Menu JTA Search

Aid Proposals Put Egypt on Notice That U.S. is Rethinking Relationship

Egypt’s role in smoothing Israel’s upcoming pullout from the Gaza Strip is helping to protect it, for now, from a tectonic shift in how the United States treats dictatorships. Longstanding efforts in Congress to call Egypt to account for its failure to cultivate a free, democratic society are bearing fruit, though they fall far short of the sweeping changes some have sought. Sponsors say the restraint is due to Egypt’s active role in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Two recent congressional votes taking aim at U.S. aid to the most populous Arab nation have particularly rattled Egyptian diplomats here.

Egypt “has a large degree of anti-Semitism — widespread, state-sanctioned anti-Semitism,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives. “It has not been as helpful in the Middle East as it can be.”

Egypt’s recent acceleration of some reform efforts and its role in helping the Palestinians stabilize Gaza after Israel leaves in August are the major factors preventing it from earning a substantially tougher rebuke from Congress.

“It has played an important role in assisting the Israelis and Palestinians as Israel prepares to disengage from Gaza,” said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a senior member of the House International Relations Committee who opposed one of the measures targeting Egyptian aid.

Israel and pro-Israel groups are stepping back from the fight, not wanting to anger Egypt but appreciative of the momentum in Washington for reform in the Arab world.

Much of the ideological impetus comes from the Bush administration, which has made democratization in the Arab and Muslim world a second-term priority.

Yet as committed as the administration is to democratic reform in Egypt, Bush officials have made clear that the administration doesn’t want the U.S.-Egypt relationship challenged for now.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she does not want Congress to change the modalities of aid to Egypt. But she also said the administration is monitoring the situation.

“More needs to be done,” she said just before her most recent Middle East tour, which included a tough speech in Cairo. “The trend line here is the positive development. And it’s one that we’re going to encourage, and we’re going to encourage that they take this development, this step and push it as far as they possibly can so that, as the reforms continue, Egypt will eventually get to completely open and contested elections.”

In a voice vote last week, the Appropriations Committee — the most powerful committee in the House — directed that half of the $50 million Egypt gets for democracy programs should go through non-governmental organizations, and that a portion of the $50 million it gets for educational programs should be earmarked for projects encouraging academic freedom.

The amendment was a rebuke to Egypt’s government, which likes to keep a tight administrative rein on any reform efforts and in the past has prosecuted officials of nonprofits that encourage democratic reforms.

A week earlier, the International Relations Committee approved a State Department authorization bill that completed a long-standing effort by its ranking member, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), to shift $120 million in military aid to civilian assistance; prevent long-term financing of military purchases; and impose democratization conditions on the economic assistance.

Both bills represent a small portion of the $1.8 billion Egypt receives each year — $1.3 billion in military aid and close to $500 million in economic assistance — second only to the $2.8 billion Israel receives in mostly military assistance each year.

Yet any shift underscores the change in Washington’s mood toward Egypt. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, who wasn’t previously known as a tough Egypt critic, moved the appropriations amendment.

The much tougher International Relations Committee amendment was sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), vice chairman of the committee, presenting a bipartisan front with Lantos.

Both bills are to be considered this week by the full house. Lantos, who has been pushing for a shift of funds from military to economic assistance for years, scored a major victory this year by having the language written into the bill, rather than into an amendment, which can be rejected more easily.

Nonetheless, congressional insiders suggest that the language in the State Department authorization bill will be removed by the time it gets through conference with the Senate. Obey’s amendment, directing dollars to nonprofits that promote democracy, is likelier to become law and carries more legal heft because it’s in an appropriations bill.

While less likely to become law, the Lantos bill is a far more serious challenge to the nature of Egyptian aid.

The Egyptians perceive the assistance as immutable, rooted as it is in the 1979 Camp David peace accords, and believe it is aimed at achieving aid parity with Israel. They would see the attachment of conditions to the aid, and even a minor reduction of military aid, as an insulting reduction in their status.

Hoyer proposed, then withdrew, an amendment to the appropriations bill mirroring the Lantos language — a sign from the second-ranking Democrat in the House that Egypt should be on warning.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, “was concerned about Egypt’s role in facilitating withdrawal from Gaza,” Hoyer told JTA, explaining his reasons for withdrawing the amendment.

Egyptians are belatedly taking heed, according to a lobbyist acquainted with Egypt’s efforts on Capitol Hill and who is well connected to the Bush administration. The country’s diplomats are just beginning to understand that a variety of factors have fundamentally changed how U.S. leaders view the U.S.-Egypt relationship.

“The fundaments of the relationship are being questioned,” said the lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The end of the Cold War meant that Egypt no longer was the bulwark against Soviet expansionism that it once was; Israel, the region’s pre-eminent military power, no longer faces the threat to its existence that once spurred the United States to woo Egypt; and there no longer is a combined Arab oil front threatening the U.S. economy, as there was in the 1970s.

Egyptians say the timing of the amendments is off. Reform has never moved faster in Egypt, where this fall, for the first time in decades, the presidential election will be contested by multiple candidates. Additionally, the government is removing restrictions on nonprofits, listening to pleas from the judiciary to reduce governmental interference.

Wexler agreed that sustained U.S. assistance was the key to moving reform forward.

“It creates stability and a closer dependence on the United States,” said Wexler, who, like Lantos, is Jewish. “That’s good for America, and good for Israel too.”

NEXT STORY