Today Sen. Marco Rubio introduced the Egypt Accountability and Democracy Amendment, legislation blocking “economic support funds and new foreign military financing” “unless economic reforms and human rights safeguards are adopted, while also initiating a more thorough, longer term reevaluation of U.S. military assistance to Egypt.”
Rubio’s legislation comes in the wake of John Kerry’s recent trip to Cairo, where he announced the Obama administration was releasing $250 million in U.S. aid. The White House says there’s another $260 million on the way once President Mohamed Morsi’s government commits to further reforms. The problem, however, is that the administration is unlikely to hold the line. Morsi, after all, has a compelling argument that may convince the White House to fund Egypt regardless of its reform demands. Implementing economic austerity measures affecting the majority of Egypt’s 90 million people—like slashing fuel and food subsidies—may well result will in yet more political unrest. Yes, the IMF has held firm and continues to delay its $4.8 billion IMF loan package until Morsi pushes through reforms, but Washington has more riding on Egypt. The prospect of the largest Arab state going belly up and thereby destabilizing the entire region is perhaps enough to scare the administration into paying out as it has for the last 30 years without asking questions.
In part, Rubio’s legislation essentially amounts to a long overdue time out: What, it asks, does Egypt really need? The bulk of U.S. assistance to Egypt over the years has gone to the military, but the shiny toys, like Abrams tanks and F-16s, that have in the past kept its senior officers happy are irrelevant to Egypt’s real security needs—and perhaps dangerous to America’s. Egypt’s problem is not how to keep pace, almost, with Israel’s military, but al-Qaeda affiliates in the Sinai, which since the fall of Mubarak has become a haven for jihadists, endangering Cairo as well as Jerusalem. Accordingly, Rubio’s legislation sets aside a portion of the military aid for counterterrorism training, focused especially on the Sinai. Moreover, the measures require Cairo to take “all necessary action to eliminate smuggling networks and to detect and destroy tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip,” tunnels that feed weapons to both al-Qaeda in the Sinai and Hamas in Gaza.
The larger purpose of the amendment is to begin to “shift U.S. assistance away from military programs and toward civilian assistance.” Rather, it will reallocate aid “towards democracy and governance programs, including direct support for secular, democratic nongovernmental organizations, as well as programming and support for rule of law and human rights, good governance, political competition and consensus-building, and civil society.”
This comes as good news to Egyptian and other Arab liberals, who have been baffled the last two years by the White House’s Middle East policy. All they’ve seen in the wake of the Arab Spring was the administration’s outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties. Rubio’s legislation tells liberals, we’re with you, the ones who share our values.