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 end 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.”
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said funding for Egypt remains under review.
“As we’ve made clear, all of our assistance to Egypt is currently under review, and we will consider additional steps as we deem necessary,” Hayden said. “At this point, no additional decisions have been made regarding assistance. That review process is ongoing.”
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.
“We certainly shouldn’t cut off all 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 fact is, there’s no good guys there,” King said. “But of the two, I think there is more opportunity to protect American interests if we work with the military and continue our relationship with the military.”
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 protesters 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.
But Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said he supports the president’s approach.
“These are very, very difficult choices,” said Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I’m very unhappy, obviously, with the crackdown. But we essentially have two choices in Egypt. And that’s a military government, which hopefully will transition as quickly as possible to civilian government, or the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood is a choice.”
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Congress should give the president flexibility in dealing with Egypt.
“I do believe we have to change our aid,” said Reed, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I think also we have to have included in the legislation a national security waiver, because we have to give the president not only the responsibility to deal with the government of Egypt but also flexibility.”
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,” Reed spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and Engel, Ellison and Corker appeared on ABC’s “This Week.”