The United States is not obligated to provide foreign aid to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accords and its peace treaty with Israel, a State Department spokesman said Saturday.
Officially that may be true, but the reality is that aid and peace are clearly linked, whether the State Department or the Egyptians like to admit it.
Peace with Israel is the locomotive that pulls aid to Egypt through the Congress, but there are other cars on the train.
The Egyptian government of Mohamed Morsi is facing growing pressure from some members of Congress who want to reduce or withhold some aid to press his Islamist government to improve its human rights record.
In prior years when Congress tried to link aid to Egypt to democratic reform and respect for human rights, some of the loudest objections came from the Israeli embassy in Washington, whose diplomats scurried to Capitol Hill to explain how vital that aid was to maintaining their peace treaty.
They weren’t overly concerned about Cairo’s abysmal human rights record, though they did want Washington to press for an end to anti-Israeli incitement in the Egyptian media.
At Friday’s State Department daily press briefing one reporter asked, “How much is the US obligated to provide to Egypt under the Camp David Accords?” Nothing at all, the spokesman responded a day later, obviously after consultation with Foggy Bottom policy makers.
“The United States is not obligated to provide assistance to Egypt. We provide assistance because it serves U.S. national interests in a crucial and volatile region.”
During his most recent trip to Cairo, Secretary of Sate John Kerry pledged another $250 million. In response to a reporter’s question, the department spokesman said it was all for economic stabilization and development and none was for military assistance.
All the official announcements and technicalities aside, US aid, particularly in the minds of the Congress, is inextricably linked to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. If Egypt abrogated the treaty, as some in Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood are demanding, most if not all of the aid would dry up. The loudest objections would come not only from Israel but also from the Egyptian military, which values the US relationship more than its civilian leaders seem to.
Morsi has said he intends to abide by the peace treaty but he also has said he will not personally meet with any Israeli official. The Mubarak era’s cold peace is beginning to look almost warm and fuzzy by comparison.
With the ascension of Morsi’s Islamist government, members of Congress have repeatedly warned of the linkage and the importance they place on Egypt honoring its treaty obligations.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee responsible for foreign aid, has been pressing to condition US aid on Cairo’s support for “democracy and fundamental freedoms.”
Just this week a political activist was sentenced to six months in prison for insulting Morsi and allegedly circulating false news on television. It is part of a growing trend in the two years since the revolution.
Leahy and others don’t think the Obama administration is giving enough attention to these problems.
Also last week, an Egyptian court convicted 43 persons, including 16 Americans, for promoting democracy. Kerry denounced the move and said he was “deeply concerned” but did not hint at any consequences, such as withholding aid. Leahy called the convictions “appalling and offensive” and said if the pattern of repression continues “it will be increasingly difficult” to continue supporting Morsi.
Egypt, the most populous and most important Arab country, is in third year of its revolution and in danger of becoming a failed state. Its economy is on the verge of collapse, unemployment is soaring, foreign investment is drying up, its crucial tourism industry has been decimated, splits are showing among the Islamists, and repression and anti-government hostility are spreading.
Security forces respond to anti-government protests with violence, liberal and secular groups feel excluded from power by Morsi and the Brotherhood, and Morsi has dismissed calls for early elections as “absurd and illegal.”
The United States – as does Israel – benefits from the $1.3 billion in military assistance it gives Egypt every year. American warships have priority access to the Suez Canal, strong relations with the Egyptian military and intelligence services are maintained, Egyptian security forces interdict weapons smuggling into Gaza and combat growing extremist forces in the Sinai Peninsula, and the Morsi government plays a helpful role in the Syrian civil war.
Before Egypt can get its $1.3b. in military assistance the secretary of state must certify each year the Egyptian government “is supporting the transition to civilian government, including holding free and fair elections, implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion, and due process of law.”
But Morsi can’t be blamed if he decides to ignore those requirements, confident that Kerry will waive the demands in the interest of “national security” because – in the end – maintaining the tenuous peace with Israel is more critical to US interests than promoting a democratic revolution that is unlikely to happen.
Look for Morsi to do the minimum to honor the Camp David accords, continue the repression and consolidate the transition to his form of Islamic rule. US-Egyptian relations are more strained than they’ve been in decades, but don’t look for much change from Morsi. The Obama administration’s timidity on Kerry’s watch will only encourage the Egyptian ruler to call Washington’s bluff, because he is confident his aid will keep flowing in the name of American national security and preserving Israeli- Egyptian peace.
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