Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Shutting off the fund flow

Congressional members decide money to Egypt can wait, reports Ezzat Ibrahim from Washington

The anti-Islam movie and its consequences have turned into a tense time for Egyptian-American relations, arguably the most difficult period in 30 years. One example: the State Department had notified Congressional committees of providing up to $450 million in budget support for Egypt in two tranches. The same day, a senior subcommittee chairwoman rejected the US government request and held up the move.

The proposed funding is part of $1 billion in additional support pledged by President Barack Obama last year, and is separate from the annual $1.3 billion in military assistance which Washington already provides Cairo. In a fact sheet issued by the State Department a couple of weeks ago, the US government confirmed that "the Foreign Military Financing [FMF] programme, which amounts to $1.3 billion annually, underpins strong US-Egyptian security relations and works to develop the Egyptian military as a professional and disciplined defence force."

On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that the Obama administration had asked Congress to free up aid to Egypt. The State Department would work with Congress in the coming weeks to push Congressional members to unlock aid, which US officials say is necessary to support the democratic transformation in the country.

"We had some interest in that from the Congress, so we are obviously going to have to work with the Congress in the coming days and weeks," Nuland said, "to explain why we think this money is so essential at a time of almost $12 billion in a budget gap in Egypt, and why we think supporting the democratic trajectory of Egypt in a phased way is in US interests, because we obviously firmly do. And we will continue to work with the Congress on that.

"There is no timeframe to conclude deliberations with Congress. We will have some staff-to-staff briefings. We'll have some people up on the Hill talking to the staffs of some of the members who had concerns," Nuland explained.

The next day, in a new development, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) issued a statement opposing the administration's plan to send funds. Ros-Lehtinen accused the administration of failing to handle Egypt's policy -- "from its lack of support for moderate political voices to its confused response to the downfall of Mubarak and the attack on our embassy in Cairo. The administration lacks a clear strategy towards Egypt. Now the Obama administration wants to simply throw money at an Egyptian government that the president cannot even clearly state is an ally of the United States," the statement said.

In apparent deep disagreement on how to deal with the new Egyptian government, the outspoken congresswoman explained the Republican approach towards the assistance and the Muslim Brotherhood. "Money will not solve this situation. The Egyptian government has not gained the trust of the US, and the administration's response to cut an unprecedented $450 million check directly to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt is problematic. The administration's proposed cash transfers and other multi-million dollar requests for Egypt are also on hold by me and other pertinent chairmen," she added.

The debate over Egypt's assistance came to the fore when Congresswoman Kay Granger froze the aid package last Friday. Granger, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, issued a statement saying: "This proposal comes to Congress at a point when the US-Egypt relationship has never been under more scrutiny, and rightly so. I am not convinced of the urgent need for this assistance and I cannot support it at this time. As chair of the subcommittee, I have placed a hold on these funds."

The State Department reminded Congress that President Obama made clear more than a year ago when he pledged $1 billion in support from the American people to the people of Egypt if their transition stays on track and continues. "Rep Granger did not say she thought Egypt was an enemy, or a lost cause. She said she cannot support the assistance 'at this time'. That suspension of judgment seems wiser than a rush to embrace the new government of Egypt," wrote Eliot Abrams, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

According to diplomatic sources in Washington, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen's decision will complicate the administration's efforts to persuade Congress on the urgent need to support the Egyptian economy. The sources pointed out that Congress has the right to object to the administration's decision within 15 days from the date of notification. Four committees have jurisdiction over the aid issue, including two in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate where Democrats have the majority. The administration is considering going ahead with the assistance plan, with the support of the Senate, and intensifying negotiations with Congress to clarify the administration's position based on the importance of aid to US national interests.

In March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waived restrictions on assistance, citing national security interests and expressing trust in Egypt's "significant progress toward democracy".

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