Senator: Obama Administration Secretly Suspended Military Aid to Egypt

The U.S. government has decided privately to act as if the military takeover of Egypt was a coup, temporarily suspending most forms of military aid, despite deciding not to announce publicly a coup determination one way or the other, according to a leading U.S. senator.

Supporters of Egypt’s top military officer, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, march over a bridge leading to Tahrir Square in Cairo after the ouster of democratically elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. For decades, foreign armies that receive U.S. assistance have been on notice that toppling their freely elected civilian leaders will have penalties. It seems the White House is making good on those threats by cutting aid. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

In the latest example of its poorly understood Egypt policy, the Obama administration has decided to temporarily suspend the disbursement of most direct military aid, the delivery of weapons to the Egyptian military, and some forms of economic aid to the Egyptian government while it conducts a broad review of the relationship. The administration won’t publicly acknowledge all aspects of the aid suspension and maintains its rhetorical line that no official coup determination has been made, but behind the scenes, extensive measures to treat the military takeover of Egypt last month as a coup are being implemented on a temporary basis.

The office of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the head of the appropriations state and foreign-operations subcommittee, told The Daily Beast on Monday that military aid to Egypt has been temporarily cut off.

Leahy’s “understanding is that aid to the Egyptian military has been halted, as required by law,” said David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy.

The administration’s public message is that $585 million of promised aid to the Egyptian military in fiscal 2013 is not officially on hold, as technically it is not due until September 30, the end of the fiscal year, and no final decisions have been made.

“After sequestration withholding, approximately $585 million remains unobligated. So, that is the amount that is unobligated,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday. “But it would be inaccurate to say that a policy decision has been made with respect to the remaining assistance funding.”

But two administration officials told The Daily Beast that administration lawyers decided it was best to observe the law restricting military aid on a temporary basis, as if there had been a coup designation, while at the same time deciding that the law did not require a public announcement on whether a coup took place.

“The decision was we’re going to avoid saying it was a coup, but to stay on the safe side of the law, we are going to act as if the designation has been made for now,” said one administration official. “By not announcing the decision, it gives the administration the flexibility to reverse it.”

Several parts of the aid are now temporarily on hold, including the disbursement of the $585 million of $1.3 billion in fiscal 2013 foreign military financing still not delivered to the Egyptian military, the delivery of Apache helicopters that the Egyptian government has already paid for, and the depositing of economic support funds for programs that would directly benefit the Egyptian government, despite official administration denials, the administration officials said.

President Obama makes a statement to the media regarding events in Egypt from his rental vacation home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard on August 15. The president announced that the U.S. is canceling joint military exercises with Egypt amid violence. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Some aspects of U.S.-Egyptian cooperation can still go forward under the new approach, including maintenance and repair of equipment the Egyptian military already has, the funding of some government-linked programs, and funding for civilian projects in Egypt run by American organizations, although many of those programs have already been shut down after the Egyptian government cracked down on foreign NGOs.

Psaki said Monday that no final policy decision has been made on any of the Egypt aid and that various parts of the complicated package are still under review. She did acknowledge that some economic support has been temporarily suspended, as The New York Times reportedSunday.

“Programs with the government designed to promote free and fair elections, health assistance, programs for the environment, democracy, rule of law and good governance can also continue in cases even where a legal restriction might apply,” she said. “But to the extent where there are ESF programs that would benefit the government, which is obviously a section, we are reviewing each of those programs on a case-by-case basis to identify whether we have authority to continue providing those funds or should seek to modify our activities to ensure that our actions are consistent with the law.”

President Obama last week condemned the Egyptian military’s assault on civilians, but did not address the aid issue directly. He said the administration was engaged in a full-scale review of all aspects of U.S-Egypt cooperation.

“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” he said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also said Monday that all aspects of U.S. aid to Egypt were part of the ongoing review and that no final decisions had been made. He also sought to tamp down expectations that any suspension or revoking of U.S. aid to Egypt would immediately change the calculus of the Egyptian military.

“Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited,” he said. “It’s up to the Egyptian people. And they are a large, great, sovereign nation. And it will be their responsibility to sort this out.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and staffers complained that the administration is trying to skirt congressional intent by refusing to say whether it believes there was a coup in Egypt while implementing its own preliminary punitive measures outside the confines of the legislation.

“This approach seems to be too cute by half, leaving the U.S. with little leverage in Egypt and appearing to condone gross violations of human rights in the process,” said one senior GOP Senate aide. “It is also unclear that Congress intended to give the executive branch this much leeway in implementing the coup provision in Section 7008” of the law.

For Egypt experts, the administration’s decision to temporarily suspend some aid but not make a public determination that a coup occurred represents not only its ongoing deliberations but also a desire to preserve options for handling the Egypt aid going forward, especially if it decides to restore the aid in the future.

The administration’s confused messaging on Egypt also has analysts scratching their heads and wondering whether temporary suspensions of aid can have any real effect.

“If this is the plan, then it seems like they are trying to maintain maximum flexibility,” said Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “But I’m not certain this is the plan, and I don’t think at this stage that modest shifts in policy or even bigger ones would matter as much on the ground as much as they might have in the past. Egypt’s struggle has become so intense, polarized, and violent, and I worry that no matter what move the United States makes now, the competing power centers in Egypt might continue down the dangerous course they’ve headed.”

Some experts believe that a public announcement of the aid suspensions would raise the pressure on the Egyptian military to behave better, especially if done in conjunction with other concerned world powers.

“Cutting off the aid and announcing that puts the maximum pressure on the Egyptian government to correct its path,” said Tarek Radwan, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center. “Any kind of coordination with the European powers toward international delegitimization, that’s something that the Egyptian government would be highly uncomfortable with and would force them at least to do damage control.”

Overall, the administration is trying to maintain both flexibility and credibility in Egypt to play a constructive role going forward but is struggling on both fronts, Radwan said.

“What they are trying to do is appear not to be taking sides,” he said. “But the U.S. is in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ position.”

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