The White House is taking friendly fire for a leaked plan to suspend a substantial portion of American military aid to Egypt, a key pillar of U.S. Middle East policy for the last 30 years. On Wednesday, Rep. Eliot Engel, the most senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused the administration of jeopardizing the U.S.-Egypt relationship and imperilling American interests in the region.
"I am disappointed that the Administration is planning to partially suspend military aid to Egypt," Engel said in statement. "During this fragile period we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them."
The decision is expected to be announced very soon -- perhaps as early as Wednesday night. Update: According to a congressional source briefed by the State Department, the U.S. will halt a shipment of military equipment to Egypt, including Abrams tanks, F-16s, Harpoon missiles, and Apache helicopters. They will also hold $260 million in cash transfers and a planned $300 million loan guarantee.
On Tuesday night, the White House pushed back on a number initial media reports, insisting that the entire U.S. aid package to Egypt would be not cut. "The reports that we are halting all military assistance to Egypt are false," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "We will announce the future of our assistance relationship with Egypt in the coming days, but as the President made clear at [the United Nations], that assistance relationship will continue."
For months, the administration has received criticism for its aid to Cairo following the military's brutal crackdown of supporters loyal to ousted president Mohamed Morsy. But efforts to suspend aid in Congress by libertarian Republicans have failed in the face of bipartisan opposition by congressional leaders and lobbying efforts by the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Because the aid package is seen as a key component of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, many see it as critical to regional stability. Just last month, at a Reuters conference in Georgia, retired Egyptian General Sameh Saif Al-Yazal said even a small suspension of U.S. aid to Egypt "would jeopardize the entire peace treaty" with Israel.
But that's not the only reason Engel and other lawmakers are upset with the administration's purported plan. "I am also frustrated that the Administration has not adequately consulted with Congress regarding U.S. policy towards Egypt," said Engel. "I urge the administration to work together with Congress and Egypt's leadership to better address the serious security and economic challenges Egypt currently faces."
Congressional aides in both parties tell The Cable that members were blindsided by last night's CNN report that the administration was ready to cut off aid. The White House has repeatedly failed to consult with Congress on its Egypt policy, these aides noted.
"It's a systematic refusal to engage with Congress on a critical policy issue," said one Democratic aide who focuses on foreign policy issues. "It doesn't necessarily speak to the sensitivity of the issue, but to the lack of any clear policy to come talk to us about."
Egypt policy, in particular, has been a black box, added a Republican aide. "The administration was pretty good on coming to talk to us on Syria," the aide said. "But for some reason, Egypt is this verboten subject where they refuse to engage, and it's clearly not Democratic versus Republican favoritism."
The White House appears to be seeking a middle ground between the status quo and cutting off all aid. But Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the strategy runs of the risk of sending mixed messages to Egypt's military brass. "The key question is whether the consequences for the Egyptian military are significant or meaningful," he told The Cable. "If they aren't, then there's little reason to think the move will change their calculus, which, I would argue, is the point of any aid suspension."