Egypt Aid Faces Growing Opposition on Capitol Hill

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.

“Today’s decision by an Egyptian court to convict NGO workers promoting democracy and a strong civil society is an outrage and a stain on the U.S.-Egypt partnership,” Lowey said in a terse statement. “I have communicated my deep concerns about this case directly to the Egyptian Ambassador, as well as to the U.S. Department of State. A failure to correct this wrong will have serious implications for the future of the U.S.-Egypt partnership.”

The case of the civil society workers has been a major thorn in the side of U.S.-Egypt relations since Egyptian authorities raided the offices of a handful of American and other foreign organizations and arrested employees in late December 2011. Sixteen Americans were among those jailed, creating a major diplomatic crisis that only dissipated when the Americans were allowed to leave the country in March 2012. They were among the workers convicted, in absentia, on Tuesday.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that doles out foreign aid dollars, warned in a release that “if Egypt continues on this repressive path, it will be increasingly difficult for the United States to support President Morsi’s government.”

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire also issued a harsh reaction, saying, “Congress must conduct a comprehensive review of U.S. assistance to Egypt.”

That’s significant coming from a trio of senators who have supported the $1.5 billion in annual economic and military aid the United States delivers to Cairo in previous budget cycles, citing U.S. security interests in the region and Egypt’s peace accord with Israel.

But the convictions, they said in a joint statement, are “an affront to the fundamental principles of human rights and rule of law, which we and many Egyptians hold dear. If left unchanged, this ruling would have significant negative implications on U.S.-Egypt relations.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is already working on legislation that would take a new look at conditions on aid to Egypt.

Although his measure won’t be as draconian as some previous GOP proposals that aimed to cut off aid to Egypt entirely, it is likely to add new restrictions on assistance. The bill is expected to be introduced in a matter of weeks.

In a statement Tuesday, Rubio said he is working with colleagues to draft “comprehensive legislation that would ensure that U.S. assistance to Egypt reflects our values as well as our interests.”

He continued: “We need to be careful not to undermine the significant cooperation between the U.S. military and the Egyptian Armed Forces, but we cannot continue to blindly throw U.S. taxpayer dollars at a government that almost every day is taking actions that will only prevent the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people from being fulfilled and undermine Egypt’s long-term success.”