The United States announced on Wednesday that it was “recalibrating” its aid to Egypt, withholding Apache helicopters, F-16 fighters, tank parts, Harpoon missiles and about $260 million in economic aid in a move to push the country's military and interim government down the path to democracy.
The decision came three months after Egypt’s military removed democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi from power — an ouster that Washington has refused to brand a “coup,” drawing international ridicule. That determination would have required a halt of U.S. aid.
“We have decided to maintain our relationship with the Egyptian government, while recalibrating our assistance to Egypt to best advance our interests,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a written statement.
Washington will still provide economic aid that goes “directly” to the Egyptian people in areas like health, education and private-sector development, she said.
And the aid freeze will spare military training and education, spare parts for Egypt’s military, as well as counterterrorism assistance and cash and materiel that goes to enforcing Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
“We will, however, continue to hold the delivery of certain large-scale military systems and cash assistance to the government pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections,” Psaki said.
The aid freeze “will be reviewed on a periodic basis,” a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call organized by the State Department. The reductions will affect "hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance," another official said. But they were chosen for minimal impact on America's core interests — keeping Egypt as a strong counterterrorism partner and guarantor of its peace treaty with Israel.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined the decision in a “very friendly” 40-minute call with his Egyptian counterpart, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, another official said.
The officials said they would leave it to reporters to assess whether the aid reductions amounted to a mere slap on the wrist, lacking in leverage to push Egypt's military or interim government toward democratic reforms.
Several news outlets had reported late on Tuesday that a shift in aid was underway.
Obama said 10 days ago on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that he had “concerns” about the political turmoil in Egypt but said he was “committed to a constructive relationship” in part because of the country’s peace treaty with Israel.
“So we will continue to work with the Egyptian government, although urging them and pushing them in a direction that is more inclusive and that meets the basic goals of those who originally sought for more freedom and more democracy in that country,” Obama said as he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama was even more blunt, saying that the United States would keep working with countries that do not embrace democracy as long as they "work with us on our core interests," like fighting Islamist extremists.
"Going forward, the United States will maintain a constructive relationship with the interim government that promotes core interests like the Camp David Accords and counterterrorism. We’ll continue support in areas like education that directly benefit the Egyptian people. But we have not proceeded with the delivery of certain military systems, and our support will depend upon Egypt’s progress in pursuing a more democratic path," he said.
In the subsequent months since Morsi's removal, Egypt’s military has banned the Muslim Brotherhood and taken other actions against the group, which won a narrow majority in the country’s first democratic elections since the removal of longtime dictator (and close U.S. ally) Hosni Mubarak.
In the past, Israel has urged the United States not to withhold aid in a way that might upset the balance kept by the peace treaty or send Egypt plunging into the kind of chaos that extremists could exploit to attack the Jewish state.
In August, the United States denied it was freezing aid to Egypt’s military, effectively treating Morsi’s ouster as a coup despite publicly refusing to say so.
At the time, officials indicated that a review of roughly $585 million in unspent funds was ongoing and confirmed that the United States was considering withholding the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters, had suspended the delivery of F-16 fighters and had canceled a prominent biannual joint military exercise known as “Bright Star.”
Egypt is the fifth-largest recipient of international aid from the United States, behind Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Though the amount of annual aid to Egypt fluctuates from year to year, the U.S. has sent Egypt an average of $2 billion in annual financial packages since 1979.