While the Obama administration throws its support behind Egypt's military, some members of the U.S. Congress are looking at withholding some or all of the country’s annual $1.5 billion aid package if a civilian government isn't quickly restored.
Without the administration's support, that's a high hurdle. But after watching the violence spiral in recent days in Cairo and elsewhere, more lawmakers are questioning whether the Egyptian military's ouster of Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood-led government last week must be defined as a "coup" and how the U.S. should leverage the only significant element of influence it has in Egypt.
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The administration insisted Monday that it won't withhold funds from Egypt's army after its second takeover of a civilian government in the past 29 months. Most of the money goes to the military under an arrangement U.S. leaders have honored since Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Despite rocky relations since the ouster of longtime autocrat and longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the U.S. has continued to financially support the institution it sees as Egypt's guarantor of stability.
Some in Congress say the latest military action should change the calculation because it unseated a democratically elected president.
"We need to suspend aid to the new government until it does in fact schedule elections and put in place a process that comes up with a new constitution," Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Monday. He said he'd support such a measure, but acknowledged it would be unlikely to gain majority support in Congress.
Sen. John McCain was another who demanded an aid cutoff. "Regardless of what anyone thinks about Mohammed Morsi, he was elected by a majority of Egyptians last year," he said Monday.
"It is difficult for me to conclude that what happened was anything other than a coup in which the military played a decisive role," McCain added. "I do not want to suspend our critical assistance to Egypt, but I believe that is the right thing to do at this time."
In an era of tight budgets and increased doubts about the merits of financially supporting sometimes lukewarm allies like Pakistan, that position is bringing together some unusual allies.
Sen. Patrick Leahy judged Morsi's tenure as a "disappointment" but noted that U.S. law unequivocally opposes military coups. Sen. Rand Paul lamented Monday: "In Egypt, governments come and go. The only thing certain is that American taxpayers will continue to be stuck with the $1.5 billion bill."
Under current law, however, it's President Barack Obama and his administration who decide whether Morsi's overthrow was a coup, which would trigger automatic suspension of most American support. The law was first drafted in 1985 pertaining to Guatemala's civil war; it was subsequently broadened to apply to all military overthrows of democratically elected governments and has become a key lever of congressional influence in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. halted non-humanitarian aid to Mali last year after a coup there.
U.S. officials say they're reviewing developments in Egypt, but the White House and State Department strongly backed continued U.S. military and economic assistance to Egypt on Monday.