Senate panel passes bill on U.S. aid to Egypt

Measure would ease tight controls on aid to Egypt, but wider congressional support is unclear

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A Senate panel approved a bill Wednesday that would allow the United States to resume its full $1.6 billion aid relationship with Egypt by granting President Barack Obama the power to waive a federal law based on national security. Wider congressional support for the measure is unclear.

The legislation passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seeks to address one of the most pressing challenges for policymakers in Washington to arise out of the popularly-backed Egyptian Army’s July overthrow of the country’s Islamist president. For months, the Obama administration and Congress debated whether to maintain military aid to Egypt that advances U.S. and Israeli security or to implement a nearly 30-year-old provision that bans all non-humanitarian and non-democracy support to governments that suffer coup d’etats.

The administration ultimately decided against making any determination about Egypt’s government upheaval, yet opted in October to withhold the transfer of 10 Apache helicopters at a cost of more than $500 million, M1A1 tank kits, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and $260 million in cash assistance until “credible progress” is made toward an inclusive government set up through free and fair elections. The strategy left neither fervent democracy advocates nor top national security officials completely satisfied.

The bill drafted by Sens. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and Bob Corker, a Republican, offers the president greater flexibility in the event of a similar situation in future. It allows the president to waive the coup law restriction for up to a year if the aid is deemed essential for national security.

For Egypt specifically, the bill gives Obama the authority to waive the coup provision through September 2015.

But the legislation also seeks to prevent the administration from avoiding a coup determination altogether as it did in Egypt - a decision that caused significant consternation in Congress. Instead, the secretary of state would have to declare one way or another if a coup has taken place within 30 days of a questionable change of power.

The only senator in the 18-member Foreign Relations Committee to object was Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican, who has consistently pushed for a complete halt in U.S. assistance to Egypt.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican appropriator for foreign assistance, isn’t a member of the committee but is developing his own bill, according to aides.

Graham had been holding up the transfer of $60 million in American money to a program designed to spur private investment in Egypt's flailing economy. That money has now been released, his spokesman Kevin Bishop said Wednesday.

Almost three years since Egyptians chased their longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power, America's once ironclad Middle East ally remains mired in turmoil.

Egyptian prosecutors on Wednesday announced a new trial of ousted President Mohammed Mursi and the top leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood, accusing them of conspiring with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran's Revolutionary Guard and militant groups to carry out a wave of terrorism to destabilize the country. The charges carry a potential death penalty.

Since the July coup, near daily clashes have occurred between Mursi’s supporters and security forces. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands of Brotherhood members have been arrested. A wave of retaliatory attacks by suspected Islamic militants has targeted Christians and police. The Sinai Peninsula has faced a mounting militant insurgency.

Separately Wednesday, the State Department issued its latest warning advising Americans to avoid visiting Egypt. The travel alert, valid through March 2014, cited the ongoing political violence and sexual assaults on women. Americans, it said, have been arrested and deported for being near protests or taking pictures of altercations. One U.S. citizen was killed during a demonstration in Alexandria in June.

“Political unrest,” the department warned, “is likely to continue in the near future.”

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