WASHINGTON - Lawmakers are questioning whether to continue sending $1.5 billion a year in aid to Egypt, setting the stage for cuts or conditions that may weaken relations, jeopardize Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and hurt U.S. defense companies.
The political turmoil in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power through elections, coincides with intense pressure on Congress to cut federal spending. While Egyptian aid is tiny relative to the budget deficit, foreign aid has never been popular with lawmakers since polls show that voters favor cutting what they think is a costly program.
"It is becoming increasingly difficult to make the case for assistance to the Egyptian government," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the subcommittee that oversees spending on foreign operations.
The issue is gaining attention as Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has sought to quell protests with force, following other moves that raised U.S. concerns - his anti-Semitic comments, opposition to Western intervention in Mali, and temporarily asserting broad governing powers.
Still, reducing or threatening to reduce aid may not encourage Morsi to moderate and could backfire, said analysts such as David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
U.S. aid has been a key lever of influence with Egypt for decades, helping solidify relations with its military leadership, connect with the Egyptian public through development projects and maintain preferential Suez Canal transit for American warships.
Egypt regarded aid as part of the deal when it made peace with Israel through the U.S.-brokered 1978 Camp David agreement.
Congress will have to examine the enormous changes in Egypt as lawmakers set aid levels for the next fiscal year, said Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. At the very least, he said, it's clear that tougher standards will have to be applied to any U.S. funds for Egypt.
"At a minimum, we need to have strings attached," Wolf said.
Referring to the Islamist political party Morsi helped lead before he ran for president, Wolf added: "This is a Muslim Brotherhood government. These are not democratic reformers."
More than 50 people have been killed in demonstrations that broke out in Egypt on Jan. 25, two years to the day after protests began that led to the downfall of then-President Hosni Mubarak.
The Obama administration expressed some ambivalence about Morsi as the violence spread.
"The jury's out," outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Jan. 29 on Fox News. "I've been around long enough, so it's not what somebody says; it's what they do. And some of what he's done we have approved of and supported; and some of what he's done, like abrogating a lot of power unto himself personally, reinstating emergency law provisions that had been a hallmark of the Mubarak regime, are very troubling."
Egypt this year receives $250 million in economic assistance and $1.3 billion in military aid. Even before the recent unrest, lawmakers have shown some reluctance to provide funds to Egypt without imposing conditions.
Clashes at presidential palace / A28