Raphael Fournier/Sipa USA/Newscom

Raphael Fournier/Sipa USA/Newscom

James Phillips, Heritage’s senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs, answers key questions about U.S. foreign aid to Egypt.

What is U.S. foreign aid to Egypt?

The Obama Administration has requested $1.55 billion in total bilateral aid to Egypt for fiscal year 2014. This includes $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Egypt has been a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid since it signed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and became a key ally of the U.S. in stabilizing the Middle East and fighting terrorism. In 2013, Egypt is the fifth largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

What is the purpose of U.S. aid to Egypt?

Foreign aid is a tool for advancing U.S. national interests. In return for aid, Egypt has offered military, counterterrorism, and intelligence cooperation; occasional access to Egyptian air space and military facilities; and expedited passage through the Suez Canal for U.S. Navy vessels. It should be continued only if Egypt maintains peace with Israel, fights al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and respects the human rights and liberties of its citizens.

U.S. economic aid has been focused on promoting democracy and economic growth in Egypt—with uneven results. Although the Hosni Mubarak regime implemented limited economic and political reforms, it regarded U.S. democracy-promotion efforts with suspicion. Egypt’s transitional military government and President Mohamed Morsi’s government were even more antagonistic toward U.S. democracy-building programs and shut down several pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) funded by the U.S. government in 2011.

Last month, Morsi’s government sentenced 43 NGO workers, including 16 Americans, to jail for their efforts to support civil society and democracy, activities that the Mubarak regime tolerated prior to its overthrow.

Should aid be cut?

The Heritage Foundation recommended that tighter strings should be tied to aid to Egypt after Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood–dominated government came to power. After the politically motivated prosecution of pro-democracy NGOs last month, Heritage recommended suspending aid. Morsi’s Islamist regime was opposed to American values and policies and was clearly leading Egypt toward dictatorship.

The army’s July 3 coup was justified to remove Morsi’s increasingly authoritarian regime, which had provoked a popular backlash that threatened to spiral into a civil war. The coup is apparently supported by a majority of Egyptians and gives democracy a second chance. The interim government has made clear its commitment to hold elections for a new government within six months.

Cutting ties with the Egyptian army immediately after it has ousted an authoritarian Islamist regime would make little sense. The Egyptian army has long been a vital partner in fighting terrorism and acting as a stabilizing force in the region. The army is now the only widely trusted national institution in Egypt. It also remains committed to peace with Israel, one of the highest U.S. priorities.

James Carafano and I recently wrote a Backgrounder calling for tighter conditions to be put on U.S. aid:

Aid should be renewed only if the interim government schedules free and fair elections, reverses the Morsi regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs, reinstates the NGOs, and publicly commits to (1) fully protect U.S. citizens and property, particularly the U.S. embassy and other diplomatic posts; (2) maintain the peace treaty with Israel; (3) cooperate in fighting al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations; and (4) implement policies that protect the rights of its citizens, including due process of law and freedom of religion, expression, and association.

Why does the coup threaten aid?

Section 7008 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 2012, as contained in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, bars “any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d’état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.”

It would seem that the letter of the law does require a cutoff of U.S. aid, as the Egyptian army’s intervention appears to fit the definition of a coup. But the spirit of the law, which was passed to help protect democracy, would support continuing aid because the coup was launched against a leader who was ignoring the will of the people in order to impose his anti-democratic Islamist agenda. Moreover, the coup gives democracy in Egypt a second chance.

As Heritage Foundation distinguished fellow Kim Holmes wrote in a Washington Times op-ed: “It comes down to whether you believe the army’s actions advance or deny democracy in the long run.” Although most military coups are anti-democratic, Holmes cites Portugal’s 1974 “Carnation Revolution” as a coup that helped advance democracy. He concludes, “Only time will tell if the Egyptian army’s action against Morsi produces a democratic outcome.”

But the U.S. cannot ignore its own laws while waiting to see if Egypt’s coup conforms to the spirit of the law. It should follow the letter of the law and suspend aid. Then, the White House and Congress should work together to craft a new authority for aid, this time with strong conditions attached to encourage Egypt to make good on its second chance at democracy.

See: Egypt: A Way Forward After a Step Back