Leaving Military Aid Intact, U.S. Takes Steps to Halt Economic Help to Egypt

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CHILMARK, Mass. -- The Obama administration has taken preliminary steps to withhold financial aid to the Egyptian government, officials said on Sunday, though it is curtailing economic assistance, not the much larger military aid on which Egypt's generals depend.

The State Department has put a hold on financing for economic programs that directly involve the Egyptian government, administration officials said, out of a concern that the military-led government might have violated Congressional rules prohibiting aid to countries where there has been a coup.

The administration has not declared whether the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsi constituted a coup. But the State Department is abiding by a complex web of restrictions governing foreign aid, an official said. Those restrictions are tighter than the rules governing the military aid, which has not been suspended.

Whether to cut off the remaining $585 million in military aid available to Egypt this year was one of the questions that awaited President Obama as he returned to Washington from a vacation in Martha's Vineyard that was shadowed by the bloodshed in Egypt that has left hundreds of Islamist protesters dead.

For Egypt, the value of the military aid is perhaps less important than the advanced systems it can buy with American support. Already, the United States is considering a delay in the shipment of Apache attack helicopters and repair kits for tanks. That comes on top of decisions to delay the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets and to pull out of a major joint military exercise next month with the Egyptian Army.

But the administration has stopped short of suspending the aid, which has served as a foundation of the American relationship with Egypt for more than three decades and is viewed as critical to the region's stability, not least as a pillar of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Military aid to Egypt dwarfs civilian aid: of the $1.55 billion in total assistance the White House has requested for 2014, $1.3 billion is military and $250 million is economic. The civilian aid goes to such things as training programs and projects run by the United States Agency for International Development.

"We have stopped spending money in areas that would be prevented if it were determined to be a coup," said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "We'll put a pause on those programs, because we don't want to flout the law."

Among the programs affected, the official said, would be training programs in the United States for Egyptian government workers, teachers or hospital administrators. Depending on how events in Egypt unfold, and on how lawmakers react when they return from August recess, the economic aid could resume later, the official said.

There are fewer legal restrictions on the $585 million in military aid -- the amount remaining from the original $1.3 billion appropriation. This has yet to be deposited in an account in the Federal Reserve in New York, where the Egyptian military could use it to buy weapons and spare parts and to pay for maintenance and training.

"As we've made clear, all of our assistance to Egypt is currently under review," the State Department's deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said. "At this point, no additional decisions have been made regarding assistance."

In the past, administration officials have said they were skeptical that halting military aid would persuade the generals to put Egypt back on a path to democracy. They also worry that withdrawing the funds would leave the United States without any leverage.

Israel and several Arab counties have lobbied the United States not to cut off aid, arguing that the army is still the best hope to stop Egypt from slipping into chaos and that the need for stability should outweigh, for now, concerns about democracy and human rights.

But with the death toll from the week's violence surpassing 1,000 and little prospect of an end to the standoff, officials said, the administration had begun a debate over what threshold it was willing to bear before it fundamentally rethought its relationship with the military.

During his week on Martha's Vineyard, Mr. Obama tried not to allow the Egypt crisis to intrude on his vacation routine of golf, dinner with friends, and beach and bike outings with his family. But on Thursday, the president held a conference call with members of the National Security Council to discuss options for dealing with the standoff.

Back in Washington, pressure on Mr. Obama to do more about Egypt is mounting, but lawmakers remain divided on whether to cut off aid, with a handful of outspoken Republican hawks calling for it, while other Republicans and most Democrats still have qualms. Given the reluctance of many lawmakers to suspend military aid for security reasons, canceling economic aid may be an easier way for them to register their displeasure with the Egyptian government.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, who recently traveled to Cairo and took part in a failed diplomatic effort to defuse the standoff, said in a television interview that the administration lost credibility when it did not cut off aid, even after the generals clearly engineered a coup in removing Mr. Morsi.

"We could be cutting off the aid," Mr. McCain said on the CNN program "State of the Union" "The spare parts and maintenance of this military equipment we've given the Egyptians is important to their capabilities."

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who accompanied Mr. McCain to Egypt, said the United States should send a powerful message to the Egyptian military leader, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi.

"Somebody needs to look el-Sisi in the eye and say, 'You're going to destroy Egypt, you're going to doom your country to a beggar state, you're going to create an insurgency for generations to come; turn around, General, before it's too late,' " Mr. Graham said on the CBS News program "Face the Nation."

But the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, said the United States should "recalibrate" its aid to make its unhappiness clear but not endanger security needs like priority passage through the Suez Canal in a crisis. "I don't want to cut off our relations," Mr. Corker said on ABC News's "This Week."

Several Democrats echoed Mr. Corker's sense that overarching American security interests made any aid cutoff problematic.

"I think we'll find that aid that we may withhold is compensated by aid that the Gulf states may provide," Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said on "Fox News Sunday."

In one small but telling way, the relationship between the United States and Egypt has already changed. An administration official said that when the Pentagon finally delivers the four delayed F-16 planes, it will charge the Egyptian Air Force a fee for storing them.

Mark Landler reported from Chilmark, and Thom Shanker from Washington. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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