WASHINGTON — The United States should use its billions in aid to Egypt as leverage to force a transition to democracy, foreign policy experts told lawmakers Wednesday in Congress' first hearing since massive anti-government demonstrations for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
The Obama administration and Congress have struggled with the vexing problem of how to embrace a powerful democratic movement while dealing with longtime ally Mubarak, who clings to power despite the clamor for him to step down. Lawmakers have played a limited role in a foreign policy crisis that has gripped the White House and State Department for weeks, offering statements but largely deferring to the administration.
Deciding on whether to give U.S. taxpayer dollars to Egypt is the exception; Congress will decide.
Summoning former State Department officials and other experts, the House Foreign Affairs Committee focused on the aid to Egypt, which is at least $1.5 billion a year in military assistance, the implications if the Muslim Brotherhood is part of a future government and the prospects for September elections. Several Republican lawmakers also used the forum to criticize the administration for a lack of clarity.
As protests roil Egypt and the government signals they won't be tolerated much longer, some lawmakers have called for an immediate suspension of aid until there is concrete evidence of a move to democracy.
Elliott Abrams, a senior State Department official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, said the United States should use aid like a cudgel and make clear that it won't abide any violent crackdown on protesters.
"We're not going to pay for the suppression of democracy," Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the committee. "Now is the time to signal to them this aid is conditional. I wouldn't cut it off today. First I would send that message that we're watching and it could be cut off any day if you guys do a Tiananmen Square in Cairo."
In 1989, Tiananmen Square was the site of the government's bloody effort to rein in protesters.
Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the administration was right to continue economic and military aid to Egypt "until it has greater clarity on the ground."
Yet some lawmakers argued for cutting off aid as the Egyptian government has been slow to produce real concessions despite Vice President Omar Suleiman's promises to establish committees to offer long-sought constitutional amendments and monitor the reforms. Strikes and protests occurred throughout Egypt on Wednesday as many struggle economically.
"Until there is evidence that a real transition is under way, with the exception of aid for humanitarian needs or with the transition, we need to suspend our aid to Egypt," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., renewing a call he made last week.
Several lawmakers expressed real fears about the role of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group in Egypt, in any future government. The Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned and calls for rule by Islamic law
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the committee, said the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists "must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt" and said the White House was making matters worse by re-evaluating its position on dealing with the group.
Said Satloff: "The Brotherhood is not, as some suggest, simply an Egyptian version of the March of Dimes — that is, a social welfare organization whose goals are fundamentally humanitarian. ..The Brotherhood is a fundamentally political organization that seeks to reorder Egyptian society in an Islamist fashion."
Several Republicans expressed frustration with a message they described as muddled from an administration trying to sort out the fast-moving developments.
"The administration response to events in Egypt is a confused and unreliable voice," said Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif.
Ros-Lehtinen complained that the U.S. has failed to leverage its assistance in both Egypt and Lebanon. "Instead of being proactive, we have been obsessed with maintaining short-term, personality-based stability."