WASHINGTON — The chairman of a key Senate panel Tuesday blocked $650 million in military aid for Egypt in a sign of Washington’s ambivalence over support for the authoritarian military government in Cairo.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate subcommittee responsible for foreign aid, said in a speech on the Senate floor that he could not approve the release of the aid after an Egyptian court on Monday sentenced to death 683 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement of Egypt’s ousted Islamist president, in a widely criticized mass trial.
“We can’t stand here and say, golly, gee whiz, we’re disturbed by hundreds of people being sentenced to death after a few minutes in a mass trial,” Leahy said. “It shows a dictatorship run amok.”
The court in Minya, south of Cairo, on Monday sentenced the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, and 682 other defendants to death for an attack on a police station and the killing of an officer during clashes last summer. The nation’s judiciary has played a role in a massive crackdown against supporters of former President Mohammed Morsi.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, concerned about Cairo’s human rights record but eager to support its crackdown on terrorism, last week freed up the aid after holding up the money and 10 Apache helicopters for six months to build pressure for democratic reform. Though Congress can hold up the money, Kerry still plans to send Egypt the helicopters.
Leahy, who has the leverage to hold the money indefinitely, said he wouldn’t release it “until we see convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law.”
Amy Hawthorne, an Egypt specialist at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said Leahy had “set a very high bar.”
Congress and the Obama administration have been ambivalent about the Egyptian military that overthrew Morsi in July. Though U.S. officials are eager for Egypt to move against the growing terrorist threat in Sinai, in part to protect Israel, they are not convinced that the government will move on a more democratic path, as it has promised.
As the crackdown in Egypt has intensified, congressional support has grown for a freezing of aid. Lawmakers such as Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Rand Paul of Kentucky have been urging a freezing of at least some aid.
The White House, eager to continue a long-term security alliance with Egypt but uneasy about its human rights practices, has condemned the mass verdict as “deeply troubling.”
Kerry, in an appearance Tuesday at the State Department with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, said he intended to discuss with Fahmy “disturbing decisions within the judicial process.”
Fahmy said Egypt’s judicial system is independent of the executive branch and insisted Egypt is on a path to greater democracy.