U.S. lawmakers are divided on whether to halt foreign aid to Egypt as a way to hasten President Hosni Mubarak’s exit from power amid continuing protests against his three-decade rule.
Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the panel that controls foreign aid, said he’s prepared to stop all U.S. financial assistance to Egypt -- which topped $1.5 billion last year -- unless Mubarak steps aside immediately and allows a transitional government to take over.
“If he doesn’t leave, there will not be foreign aid; I mean, it’s as simple as that,” Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told Bloomberg Television in an interview Feb. 2. U.S. money “will not go to the Mubarak administration,” Leahy said, adding, “that’s a pipeline that can easily be turned off.”
A resolution the Senate passed last night urging Mubarak to “immediately” start a peaceful transition to a new government didn’t address whether he should be part of that effort and didn’t directly address the question of stopping aid to Egypt.
Without saying how, the measure says the Senate “ensures that United States assistance to the Egyptian Government, military, and people will advance the goal of ensuring respect for the universal rights of the Egyptian people and will further the national security interests of the United States in the region.”
Leahy’s push for using U.S. aid as a tool to nudge Mubarak from office is at odds with the approach taken by the Republicans who head the House committee that doles out foreign assistance.
Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said it is “premature” to make any decisions on aid to Egypt.
“We’ve got a very solid relationship with Egypt, and the aid that we’ve rendered over the years has been one of the things that has given us some leverage and some stability,” Cole, the vice chairman of the foreign assistance spending subcommittee, said in an interview yesterday. “I don’t think it’s the time to be making threats or to be suspending what I think has been a very productive, 30-year relationship.”
Nor would stopping aid to Egypt likely be as simple as Leahy indicated. Majorities in the Senate and House would have to vote to do so -- no certainty, given the divide emerging among members of Congress -- and some of the money has already been spent. Congress could at most pull back unspent or unobligated money, funds that are in the “pipeline” to which Leahy referred.
In a statement earlier this week, Representative Kay Granger of Texas, the chairwoman of the House foreign aid spending panel, responded to calls for halting assistance by urging “caution.” She said the U.S. should be “deliberate about the actions we take.”
Outbreak of Violence
Mubarak’s announcement Feb. 1 that he wouldn’t run in elections scheduled for September failed to quell protests against his government, and stoked the anger of demonstrators who have since stepped up their demands for his quick departure.
An outbreak of violence following Mubarak’s speech by pro-government forces targeting protesters and journalists has drawn criticism from U.S. lawmakers, who warned their patience with the 82-year-old leader was running out.
Mubarak “should know that the goodwill he has built up over the past three decades is quickly evaporating as his allies engage in inexcusable violence and intimidation,” Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House panel that deals with foreign aid, said through a spokesman yesterday.
Representative Gary L. Ackerman of New York, the first U.S. lawmaker to call for Mubarak’s ouster, wrote to President Barack Obama today urging him to suspend aid to Egypt “until the transition you called for begins.”
‘This Cannot Continue’
“For 30-plus years, U.S. assistance has been a symbol of U.S.-Egyptian friendship. Today, it has become a symbol to Egyptians of U.S. support for President Mubarak,” wrote Ackerman, the senior Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees Middle East policy. “This cannot continue.”
Democratic Representative Lloyd Doggett of Texas also is pushing to use the only degree of control lawmakers have on foreign policy matters -- the power of the purse -- to prod Mubarak to leave.
Doggett, a nine-term House member who previously sought to limit aid to Egypt, wrote to Obama Feb. 2 asking him to make clear to Mubarak and his government that “Egypt will not receive one more cent of American money until he begins the peaceful, orderly transition to a democratically elected government today.”
The U.S. “must send the unmistakable message to Mubarak and all dictators who are watching our response that we will not continue to waste money propping up his tyranny,” Doggett wrote.
Democratic Representative Jim Moran of Virginia also suggested the U.S. should consider using money as a lever to influence the Egyptian leader.
“If Mubarak doesn’t end the hostilities against unarmed protesters, we should cut all military aid until he leaves power,” Moran, a member of the House panel that controls military spending, said in an e-mailed statement.
The current dispute over whether to limit aid to Egypt echoes past debates in Congress that cut across party lines. At various points over the last decade, Republicans and Democrats have sought to slash funding for Egypt as a way of signaling displeasure with Mubarak’s regime.
Ackerman, Doggett, Moran and Lowey all backed an unsuccessful move five years ago to cut $100 million in Egypt aid. The House turned back the attempt, 225-198.
Leahy said his preference now would be to redirect U.S. aid to a new group of leaders in Egypt.
“What I’d like to be able to say is, ‘We’re in a position to help the transitional government that has democratic values, believes in democracy, but also believes in helping its own people,’” Leahy said.
With assistance from Roxana Tiron in Washington.
Editors: Don Frederick, Mark Silva