WASHINGTON – Concerned about Egypt’s political instability and the U.S. budget crunch, a growing number of American lawmakers are challenging the wisdom of providing $1.3 billion a year in military aid to Cairo, arguing that the policy is overdue for a wholesale review.
Lawmakers say that Washington’s largess, which includes large fleets of M1A1 tanks and F-16 fighter jets, could backfire, given the unpredictability of Egypt’s Islamist-led government and its fraught relationship with Israel.
Washington’s increasingly controversial aid package to Egypt, a titan in the Middle East, was on the agenda over the weekend when Secretary of State John Kerry met with Egyptian leaders in Cairo. Kerry has argued that disengaging from Egypt would be a mistake, but he will have to contend with louder calls for a review of a policy established decades ago, in a vastly different political context.
Critics of Egypt in the House of Representatives and Senate have introduced bills this year seeking a temporary halt or outright end to shipments of military supplies to Egypt. While the bills have not drawn widespread support, the arguments that underpin them have gotten significant traction, members of Congress said in interviews.
“Why are we giving billions to Egypt, when in my mind it is not a friend of America?” said Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, who recently introduced a bill calling for a suspension of military and civilian assistance to Egypt. “We’re drowning in a sea of debt. Why are we spending so much money in a part of the world that doesn’t like us?”
In the Senate, James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, the new ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, on Jan. 31 called for a temporary halt of military aid to Egypt, including a fleet of 20 F-16 planes being shipped this year. Inhofe said the suspension would send a strong message to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Islamist group. Morsi has sought to curb the authority of the country’s vaunted military, a historically secular institution that has maintained a discreet working relationship with Israel.
“Egypt’s military is our friend,” Inhofe said in a statement explaining his bill. “Morsi is our enemy.”
A few Democrats, including Rep. Juan Vargas of California, who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, have joined the Republican-led efforts. “I would hate to see American weapons, sophisticated F-16s, being used against Israel,” Vargas said. “We’ve seen historically, it could happen again, especially with the radicalization of Egypt.”
Egypt and Israel have been the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid since 1979, when Washington brokered a landmark peace deal between the dueling nations. The Camp David Accords remain the main pillar of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Ensuring that Cairo continues to adhere to the terms of the deal, which is explosively unpopular on the Egyptian street, is the Obama administration’s leading incentive to continue the aid. But the United States has other interests, including continued naval access to the Suez Canal, which connects the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It also wants to help Egypt restore order in the Sinai Peninsula, a large desert stretch bordering Israel that has become a breeding ground for Islamist militants.
“Maintaining this relationship and assisting with the professionalization and the building of the Egyptian armed forces’ capabilities to secure its borders is one of our key interests in the region,” David Adams, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, wrote in a Jan. 8 letter to Inhofe. “Egypt continues to play an important role in regional peace and stability.”
Since he was sworn in last summer, Morsi’s presidency has been marred by street protests, attacks on security forces in the Sinai and allegations that he has sought to monopolize power, much like his autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in February 2011 by a popular revolt.
Other critics of the aid package, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, have taken a more moderate view, arguing that the United States should not suspend, but rather modify, its military support to Egypt. Instead of sending more fighter planes and tanks to Egypt, Cairo would be better served with enhanced tools for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism initiatives, McCain and others have argued.
“The administration has been keeping the military relationship on autopilot, and they’re conducting diplomacy with the Morsi government much like they did with Mubarak,” said Michelle Dunne, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who previously worked at the State Department and the National Security Council. “The policy is kind of a mess.”
Further complicating matters is Washington’s development aid package, which has been frozen for the better part of the postrevolutionary period, largely because Cairo has resisted efforts by the United States to get involved in democratic reform initiatives. During his confirmation hearing, Kerry faced pointed questions about Morsi and military sales to Cairo. Cutting Egypt off will be harmful to U.S. interests, Kerry said.
“Egypt is a quarter of the Arab world,” he said. “It is critical to everything we aspire to see happen in the Middle East.”