A behind-the-scenes battle is brewing in Washington over bending a United States’ human rights law "to give the administration some flexibility" in supporting the Egyptian military which is now placing President Mohamad Morsi on trial on capital charges after overthrowing him July 3, 2013. The changes are likely to be debated behind closed doors in the Senate committees on foreign relations and appropriations. "It's all about not breaking US defense contracts and incurring the penalties," says one observer.
The Egyptian generals' coup has tongue-tied President Barack Obama because officially designating the July 3 overthrow as a "coup" would require a suspension of $1.3 billion US military spending. The Obama administration is under fierce lobbying pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia to back Egypt's military junta with weapons and dollars. The Israelis consider the military junta a more reliable ally than Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, while the Saudis are driven by sectarian hostility. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia also are openly angry with Obama's alleged "failure" to bomb Syria, fearing that Obama will "soften" his policy towards Iran as part of a future deal.
Many secularists and liberals in Egypt and the US initially supported the July 3rd coup, further hemming Obama into a lonely position. They claim that Morsi so exceeded his mandate that he should have been forced to step down, but the generals quickly hijacked the anti-Morsi sentiment to overthrow the elected government, imprison Morsi and other key officials, murder thousands of Morsi protestors in the streets, and impose a full-scale police state apparatus.
Obama tried to reduce some military aid, mainly military hardware like Apache helicopters, in keeping with American law, while still maintaining US support for Egypt's counterterrorism programs in the Sinai and its embrace of the Camp David treaty with Israel. Secretary of State John Kerry has been awkwardly apologetic about the partial US suspensions. Kerry shocked many observers by defending the coup in its immediate aftermath as "restoration of democracy" and then last week showed up in Cairo to dialogue with the generals on the very day their military trial of Morsi was beginning. As a dignified Morsi shouted against the coup in the courtroom, and as tens of thousands marched in Egypt against the new dictatorship, Kerry managed only to assert that, "the road map (to democracy) is being carried out to the best of our perception." The New York Times described the statement as cryptic.
The New York Times also reports that National Security Adviser Susan Rice, herself a military hawk, is trying to exclude dealing with the Egyptian coup from the list Obama second term Middle East priorities. That approach should disturb serious human rights advocates and Senators concerned about protecting laws which they have written. Since the US doesn't control events on the ground, a back burner policy of minimal engagement might set off a deeper violence in Egypt.
Since the Obama policy violates the human rights obligations under the foreign assistance act, Obama and the hawks remain in a quandary. US funds cannot be released without a Senate debate and consenting vote. The impasse is causing the pressure for "flexibility" in application of the law, perhaps even a circumvention of the vote requirement.
Whatever the short-term outcome, the Egyptian economy is tanking, and a low-key civil war will continue to simmer on the horizon as long as the coup is allowed to stand.