Congress and the White House face a dilemma in deciding whether — and how — to support the military coup of the democratically elected government in Egypt. Under existing law, the $1.5 billion a year in U.S. aid to Egypt is at risk unless Congress acts.
The fiscal 2012 omnibus spending law prohibits foreign aid to governments of any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup,” at least until a new democratically elected government has taken office.
“Our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over foreign aid, in a statement late Wednesday. “As we work on the new budget, my committee also will review future aid to the Egyptian government as we wait for a clearer picture. As the world’s oldest democracy, this is a time to reaffirm our commitment to the principle that transfers of power should be by the ballot, not by force of arms.”
The prohibition on aid could complicate the picture in Egypt and the options for the White House as President Barack Obama considers his reaction to the military takeover of power in Egypt from President Mohammed Morsi.
Obama issued a lengthy statement late Wednesday expressing concern about the situation.
“The United States is monitoring the very fluid situation in Egypt, and we believe that ultimately the future of Egypt can only be determined by the Egyptian people,” he said. “Nevertheless, we are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsy and suspend the Egyptian constitution. I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsy and his supporters. Given today’s developments, I have also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the Government of Egypt.”
Members of Congress were already issuing statements harshly critical of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood before the recent crisis, and continued Wednesday.
Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement Wednesday evening urging the administration to keep in mind “our vital national security interests” when determining the future of U.S. assistance to Egypt.
Corker said the U.S. relationship with the country should remain a priority, and, if necessary, Congress should “stand ready to work with the administration to address any restrictions that stand in the way.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Morsi “must put the interests of Egypt’s diverse population ahead of the interests of himself or the Muslim Brotherhood” in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “The Egyptian people have made clear that President Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government has threatened the pluralistic democracy for which they called two years ago,” the Virginia Republican said.
Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president almost exactly a year ago, after Hosni Mubarak resigned in February 2011 amid the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring.
In his statement, Cantor said Egypt’s stability is “tremendously important” for U.S. national security and the security of U.S. allies in the Middle East.
“The Egyptian military has long been a key partner of the United States and a stabilizing force in the region, and is perhaps the only trusted national institution in Egypt today,” Cantor’s statement said. “In the difficult days ahead, it will be important for Egyptian authorities to safeguard the rights, interests, and security of all of Egypt’s citizens.”
The Egyptian military has already deployed tanks and troops in Cairo, and it has restricted Morsi’s movement to his palace.
“As President Obama has said, democracy is about more than elections,” Cantor said. “It is important that Egypt’s leaders listen to their people, whose calls for a transparent and pluralistic democratic process should be respected.”
Leahy also said Morsi “squandered an historic opportunity, preferring to govern by fiat rather than work with other political parties to do what is best for all Egyptians. Egypt’s military leaders say they have no intent or desire to govern, and I hope they make good on their promise.”
Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued his own press release Wednesday afternoon, saying it was “unfortunate that Morsi did not heed popular demands for early elections after a year of his incompetent leadership and attempting a power grab for the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“Morsi was an obstacle to the constitutional democracy most Egyptians wanted,” the Royce statement said. “I am hopeful that his departure will reopen the path to a better future for Egypt, and I encourage the military and all political parties to cooperate in the peaceful establishment of democratic institutions and new elections that lead to an Egypt where minority rights are protected.”
Royce finished his statement with this warning: “Make no mistake about it, Egypt is in for very difficult days.”
Egypt’s military reportedly plans to suspend the Islamist-backed constitution, dissolve the legislature and set up an interim government headed by Egypt’s chief justice.
Morsi tweeted Tuesday, in Arabic, that he would not be “dictated to internally or internationally.”
Obama had called Morsi on Monday, saying he “is committed to the democratic process in Egypt and does not support any single party or group,” according to a White House readout. Obama stressed that “democracy is about more than elections; it is also about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government, including the many Egyptians demonstrating throughout the country,” and that the situation can only be resolved through a political process.
Morsi has long been an unpopular figure on Capitol Hill, with the ranking Republican of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, calling Morsi an “enemy” of the United States in February.
Obama said Egypt was “not an ally” after Morsi’s government neglected the U.S. embassy in Cairo during protests on September 11, though Obama did temper his words by saying he did not consider Egypt an enemy.
Steven T. Dennis and Emily Cadei contributed to this report.