The Cable

Lawmakers Propose Aid Overhaul as Egypt Sentences Journalists

In an embarrassing setback for the Obama administration, the Egyptian government stepped up its crackdown on freedom of the press and political dissent just one day after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo, raising new questions about the White House's support for an increasingly repressive regime.

During the Sunday visit, Kerry vowed to resume hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Cairo and clear the way for the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters -- assistance that is now coming under withering criticism following the conviction of three journalists on charges of spreading false news and conspiring with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. In Washington, members of Congress, including some Democrats, condemned the convictions and called for an overhaul of U.S. funding to Egypt, exposing a disconnect between the president, members of his own party, and Egyptian activists.

"This is not the way a democracy, or even a country in transition back to a democracy, should act," Rep. Adam Schiff, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for the Freedom of Press, said on Monday.

In a statement to Foreign Policy, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said the convictions of the reporters "should be reversed immediately."

The statements of outrage aren't just talk. Schiff, a California Democrat, will propose an amendment on Tuesday that would cut and restructure American aid to Egypt, chopping off almost a third of security assistance funding to Cairo and putting the savings into economic assistance programs related to education, democracy and civil society. Egypt, Schiff said, "is too important to the region and to the world for the United States to stand idly by."

On the Senate side, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the head of the panel that appropriates foreign aid, said "further aid should be withheld" until Egypt demonstrates a basic commitment to justice and human rights.

"The harsh actions taken today against journalists is the latest descent toward despotism," Leahy said in a statement.

That's bad news for the Obama administration, which has been lobbying Congress for months to continue assistance to Egypt, which it views as a vital albeit troublesome Middle Eastern ally. The standoff on Capitol Hill also highlights a broader challenge for the White House: balancing its stated support for human rights and political freedom in the Middle East with its desperate need to maintain stability in one of the region's most powerful countries while Syria and Iraq disintegrate.

Monday's sentencing of two al Jazeera journalists to seven years in jail and one to 10 years is only the latest action to draw international criticism of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi and place pressure on the Obama administration to rein in its longtime Arab ally.

On Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced more than 180 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death for allegedly assaulting a police headquarters in the country's south. Amnesty International characterized the verdicts as "the latest example of the Egyptian judiciary's bid to crush dissent."

Despite the growing whiff of authoritarianism, Kerry publicized on Sunday that the U.S. recently released $575 million in aid for Egypt's military and would deliver attack helicopters to the government imminently. "I am confident...that the Apaches will come and that they will come very, very soon," said Kerry, the most senior Obama administration official to meet Sisi since his presidential inauguration this month.

Last year, Washington froze the lion's share of its $1.3 billion in yearly military assistance to Egypt after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsy, the country's first democratically elected leader.

On Sunday, Kerry said Sisi gave him a "very strong sense of his commitment" to reforming the country's judicial processes and human rights laws -- but many Egypt experts doubted the sincerity of Kerry's assurances.

"I was actually surprised by Kerry's remarks," Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center, said in an interview. "The U.S. has been careful not to criticize Sisi too much, but here was Kerry offering praise for Sisi despite his showing no effort to improve the human rights situation at all."

The State Department pointed to a new statement by Kerry on Monday condemning the conviction of the three journalists, but the remarks did not mention any consequences for Cairo and the department even downplayed the timing of the decision by Egypt's famously corrupt court system.

"I don't want to jump to any conclusions about the timing," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf at the daily briefing on Monday. "As you know, there is a judicial process here."

Amy Hawthorne, a former State Department appointee who focused on Egypt during Obama's first term, said the administration is set on prioritizing its strategic relationship with Cairo above concerns about human rights.

"This administration doesn't believe that the human rights situation in Egypt constitutes a crisis," said Hawthorne, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Some analysts like me really worry that if this continues, it's going to create a situation in Egypt that could radicalize [the opposition] and make our security interests in Egypt difficult to continue."

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The Cable

Democratic Leadership Rallies Behind Obama on Iraq

Although the 2003 invasion of Iraq remains deeply unpopular in the United States, particularly among liberals, top congressional Democrats are backing President Barack Obama's decision to send 300 military advisors back to Iraq almost three years after declaring the war over.

Despite fears of mission creep and warnings from rank-and-file, anti-war Democrats, leading lawmakers, from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to Adam Smith and Carl Levin, are supporting the president even though polls show Americans strongly oppose even a modest military presence in Iraq. 

"I support the strategy that President Obama outlined yesterday," Michigan's Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Friday. "The decision to send a small number of U.S. military advisors is prudent."

Levin, like House Minority Leader Pelosi, voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution and sharply opposed President George W. Bush's handling of the war. But both Democrats said President Obama's newly announced military advisors will help the Iraqi government defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which recently seized an alarming swath of territory in northern and central Iraq. "The United States has national security interests in Iraq," Levin said.

Senate Majority Leader Reid also backs the president. "This decision gives America the flexibility to take precise action against threats to our national security and keeps Iraqi authorities accountable for maintaining the security of their own country," he said on Thursday.

Smith of Washington state, the House Armed Services Committee's top Democrat, agreed that the United States should push for a political reconciliation between Iraq's Sunnis and its Shiite-led government. "President Obama is correct in pressuring the Iraqis to think beyond military action," he said. "There are no easy options but given the difficulties and what is at stake, the president's strategy balances these vital interests."

The 300 military advisors will "assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward," according to the president's remarks Thursday. That support could eventually mean U.S. airstrikes against ISIS militants. Although Democratic leaders initially are supporting the president, their liberal colleagues cautioned against a more involved operation.

"It has to be limited in both scope and timed duration or the president needs to come to Congress for authorization," Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told reporters after leaving a closed-door briefing on Thursday.

"What we're doing here is sending our troops without any discernible strategy," said Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Rep. Barbara Lee of California introduced an amendment to a Defense appropriations bill on Thursday night that would prohibit funding for combat operations in Iraq. "We must not let history repeat itself in Iraq because the reality is there is no military solution in Iraq," she said. The amendment was soundly defeated.

Grayson also questioned whether the president has the authority to deploy military personnel without congressional approval -- a separation of powers issue on which some Republicans actually back the president.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Thursday that in "an emergency-type situation that the president under his powers as commander in chief has the ability to address [this]."

He also applauded the president's initial steps. "What the president said today is a much better place to be than we were 24 hours ago," said Rubio.

Democrats across the ideological spectrum emphasized that the longer U.S. military personnel remain in Iraq, the more difficult it will be for the president's fellow Democrats to support him. "I think he has Article II authority to act to protect the national security of the United States in the short term," said Murphy. "But if he's proposing anything beyond a handful of weeks and months, he has to come back to Congress for new authority."

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