By Sara Sorcher | Updated: July 23, 2012 | 10:13 a.m.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was disappointed when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waived the conditions he had put on the $1.3 billion package of military aid to Egypt. Cairo had released the American pro-democracy workers it detained for weeks, but the military council’s reluctance to transfer power and its continued crackdown on civil society did not bode well for the transition to democracy.
The chairman of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee said that Clinton’s March decision to allow aid to flow despite unfulfilled conditions requiring respect for human rights and democratic freedoms sent a “contradictory message” to Egypt. Leahy tightened the conditions in next year’s appropriations bill.
As the Arab Spring upended long-held assumptions about the Middle East, Congress has been trying to influence U.S. foreign policy by layering new conditions on traditional aid packages. Does it work?
Both the Obama administration and Congress had the same general objective in Egypt: Let the democratic transition proceed smoothly, and give U.S. aid to support that goal. But new terms on the virtually sacrosanct aid package sparked a public discussion about the future of the broader assistance relationship when Egypt cracked down on prominent Washington-based pro-democracy organizations. Having aid on the table was successful, in that Egypt finally did allow the American NGO workers to leave. It was arguably unsuccessful when Cairo continued its broader crackdown on civil society, dissolved parliament, and stripped the civilian presidency of many powers after it understood the threat to cut off aid was hollow. The U.S. lost much of its leverage with the Egyptian military, and it lost credibility with Egyptian activists looking to Washington for support.
Conditionality “is a gun with one bullet in it,” said Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. The ideal scenario is that the conditions serve as effective leverage, and the government in question meets the conditions. “If that doesn’t happen, at a certain point, the administration has to bite the bullet and impose the cutoff or waive the conditions. In either case, the leverage is gone, because the threat is the effective leverage.”
With even tougher conditions looking likely this year, the U.S. may be in a similarly tough spot with Egypt. Making the military council believe that Washington will actually follow through on its threats will be much more difficult.