U.S. lawmakers call for review of financial aid to Egypt

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As President Mohamad Mursi opens national dialogue on the trajectory of Egypt, members of the United States House of Representatives do the same.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing discussing the changes in Egypt over the last two years, and the future of U.S. policy, particularly U.S. aid, in the near future.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Ilena Ros-Lehtinen introduced House Resolution 416, a bill that would limit specific military and economic aid to Egypt if certain standards are not met by the current government. The bill states that foreign aid to Egypt should only be used to further U.S. national security interests in the country and the advancements of freedom in Egypt.

“We should not be providing funds without condition to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government that is not conforming to democratic principles, and is not on the right path to fulfill its obligations to the international community and to its own citizens,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Aid Strategies in the Age of the Arab Spring

The United States currently provides $1.3 billion in funding to the Egyptian military, as well as tanks and most recently fighter aircraft. Four F-16 fighter jets were sent to Egypt in late January, with 12 more to arrive within the next year and a half, if current aid policy continues.

Ros-Lehtinen’s colleagues stand somewhat divided regarding aid to Mursi’s tumultuous regime. Members discussed foreign aid to Egypt with a panel of Washington experts, specifically in light of the country’s current and future political environment.

“Despite my objections to many aspects of the current Egyptian government, I cautiously support our military and economic assistance in Egypt but only if we can be certain that our aid is used in the smartest and most effective way possible, only if it protects the security interests of the United States and our allies,” said ranking member Congressman Theodore Deutch.

Elliott Abrams, former foreign policy advisor to two U.S. Presidents, made the point that in two years, the country of Egypt has changed profoundly, but U.S. foreign aid has remained the same. “We need to take a bottom to top look at our aid program, the timing, the conditionality and the composition,” Abrams said.

Abrams argued that aid must be reassessed for numerous reasons, one being the current floundering of the Egyptian economy. Many Egyptians are living “hand to mouth” and Adams said this is directly correlated to government turmoil. “Egypt cannot solve its economic problems until it solves its political problems… the political crisis and the economic crisis are linked,” Abrams said.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former U.S. government official, argued that U.S. monetary aid shouldn’t be the limit of influence in Egypt.

“We still have a lot to offer,” Wittes said. “While our budget constraints, our policy process and our own political dysfunction have made us both less generous and less adroit in our response to the Arab Awakening than we should be, we do still have cards on the table, and cards to play – and those cards are not all related to assistance dollars.”

Increased Insecurity regarding Israel

Many concerns rose over Mursi’s recently unearthed anti-Semitic comments and the future of the 1979 treaty, but those in the hearing disagreed over the degree of this threat.

Katrina Lantos Swett, the head of a U.S. government watchdog group that monitors religious freedom abroad, said that Mursi’s words showed how the Egyptian society is embedded with what she called “deplorable” attitudes; attitudes that she thinks could lead to violence in times of desperation.

“Anti-Semitism continues to be deep-seated and pervasive throughout both society and government,” Swett said. She added that in much of Egyptian public discourse, Jews are inseparable from Israel, and this could lead to enhanced conflicts in the future if the Egyptian government does not adopt democratic principles.

Congresswoman Grace Meng said Egypt’s government needs to be careful to over-enhance Israel. “Egypt must recognize that its greatest threat is not Israel, but rather the scourge of extremism and violence that is overtaking its country and threatening the stability of its neighbors,” she said.

Precarious future of foreign assistance

Most of the members felt uneasy about continuing aid, particularly military support, in light of glaring problems in the Mursi regime and Muslim Brotherhood strategy.

“Despite our large amount of assistance, we still have major disagreements with Egypt.” said Deutch.

For Ros-Lehtinen, these disagreements must be reflected in U.S. dealings with Egypt, and should be used to influence change. “We need to reexamine our aid package and use it as leverage to promote true democratic reforms,” Ros-Lehitnen said.

Wittes felt that this power should be exercised carefully. “The leverage we have is probably best deployed as incentives, not as threats or arm-twisting. Our recognition, our investment, our good opinion and our expressions of partnership all matter, along with our aid dollars,” she said.

Though this piece of legislation is likely to be sidelined by more pressing issues in Congress, the introduction of Ros-Lehtinen’s bill shows a shift in the previously hands-off U.S. policy toward the Mursi regime.

The discussion taking place in the House Foreign Affairs Committee indicates that U.S.politicians are reconsidering aid to Egypt, and increasing the conditions of that aid. If the Mursi government fails to demonstrate a so-called “real commitment” to democratic ideals, economic and military help from the US may be in jeopardy.

So as Mursi begins his national dialogue, a concerned U.S. Congress waits, along with the Egyptian people, for true democracy in Egypt.

(Sarah Shew is an intern in Al Arabiya’s Washington, D.C. bureau. Follow her on Twitter @iftheshewfits)