Mixed signals from US Congress on aid to Egypt

Sunday 24/04/2016
US Senator Lindsey Graham during a news conference on April 3rd, in the Egyptian capital Cairo.

Washington - Over the past few weeks, influential members of Congress have weighed in on the issue of US as­sistance to Egypt but, as with most things in Washington, there is no consensus of opinion.

After a recent trip to Egypt, in­cluding a meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, US Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina and a prominent voice on foreign policy and security matters, called for increasing aid to Egypt, Leba­non, Israel and Jordan “by billions [of dollars]” to deal with security stresses they are facing.

Acknowledging Egypt’s problem­atic human rights record, Graham said if Sisi “did something that would be seen by me and others as a real serious move on the rights front, it [would make] it easier for a guy like me to help”.

As chairman of the State, For­eign Operations and Related Pro­grammes Subcommittee and a member of the Armed Services Committee, Graham said he would ask the US Defense Department to approve Cairo’s recent request for additional military equipment.

Graham also floated the idea of a “Marshall Plan” for the region that would “allow Egypt to have access to low interest rate loans, preferen­tial trade agreements and bolster­ing their civil society”.

Graham’s comments about in­creasing aid to Egypt were sur­prising given that he and Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, were very critical of Sisi’s overthrow of then-president Muhammad Morsi in July 2013. The two senators said at the time that Sisi’s action constituted a “coup” and should have triggered an automatic cut-off of US assis­tance.

Graham’s visit to Egypt was fol­lowed by a US House of Representa­tives’ delegation, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. Ryan met with Sisi, Egyptian parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Al and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

According to Ryan’s office, he “re­iterated the United States’ strategic partnership with Egypt”, discussed the terrorist threat “on multiple fronts, including from Libya and in the Sinai peninsula” and spoke about “the important role that civil society can play in helping develop stable societies”. In his discussions with Abdel-Al, Ryan reportedly emphasised that the United States “wants to see a successful, secure and stable Egypt that values de­mocracy and freedom”.

Although these trips to Egypt by influential members of Congress did not gloss over the human rights situation, they were interpreted in Egypt as support for the Sisi regime. Not surprisingly, the Egyptian em­bassy in Washington highlighted both visits and said Sisi “welcomed the US delegation and expressed his appreciation of strategic ties be­tween the two countries”.

On the sensitive issue of political and human rights, Sisi stated: “The democratic process is an extended and continued process that can­not happen overnight”. He added that the Egyptian state “is keen to achieve a balance between security and stability on the one hand and rights and freedoms on the other”.

On the other side of the equation, there have been sharp criticisms of Sisi’s administration from other voices in the US Congress. In Feb­ruary, ten members of the House of Representatives (all Democrats) joined Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, in signing a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry re­questing that the department look into reports of extra-judicial kill­ings by both Israel and Egypt to de­termine if the “Leahy Law” should be invoked. The law prohibits US funding to any security unit of a foreign government that has com­mitted a gross violation of human rights.

Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programmes Subcommit­tee, has long been critical of Egypt’s human rights record overall and is not pleased with the proposal by US President Barack Obama’s admin­istration to eliminate democratic benchmarks in the 2017 fiscal year military assistance programme for Egypt.

This sentiment has been echoed by major human rights organisa­tions in Washington, some of which want to cut off all US military aid to Egypt.

Given this criticism, it is unlikely that Graham’s idea for more assis­tance for Egypt will gain traction. However, there is probably enough support on Capitol Hill for Egypt and its government’s battle against terrorists — as the recent congres­sional visits have shown — to keep assistance at current levels.

The probable status quo compro­mise, which includes a continua­tion of current aid levels but no real change concerning Egypt’s poor human rights record, is likely to keep both sides of the debate un­satisfied for some time.