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An Egyptian court’s conviction of more than 40 civil society workers Tuesday prompted sharp criticism from Capitol Hill, even from lawmakers who have urged patience with Cairo in the past.
With Congress in the midst of drafting its fiscal 2014 spending bills, the latest news from the troubled country will make it that much tougher for the Obama administration to maintain funding levels for Egyptian aid this year, as requested in its budget.
Shortly after news of the court’s decision broke Tuesday, a bipartisan pair of congressmen began circulating a letter to colleagues addressed to Morsi, and obtained by CQ Roll Call, lambasting the convictions and issuing a not-so-veiled warning that the United States’ considerable aid program to Egypt is at stake.
“We urge you to immediately reconsider this matter and return confiscated property to the NGOs, dismiss charges against all NGO workers, and permit them to continue their work supporting a free, fair and open and democratic society,” the letter, drafted by Virginia Reps. Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat, and Frank R. Wolf, a Republican. Both men have a long history of working on U.S. foreign assistance policy.
They also raise concerns about a pending law that would introduce new restrictions on civil society groups.
“A certification that the government of Egypt is implementing policies to guarantee these pillars of a free society, as required by law, seems impossible under the present circumstances,” the letter reads, an allusion to conditions that Congress has placed on U.S. aid to Egypt in past spending bills. The administration can waive those conditions in certain situations.
Several leading Republican senators, meanwhile, quickly called for a “comprehensive review” by Congress of Egypt’s foreign aid package.
The grumbling from Congress has been building in recent months, as Washington has watched Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist party, crack down on critics and political opponents and stall economic changes necessary for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. That, in turn, has held up the brunt of the $1 billion in economic assistance and loan forgiveness that President Barack Obama promised Egyptian leaders in 2011.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced the transfer of nearly $200 million in cash assistance during a visit to Cairo in March, but otherwise the delivery of aid has been constrained, with House Republicans particularly resistant to delivering more money. That stance appears to now be gaining broader favor.
One of the strongest rebukes on Tuesday came from Nita M. Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.