The Multi-Billion Dollar U.S. Assistance to Egypt – Are there Conditions?

Egypt is heading toward another pivotal moment in its transition this week, as Egyptians aim to vote on whether to approve the country’s first constitution since the fall of the Mubarak regime. The constitution, written by an Islamist-led constituent assembly, has drawn sharp criticisms and protests from the opposition, who claim that the constitution ignores concerns by numerous groups and who object to its rapid passage. The referendum comes less than a month after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi announced and then partly rescinded a decree granting himself a wide range of powers.

Amidst these protests U.S. lawmakers have called on the administration to reevaluate its multi-billion dollar aid package to Egypt, which includes $1.3 billion in security assistance alone. Since the Egyptian transition began, numerous events have led both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to question the purpose of U.S. assistance. Some of these targeted US personnel in Egypt and led to the loudest calls from lawmakers, such as the prosecution of US funded democracy promotion organization in December 2011 and the storming of the American embassy in September by violent protestors objecting to an American-made film defaming the Prophet Muhammad. Meanwhile, moves by government institutions and leaders that appeared to arrest democratic progress, such as the prolonged handover of power to civilian control by the Egyptian military and the recent decree by President Morsi granting him near unlimited powers, have also inspired criticisms of U.S. assistance.

To clarify some details about U.S. assistance to Egypt, this post will highlight useful sources of information that nicely discuss this topic:

  • In October, ProPublica, an independent investigative journalism organization, released a simple FAQ about U.S. assistance to Egypt. It notes, for instance, that Congress has already placed conditional requirements on assistance to Egypt, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used her right to waive these requirements last March to assure the assistance went through.
  • The Congressional Research Service released its latest report on U.S.-Egyptian relations earlier this month, which outlines both the history and recent developments of this relationship. The report shows that military aid to Egypt has been very consistent over the past two decades, with Egypt receiving $1.3 billion each year in Foreign Military Financing funds that support the acquisition of U.S. military articles, services, and training. Economic aid, meanwhile, has declined in recent years, though the report lists several new initiatives by President Obama meant to support Egypt’s democratic transition.
  • A September fact sheet by the State Department lays out the U.S. government’s assistance efforts to Egypt since the Arab Spring. The fact sheet includes additional details about the new and ongoing initiatives mentioned in the CRS report.
  • The Project on Middle East Democracy released two backgrounders on the Egyptian campaign against Western democracy promotion NGOs in the country. The backgrounders, which contain a timeline of events as well as statements from lawmakers and administration officials from the U.S. and Egypt, highlight how controversial the issue of U.S. assistance was during the 2.5-month crises. The backgrounders note that while Press Secretary Jay Carney warned that the Egyptian decision might have “consequences” on foreign assistance programs, the administration eventually went through with its aid programs.
  • A November Brookings Institute U.S. Islamic World Forum Paper tried to answer the difficult question of how the United States can “effectively use [its] leverage with Arab governments to encourage democratization without being seen as infringing on national ‘sovereignty.’” The report examines this question in three distinct areas – economic reform, civil society, and regional security – and recommends that, “the terms of conditionality must be established through dialogue that focuses on the shared interests of both parties.”

In short, conditions (see P.L. 112-74, section 7041) already exist on U.S. assistance to Egypt that aim to assure Egypt’s commitment to its peace treaty with Israel, an speedy transition to civilian government, and basic individual freedoms. However, the administration has the authority to waive these conditions if it thinks the assistance is in the national security interest of the United States, which it did this past March. Moreover, as Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute argues in the aforementioned report, local activists in Egypt do not necessarily favor conditionality if it is seen as a tool to meddle in the country’s internal affairs. However, it is clear the issue of conditionality on U.S. assistance to Egypt will remain widely discussed as the Egyptian transition moves along.

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