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The Senate’s rejection last month of an effort to end all military aid to Egypt showed lawmakers aren’t ready yet to give up on Washington’s long-standing strategic alliance with Cairo, despite the anti-Western rhetoric and repressive tactics used by the country’s new Islamist government.
Still, a bipartisan group of senators would like to restructure the annual $1.3 billion military aid package for Egypt, America’s second-largest recipient of aid, after Israel.
The idea is to shift that assistance away from fighter jets, tanks and other big, conventional weapons systems that Egypt has been buying from the United States and direct money toward programs that would address Egypt’s most immediate security challenges, such as the deterioration of internal police forces and a growing terrorist threat in the Sinai Peninsula.
“The Egyptians don’t need more F-16s and tanks,” said Arizona Republican John McCain, a member of both the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. “They need a totally different set of assets than they have now.”
This new approach, also embraced by Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East, and Tennessee’s Bob Corker, the full committee’s ranking Republican, dovetails with an Obama administration effort to persuade the Egyptian military to embrace a greater counter-terrorist role, particularly against heavily armed Bedouin tribesmen and al-Qaida fighters who now roam the Sinai with impunity.
Since the collapse of government authority in the Sinai after the 2011 revolution, these groups routinely use the territory to traffic in drugs and weapons, including shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles from the looted armories of deposed Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. Over the past two years, they have mounted deadly attacks against Egyptian and Israeli border forces, as well as members of a U.S.-led international force in the Sinai to monitor the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. (See “‘Mission Creep’ Poses Challenge.”)
On Jan. 31, the Senate roundly rejected a measure by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul that would have halted all arms sales to Egypt, including already purchased F-16 warplanes and M-1 tanks, to signal the Senate’s displeasure with its president, Mohammed Morsi. Last year, Congress conditioned U.S. military aid on the administration’s certification that Morsi’s government was protecting democratic freedoms. The aid continued after the administration invoked a national security waiver.
With Paul’s challenge now quashed, some lawmakers argue it’s time to restructure the aid package to build up the Egyptian military’s counterinsurgency capacity.