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Congress split on cutting off aid to Egypt

Aug. 18, 2013 - 01:55PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are split over whether the U.S. should cut off military aid to Egypt, highlighting the difficult choices facing the Obama administration amid spiraling violence on the streets of an important Middle East ally.

Democratic leaders have generally supported the president’s approach. But on Sunday, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he would cut off aid to Egypt. Ellison is the first Muslim elected to Congress and is co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“I would cut off aid but engage in intense diplomacy in Egypt and in the region to try to say, “Look, we will restore aid when you stop the bloodshed in the street and set up a path towards democracy that you were on before,” Ellison said. “In my mind, there’s no way to say that this was not a coup. It is. We should say so. And then follow our own law, which says we cannot fund the coup leaders.”

Among Republicans, there were growing calls to eliminate military aid to Egypt. But others were more hesitant.

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., said curtailing aid could reduce U.S. influence over Egypt’s interim government, which controls access to strategic resources, including the Suez Canal.

“I’m reluctant to cut off aid,” said King, who chairs the House panel on counterterrorism and intelligence.

King said there are no good choices in Egypt. Ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was democratically elected. But, King said, the group has not demonstrated a commitment to democracy.

The split among members of the same political party illustrates the uncertainty facing President Barack Obama as he tries to navigate volatile developments in Egypt, where crackdowns last week left more than 600 people dead and thousands more injured.

Obama has denounced the violence, canceled joint military exercises scheduled for September and delayed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets. But the White House has refused to declare Morsi’s removal a coup — a step that would require Obama to suspend $1.3 billion in annual military aid. The president insists that the U.S. stands with Egyptians seeking a democratic government. But he says America cannot determine Egypt’s future.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona renewed his call Sunday to stop aid as the Egyptian military continues to crack down on protestors seeking Morsi’s return.

“For us to sit by and watch this happen is a violation of everything that we stood for,” said the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We’re not sticking with our values.”

The military ousted Morsi July 3 after millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand he step down, accusing him of giving the Brotherhood undue influence and failing to implement vital reforms or bolster the ailing economy.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said U.S. aid to Egypt was more likely to “buy a chateau in Paris” for an Egyptian military leader than “bread in Cairo” for the poor.

“I don’t think we’re buying any friendship with the Egyptian people,” Paul said, especially when people see tanks supplied by the U.S. to the Egyptian military on the streets of Cairo.

“We are not winning the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people,” said Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The aid has to end.”

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., had resisted calls to cut off aid. But on Sunday, he switched positions.

“I think we need to look at the tiers of our aid,” said Corker, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Let’s face it, most of the aid has gone out the door this year.”

Corker said he expects Congress to debate next year’s aid this fall, after lawmakers return from their summer recess.

“Look, I condemn what’s happened with the military, but I also condemn what in essence was a political coup by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Corker said. “And we need to move this debate along and this fall hopefully, again, focus on what is our national interests. And there still are things within Egypt that are very much in our national interest. And we need to keep the lines of communication open.”

McCain spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union,” King and Paul made their comments on “Fox News Sunday,” and Engel, Ellison and Corker appeared on ABC’s “This Week.”

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