by Marian Wang and Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica.
This article has been updated to reflect new developments. It was first published on Jan. 31, 2011.
The recent military coup in Egypt has prompted a renewed debate about American aid to the country. Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, have both called for cutting off aid, while the White House has said it’s in no hurry to end it.
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 in the two years since the Arab Spring and who is benefiting from all the money.
How much does the U.S. spend on Egypt?
Egypt receives more U.S. foreign aid than any country except for Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
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.
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. Economic aid, on the other hand, has fallen by more than two-thirds since 1998.
American officials have long argued that the military aid 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. A 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office, however, 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?
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 then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2009 that military aid “should be without conditions” at a Cairo press conference.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, led Congress in adding language to a spending bill in 2011 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 ever been cut off?
No. Congress threatened to block the aid when Egypt began a crackdown on a number of American pro-democracy groups last year. A senior Obama administration official said that then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had no way to certify the conditions set out in the spending bill were being met.
But Clinton waived the certification requirement (yes, the secretary of state can do that) and approved the aid, despite concerns 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.