In a move that could reshape the way the United States deals with post-coup governments, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill that would make it easier to provide aid to countries ruled by military regimes. With an eye toward this summer's turmoil in Egypt, the bill also requires the executive branch to determine when a democratically-elected government has been removed by force.
On Wednesday, the Egypt Assistance Reform Act sailed through the committee in a 16-1 vote. Its key backers, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn), said the bill allows the U.S. government to maintain ties with strategically important countries like Egypt while imposing strict restrictions on any financial or military aid to their governments.
"This legislation reaffirms the enduring U.S. commitment to our partnership with the Egyptian government by authorizing continued assistance and endorsing the importance of ongoing cooperation," said Menendez, chairman of the committee.
But opponents criticized it for lifting restrictions on U.S. aid to unelected military juntas. The committee "voted to weaken existing law and give the president more authority to send billions in aid to countries who violently overthrow their governments and engage in violence against their own citizens," Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) told The Cable in a statement.
If it makes it into law, the bill would theoretically prevent the awkward situation the Obama administration found itself in this summer when it refused to call the Egyptian military's overthrow of its democratically-elected government a coup. The administration avoided making that determination because of Section 7008 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Law, which prohibits aid to post-coup countries. The White House feared that cutting off all aid to Egypt would further diminish U.S. influence in the country, so instead of calling a coup a coup, the administration remained silent.
Menendez's legislation, which he drafted in consultation with the White House, would force the administration to make a coup determination after a democratically-elected government was deposed by force, but still give the White House flexibility to decide if, and how, to maintain aid.
"To receive that assistance, the Egyptian government must meet certain security and economic assistance benchmarks like adherence to the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, cooperating on counter terrorism, and taking steps to consolidate their democratic transition," read a Menendez office handout.
Paul, a longtime critic of U.S. aid to Cairo, said the legislation gives the Egyptian military a free pass during its rule over the country. "Instead of holding the Egyptians accountable, this bill will make it easier for the US to send tanks and F-16 fighter jets to a country that suffers endemic violence against political opponents and religious minorities," Paul said in the statement.
Egypt experts speaking with The Cable provided mixed perspectives.
The Brookings Institution's Shadi Hamid accused Congress of outsourcing its oversight responsibilities to the executive branch. "Congress is abdicating its jurisdiction over the issue," he said. "This bill gives the administration the latitude to do what it wants."
The Washington Institute's Eric Trager, however, said the bill gives the administration the flexibility it needs to conduct sound foreign policy. "The legislation reflects a growing realization that the U.S. has limited leverage over Egypt's domestic politics given the ongoing existential struggle between the military-backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood," he said. Trager emphasized that the legislation would give the administration flexibility to deal with unsavory, but strategically important countries.
Hamid worried that in a tug-of-war between Congress and the White House, the bill ensures that Congress will lose every time. "I suppose the silver lining is that the administration would have to provide a detailed justification of its decision to continue aid," he said. "But if Congress doesn't like that justification, the administration can do what it wants."
The bill is unlikely to make it to the Senate floor before the upper chamber breaks for Christmas recess at the end of the week, so Menendez will likely seek its inclusion in spending bills passing through Congress in January.
You can read the full bill here.