular opponents crushed underfoot,” Schiff said in an e-mailed statement. “Egypt is too important to the region and to the world for the United States to stand idly by. The amendment I will offer tomorrow will give Egypt the incentives it apparently needs to return to the democratic path.”

The division cuts across party lines, pitting powerful Senate Democrats and Republicans who control the government’s purse strings against their counterparts in the House. The fight is only expected to intensify after the State Department announced over the weekend that Congress had released $575 million in previously blocked military aid after the chairman of the Senate Appropriations panel on State and Foreign Operations, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., lifted his hold.

“The Congress has an important role in the provision of U.S. aid to foreign governments, and we consult regularly with the Administration,” Leahy told Al-Monitor in an e-mail. “Withholding military aid to the Egyptian regime has let its leaders know that repressive actions and abuses of human rights and the rule of law are deeply concerning to the American people, and to many in Congress. The harsh actions taken today against journalists is the latest descent toward despotism. Through discussions with Secretary Kerry and others over recent weeks I agreed to the release of the bulk of these funds for sustainment purposes, but further aid should be withheld until they demonstrate a basic commitment to justice and human rights.”

House Appropriators on the State and Foreign Operations panel, led by chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, and ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., have taken a softer approach. While their bill cuts economic assistance by $50 million — down to $200 million — it keeps military assistance flat at $1.3 billion while allowing the State Department leeway to continue aid to countries that undergo military coups.

The House bill would amend a provision known as the “coup clause” that is supposed to freeze direct assistance to any country whose “duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree or … in which the military plays a decisive role.” After the administration decided to ignore the law after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power last July, the new House bill would require the Secretary of State to make such a determination in the future; but it also adds language, requested by the State Department, that allows aid to continue to flow if the Secretary of State determines and certifies to Congress “that provision of assistance is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”

“In our view this additional ‘national security interest’ language essentially amounts to giving the administration a waiver on applying the law, which we view as disastrous,” Cole Bockenfeld, the director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told Al-Monitor. “I believe this idea comes from the Egypt aid debacle of 2013, i.e. the admin was seeking a legislative loophole to not apply the law because they didn’t want to.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under the leadership of Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., sought to amend the coup language in legislation that cleared the panel on a 16-1 vote in December. But the Leahy would have none of it and the language didn’t make it into the omnibus spending bill for FY2014 that passed in January.

The new Senate bill retains the coup restrictions, and adds new restrictions on how much aid can flow to Egypt. Apparently upset by Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt back in April to release $650 million — a full half of the $1.3 billion in military aid for FY2014 — in the name of counterterrorism, nonproliferation and border security, the new bill spells out that only $300 million can be released for those purposes in FY2015.

The Senate bill also divides the total military and economic aid for FY2015 into two $575.5 million tranches, the first of which can only be released after the Egyptian government meets a series of human rights benchmarks. The second tranche would be released if Egypt meets those standards for at least six months.

The conditions include: holding free and fair elections and “implementing policies to govern democratically;” releasing American citizens deemed to be political prisoners and dropping the charges against them; allowing US officials, journalists and advocates access to the Sinai; releasing journalists and people arrested “solely for membership in social or political organizations;” providing detainees with due process of law; adopting and implementing laws regarding freedom of expression, association and assembly; investigating abuses by security forces; and taking steps to protect the rights of women and religious minorities.

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