Obama cut to Egypt aid could further weaken US influence in Mideast

President Obama is expected to announce a cut in annual military aid to Egypt, citing what he sees as anti-democratic steps. The decision could alter a decades-old alliance.

Hassan Ammar/AP/File
Opponents of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi wave Egyptian flags and hold a poster depicting Egypt's top general, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, while another holds an modified image of President Obama, showing him bearded and turbaned, as they chant slogans during near the presidential palace in Cairo on July 26.

President Obama plans to express US frustration over Egypt’s retreat from democracy since its July coup by cutting back on $1.3 billion in annual military aid – a move that would alter one of the pillars of American foreign policy and revamp relations with a key Arab ally.

Mr. Obama’s decision, which apparently followed weeks of White House debate, reflects a victory for the administration’s more fervent pro-democracy and human rights forces over more pragmatic voices, in the eyes of some foreign-policy analysts.

Critics of the move note that deep-pocketed Gulf states, which approve of Egypt's July 4 ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi, have been happy to step in with assistance and are likely to fill holes left by reduced US assistance, further eroding American influence in the region.

The reduction in aid has not yet been announced officially by the White House, but it has been outlined by some US officials. They say it would affect purchases of hardware such as Apache helicopters and tanks but would leave untouched aid for counterterrorism efforts in the Sinai and for border security. Those priorities reflect US national security interests and Israeli concerns about repercussions from Egypt’s political turmoil. Aid for education, health, and other nonmilitary programs would also be unaffected.

The decision is the culmination of an Obama administration review of the situation in Egypt. Mr. Obama was said to be looking for concrete steps from Egypt’s military rulers toward a rapid restoration of democracy. Instead, the weeks following the coup were marked by what Obama and White House officials considered to be steps backward: bloody repression of Mr. Morsi’s supporters and outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The White House will “announce the future of our assistance program with Egypt in the coming days,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement Tuesday evening. But she suggested that Obama had foreshadowed the contours of an altered aid package in his Sept. 24 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

In the speech, Obama said Egypt’s military-led interim government “has made decisions inconsistent with inclusive democracy,” and noted that the US has “not proceeded with the delivery of certain military systems.” In July, Obama halted a delivery of F-16 fighter jets.

Future support, he added, “will depend upon Egypt’s progress in pursuing a more democratic path.”

A lack of movement down that path, as well as continued repressive violence – as recently as Sunday, demonstrators and security forces clashed again – factored into Obama’s decision, officials said.

A partial suspension of aid would alter an assistance package that has been in place since the signing of the Camp David Accords, which secured peace between Egypt and Israel in 1978. Since then, Egypt, with an annual aid package of over $1.5 billion, has generally reigned as the recipient of second-largest US aid package after Israel.

Some suggested the decision reflects the elevation this year of Susan Rice to national security adviser and Samantha Power to UN ambassador.

But not everyone is happy with the decision. Some members of Congress say cutting aid will reduce US leverage with Egypt’s interim rulers and further alienate the large slice of Egyptians who believe Morsi's removal was crucial for Egyptian democracy.

“During this fragile period we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt, not undermining them,” said Rep. Elliot Engel (D) of New York in a statement Wednesday.

Representative Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he recognized that the Egyptian military “has handled the recent transition clumsily,” but he said the country’s interim rulers should be given credit for beginning “a democratic transition which will serve the Egyptian people well in the future.”

The US should not overlook that Egypt’s military has also “worked to maintain regional stability,” he said.

Some Egyptian diplomats and Egypt specialists say a reduction in US aid would only further reduce what is already waning US influence in Egypt.

Many moderate and pro-democracy Egyptians are furious with the US, saying the Obama administration sided with Egypt’s Islamists, according to some Egyptian diplomats. Normally-pro-American Egyptians, they add, now believe the US is turning its back on a longtime ally at a difficult moment.

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