WASHINGTON—Lawmakers and analysts at home and abroad are widely criticizing the Obama administration one day after it acknowledged plans to cut some military aid to Egypt.
The public statement makes official what the White House was already doing in practice: withholding military assistance agreed upon in the 1979 Camp David Accords. In August, the United States canceled a bi-annual joint military exercise between the two nations, and over the last several months the U.S. government has halted the transfer of F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopter parts, and other equipment the Egyptian military was using to modernize its force.
“[W]e are not able to continue with business as usual,” Marie Harf, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said Wednesday, citing the removal of Egypt’s democratically elected government and ongoing turmoil in the region as reason for the cuts. The State Department said it would indefinitely withhold deliveries of tanks, aircraft, missiles, and $260 million in cash, although it did not release complete details of the plan.
Even members of President Barack Obama’s own party expressed disappointment with the decision: Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said cutting military aid is a bad idea—before adding that he’s “frustrated” with the administration’s unwillingness to consult Congress on its Egypt policy.
“The Egyptian military has handled the recent transition clumsily, but they have begun a democratic transition which will serve the Egyptian people well in the future and have also worked to maintain regional stability,” he said in a statement. “During this fragile period we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them.”
In July, the Egyptian military removed President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, from office only a year after his election. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 mandates the suspension of U.S. aid in countries where a military coup has taken place. But a delegation of counterterrorism experts and retired military officers who visited Egypt last week argue what happened was not actually a coup.
Regardless, retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a member of the delegation, told me Thursday that it doesn’t matter what anyone calls it, because President Obama has the authority to waive the exemption. It’s been done in the past. “[If] the U.S. government was intent on helping Egyptians, they would have waived the exemption and continued aid,” he said. “A strong Egypt is good for us.”
The administration said it plans to continue military support for counterterrorism operations in the Sinai Peninsula, but Francona called the effort a “band-aid.”
Not all reaction to the U.S. decision was negative: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an outspoken proponent of cutting all of the $1.5 billion U.S. aid to Egypt, told WORLD in an email, “After months of delay, I’m glad this administration is finally thinking about following the law.”
The State Department expressed a desire to see more movement toward democracy as a condition for restoring aid. Francona said Egypt’s 50-member committee—whose president, Amr Moussa, met with the delegation—is crafting a new constitution and hopes to have it finished within the month. He said the committee is, among other things, finalizing the wording to ensure protections for religious minorities.
I asked Francona how Egyptians will take the news of the U.S. military aid cuts, and he said, “Almost everybody we talked to will regard this as a slap in the face. It will just reaffirm the claim that we’re supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.” However, Francona said he pointed out to Egyptians that they are the ones who voted Morsi into office last year, so they can’t blame the U.S. for all their problems.
Tera Dahl, a Westminster Institute congressional fellow who was in Egypt during demonstrations last weekend, said the vast majority of Egyptians view the military as heroes and liberators. She said Muslim Brotherhood numbers are dwindling—despite Al Jazeera’s efforts to prop them up—as Muslims and Christians, young and old, unite against terrorism.
Dahl said police crackdowns on Muslim Brotherhood protestors, which left more than 50 dead over the weekend, are deserved: “[News reports] are showing the brutality of the police, but these protestors are not peaceful. They’ve got AK-47s.”
In Israel, some worried the interruption in aid could give Egypt less reason to honor the two nations’ 1979 agreement, which is credited with keeping the countries from war for the last 34 years. The Israeli government has so far declined to comment publicly, but Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper, ran a story on the cuts with the headline, “Aiding and abetting?” Others said the move wouldn’t harm relations because Israel and Egypt maintain a major common enemy: the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Obama administration said it will “continue to support a democratic transition” in Egypt, but no high-level U.S. officials have met with interim government leaders. Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, who co-led the recent U.S. delegation, told me Thursday that plans are in motion to send another, higher profile delegation in the next 60 days to offer direct support to the transitional government.