On October 9, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki announced via press release that the Obama administration was recalibrating assistance to Egypt “to best advance our interests.” The notification came after weeks of speculation that the White House had been reevaluating its relationship with Egypt following the July coup that overthrew former President Morsi. Senior administration officials argued that “the United States and Egypt have a longstanding partnership and many shared interests,” but that the relationship “will be strongest when Egypt is represented by an inclusive, democratically-elected civilian government based on the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and an open and competitive economy.”
Of the USD 1.3 billion in security assistance the U.S. provides Egypt every year, several items have been flagged for delay. Several deliveries of large “prestige items,” including F-16 fighter jets, AH-64 Apache helicopters, M1 Abrams tanks, and Harpoon anti-ship missiles, are to be delayed indefinitely. The U.S. will also withhold USD 260 million in cash transfers in Economic Support Funds (ESF), and the administration will no longer provide USD 300 million in loan guarantees for the upcoming fiscal year. These loan guarantees, initially announced in a speech delivered by President Obama in May 2011, were part of a USD 1 billion package of guarantees authorized through 2015. According to the State Department, the administration will continue to provide “most of the economic assistance to programs that directly benefit the Egyptian people in areas like health, democracy, [and] governance,” as well as “assistance to support the development of the private sector.” Continuing security assistance will include “assistance that advances our vital security objectives like countering terrorism, countering proliferation, and ensuring security in the Sinai,” as well as “military training and education” as well as “spare parts, replacement parts, and related services.”
The suspension has generated significant criticism from lawmakers and analysts from across the political spectrum. Those who had been against any suspension of aid reacted vocally; Representative Kay Granger (R-TX) asserted that “pulling away now may undermine the ability of the United States to work with a critical partner,” and Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) argued that “during this fragile period, we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them.” Some critics, however, feel that the partial measure does not send a sufficiently strong message. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) noted, “The Administration is trying to have it both ways, by suspending some aid but continuing other aid. By doing that, the message is muddled.”
Several lawmakers spoke out in favor of the administration’s partial suspension. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) welcomed the move, arguing that “our assistance must promote our interests and uphold our values” throughout Egypt’s transition. Several Republican lawmakers, including Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Representative Vern Buchannan (R-FL) also supported the decision. Senator Paul supported the administration “finally thinking about following the law” (referring to previous arguments that continued support for Egypt is illegal under the Foreign Assistance Act), and Representative Buchanan, a longtime critic of all aid to the Middle East, hoped that “this approach will serve as the cornerstone of foreign policy not just for Egypt but in our dealings with every country across the globe.”
As of now, the most significant issue with the suspension of aid is that the end of the suspension is not tied to any clear benchmarks. While senior State Department officials have asserted that the current measures “will be reviewed on a periodic basis, particularly as we look at Egypt’s progress on the democratic transition,” there has thus far been no indication about what governance reform must happen for the U.S. to resume all assistance to the country. Experts at the Brookings Institution, many of whom argued that aid should have been suspended closer to the coup, underscore this point as evidence that the aid cutoff lacks “broader strategy or a vision for the bilateral relationship.”
The Senate version of the FY2014 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill attempts to address this problem by creating “separate tranches of funding, dependent on the new government in Egypt achieving certain benchmarks toward a functioning democracy.” Specifically, 25 percent of assistance to Egypt would be available immediately, 25 percent released after the Secretary of State certifies that “Egypt is supporting inclusive political processes and institutions …,” 25 percent released if the Secretary of State certifies that “credible elections have been conducted in Egypt and a democratically elected government is in place,” and the remaining 25 percent released if the Secretary of State certifies that the “newly elected Government of Egypt is taking steps to govern democratically and protect human rights and the rule of law.” The bill, as is, is not likely to pass, but it does show a potential new way forward for Congress to more effectively condition U.S. assistance to Egypt.