The Obama administration’s plan to move forward with $650 million in military aid to Egypt hit a new snag on Tuesday as a key Democrat announced his opposition to the move in light of the mass death sentences handed out by Egyptian judges this week after what were widely derided as show trials.
During an address on the Senate floor, Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls foreign aid, said he would block additional aid to Cairo due to its continued human rights abuses.
"I’m not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military," said the Vermont Democrat. "I’m not prepared to do that until we see convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law."
Leahy’s address complicates the Obama administration’s efforts to shore up its ties with Cairo, which deteriorated sharply after Egyptian generals ousted the country’s democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsy, in July. It’s not clear that Leahy can singlehandedly block the aid from growing through, but the timing of the senator’s remarks put the administration in a particularly awkward position.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry hosted Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy in Washington to discuss recent developments in the country. While complimenting the "positive step" achieved in the drafting of the Egyptian constitution, Kerry said there "have been disturbing decisions within the judicial process, the court system, that have raised serious challenges for all of us."
It was a clear reference to an Egyptian court’s decision to hand down death sentences on Monday to the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and 682 supporters of the banned group — a move Leahy denounced as a "sham trial."
Leahy is part of a lonely band of senators who openly oppose resuming all U.S. aid to Cairo. Until his statement of opposition, the only other senator to speak out against the aid was Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, a libertarian whose top aide told Foreign Policy last week that the U.S. "shouldn’t be giving one penny of our tax dollars to Egypt right now." However, more lawmakers now appear to be following in Paul’s footsteps. On Tuesday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told The New York Times that he opposes further military aid as well.
Members of Congress, in general, would have had more authority to block the military assistance if it weren’t for the omnibus appropriations bill passed in January, which gave the administration leeway to provide military assistance to Egypt so long as it goes to border security and counterterrorism purposes. Of course, Leahy’s position as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee gives him a high degree of sway over funding through both formal and informal channels.
In any event, the State Department is not raising a white flag yet. In a statement, an official said the administration would continue to make its case to wavering lawmakers. "We have been asked for certain clarifications by our congressional committees on how this funding will be used and we are providing those details," an official said on background. "What we are seeing now is the Congressional notification and consultation process at work."