WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is preparing to approve the release of at least a portion of $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt despite concerns that Cairo is not complying with conditions to receive the assistance, U.S. officials said Friday.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton must soon determine if Egypt is meeting the criteria by supporting the country's transition to democracy and upholding human rights. The State Department said Friday that could happen as early as the middle of next week.
But instead of certifying to Congress that Egypt's military rulers are in compliance, officials said Clinton is likely to waive the criteria in the interest of national security, which would free up all of the aid at stake. Clinton could also grant a partial waiver that would allow the administration to release some of the aid and make the balance conditional on improvements in Egypt's record.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Clinton's decision has not been finalized and the State Department is currently discussing the matter with members of Congress, Egyptian authorities and human rights groups.
For decades, U.S. assistance to Egypt has been subject only to Cairo respecting the terms of its peace deal with Israel. But after the revolt that toppled long-time authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, questions arose over the new military leadership's commitment to establishing democracy.
In December, Congress made foreign assistance to Egypt, including $1.3 billion a year in military financing, contingent on a determination that the government "is supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion and due process of law."
Concerns grew in January when the government cracked down on numerous democracy advocates and groups, including three U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations, some of whose members were charged with crimes and barred from leaving the country until earlier this month. That issue, which led the U.S. to warn that the aid was threatened, remains unresolved.
Some lawmakers and rights groups have urged Clinton to demand full compliance with conditions and not to grant a waiver for the aid.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the State Department's budget committee, who wrote the language in the December legislation, said he believed a waiver would be "a mistake."
"The new conditions are intended to put the United States squarely on the side of the Egyptian people who seek a civilian government that respects fundamental freedoms and the rule of law and to clearly define the terms of our future relations with the Egyptian military," he said.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both written to Clinton asking her to hold Egypt to account.
"It is crucial that at this time, the United States draw a clear line about the actions that the Egyptian military must take if it wishes to continue receiving assistance in the way it has in the past," Human Rights Watch said in its letter. The group also outlined a series of steps that the U.S. should demand of Egypt before certification.
In its letter, Amnesty pointed out a number of abuses the Egyptian government has been accused of committing and said "making such a certification would undermine the brave struggle of the Egyptian people for a society founded on respect for human rights and the rule of law. Waiving the certification requirement would forfeit a key form of pressure for the advancement of human rights."
Officials said Friday it was unlikely that Clinton could certify Egypt as meeting the requirements.
But, they also stressed that not granting at least a partial waiver was unrealistic given U.S. interests, including Israel's security, in a stable Egypt within the volatile Middle East.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland would not discuss what Clinton's decision might be, saying the review of Egypt's compliance was not complete. Yet, she made clear the United States has vested interests in remaining engaged with Egypt.
"Our goal ... is to satisfy the intent of the legislation while maintaining the strongest possible foundations for the U.S.-Egyptian relationship going forward, supporting the Egyptian people's aspirations for democratic change and increased economic opportunity and promoting regional stability," she told reporters.
Nuland also noted the importance that assistance to the Egyptian military has to the U.S.
"It (has) enabled us to have influence at a time when the Egyptian military had to decide whether it was going to fire on its own people or whether it was going to support change," she said. "And it's enabled us also to have influence at a time when the military is undergirding this transition until it can get to a place where we can have a hand off to an elected government."