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U.S. lawmakers now back Egypt aid

Key members of Congress ease their threat to cut foreign aid to Cairo, as consensus grows that the U.S. needs to maintain leverage with Egypt's military.

February 09, 2011|By Paul Richter, David S. Cloud and Kathleen Hennessey, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — Influential U.S. lawmakers have eased their threats to cut aid to Egypt, reflecting a growing consensus in Washington for preserving U.S. leverage with Egypt's powerful military amid the country's civil upheaval.

The shift comes as Obama administration officials, the Pentagon and powerful pro- Israel groups in Washington urge continued aid to Egypt, about $1.5 billion a year, mostly in military assistance.

Although protesters in Cairo are demanding that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resign immediately, the Obama administration is urging a more gradual reform process, headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman, that would allow Mubarak to remain in office for now.

U.S. officials believe the military should play a crucial role in that process and deserves continued support. Pro-Israel groups fear that a loss of aid could jeopardize Israel's security.

Just last week, a chorus of lawmakers backed protesters' demands for Mubarak's resignation, and some called for an aid freeze to force changes.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had earlier said "all options are on the table," including aid cuts. But in an interview Tuesday, he said that now "is just not the right time to threaten that."

McCain said he was concerned that a reduction in aid might affect Egypt's willingness to cooperate with Israel.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, declared last week that he would not vote for aid to Egypt, adding that he knew no lawmaker who would.

This week, however, Leahy appeared to soften his position, saying through a spokesman that he would oppose any new aid "until the situation is resolved."

White House officials said earlier in the crisis that they would review the aid if the Mubarak government didn't move promptly toward political reform. But within a few days, officials clarified that they weren't considering cuts to aid.

Administration officials are trying to preserve their relationship with the military, which they see as vital for carrying out political reforms.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates praised the Egyptian military Tuesday for its restraint and emphasized the need for the Egyptian government to move at a "steady pace" to enact promised reforms.

"My hope would be other governments in the region, seeing this spontaneous action in both Tunisia and in Egypt, will take measures to begin moving in a positive direction toward addressing the political and economic grievances of their people," Gates said in his first public comments on the protests.

President Obama will submit his 2012 budget to Congress next week, which is expected to include continued aid to Egypt.

In the coming year, Egypt is scheduled to receive a wide variety of U.S. military hardware, including F-16 fighter jets, naval vessels, air defense missiles and surveillance radar, all of which could be affected by an interruption in aid.

Freezing or reducing aid could erode U.S. influence with Egypt's military at a time when the U.S. is working to avoid a violent crackdown on the protesters, Pentagon officials said.

"It may have the opposite effect of what we would like to see happen in Egypt," said one senior U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing those assessments.

Many pro-Israel groups in the U.S. have been skeptical that Egypt was doing its part to support peace in the region under its 1979 treaty with Israel, and they had urged cuts in aid, said Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now.

But the same groups now worry that the crisis might result in a more threatening government in Cairo. As a result, "they're quietly supportive of Egypt aid," said Friedman, director of policy and government relations for the group.

paul.richter@latimes.com

david.cloud@latimes.com

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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