Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky will get his wish Wednesday when the Senate considers his amendment to cancel America’s $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. Paul, who says President Obama is “ignoring the rule of law” by refusing to financially punish Egypt’s military for seizing power earlier this month, wants to redirect the aid to bridge building in the U.S.
Could Congress really bring to an end more than 30 years of aid from Washington to Cairo? Probably not.
This isn’t the Congress’s first bid to restrict American aid to Egypt, nor will it be the last. In 2006, Congress made U.S. aid to Egypt conditional on its progress on human rights and democracy, but then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used a national security waiver to bypass the restrictions. Last session, ten bills were introduced limiting both America’s military aid as well as another $200 million in annual economic aid to the country. Thirteen more have been introduced this year, with growing levels of support, especially in the wake of the military’s overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
None have come close to passing. Last year’s sole vote on the Egyptian aid issue – another amendment sponsored by Paul – failed 10-81 in the Senate. Few expect Paul’s current bill to fare much better, and no House measure has made it beyond committee level.
“I think it is unlikely that aid to Egypt will be stripped short of a major provocation from Egypt the U.S. cannot ignore, along the lines of massive killing of demonstrators,” says Marina Ottoway, an Egypt expert at the Wilson Center.
The Obama administration strongly opposes any reduction of aid. The Pentagon did announce last week that it will delay its delivery of four F-16s to Egypt. But that’s as far as the Obama administration will go for now: After a three-week review, the administration determined that the military’s ouster of Morsi was not a “coup”–an important distinction as the federal government is legally barred from aiding governments formed by coup. State Department spokesman Jen Psaki struggled to explain to reporters on Friday how the military takeover in Egypt didn’t qualify as a “coup.” “We don’t need to make a public declaration about whether this was a coup or not,” Psaki said. “The context of this is certainly very important here, which is… the stabilizing pillar that is Egypt and the important role it plays in regional peace and stability.”
Little-noted in the current debate is the fact that the administration similarly did not revoke aid after Egypt’s 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak–also backed by the military. In fact, Obama pledged an extra $1 billion in economic assistance for the country (only half of which has been paid out). Similarly, the funds flowed on when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group accused of terrorist links, assumed power when Morsi was elected president last summer. “The U.S. approach to Egypt throughout the Arab Spring has been to just keep everything going as if nothing has changed, despite the fact that everything on the ground has changed,” says Tamara Wittes, head of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
A coalition of human rights liberals and conservatives opposed to foreign aid is gaining strength. In mid-July, Senate Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two party leaders on foreign policy, called canceling military aid “right and necessary.” Though, Graham said Tuesday he’s reserving final judgment until he and McCain return next week from a trip to Egypt at President Obama’s behest.
But most Democrats and Republicans continue to believe revoking aid would deprive Washington of what Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez recently called its “leverage” over Egypt’s generals. As my colleague Michael Crowley noted, Washington also sensitive to the aid’s connection to the 1978 Camp David Accords establishing peace between Israel and the Arab world’s most populous state.
U.S. aid also buys valuable cooperation between the Pentagon and SCAF, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Allied Forces, including joint counter-terrorism operations in Egypt’s Sinai desert, a hotbed of Islamic militant activity. It also allows U.S. aircraft overflight privileges in Egyptian airspace, and gives U.S. vessels priority passage through the Suez Canal. In fact, the U.S. is the world’s only nation entitled to “cut the line” at the crowded canal – usually months long – and to sail nuclear-armed and powered vessels through it. (Other nuclear powers must send their Middle East-bound ships around the horn of Africa – a long and costly round trip.)
For now, those factors seem to ensure that American dollars will continue flowing to Egypt—coup or no coup.
*Update: The Senate tabled Paul’s amendment by a vote of 86-13 around 11:40 Wednesday morning.