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Despite military coup in Cairo, U.S. unlikely to freeze aid to Egypt

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2013: WASHINGTON – When is a military coup not really a coup? On Capitol Hill, the answer seems to be: when it takes place in Cairo and the results suit the U.S. agenda.

Under a law passed nearly three decades ago, the U.S. government is supposed to cut off aid to governments that take power as a result of a military coup. But Missouri’s senators are among the majority in Congress likely to keep U.S. aid to Egypt flowing.

Continuing to provide assistance to Egypt is the right thing to do,” said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “This is the largest Arab Muslim nation. It has a huge impact on what happens in Israel and the rest of the Middle East.”

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, agreed that “we need to be careful” about withdrawing U.S. assistance to Egypt.

“Ultimately, this is not just about Egypt. It is also about Israel,” McCaskill told reporters. “I do think there needs to be a democratic vote” to elect a new Egyptian government. “But there is a reason why people who are very close to the situation are urging caution.”

The issue is likely to come to the fore on Capitol Hill this week, when lawmakers will take up legislation that could continue aid to Egypt even if the administration of President Barack Obama states that this month’s ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi was indeed a military coup.

So far, the White House and the State Department have declined to describe the ouster in those terms, in part because of the legal implications of such a finding. The stakes are high: this country sends $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance to Egypt each year.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., contends that the aid should be cut off. “The overthrow of the Egyptian government was a coup d'etat, and the law is clear that when a coup takes place, foreign aid must stop,” Paul said in a statement.

While Paul has introduced a bill that would cut off U.S. aid to Egypt, others in Congress want to authorize the continuance of aid even if the Obama administration formally declares the Egyptian ouster to be a coup.

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Tex., who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over foreign aid, told Reuters that she would consider legislative language to allow aid to Egypt to continue even if its government upheaval is deemed to be a coup.

Her panel and the parallel Senate appropriations subcommittee are scheduled to take up the foreign aid issue this month and perhaps as early as this week. The full House and Senate would then debate the bills.

Backers of an exemption for Egypt point to a precedent. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Congress approved President George W. Bush's request to send aid to Pakistan's government even though its previous leader had been ousted in a coup. Another approach would be for lawmakers to make it easier to allow waivers to the coup provision for national security reasons.

While Blunt did not condone the tactics of Morsi’s ouster, he said, “The effort by the Morsi government to suspend the Constitution and to relegate the judicial system to an area that didn’t matter created a real problem for . . . democracy to ever blossom.”

Instead of cutting off aid, Blunt told reporters that the U.S. “should be encouraging those currently running the government in Egypt to reestablish elections and a Constitution and the rule of law as quickly as they can.”

He added: “That will happen more effectively with some ongoing U.S. influence there. One of the ways to do that is to continue to provide a reasonable level of aid, although not an extraordinary level of aid.”

For her part, McCaskill cautioned that “we want to make sure that whatever we do is in our best interest, in terms of our national security and the security of our allies.”

“While we all were offended at the way Morsi was removed from office, he obviously had done things that were very troubling to us, as it related to basically making changes in their constitution. That was going to give extreme jihadists more say and more leverage in the Egyptian government.”

McCaskill continued: “That would not be good for peace in the Middle East. It’s not good for the national security of the United States.” 

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.