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Key Democratic senator considers blocking aid to Egypt

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, refers to Egypt's "appalling abuse of the justice system" on the same day US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.
Ranking member Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (L) and Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) confer during the third day of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's U.S. Senate confirmation hearings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 30, 2010. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW) - RTR2FY7V

A $1.5 billion aid package for Egypt stalled in Congress on Tuesday, with a key senator vowing to block $650 million in previously announced military aid and House members putting the State Department on notice that they'll strenuously object to future assistance if next month's presidential election isn't free and fair.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, took to the floor of the Senate to express his "growing dismay" at the death sentences handed down on hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Middle East panel made it clear that they think future aid should be frozen if the upcoming elections are a sham.

"I am extremely disturbed by the Egyptian government’s flouting of human rights and appalling abuse of the justice system, which are fundamental to any democracy," Leahy announced on the Senate floor on Tuesday. "I am not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military until we have a better understanding of how the aid would be used, and we see convincing evidence that the government is committed to the rule of law."

Leahy's announcement applies to $650 million in military aid that Secretary of State John Kerry announced following a phone call last week with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy. The administration also announced they were supplying Egypt with 10 Apache attack helicopters, which aren't subject to congressional approval, for anti-terrorism operations.

The spending law that Congress passed in January conditions a first tranche of $975 million in current-year aid on Kerry's certification that "Egypt has held a constitutional referendum, and is taking steps to support a democratic transition in Egypt." Wary of outraging Egypt skeptics in Congress and not wanting to give the Egyptian government a seal of democratic approval now, Kerry opted not to make that certification.

Instead, acting within the parameters of the law, the administration chose to move forward on the categories of aid for which the State Department can take action — pending congressional approval — without making that certification: Foreign Military Financing funds designated for "counterterrorism, border security, and nonproliferation programs in Egypt, and for development activities in the Sinai" and continuing existing military aid contracts with US companies "at the minimum rate necessary."

"People in the administration know that if they had tried to make the democracy certification now … there would have been some extremely skeptical people on the Hill, including Leahy. So they didn't do that," said Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. "What's so fascinating about Leahy's strong pushback is that, even while they're avoiding the democracy certification decision for now, he's still putting the brakes on any FMF moving forward yet, because of his very serious concerns about Egypt's lack of democratic progress and human rights abuses."

The State Department has indicated it will respect Congress' wishes. "The reason we were able to grant these certifications is because it was allowed for in the appropriations bill," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday. "But Congress certainly has a powerful role to play in determining whether this funding moves forward."

Meanwhile, the House Foreign Affairs Committee used a hearing on the Obama administration's FY 2015 Middle East budget on Tuesday to warn the administration against future aid if Egypt's democratic and human rights record doesn't improve.

The spending law would make a second tranche of $577 million in military and economic aid available if Kerry certifies that Egypt has held parliamentary and presidential elections, "and that a newly elected government of Egypt is taking steps to govern democratically." Former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the clear favorite to win the presidential elections.

"The upcoming presidential elections will be a litmus test for Egypt’s transition and will give us an opportunity to reassess our aid package," said panel chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.

Several Republicans and Democrats echoed those concerns.

"It is clear that there are real and serious concerns that must be addressed with respect for basic human rights and democratic values," said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., the top Democrat on the Middle East panel. "I am afraid that the status quo is unsustainable."

Kerry pressed Fahmy on the country's democratic transition during the foreign minister's visit to Washington on Tuesday.

"We are hopeful and look for a political process of inclusivity, a constitution implemented which brings people politically to the table, and broadens the democratic base of Egypt," Kerry said in remarks before their meeting. "Egypt’s constitution is a positive step forward. It has taken steps, and they are moving now to an election. But even as these positive steps have been taken, we all know there have been disturbing decisions within the judicial process — the court system — that have raised serious challenges for all of us.”

Fahmy said Egypt's justice system was independent.

"I’m confident that due process is allowed — that due process is allowed, and that the legal system will ultimately end up with proper decisions in each of these cases," he said. "And we will build a democracy based on the rule of law, and the rule of law means applying laws that are consistent with the constitution through a legal system that’s independent and credible to us all — most of all, to the Egyptian people."

His meeting with members of the House Foreign Affairs panel Monday evening did not go as smoothly. Ros-Lehtinen said she was disappointed that the former longtime ambassador to Washington under President Hosni Mubarak appeared to dismiss lawmakers' concerns about the death sentences against Muslim Brotherhood protesters and the prison convictions of nongovernmental organization workers.

“He knows our system well and he's an old hand at this and he knows all the players here in Congress,” she told Al-Monitor. “But I think his attitude was a little too glib about the serious problems that Egypt is facing. And I wanted to tell him that having a peace accord with Israel does not buy Egypt carte blanche to run over civil society.”

Fahmy is scheduled to meet with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Wednesday afternoon.

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