For the Obama administration, there’s a new wrinkle that could further complicate ties with post-coup Egypt: the possible release of the country’s jailed former leader, Hosni Mubarak.
For nearly three decades, the U.S. propped up Mubarak and the Egyptian military with financial and military support. In exchange, Egypt helped protect U.S. interests in the region, including a peace treaty with Israel.
But that long and tangled relationship is now casting a shadow over the Obama administration as it grapples for a coherent Egypt policy following the ouster of Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohammed Mursi.
The U.S. has refused to call Mursi’s ouster a coup - a step that would require President Barack Obama to suspend $1.3 billion in annual military aid.
Amid the tumult of Mursi’s ouster, Egyptian judicial officials announced Monday that Mubarak could be released from jail later this week.
The White House refused to take a position on the status of its former partner, saying it would be inappropriate to comment on a legal matter.
“President Mubarak is part of an ongoing Egyptian legal process right now,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “And because that is a process that is internal to Egypt, it’s not something that I’m in a position to comment on from here.”
The U.S. has frequently taken positions on legal matters in other countries, including the jailing of Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the sentencing in Russia of the band Pussy Riot and the arrest of American aid workers in Egypt last year.
Mubarak’s release likely would deepen the anger among Mursi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political movement that was illegal under Mubarak.
Mursi, who was removed from power by the military last month, is also in custody. He is being held at an undisclosed location and is facing allegations that he conspired with the Palestinian militant Hamas group to escape from prison in 2011.
On Monday, prosecutors also ordered his detention for 15 days in connection with allegations that he conspired to kill and torture protesters during mass demonstrations by the opposition outside his presidential palace in December 2012.
The White House has called for Mursi’s release. Earnest on Monday said the detention was “politically motivated” and “not in line with the human rights standards that we expect other governments to uphold.”
It’s possible that Egyptian officials could keep Mubarak in custody given that the chaos that could result from his release would pose huge risks for the military-backed government.
The 85-year-old has been in detention since April 2011 and was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for his failure to stop the killing of some 900 protesters during the revolution that forced him from office.
Mubarak’s sentence was overturned on appeal and he is now being retried. Two judicial officials, however, said there no longer will be any grounds to hold the former president if a court accepts a petition by his lawyer requesting his release in a corruption case later this week.
Mubarak’s ouster cleared the way for Egypt’s first democratic election. Voters backed Mursi, but just one year into his term Egyptians took to the streets to protest, alleging that he gave the Muslim Brotherhood undue influence and failed to live up to his economic promises.
Mursi’s ouster has put the Obama administration in the awkward diplomatic position of choosing between U.S. national security interests and its democratic values, particularly given the military’s deadly crackdown against Mursi supporters.
The administration seems unlikely to move toward a blanket suspension of its annual military aid. Instead, the administration appears to be opting for a more piecemeal approach, cutting off the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets and canceling joint U.S-Egyptian military exercises planned for next month.
The administration is also considering suspending about $250 million in annual U.S. economic aid for Egypt, officials said.
Congressional notification by the administration could arrive in the next week, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
Congressional lawmakers are split over whether to cut off aid. Democrats were generally supportive of the president’s approach, though Minnesota Rep.
Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, joined a growing number of Republicans calling for the elimination of military aid.
Just over half of Americans say it is better for the United States to cut off military aid to Egypt in order to put pressure on the government, according to a new Pew Research Center poll. That’s nearly double the percentage who prefer the U.S. continue sending military aid to Egypt in order to maintain influence there.
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