A soldier sets up barbed wire in anticipation of protesters outside the constitutional court in Cairo on Sunday, August 18. The protesters never showed up. Over the past week, about 900 people — security forces as well as citizens — have been killed. Deaths occurred when the military used force to clear supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy from two sit-in sites in Cairo on Wednesday, and violence raged after Morsy supporters staged demonstrations Friday.
The Obama administration is withholding some military aid to Egypt as it reviews how it wants to proceed, a U.S. official told CNN.
The move is being described as a “reprogramming” of some funds to Egypt, but in effect, Washington is temporarily holding up some military aid to that country as it prepares for the possibility that future aid could be cut, the official said.
A spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, David Carle, confirmed to CNN Monday that his office has been told the aid has been halted. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, is chairman of the Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee.
The United States gives about $1.23 billion in military aid to Egypt.
But the U.S. official emphasized no decision has been made to permanently halt the aid. These steps ultimately allow the administration to move forward on either scenario: pressing ahead with the aid or cutting it off.
Aid is not a continuous flow of funds, but a series of periodic bursts: a delivery of fighter jets; a military exercise. Both of those recent aid items for Egypt have already been halted.
The official said the latest moves to “reprogram” aid mean the United States has taken steps to get the remaining aid in U.S. accounts in line with legal requirements so the administration is positioned to cut off the aid, if it decides to do so, or continue it.
The official says once the review is complete, administration officials will go to Congress to decide how to move forward.
Reporter Josh Rogin with the Daily Beast first reported the United States has quietly suspended the aid.
What it means
The move provides the administration with a quick “on/off” switch.
Under the law, if the United States were to designate the situation in Egypt a “coup,” the United States couldn’t restore aid until a democratic government is established. A coup determination would not be temporary.
But if Washington “reprograms” funds, it can withhold the aid as long as it thinks doing so would be in its best interest. The United States could restore the aid without needing a legal determination that a democratic government has returned to Egypt. If, for example, Egypt stops the bloodshed, the aid could quickly resume.
“That’s the purpose of these reviews: to determine what impact it would have on our national security, whether it’s in compliance with the law, and is it going to get us closer to seeing the kind of outcome in Egypt that we would like to see, which is the prompt return to a democratically elected, civilian government in Egypt,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing Monday.
Earnest said the U.S. involvement with Egypt extends beyond the military relationship and includes influence at the International Monetary Fund as well as on tourism, “which has a significant impact on the Egyptian economy.”
‘Damned if you do…‘
More than half of Americans in a new poll believe the United States should halt military aid. But the situation is complex.
“The United States is kind of in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation,” said Tarek Radwan, associate director for research at the Atlantic Council.
Analyst Jon Alterman said the issue centers on what Washington wants to accomplish.
“If you are trying to change the decision-making process of the Egyptian military — that is very hard to do right now because they believe they are locked in an existential struggle,” said Alterman, Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
“If what you are trying to do is demonstrate our resolve to the rest of the world and people looking on, that is another issue.”
But the aid isn’t one-sided. The United States has been granted preferential use of the Suez Canal — an economic hub that connects the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
It also has overflight rights, which gives the U.S. military the ability to fly over Egypt on the way to bases in the region.
Will cutting aid do anything?
Cutting aid will probably not accomplish much, some experts say — particularly because Saudi Arabia has said it would consider matching the U.S. assistance if the Obama administration decides to cut it.
“Our Congress is not about to compete with that amount of money in Egypt,” said Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “(The Saudis) have deep pockets, and they are ready to put them in Egypt’s disposal.”
But Radwan said there could be a net effect. If the United States diversifies its engagement with Egypt, “not only the Obama administration, but any administration after would have for more policy flexibility,” he said.
As U.S. officials mull the next steps, Egyptian security forces may have upped the ante in their ongoing conflict with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On Tuesday, security forces arrested Mohamed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, at an apartment in Cairo, state-run Nile TV reported. Badie is accused of inciting violence.
Clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy have been deadly. Over the past week, about 900 people — citizens and security personnel — have been killed.