US keen to keep Egypt aid flowing

US officials have so far refused to describe events in Egypt as a coup because they fear doing so would trigger the suspension of aid and cause them to lose leverage with a vital Arab ally. Taimur Khan reports from New York

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi grieve in front of soldiers outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo.
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NEW YORK // US officials have so far refused to describe events in Egypt as a coup because they fear doing so would trigger the suspension of aid and cause them to lose leverage with a vital Arab ally.

The United States, which gives $1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) to Egypt annually, relies on the army to uphold regional security and maintain a peace treaty with Israel. But American law prohibits military aid to countries that have undergone a coup.

Administration officials dodged questions about how to describe the removal of the democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi at press briefings on Monday, with a White House spokesman saying that the US should not move "unnecessarily quickly" in labelling it a coup.

"It would not be in the best interest of the United States to immediately change our assistance programmes to Egypt", spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

A section of the Foreign Assistance Act halts all non-humanitarian aid to any country whose democratic head of government has been deposed in a coup. This would include the $1.3 billion (Dh4.8bn) in assistance that goes directly to the Egyptian military.

"Withdrawing aid from Egypt means the US has lost a lot of leverage with the new transitional government" installed by the military, said Geneive Abdo, a Middle East expert at the Stimson Center in Washington.

White House lawyers are reviewing the issue of how to define the change of government, but officials argue that the context is an important factor in these deliberations.

"There are millions of people on the ground [in Egypt] who do not think it was a coup," Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman said on Monday.

The US military has historically had close relations with its Egyptian counterpart, which Washington views as the most stable and competent institution in the country.

Nearly 12,000 Egyptian officers came to the US for training between 2000 and 2009, the AFP reported, including both Egypt's current army chief, General Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Egyptian army chief of staff Sedki Sobhi.

Over the past week, US officials have been in contact with key Egyptian officers, just as they were two years ago during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak two years ago, Ms Abdo said.

Analysts say that the US relationship with Egypt's army could prove increasingly important as the transition proceeds.

Washington's approach to the crisis has been criticised by both Islamist and secular political groups for alleged bias, increasing the importance of military ties.

Washington is also concerned about the rising violence, with many officials fearing that Egypt could be on the brink of civil war, said Ms Abdo.

"If the US declares this a coup you can be certain that it will create even more polarisation in Egyptian society because the Islamists will consider it a victory," she said. "The US doesn't want to do anything whatsoever to influence what is happening on the ground."

In addition to calming Egypt's domestic crisis, Washington increasingly views Egypt's military as a constant in an otherwise turbulent Middle East.

Israeli officials have had "marathon" phone conversations with US secretary of state John Kerry and the defence secretary Chuck Hagel urging them not to suspend the aid, which they said could undermine their 1979 peace treaty, Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday.

Samer Shehata, professor of Middle East politics at the University of Oklahoma, said there were other benefits for the United States as well, including overflight rights, intelligence sharing on counter-terrorism and the passage of naval vessels and oil through the Suez Canal.

While there has been an intense public debate in Washington over whether to suspend aid until elections are held in Egypt, many members of congress are reticent to support such a move, given the fact that essentially all of the military aid comes back to the US in the form of defence contracts.

Aid is unlikely to be cut, said Mr Shehata, because "US military corporations make millions and millions of dollars" selling equipment to Egypt.

Critics of Mr Obama say that his administration has been repeatedly caught by surprise and only reacted belatedly to the cascading conflicts that have rippled across the region.

"A lot of people in Washington fear that Egypt could go the way of Algeria, and the more instability in the Middle East the less the US has influence," Ms Abdo said. "And the US doesn't want to do anything that might contribute to that happening."

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