White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration believes “it would not be in the best interest of the United States to immediately change our assistance programs to Egypt” in the wake of last week’s overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
Carney’s Monday comments were a direct rebuff to calls from some members of Congress for a cutoff or interruption in the $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to the troubled nation.
Carney avoided labeling last week’s overthrow of then-President Mohammad Morsi a “coup” – with the administration sidestepping for now a decision about whether to comply with a section of the Foreign Assistance Act requiring that non-humanitarian aid to a country be stopped after a democratically elected head of government is forced out by a coup.
“This is an incredibly complex and difficult situation,” Carney told reporters when asked whether a coup had taken place last week in Cairo.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday, “I don’t want to be analyzing what the legal options are here. That is being closely looked at; there are a number of factors that are being closely looked at” as administration lawyers study whether a coup had in fact occurred.
She added, “There are millions of people on the ground (in Egypt) who do not think it was a coup.”
Meanwhile, members of Congress are struggling with whether the United States can wield the threat of withholding aid to the Cairo regime to signal its unhappiness with the coup that ousted Morsi.
On CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that Morsi’s overthrow was in fact a coup d’etat and said, “reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election.”
McCain said Sunday he wasn’t arguing for cutting off money that’s “already in the pipeline” flowing to the Cairo regime. But McCain said the threat of a cutoff of future U.S. aid might put pressure on Egyptian military leaders for “a very rapid transition” to civilian rule.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J. said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the turmoil in Egypt is time for “a pause” in U.S. aid. Like McCain, he said the message from Obama to Egyptian military leaders should be that they must move to civilian rule.
But one Senate Democrat voiced caution about ceasing the aid. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked, “Will cutting off aid accelerate or enhance the opportunities and the chances to have a truly democratic government? I don't think so.”
Jason Brownlee, an expert on Egyptian politics at the University of Texas and author of the book “Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance,” said, “It is not likely that the aid relationship will be cut or seriously disrupted.”
As for U.S. ability to influence the events in Egypt, he said, “I don't think the aid provides great leverage; the government of Egypt knows how reluctant the United States is to cut it. Recall that 100 percent of the military aid goes to U.S. companies, so there's a tremendous congressional incentive inside the states to keep the money flowing -- to Cairo and then back here.”
An example of the importance of American military aid is the U.S.-Egyptian coproduction of the Abrams tank. According to a Congressional Research Service report, “Egypt plans to acquire a total of 1,200 tanks. Under the terms of the program, a percentage of the tank’s components are manufactured in Egypt at a facility on the outskirts of Cairo and the remaining parts are produced in the United States and then shipped to Egypt for final assembly.” General Dynamics is the prime contractor for the program.
Brownlee said, “Unlike the American public, the Egyptian military knows that the U.S. gets far more out of the relationship that it puts in: over-flight rights, prepositioning at Cairo West Air Base, intelligence on al Qaida.”
He said the Obama administration does have influence on the Egyptian leaders stemming from the strong ties between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries and the two countries’ intelligence agencies, “but not in the crude and punitive manner suggested by threats of cutting aid.”
U.S. officials, he said, “can shape how the Egyptian leadership sees their situation; they can influence their priorities; they can, basically, participate in the decision-making process in a way few outside governments and, for that matter, few domestic actors can.”
“The United States will be on the losing end as well if aid is suspended,” said Geneive Abdo, a fellow in the Middle East program at the Stimson Center, a foreign policy think tank in Washington. “The situation in Egypt is so much out of control at this point that whether aid is cut off or not is not a priority for any of the parties involved in this high polarized conflict…. What we’re seeing now in Egypt is a conflict that is so internal that the United States role in all of this is not what we might think it is sitting in Washington.”