Congress hearing advocates little change and more excuses

A hearing by the United States House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee on Egypt indicated that US policy is not changing anytime soon, with representatives making no excuses for Mohamed Morsi’s ouster.

“While the Muslim Brotherhood-led government was democratically elected, it governed autocratically,” said Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican from California. “Yet the US administration was perceived as passive as President Mohamed Morsi grabbed power — squashing individual rights, sidelining the courts and declaring himself above the law.”

On the other side of the aisle, Elliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, followed a similar line of argument and criticized the Obama administration’s recent decision to suspend some military aid.

“If I were given the choice between the military and the Brotherhood, I’d take the military every time,” he said in the hearing. He argued that the Brotherhood had provided the ideological underpinnings of Al-Qaeda and Hamas, and that the military is “slowly moving to a reboot of Egyptian democracy.”

There is a difference in the hard line that Engel took supporting the military and the US’s stance though, notes Mokhtar Awad a research associate at the Center for American Progress.

“US policy in Egypt can be best described as cautious,” Awad tells Mada Masr in an email. “Some describe this as ‘maximum flexibility,’ that is the administration is attempting to ensure that no one step taken could threaten US national security objectives while remaining in a position that may still influence Cairo’s leaders.”

“Today’s hearing reflects this complexity as we saw congressmen who have no issue in frankly discussing their preference for the military in control over the Brotherhood, and others who are deeply frustrated with the unreformed aid structure to Egypt,” he said.

Ambassador Beth Jones, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, testifying at the hearing, also defined US interests in Egypt as mostly security related.

“Our longstanding partnership is predicated on shared interests — promoting a stable and prosperous Egypt; securing regional peace and maintaining peace with Israel; and countering extremism and terrorism throughout the Middle East and North Africa,” she said.

How that has translated into a coherent policy is unclear, Steven Cook of the Council of Foreign Relations told Mada Masr in an email.

“I am not exactly sure what US policy is. It seems that the witnesses were saying that the United States supports democracy in Egypt and wants to continue security cooperation,” wrote Cook in an email. “Democracy is seen as a way of achieving those interests, though it is not the only way.”

The hearing also gave significant attention to violence and discriminatory practices against the Coptic Christian minority as well as the NGO trial.

Defense contracts loomed large, with Engel arguing that the aid stoppage was like “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

“We will continue to hold deliveries of large-scale weapons systems to Egypt,” said Derek Chollet, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, who pointed out that the money would continue to flow to US defense contractors.

“Pending the availability of funds and authorities, we do not intend to terminate contracts with vendors and contractors for these large-scale weapons systems; instead, some large-scale weapons systems will remain in temporary storage until Egypt makes credible progress on an inclusive, democratic transition.”