The White House on Monday said it is not in the best interest of the United States to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt.
Press secretary Jay Carney noted popular support for the Egyptian army’s ouster of the country’s democratically elected president, and refused to label it a military coup, offering the clearest indication yet of the administration’s reluctance to reduce the $1.5 billion in mostly military aid given annually to Egypt.
“This is a complex and difficult issue with significant consequences,” Carney said, adding that an immediate change to Egyptian aid “would not be wise.”
“I’ve been very blunt about the fact that we’re going to examine this and monitor this and take the time in making a determination,” he said. “It is not in our interests to move unnecessarily quickly in making a determination like that because we need to be mindful of our objective here, which is to assist the Egyptian people in their transition to democracy.”
Labeling the toppling of Morsi a military coup would automatically freeze hundreds of millions in aid to the Arab World’s most populous country, though about two-thirds of this year’s military funding is already out the door.
The $1.3 billion in military aid comes in the form of U.S. weapons systems and other assistance that has been agreed to — but is not legally mandated — under the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Under U.S. law dating back to the 1960s, however, U.S. direct aid must be withdrawn to “the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree.”
That would freeze the remaining $450 million in military aid set to be delivered to Egypt by Sept. 30.
In addition, a portion of economic aid that supports small businesses and other entities instead of the government isn’t affected by the law, so the fallout could be limited if new elections are quickly agreed to.
Lawmakers in both parties have been split on whether aid should be cut to Egypt, a development that weakens domestic political pressure on the administration.
Carney on Monday said the administration is reviewing the situation in Egypt carefully and will consult with Congress.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations panel with jurisdiction over foreign aid, are among those saying aid should be cut.
“It is difficult for me to conclude that what happened was anything other than a coup in which the military played a decisive role,” McCain said Monday. “Current U.S. law is very clear about the implications for our foreign assistance in the aftermath of a military coup against an elected government, and the law offers no ability to waive its provisions.
“I do not want to suspend our critical assistance to Egypt, but I believe that is the right thing to do at this time.”
Leahy, who has battled the administration over Egyptian aid, said the “law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
Leahy last year authored legislation restricting funding if Egypt isn’t making democratic progress; the State Department has waived those requirements two years in a row on national security grounds, last year under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and under her successor John Kerry in May.
Leahy is currently working with the top Republican on the subpanel, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), to determine how to handle the next $1.5 billion tranche of aid to Egypt in the spending bill for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. His panel is expected to mark up the bill at the end of the month.
“As we work on the new budget,” Leahy said in a statement, “my committee also will review future aid to the Egyptian government as we wait for a clearer picture.”
Obama’s recalcitrance risks putting the United States at odds with some of its allies.
The African Union, which the United States has long encouraged to become more democratic, was the first international body to denounce a “coup” and suspended Egypt on Friday. And Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the military intervention a “military coup” as early as Thursday.
It also opens up the country to charges of hypocrisy, especially following reports that more than 40 people were killed Monday in clashes between the army and pro-Morsi protesters.
The administration quickly denounced coups in countries like Mali and Niger during the president’s first term, for example, even though the second one had considerable public support. In Honduras, by contrast, the administration differentiated between a “military coup” and a simple “coup” when the country’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the country’s leftist president, which was carried out by the military.
Other lawmakers said continuing aid to Egypt was critical to maintain U.S. influence.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) on Sunday urged the White House to use U.S. aid as “leverage” to convince Egypt to “transition to civilian government as quickly as possible,” but did not call for a suspension of aid. The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), and Senate Armed Services panel member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) have also weighed in against cutting aid.
Lawmakers on a mission to the Middle East this past week are expected to carry the same message as they return to Congress. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations panels, told reporters in a conference call Monday that he and five Republicans on a congressional delegation got a clear message from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, key U.S. allies, encouraging the United States to support the Egyptian military’s “stabilizing role” in the region.
— Published at 1:47 p.m. and updated at 8:28 p.m.