By Marian Wang and Theodoric Meyer The regime change in Egypt — and in particular, the riots outside the American embassy last month — have prompted renewed questions about American aid to the country. (A recent poll found that 42 percent of Americans supported cutting aid to Egypt; 29 percent supported cutting it off altogether.) We’ve taken a step back and tried […]
By Marian Wang and Theodoric Meyer
The regime change in Egypt — and in particular, the riots outside the American embassy last month — have prompted renewed questions about American aid to the country. (A recent poll found that 42 percent of Americans supported cutting aid to Egypt; 29 percent supported cutting it off altogether.)
We’ve taken a step back and tried to answer some basic questions, including how much the U.S. is giving Egypt, what’s changed since the Arab Spring and who is benefiting from all this aid money.
How much does the U.S. spend on Egypt?
Egypt gets the most U.S. foreign aid of any country except for Israel. (This doesn’t include the money spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) The exact amount varies from year to year and there are many different funding streams, but U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt has averaged about $2 billion a year since 1979, when Egypt struck a peace treaty with Israel following the Camp David accords, according to the Congressional Research Service. That includes military and economic aid, though the latter has declined by more than two-thirds since 1998, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.
Let’s start with the military aid. How much is it, and what does it buy?
Military aid — which comes through a funding stream known as Foreign Military Financing — has held steady at about $1.3 billion since 1987. American officials have long argued that the money promotes strong ties between the American and Egyptian militaries, which gives the U.S. all kinds of benefits. U.S. Navy warships, for instance, get “expedited processing” when they pass through the Suez Canal.
Here’s a 2009 U.S. embassy cable released by WikiLeaks that makes essentially the same point:
President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil relationship and consider the USD 1.3 billion in annual FMF as “untouchable compensation” for making and maintaining peace with Israel. The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the U.S. military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace.
The military funding also enables Egypt to purchase U.S.-manufactured military goods and services. But a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office (PDF) criticized both the State Department and the Defense Department for failing to measure how the funding actually contributes to U.S. goals.
Does this aid require Egypt to meet any specific conditions regarding human rights?
It didn’t for a long time. When an exiled Egyptian dissident called on the U.S. to attach conditions to aid to Egypt in 2008, Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., who had recently stepped down as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, told the Washington Post the idea was “admirable but not realistic.” And Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that military aid “should be without conditions” at a Cairo press conference in 2009.
Last December Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, led Congress in adding language to a spending bill to make aid to Egypt conditional on the secretary of state certifying that Egypt is supporting human rights and being a good neighbor. The language requires that Egypt abide by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, support “the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections,” and put in place policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.” It sounds pretty tough, but it’s not.
So has American aid to Egypt been cut off?
No. Congress threatened to block the aid when Egypt began a crackdown on a number of American pro-democracy groups this winter. A senior Obama administration official said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had no way to certify the bill’s conditions were being met.
But in March Clinton waived the certification requirement (yes, she can do that) and approved the aid, despite concerns remaining about Egypt’s human rights record. The reason? “A delay or cut in $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt risked breaking existing contracts with American arms manufacturers that could have shut down production lines in the middle of President Obama’s re-election campaign,” the New York Times reported. Breaking the contracts could have left the Pentagon on the hook for $2 billion.
Oy vey. What kind of arms have we been sending them, anyway?
According to the State Department, the aid has included fighter jets, tanks, armored personnel carriers, attack helicopters, antiaircraft missiles, and surveillance aircraft. In the past, the Egyptian government has bought some of the weaponry on credit.
What about economic aid and efforts to promote democracy?
U.S. economic aid to Egypt has slumped from $815 million in 1998 to about $250 million in 2011.
The various economic aid efforts have had mixed results. The State Department has described the Commodity Import Program, which gave Egypt millions of dollars between 1986 and 2008 to import American goods, as “one of the largest and most popular USAID programs.” But an audit of the four-year, $57 million effort to create agricultural jobs and boost rural incomes in 2007 found that the program “has not increased the number of jobs as planned” [PDF]. And an audit of a $151 million program [PDF] to modernize Egypt’s real estate finance market in 2009 found that, while the market had improved since the program began, the growth was “not clearly measureable or attributable” to the aid efforts.
The U.S. has also funded programs to promote democracy and good government in Egypt — again with few results. It has sent about $24 million a year between 1999 and 2009 to a variety of NGOs in the country. According to a 2009 inspector general’s audit [PDF], the efforts didn’t add much due to “a lack of support” from the Egyptian government, which “suspended the activities of many U.S. NGOs because Egyptian officials thought these organizations were too aggressive.”
A WikiLeaks cable revealed the Egyptian government had asked USAID to stop financing NGOs that weren’t properly registered.
President Obama has promised Egypt $1 billion in aid to support its transition to democracy following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. But the funding has become a political issue since the attacks on the American embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11. When the Obama administration announced last month that it was sending the Egyptian government $450 million to help forestall a budget crisis, Representative Kay Granger, a Texas Republican and the chairwoman of a subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, said she would block the money because of concerns about Egypt’s direction under the Muslim Brotherhood. “I am not convinced of the urgent need for this assistance and I cannot support it at this time,” she said in a statement.
This story was originally published by ProPublica.