Updated at 8:05 a.m. on February 2.
The complicated implications of the U.S. relationship with a post-Mubarak Egypt have begun to emerge, as leading members of Congress on Tuesday raised the possibility of withholding foreign aid to Egypt, especially if an Islamic fundamentalist group rises to power in a new government running the country.
Even as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step aside and not seek reelection was welcomed by most on Capitol Hill, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was among those suggesting the United States not rule out withholding aid to the country, if needed, “to support a transition to democracy.”
Leahy, chairman of the Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, warned that Mubarak’s “continued role in Egypt’s transition is unrealistic,” and that “the current government has no credibility to oversee that process.”
In fact, the months or even weeks ahead could present some challenging decisions for Congress.
Several lawmakers said that if the eventual alternative to Mubarak leads to political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamic fundamentalist group sharing power, the more than $1.5 billion in annual U.S. economic, military and other aid to Egypt could be in jeopardy.
“Obviously, it would be indefensible to continue any level of aid to Egypt if the Muslim Brotherhood or any Islamic radical government took power in Egypt,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y.
In a statement, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., reiterated her call to Mubarak to “schedule legitimate, democratic, internationally-recognized elections in the near future, not eight months from now.”
Echoing King, Ros-Lehtinen added that “opposition leaders must categorically reject the involvement of extremist elements who are trying to use this crisis to gain power, hijack Egypt’s future, and seriously damage Egypt’s relationship with the United States, Israel, and others.”
For now, there were no indications that U.S. aid to Egypt was in immediate danger of being cut or suspended, as most lawmakers said they were waiting to see what transpires from the crisis.
“I think most people have gotten the message that there will have to be changes,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said.
“The real question is, ‘Can there be some kind of a transition which will ensure that the people of the country get the representation that they want and that we favor for them without bringing into power terrorist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who are small but very well organized and could easily take over the protests of the other Egyptian citizens who just want better government?’” Kyl added.
Mubarak banned the Muslim Brotherhood from participating in Egypt’s political process, but members of the group have won seats in the government as independents. Although the group carried out attacks in Egypt in the past, it has since renounced violence.
When asked if U.S. aid to Egypt should be reviewed or suspended, Kyl said: “Not at this time, no.” But if the Muslim Brotherhood ends up getting into power, Kyl said: “That’s another matter then.”
Decisions on future U.S. assistance to Egypt could come quickly.
For instance, the House is preparing to vote during the week of February 14 on a new continuing resolution for the current fiscal year, and lawmakers already are looking toward work on a fiscal 2012 budget as well.
For fiscal 2010, the United States provided Egypt with $1.552 billion in total assistance, including $1.29 billion in economic and military assistance. And the Obama administration can continue to provide aid at 2010 levels until March 4, when the current CR for fiscal 2011 is set to expire, or if there is passage of another CR or superseding appropriations legislation before that.
For fiscal 2011, the administration had said it was seeking $1.552 billion—the same amount requested for 2010. That included $1.3 billion in military assistance and $250 million in economic aid.
It is unlikely U.S. lawmakers would act as swiftly as this month, though, to greatly alter the nation’s assistance to Egypt. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said Tuesday he is reviewing federal funding to Egypt, but doesn’t expect any action until the situation stabilizes.
“We are studying the situation because it is constantly changing,” Inouye said, though he did not flatly rule out action in the next CR.
Aides for House Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, attempted to set up talks this week on Egypt funding with State Department officials.
In a statement Monday night—amid calls by some for eliminating Egypt’s economic and military aid, but before Mubarak’s announcement Tuesday—Granger urged caution in deciding what the U.S. response should be regarding the future of such funding.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., who had called for Mubarak to step aside, responded Tuesday to Mubarak’s announcement by issuing a statement that, “Much work remains to be done to turn this auspicious moment into lasting peace and prosperity.”
“Egyptians must now prepare for elections and achieve a peaceful transition of power. The military must continue to show the restraint it has so admirably exercised these past days,” said Kerry. “And opposition leaders must come together to develop a process that will ensure that all of Egypt’s voices are heard.”
In his own statement, Leahy said, “The welcome restraint and professionalism shown by the Egyptian Army so far is a testament to the long relationship between our two countries.”
“But we should do what we can to support a transition to democracy including, if it becomes necessary, withholding aid to the government,” he said.
Humberto Sanchez contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the February 2, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.