Battle over aid

Are US-Egyptian relations about to assume a new direction, asks David Dumke in Washington

The recommendation of legislation by a powerful US congressional committee which, for the first time since Camp David, would condition American assistance to the Egyptian military has sparked a heated debate in Cairo and Washington about the direction of US-Egyptian relations. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a provision in the annual foreign aid bill which withholds $200 million intended for the Egyptian armed forces, making it conditional on Cairo implementing judicial reform, retraining its police force and strengthening control over the Gaza border. The move marks the first serious attempt to tie military assistance to Egypt’s domestic policy.

The congressional move comes at a particularly challenging time, as the House of Representatives considered the bill a pitched battle raged in the Gaza Strip which will require considerable US- Egyptian cooperation to contain. Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and other daunting regional challenges also suggest it is a particularly bad time to pick a fight with Egypt. Congress also seems unaware of the realities of the Egyptian political scene, or at best overestimates its ability to shape to local politics. While the assistance package is of considerable importance to Cairo, Congress has chosen to ignore the fact that, given the unpopularity of America’s regional policies, there is already a domestic price for the Hosni Mubarak government in receiving it.

Championed by Representatives David Obey (D- Wisconsin) and Nita Lowey (D-New York), the new legislation is expected to be debated and approved by the full House before Congress recesses for the 4 July Independence Day holiday. The Senate, America’s upper chamber, will consider the bill in mid-July. Over the past five years, Congress has held increasingly contentious debates over the $1.7 billion annual assistance programme to Egypt. While these efforts have resulted in increased funding for democracy and governance and education programmes attempts to condition, alter or reduce the $1.3 billion in funding provided each year to the military have failed.

Egypt has always had critics in Congress who have highlighted Cairo’s shortcomings, both real and imagined, over a variety of issues. But usually these detractors have been limited to hawkish pro-Israel members, Christian and human rights activists, and others on an issue-by-issue basis. But the politics of Egyptian aid have shifted considerably since President George Bush assumed the presidency. Two developments have occurred which have cast Egypt in an unfavourable light, making it much harder for members supporting Cairo to defend Egyptian aid. First, Egypt is seen as a key test of the Bush administration’s sincerity in promoting Arab democracy and reform. Second, the negative press coverage of Egypt’s democratic and human rights record has greatly damaged Egypt’s standing in the court of public opinion.

As a result several former allies of Egypt have become hostile. For most of his career Obey — who maintains a balanced voting record on Arab issues — was one of Egypt’s staunchest defenders. But he soured on Cairo after the jailing of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour. In both 2005 and 2006 Obey introduced amendments which would have altered Egypt’s military aid. During both battles the Bush administration worked with its Republican congressional allies to defeat Obey.

Obey, who became chairman of the House Appropriations Committee when Democrats captured control of Congress last autumn, is now in a much stronger position to dictate policy. A skilled and seasoned legislator, Obey — who has committed himself to sending Egypt a message — is easily the most formidable congressional foe Cairo has faced. For Obey not only is responsible for drafting foreign aid legislation but shapes spending on all domestic programmes. Accordingly, Obey could retaliate against members who oppose him on Egypt by withholding funding for roads, schools and other local projects which are pivotal factors in congressional elections. As one member predisposed to support Egypt noted, in speaking of possibly opposing Obey on Egypt, “opposition is noble but ultimately suicidal”.

While Egypt retains powerful proponents in the House, including Ike Skelton (D-Missouri) and John Dingell (D-Michigan), a majority of Democrats and a sizeable bloc of Republicans supported Obey last year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) have both sided with Obey in the past and seem unlikely to intervene on Egypt’s behalf even if requested to do so by the Bush Administration. The Senate has not yet considered the foreign aid bill but it is likely to support the Obey provision or a variation of it.

The battle over Egyptian aid is not simply being waged between Congress and Cairo, but between Congress and the Bush administration. The latter fight involves a number of factors, including regional policy and domestic politics. On the policy level, there is confusion on Capital Hill as to US priorities vis-à-vis Egypt. Critics of Egypt — taking cues from the White House’s pro-democracy agenda and emboldened by the media and prominent intellectuals — believe Egypt should be held to the strictest of standards regarding democratic development and human rights. Traditionalists, however, chaff at the democracy argument, believing it more important to protect American diplomatic and security interests.

While domestic American matters such as taxation, education and energy usually shape congressional politics, the war on terror and the conflict in Iraq have made foreign policy a key political issue which resonates with voters. The unpopularity of the Iraq war led to a Democratic victory in last autumn’s congressional elections. This, in turn, has led to numerous fights between the White House and opposition Democrats over a wide range of international issues, including trade, aid, defence posture and bilateral relations. Deep into his second term the increasingly unpopular President Bush has a weaker hand to play with Congress; he must pick his battles carefully. While the Bush administration appears to be intervening to thwart Obey, it remains to be seen how much political capital it will burn on Egypt’s behalf. It has already brokered deals with the House to remove objectionable provisions regarding assistance to Pakistan and Indonesia.

In debating the measure, Congress has already sent Egypt three messages — one intended, two unintended. Cairo acknowledges American displeasure with its domestic policies — the main point made by Obey. But it also senses that Congress discounts its regional role and the assistance it provides to the US military — which includes, but is not limited to, intelligence cooperation and allowing expedited transit for American warships and planes. Lastly, the legislation suggests foreign aid is seen as a gift rather than an agreement among equals. Thus far, Cairo has indicated it would rather forfeit the $200 million than submit to congressional meddling in internal affairs. It remains to be seen, however, what else Egypt will do in response.