The Cable

Egypt's Rulers Have a New Friend in DC: The Israel Lobby

As pressure mounts on Washington to cut off U.S. military aid to Egypt, Cairo has found an awkward ally in the form of AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby firm that is actively pushing for continued U.S. aid to Egypt.

Long considered an incentive for Cairo to maintain peaceful ties with Israel, America's $1.3 billion package in annual U.S. military assistance to Egypt has come under global criticism as Egypt's military continues its bloody crackdown against anti-government protesters with U.S.-funded tanks and tear gas.

AIPAC, which was credited with helping kill an amendment to cut Egyptian aid in July, is now operating behind the scenes in private meetings with lawmakers to keep alive Cairo's funding, congressional aides from both political parties said.

"They made and continue to make their views known on this issue," a congressional aide tells The Cable. "But on an issue like aid to an Arab country, my experience with AIPAC has generally been that they will not be terribly vocal in public. To be sure, they feel strongly about keeping the aid flowing, but I wouldn't expect a massive call in and letter writing campaign."

Another aide from the opposite party concurred. "On sensitive issues like this, AIPAC will 'lobby' very quietly, by reaching out to select influential folks on the Hill," he said. "It's not in the Egyptian military's or Israel's interest to have AIPAC loudly supporting Egyptian FMF."

Publicly, few governments or lobbying firms want to be viewed as supportive of a crackdown that has led to more than 800 deaths and thousands of injuries across Egypt. In Israel, where the Netanyahu government has been largely silent on the issue, officials are said to be aware of how an endorsement of the aid package could backfire given Israel's unpopularity in the Middle East. But privately, officials aren't shedding tears about the military crackdown on the Islamist movement Muslim Brotherhood.

An AIPAC source speaking with The Cable on the condition of anonymity insisted that aid to Egypt was not a top issue for the lobbying group. But the source noted that AIPAC's support for the aid was not contingent on the way Egypt treats anti-government protesters. "The primary criteria on how we evaluate this issue is if Egypt is adhering to the peace treaty," the source said, referring to the 1979 peace accord that normalized relations between Egypt and Israel. "We realize that the situation is very fluid and that policymakers will have a range of considerations on this matter."

Although AIPAC has gone relatively quiet in recent weeks, some congressional aides expressed surprise at how publicly the group moved to kill an amendment sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul in July that would've suspended aid to Egypt until it holds free and fair elections. In a letter sent to Sen. Robert Menendez, chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking member, the group opposed the amendment saying it "could increase instability in Egypt and undermine important U.S. interests and negatively impact our Israeli ally." The letter was read aloud on the Senate floor by Sen. Lindsey Graham before the amendment was soundly defeated in an 86-13 vote.

"To be honest, I was a little surprised they went as far as they did with the public letter during debate over the Paul amendment," said a congressional aide, emphasizing AIPAC's preference for quiet lobbying on such issues. Another aide noted that the group made their opposition to suspending aid "loud and clear" in the July letter, adding that further efforts would be "overkill."

Emphasizing its other priorities, an AIPAC source told The Cable the group's main issue remains Iran. "Our priority right now is to lobby for increased sanctions and pressure on the Iranian regime to stop their nuclear program," said the source. "That's our legislative priority."


The Cable

Former Obama Admin Officials Turn on U.S. Egypt Policy

As the slaughter of antigovernment protesters in Egypt continues, a string of first-term State Department officials are now distancing themselves from President Obama's policies and refuting his reluctance to cut off military aid to Egypt's generals.

With injuries in the thousands and the official death toll nearing 700, Egypt's military leadership is showing no signs of abating, despite repeated demands by the White House to end the violent crackdown. Thus far, President Obama has cancelled next month's joint U.S. military exercise with Egypt and postponed the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, but former officials say those moves don't go nearly far enough.

"The situation in Egypt keeps getting worse, and Egyptian government actions keep running contrary to what the U.S. is calling for publicly and privately," said Amy Hawthorne, who left the State Department in December as Foggy Bottom's Egypt country coordinator. Hawthorne said the administration has waited too long to suspend military aid to the government. "Continuing this kind of business-as-usual approach implicates the U.S., in a way, in whatever is going on in Egypt, and could put us in a position pretty soon where we might be contorting ourselves to accept whatever repressive new political reality the Egyptian leadership is trying to create," she said.

Hawthorne is by no means alone. Tamara Wittes, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs during Obama's first term, says Obama's refusal to call the military's actions a coup has become indefensible. "I think it's time for the United States to recognize that what we have here is the restoration of a military dictatorship in Cairo," said Wittes, now at the Brookings Institution. "That means that the United States needs to call these events what they are - under American law it needs to suspend assistance to the Egyptian government because this was a military coup and it is a military regime."

Piling on, former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley addressed the administration's coup policy in a radio interview on Friday. "Obviously, I think it was a military coup. I think the United States should call it that," he told Democracy Now.

Inside the State Department, former officials tell The Cable the anxiety over the absence of a coherent policy is well known. "The worker bees are frustrated," said a former State Department official, referring to employees at the bureaus of Near Eastern Affairs, Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and Counterterrorism. "Everyone knows it's a coup. They recognize the reasons why we wouldn't call it a coup, but they also see the hypocrisy."

Another former department official recalled a contingency planning meeting in the Spring of 2012 in which officials discussed a number of hypothetical U.S. responses to troubling actions by Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. "Somebody raised the idea of cutting off military aid and it was roundly rejected," said the source. "The thinking was that we need to reserve such a step for something really huge, like a military coup. And everyone was like, ‘yeah, it would take a coup.'"

At a Tuesday briefing, reporters again questioned the State Department on its refusal to call the military overthrow a coup. "Does anyone in this building feel that perhaps it was a mistake not to call what happened in Egypt a coup?" asked a reporter.

"We don't feel that - no," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "I'm not doing a retrospective, and our position is the same."

"Obviously, things are volatile," Psaki continued. "Obviously, that's why the secretary, the president of the United States, people around the world are focused on taking every step we can possibly take to return to a stable path. That's our focus. We evaluate every single day, we review every day, what steps that can be taken, whether that's aid, whether that's new constructive ideas, whether that's calls, whether that's visits."

In any case, as the death toll climbs higher in Egypt, criticisms from former administration officials and members of Congress will only intensify pressure on the White House to get tough with Egypt's generals, even if that means sacrificing America's main source of influence in the country.