US Aid to Egypt: The Start of a Serious Conversation

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The recent Egypt debate in the US Senate could easily lead you to two separate, contradictory, and equally correct conclusions.  The first, more charitable than the next, would say that we have the beginning of a substantive political debate over aid to Egypt and overall US-Egyptian relations which that should be good for both countries.  The other conclusion would be that the US Senate is all talk and no action.  Or, to quote the gentleman from the great state of England, all sound and fury signifying nothing. 

Both conclusions are right.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL and possible 2016 presidential contender) started this off last week with a Floor speech where he spoke about an amendment he intended to offer to the FY 2013 Continuing Resolution (CR), that would determine the terms of US government assistance to Egypt.

So first we had the sound.  Then came the fury of activity as other Senators began tossing out their versions of aid restrictions, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), James Inhofe (R-OK), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and, of course, Rand Paul (R-KY).  Some were genuine attempts at restrictions, whereas others, frankly, were just attempts to minimize damage that could be done by overzealous language.

No one – in or out of the Administration – could disagree with the overall goals laid out by Sen. Rubio is his Floor speech last week and by others as they spoke:

  • Commitment to genuine democracy
  • Counter-terrorism cooperation
  • Increased domestic Egyptian security
  • A comprehensive, objective review of US-Egyptian relations, etc.

In fact, I think you’d find a lot of Egyptians who agree with these same points.  The problem is that some question if the goal is right, yet the tactic wrong.  Part of that mandate required certification every 180 days, as opposed to the annual certification mandated in the past, and reports on dialogue to Congress. Would mandating reports, certifications, etc. simply annoy Egyptian pride to the point that they say “It’s not worth it” and tell us to keep our aid?  The Administration and others clearly have that fear.

The Administration obviously fought the restrictions as any Administration would – and should – do.  From their standpoint, amendments like this are very clear.  They are seen as mandating what should not be mandated in legislation and provoking a very negative response from the Egyptian Government. 

And this is where a great lesson I was taught years ago comes in.  As a junior lobbyist, straight out of grad school with my shiny Middle East degree from Georgetown, I got frustrated with the debate surrounding one topic and blurted out, “But that’s not the issue!”  And someone smarter than me (but with less grey hair than I now have) simply said, “The issue’s not the issue.”  That’s when a big chunk of Washington clicked for me.

The issue here isn’t aid even though aid is being made to seem like the issue.  The broader question is the overall US-Egyptian relationship and, for the Administration, what could be lost if the aid connection were taken out of the equation.  Overflights?  Canal privileges?  A role in the peace process?  And that great Middle East boogeyman – Camp David?  Any Administration would oppose amendments such as those debated in the past week on this broader basis. 

What is significant about this debate is not that it’s happening, but rather that the range of actors involved in drafting the amendments has expanded beyond one lone voice in the wilderness.  Last year, Sen. Rand Paul was that voice; holding up the Highway Bill for weeks as he sought to cut off aid to Egypt.  His intentions were certainly understandable as he tried to punish Egypt for action taken against US and international democracy and governance NGOs.  But every time he reached for a tool to use against the Egyptians, he came up with a meat ax.

We now have people speaking out and drafting amendments who carry scalpels and who are putting a lot of thought into their language to actually garner support rather than just alienate Members.  Sen. Rubio’s speech last week demonstrated this approach in spades as he not only laid out support for – and defense of – foreign aid, he showed that he was sensitive to Egyptian views and Administration views and, frankly, the views of his fellow Senators.  Mind you, being sensitive to the views of others doesn’t mean you do what they want, but it’s hard to dismiss someone who has clearly thought out an issue as complicated as US-Egyptian relations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) helped deftly deflect this issue by reminding the members that there is a Committee on Foreign Relations (SFRC).  And, in fact, three of these members are on that Committee.  What does this mean for the future?

First of all, this debate is not going away and will come up in different forms throughout 2013. What we will end up with is language in the FY2014 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill (a subcommittee chaired by one of the amendment drafters, Sen. Leahy) that should be completed by early summer.  If history is any guide, the chances of this being a stand-alone bill are slight, but it will be rolled into the next CR or other packaged legislation, so any language will go forward.

Again, through looking at history, the idea that we will have a Foreign Aid Authorization Bill is slight.  There’s a bit more of a chance for a State Department Authorization Bill, but only a chance.  But the SFRC will have other opportunities to discuss Egypt.  Soon a new Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs will be announced and the Committee will have that confirmation hearing to ask questions, along with the possible replacement of Ann Patterson as ambassador to Egypt.

The real point here is that the debate over US-Egyptian relations will continue through 2013 at least, but will have a tone that has been lacking in the past.  The amendments will sound reasonable, the members will be credible, and that makes this debate not just an annoyance to be put up with, but the start of a serious conversation. 

John D. Lawrence, formerly the director of Congressional Affairs at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, has a Masters in Arab Studies from Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and first traveled to Egypt in 1985.  He participated in technical observation of the first round of Egyptian elections in November 2011.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

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