US welcomes flexibility on Egypt aid

A spending bill, passed last week by the United States Congress, has cleared the way for a resumption of US$1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, but the White House has not yet confirmed whether it plans to take advantage of the new regulations.

“Generally speaking, we welcome the flexibility that the bill provides to further our strategic relationship with Egypt and our national security interests. That said, there has been no policy decision with regards to our assistance program, which remains under review. And our concerns about Egypt’s human rights record, which we speak about frequently, that has not changed,” said White House spokesperson Jen Psaki at a December 16 press briefing.

The United States has provided Egypt with tens of billions of dollars in aid since the 1979 peace accords between Egypt and Israel. This includes around US$1 billion per year to the Egyptian military in exchange for Egypt’s strategic cooperation with Israel and the United States.

Aid has been partially suspended since the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

The US Foreign Assistance Act restricts Washington from financing “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” The Obama administration sidestepped the issue, and in January 2014, Congress passed a law allowing Egypt to receive funds, provided it make steps toward democratic governance and continues to support US strategic interests in the region.

According to rules set forth in the United States’ 2014 budget, money could be released to Egypt only when the US Secretary of State has verified that the country is transitioning toward democracy. One tranche of up to $975 million would be made available after a constitutional referendum, and a second of $576.8 million after parliamentary and presidential elections, and certification that the new government is taking steps to govern democratically.

Egypt held a constitutional referendum in January 2014, and presidential elections in May 2014. Parliamentary elections have not yet been officially scheduled.

In June, following a visit to Egypt by Secretary of State John Kerry, the United States announced that it had released $575 million in suspended military aid, most of which was earmarked for existing defense contracts. In October, the US also confirmed that it would deliver Apache helicopters to Egypt. 

What’s new this year?

This year’s bill sets more stringent guidelines for the release of funds, but also allows the Secretary of State to waive these rules if he/she certifies that doing so is “important to the national security interest of the United States.”  These funds can be used for counter terrorism, border security and non-proliferation programs in Egypt, and also for “development activities” in the Sinai.

The justification for releasing funds on national security grounds can be kept classified.

The change in policy reflects the United States’ growing concern over militant activity in the Sinai Peninsula. Last month, the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdes announced it was joining the Islamic State. 

The US bill also allows up to $150 million in economic support funds to be granted without conditions, as long as the money does not go to support the general budget. These funds can be used to fund education, public health and economic support programs.

If Secretary of State John Kerry does not issue a national security waiver, Egypt will have to demonstrate that it is meeting seven benchmarks in order for two tranches of $725.850 million to be released.

It must hold free and fair parliamentary elections, implement laws to govern democratically and protect individual rights, make reforms to protect freedom of expression, association and assembly and allow press freedoms, advance the rights of women and minorities, provide detainees with due process of law, conduct “credible” investigations and prosecutions regarding the use of excessive force by security agencies, and releases and dismiss charges against US citizens the Secretary of State deems to be political prisoners.

The new rules have been met with mixed reactions from US legislators.

Democratic Senator Leahy, head of the Senate’s State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, which oversees foreign aid programs, has been a vocal opponent of resuming aid to Egypt.

“In conference negotiations with the White House it was widely recognized that the direction that President (Abdel Fattah) al-Sisi has taken the country, by turning away from democracy and imprisoning journalists and political opponents, is a mistake,” Leahy spokesman David Carle told the Associated Press after the new bill was passed. “Sen. Leahy did not support it … and he hopes the secretary will not waive the law, as he believes that would send the wrong message to the Egyptian people and to the region as a whole.”

Republican Kay Granger, who heads the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee in the US House of Representatives, has been among the current Egyptian government’s most vocal supporters.

“Even while the country is tackling significant security and economic challenges, we know Egypt is moving toward elections later this year. During this critical time, the United States must continue to work with the government of Egypt and support the Egyptian people,” she said, during a March hearing on the new spending bill.

Egypt’s regional allies also reportedly lobbied for restrictions to be lifted.

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