Egypt vs. Israel: How Congress Weighs the Risks of Cutting Our Aid to Cairo

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As more Congressmen threaten to withhold money from a backsliding Egypt, do they understand what it could mean for Israel and the three-decade peace treaty?

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U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey meets with head of Egypt's ruling military council Field Marshal Tantawi in Cairo / Reuters

The indictment of 16 American NGO workers in Egypt last week has led a number of Congressmen to call for reexamining and possibly revoking the billions of dollars in annual U.S. aid to the country -- the fifth-greatest recipient of American funds in the world after Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Israel. "Not one more dollar should flow to the government of Egypt until the secretary of state can assure the American people that this issue is resolved," said Rep. Kay Granger, the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on the State Department and foreign operations, put it starkly: "We want to send a clear message to the Egyptian military that the days of blank checks are over." So did Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, and Kelly Ayotte in a joint statement last week: "Congressional support for Egypt -- including continued financial assistance -- is in jeopardy."

In a joint letter, 40 members of Congress issued this threat directly to the head of Egypt's military, Mohamed Tantawi: "The absence of a quick and satisfactory resolution to this issue will make it increasingly difficult for congressional supporters of a strong U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship to defend current levels of assistance to Egypt -- especially in this climate of budget cuts in Washington," they wrote. Anther letter to Tantawi last month, from 11 senators, had conveyed a similar sentiment. Senator Rand Paul is pushing for a floor vote this week on his amendment that would bar any aid for Egypt until the government there drops its prosecutions of the American workers.

But there's something more at stake in U.S. funding to Egypt, something that has gone largely un-discussed: what would be the affect of cutting aid on the Egypt-Israel peace treaty? This absence is particularly surprising given the active support for Israel exhibited by many of the same members of Congress leading the charge against Egypt's aid package.

"The funding is one of the very few arrows left in our quiver."

U.S. aid to Egypt has historically been conditioned on Egypt meetings its obligations under the 1979 Camp David treaty, which ended three decades of intermittent war with Israel. As relations between the two countries have vacillated over the three and a half decades since, with particular nadirs since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year, the funding has been seen as one of the chief protectors of the treaty. With the Egyptian economy in shambles and its new rulers struggling to prove to its citizens that they can run the country effectively, losing U.S aid would be a disaster for Egypt. So much so that even though some Egyptian political actors have threatened to annul the treaty, most Egypt-watchers are confident that such threats are likely empty as long as U.S. aid is tied to the treaty. "[The Egyptians] would definitely say that the treaty is premised on the aid," said one top Hill staffer who works closely on the issue.

Cutting aid to Egypt could thus mean trouble for the treaty. "The aid was one of the commitments of the parties that signed the peace agreement so if there is a breach from one side it gives the right of review to the parties," Essam el-Erian, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, the biggest group in the newly elected parliament, said this week.

The recent incident with the American NGO workers puts the U.S. government, and particularly members of Congress, in a difficult position. "We're acutely aware of the fact that cutting off aid to Egypt is a major threat to the treaty, and it makes it a particularly difficult and scary situation to think what a withdrawal of aid could mean for Israel and the region as a whole," said a senior Democratic staffer. "But if we see pictures of American citizens in handcuffs or behind bars, all bets are off. Nobody could stop Congress from withholding the funding."

With so much foreign policy legislation on Capitol Hill viewed through the lens of the U.S.'s strategic partnership with Israel, it is perplexing that this dimension has not played more of a role in the discussion. One explanation offered by Hill staffers involved in the discussions is that members of Congress simply did not grasp the connection right away. Tensions on the Hill were quickly ignited by the fact that one of the arrested workers was the son of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, and that the situation escalated the same week that representatives of Egypt's Supreme Council of Allied Forces (SCAF) were in DC to discuss the funding. The inflammatory responses from Fayza Abul Naga, the Egyptian minister of planning and international cooperation, made things even worse.

Many attribute the toned-down rhetoric on the issue over the past week or two to the dawning realization that such a move might seriously imperil one of Israel's most important alliances in the region. "There is definitely a newfound nuance and hesitancy in our discussions," another staffer said. McCain tempered his earlier statements this week, saying that a cutoff in aid "is something that is the final measure, and we're a long way from there yet."

Others argue that discussing the Israel dimension publicly could exacerbate the situation. "It's certainly in the back of people's minds, but I don't think it would be productive to have people out there saying you have to fix this so we can save the treaty with Israel," the Democratic staffer said. "The relationship with Israel is not popular in Egypt right now, and with the politics there now largely street-driven, no Egyptian wants to feel forced into the corner because of Israel, and we don't want to telegraph the message to Egyptians that the only reason we care about the country is their relationship with Israel."

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Zvika Krieger is a former editor and writer at The New Republic and a former correspondent for Newsweek based in Egypt and Lebanon, covering most of the Arab world. More

Krieger has received fellowships to study topics including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. He has also reported from such places as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Libya, North Ireland, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Slate, New York, Arab Reform Bulletin, New Stateman, Chronicle of Higher Education, Daily Star (Lebanon), Cairo Magazine, Jerusalem Post, Christian Science Monitor, and various other publications, and he has appeared as a Middle East analyst on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, and Air America. His writings have earned him awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He has a bachelor's degree in Middle East Studies from Yale University and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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