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With Morsi toppled, Egypt remains US strategic worry and destination for aid

Fireworks light the sky as opponents of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi celebrate in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, on July 3. Click on the image for a slideshow.Amr Nabil / AP / AP

No matter who is in charge in Egypt, the nation of 85 million people remains a strategic concern for the United States. And although the U.S. has poured more than $70 billion in military and economic aid into Egypt since 1948, the U.S. government’s ability to influence outcomes there remains very limited.

The Egyptian armed forces ousted Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, on Wednesday and put a temporary civilian government in his place. U.S. officials tell NBC News that prior to Morsi's ouster, Egyptian military officials assured the United States that the generals would not take long-term control of the government. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey had been in contact with their counterparts in the Egyptian military over the past week.

Among the strategic and economic worries for the United States: Egypt's maintainenance of its commitment to peace with Israel under the 1979 Camp David accord, continued freedom of passage through the Suez Canal for U.S. Navy ships, unimpeded flow of oil through the SUMED pipeline, and avoidance of any catastrophe that might to cause refugee outflows to Europe.

White House officials said that in a phone call to Morsi on Monday President Barack Obama had “stressed that democracy is about more than elections; it is about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government.”

But even as democracy is about more than elections, governing is about more than democracy — what has been missing in Egypt is effective administration, and that in turn has held back economic reform and impeded a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

For American taxpayers — especially those wary of sending more aid to foreign regimes — the latest crisis may revive their discontent. The Congressional Research Service reports that since 1979, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient, after Israel, of U.S. foreign aid.

For fiscal year 2014, Obama has requested $1.55 billion in aid to Egypt, with $1.3 billion of it in military aid.

In a statement Wednesday, Obama called on Egypt's military to act quickly to return power to a democratically elected civilian government. He also said he had directed federal "departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the government of Egypt."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., also warned Wednesday that U.S. aid to Egypt could be in jeopardy depending on the outcome of the power shift in the country.

A CRS report said last week that in the current crisis, “Some opponents of U.S. military aid to Egypt may apply further scrutiny in the months ahead to proposed U.S. arms sales to Egypt financed by U.S. taxpayer dollars.”

The report noted that four F-16s sold to Egypt under the subsidized Foreign Military Financing program arrived there in January and another 20 F-16s are scheduled to be delivered before the end of this year.

The CRS report noted that Congress has attempted to impose conditions on U.S. aid to Egypt. Under a 2012 appropriations bill, no funds can go to Egypt until Secretary of State John Kerry certifies that Egypt is supporting a transition to civilian government and taking steps to protect individual freedom and due process of law. But the law allows the administration to waive these certifications, and Kerry did so in early May.

The latest turmoil may give new impetus to complaints from the loudest critic of U.S. aid to Egypt, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who had been sharply critical of Morsi. 

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