WASHINGTON — Prominent US senators on Tuesday called for the Obama administration to suspend all aid to Egypt — including military assistance — unless the interim government meets certain standards.
The Egyptian military is heavily dependent on nearly $1.5 billion in annual aid it receives from the United States. But the military has come under increasing pressure after forcing from power former President Mohamed Morsi, then days later reportedly opening fire on some of his supporters.
The Obama administration has resisted dubbing the military’s forced ouster of Morsi a coup d’état, largely because US law requires any aid dollars be cut off to a country where such a government changeover occurs. But veteran senators on Tuesday urged the White House to turn off the aid spigot unless Egypt’s military and the interim government it is establishing take steps to ensure promised elections meet several democratic standards.
Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California broke with the White House on Tuesday, telling reporters she believes the military conducted what’s being called “the c-word” in Washington.
“It’s certainly a takeover. It’s certainly the removal of office from a sitting president, democratically elected,” Feinstein said. “It is a form of a coup. If it walks like a duck … it is.”
Feinstein stopped shy of calling for President Barack Obama and his senior aides to immediately cut off all aid to Egypt, long a key strategic ally for Washington in the volatile North African-Middle East region.
Instead, she suggested the administration slap restrictions on its aid monies.
“I think the United States very much needs to be reassured that elections matter in that country,” she told reporters. “And, if that were to be the case, I think that aid should be continued, if another election is held.”
Feinstein dubbed the period between today’s establishment of an interim government and elections “a period of assessment.”
One standard Feinstein said Cairo should be required to meet if it hopes to keep all of its American aid is allowing the ousted president to seek a new term.
“Mr. Morsi should not be precluded from running,” Feinstein said. “He should be able to run. … The people can make a judgment... that’s fair.”
Morsi, before taking office, was a longtime Muslim Brotherhood member. His ultra-conservative policies led to massive street protests, which the military followed by removing Morsi and his entire government.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters he also favors placing restrictions on aid to Egypt.
“I support suspending aid until a number of things happen,” Levin said.
One is “a date set for elections,” while the other is “steps towards a new constitution,” Levin said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, said he wants the Obama administration to take a very deliberate approach in mulling the status of Egypt’s aid.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee oversees the flow of US assistance dollars around the globe. Its senior Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, is urging White House officials and lawmakers to avoid taking any actions just yet.
“I just think as the greatest nation on earth today, our role right now should not be whipsawing and looking at things that, candidly, are not relevant to what’s actually occurring on the ground,” Corker said during a brief interview.
“We should be the nation that’s acting with maturity, and trying to calm the neighborhood,” Corker said. “We’ll have plenty of time to look at this. We’ve got time. [The status of US aid] is not, in the height of the crisis, something that we should be looking at.”
Pentagon press secretary George Little on Tuesday also urged restraint.
“A determination is not necessarily urgent and we have some time to look at all facets … and to reach the appropriate determinations,” Little said.
Since 2003, Washington has supplied Cairo with Chinook helicopters, F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, Abrams tanks, Hellfire missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, E2-C command-and-control aircraft, C-130 cargo planes, several kinds of cruise missiles, military engines, and a list of other combat systems, according to Defense Department records.
The DoD data also shows Cairo has expressed interest in US radar systems, support trucks and other platforms. It is unclear whether those have yet been purchased.
In January, four American-made F-16s arrived in Egypt, according to a June 27 Congressional Research Service report, which also notes of a “pending delivery in 2013 of a total of 20 F-16 C/D fighters to Egypt that were notified to Congress in 2009.”
“In 2010 Lockheed Martin and Egypt reached an agreement for the purchase of 20 F-16C/Ds valued at an estimated $2.5 billion,” according to CRS.
Any suspension of American military aid could delay delivery of those F-16s, which would be a hit for prime contractor Lockheed Martin. Other firms that could be affected include Black Hawk maker Sikorsky, radar manufacturers and Abrams tank maker General Dynamics, among others.
Corker and other senators declined to directly address the F-16 shipment highlighted by CRS. But he did reveal the Foreign Relations Committee staff is examining scheduled aid allotments and weapon deliveries.
“We’re going to have plenty of time to look at that,” he said. “Our staff is looking at the next disbursements going out. It’s not like they go out daily.”
While US arms sales to Egypt have all but ceased since longtime Washington ally Hosni Mubarak was forced from power, the US defense industry has been itching to regain the Egyptian market.
Though an increasing number of American lawmakers question whether Washington reaps ample returns on its Middle East aid investments, Congress for decades has kept the aid flowing.
“U.S. policy-makers have routinely justified aid to Egypt as an investment in regional stability, built primarily on long-running military cooperation and on sustaining the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty,” according to the CRS report, made public by the Federation for American Scientists. “Successive U.S. administrations have viewed Egypt’s government as generally influencing developments in the Middle East in line with U.S. interests.”
For that reason, Corker wants the administration and Congress to explore Washington’s Egypt options carefully.
“I think, right now, our voice should be the calming voice,” Corker told Defense News. “Let’s give some distance from the immediate crisis and look at this with sound minds.”
Marcus Weisgerber contributed.