Senators of both parties are offering a wary welcome to Egypt’s new Islamist president.
Republicans and Democrats alike say they’re giving Muslim Brotherhood politician Mohammed Morsi the benefit of the doubt, given the longstanding relationship between the United States and Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country and the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
While the Muslim Brotherhood officially opposes the use of violence, its members have in the past been involved with assassinations and bombings.
In an emotional exchange with The Hill, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) recalled that her first state dinner as a young mayor of San Francisco was at Jimmy Carter’s White House with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — who was subsequently gunned down by a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot.
“I was a relatively new mayor, and I was so impressed with this man,” recalled Feinstein. “I attended a dinner recently with his nephew, also named Anwar Sadat, and all those years sort of came flooding back.”
Feinstein sounded hopeful but not yet convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood has changed in the intervening decades.
“So the Brotherhood is saying they are a different organization than they were in the day when they participated in what went on to kill Sadat,” she said. “And we’ll have to see.”
Sadat’s assassination in 1981 helped shaped the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, with the United States spending $1.3 billion a year in military aid to prop up an authoritarian government dedicated to keeping Islamists under control. Now those forces are in power, leaving Congress to face its biggest challenge yet in the Arab Spring that began 18 months ago.
Morsi has vowed to “preserve international agreements,” but his election has been greeted with concern in Israel, and the new president has promised the two countries’ relationship will change.
Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) said “it’s too early to say” if Morsi’s election will result in a rift with the United States.
“The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has won this election is a cause for concern, because we do not know to what extent he will transfer religious situations over what is normally just partisan politics,” he said.
A few lawmakers have said aid should be cut off to Egypt with the election of Morsi.
Conservative Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) on Sunday said the election showed the Arab Spring was “nothing more than a radical Islamic nightmare,” while Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) on Monday urged the Obama administration to cut off aid to Egypt unless the Muslim Brotherhood vows to respect “all aspects” of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
“Every dollar wasted propping up this new government is a dollar wasted that should be going to paying down our debt or providing tax relief to struggling American families,” Walsh said.
Democratic and GOP senators, by contrast, said the United States cannot afford to break ties with Egypt— at least not without clear cause.
“We’re not going to be purists,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee on foreign assistance. “We’re not going to hurt ourselves. But we also have to demand accountability of our public funds.”
He said the consensus among senators he’s talked to since the election is that Congress is “very guarded about Egypt.”
“We know how important it is; we have a huge footprint in Egypt,” he said. “Our objective for Egypt is for democratic reform, but in a way that honors its international commitments for peace, particularly in the Middle East, and helps us fight extremists.”
GOP foreign-policy heavyweight Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) said cutting aid to Egypt would only strengthen U.S. enemies.
“I certainly would not cut off aid. That would be the best thing that could happen, probably, for the forces of extremism,” McCain said.
Cardin’s Republican counterpart on the panel, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), said he was concerned that Morsi’s would become an extremist government.
But he seemed more worried with the Egyptian military’s crackdown on democratic reform.
“The presidency has been greatly weakened; the military has a continued strong role; parliament has in essence been disbanded,” Corker said.
“I think all of us at the very beginning were very concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Corker. “Certainly, I’m concerned about it becoming an extremist government. But early indications, by what’s being said, is they understand that that’s a problem, and at least they’ve been more moderate in some of the comments so far.”
In a statement responding to the election, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) suggested Morsi was someone the United States could work with.
“During my recent visits to Cairo, I’ve had two candid discussions with the new president. He’s acknowledged that the central issue to Egypt’s future is economic. His words suggest he understands the gravity of the challenges facing Egypt,” Kerry said.
McCain said the United States should try to be helpful to the new government through military ties, economic aid and encouraging tourism.
“I think the election results lead to challenges but also opportunity,” he told The Hill. “I’m not ready to condemn the results of the election. From everything that I’ve heard, they were free and fair. Now we need to do everything we can to influence the Egyptian government to be as inclusive as Mr. Morsi has pledged to be.”
Feinstein said the best thing lawmakers can do now is wait.
“I would do nothing until we have some indication of which way this administration is going,” she said. “I think offering encouragement for them to open to the West, to re-establish tourism, to develop economic relationships, to get their credit back on line is important.
“There is opportunity here, and there’s also hope.”