WASHINGTON—The Obama administration is pushing back against congressional disapproval over changes in U.S. policy with Egypt.
Elizabeth Jones, acting assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Alina Romanowski, deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, faced tough questions from members of both parties during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday morning. Many lawmakers railed against the White House decision to partially cut aid to the most populous country in the Middle East and accused President Barack Obama of sending mixed messages to the region.
“It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the committee’s ranking member. “These actions make it tougher for us to influence, not easier. … I’m really, very, very upset about this.”
Earlier this month the administration announced it would suspend some military assistance to Egypt’s interim government, which toppled President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government in July. Some viewed the regime change as a coup, but the Egyptian military said it was carrying out the will of the people in the absence of an impeachment mechanism.
The Obama administration cited a lack of progress toward democracy as the reason for withholding aid, and lawmakers on Tuesday repeatedly asked Jones what specific benchmarks must be met in order to restore aid. Jones said the United States has “clearly and directly” conveyed its concerns and requirements to interim leaders in Egypt, but she didn’t provide such clarity during the hearing, instead using vague generalities about needed “reforms.”
Until further notice, the United States is withholding deliveries of several weapons systems, including F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 tank kits, missiles, and four Apache helicopters to add to the 20 or so the Egyptian government currently has in its fleet. Egypt also will not receive $260 million in cash assistance.
Jones, one of the officials at the center of the Benghazi, Libya, investigation, claimed Egyptian leaders are “disappointed, but they understand” the decision to cut aid. But according to former military leaders who have visited the country in the last month, the announcement was met with outrage in Egypt, where many believe the U.S. government is supporting terrorism.
“Suspending military aid will not make Egypt more democratic or make it more likely for the U.S. to influence Egyptian policy in the future,” Engel said. “It will likely have the opposite effect.”
Some aid and even military training is continuing, but Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Egypt has little chance to recover with “destructive economic policies” still in place—which he identified as being largely to blame for Morsi’s overthrow in July. “Development aid without fundamental economic reforms in Egypt is sure to be wasted,” Royce said.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., criticized the State Department for not taking action to stop Muslims in Egypt from taking young girls as wives and forcing them to convert to Islam—a practice he said is targeted at Coptic Christians and getting worse. Jones said the State Department has issued statements condemning the practice and is training Egyptian police forces to combat it. But Smith said the United States should be doing more.
Several lawmakers openly questioned why the Obama administration is concerned about the current regime’s undemocratic actions when it failed to publicly criticize Morsi’s power grab following his 2012 election.
“If I were given the choice between the military and the Brotherhood, I’d take the military every single time,” Rep. Engel said, adding that he hopes the administration will reconsider the decision to suspend military aid.
While most of the committee was in agreement, Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., lectured the administration for supporting the interim government at all. “You can criticize another government and you can criticize how they are governing,” he told me afterward. “But it’s quite a stretch for the United States government, which upholds itself as a beacon for liberal democracy in the world, to rationalize away the overthrow of a democratically elected government.”
Some lawmakers said they don’t believe Morsi’s election was fully democratic because the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organized political party at the time, but Connolly said the State Department standard holds up to “no logic whatsoever.”
“It could justify the overthrow of almost any legitimate democratic government in the world,” he said. “That’s a very dangerous road to go down for the United States of America.”