CHILMARK, Mass. — The Obama administration has taken preliminary steps to withhold financial aid to the Egyptian government, officials said Sunday, though it is curtailing economic assistance, not the much larger military aid on which Egypt’s generals depend.
The State Department has put a hold on financing for economic programs that directly involve the Egyptian government, administration officials said, out of a concern that the military-led government might have violated congressional rules prohibiting aid to countries where there has been a coup.
The administration has not declared whether the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohammed Morsi constituted a coup. But the State Department is abiding by a complex web of restrictions governing foreign aid, an official said. Those restrictions are tighter than the rules governing the military aid, which has not been suspended.
Whether to cut off the remaining $500 million in military aid available to Egypt this year was one of the questions that awaited President Barack Obama as he returned to Washington from a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard that was overshadowed by the bloodshed in Egypt that has left hundreds of Islamist protesters dead.
For Egypt, the aid is perhaps less important than the advanced systems it can buy with U.S. support. Already, the U.S. is considering a delay in the shipment of Apache helicopters and repair kits for tanks. That comes on top of decisions to delay the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets and to pull out of a major joint military exercise next month.
But the administration has stopped short of suspending the aid, which has served as a foundation of the U.S. relationship with Egypt for more than three decades and is viewed as critical to the region’s stability, not least as a pillar of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Military aid to Egypt dwarfs civilian aid: Of the $1.55 billion in total assistance the White House has requested for 2014, $1.3 billion is military and $250 million is economic. The civilian aid goes to training programs, projects run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and support for nongovernmental organizations.
“We have stopped spending money in areas that would be prevented if it were determined to be a coup,” said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “We’ll put a pause on those programs, because we don’t want to flout the law.”