Law requires Obama administration to cut off Egyptian aid

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Brendan Bordelon Contributor
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The $1.5 billion in U.S. foreign aid slated for Egypt next year is in jeopardy after the Egyptian army deposed democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday.

Section 508 of the decades-old Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by a military coup or decree.”

A clause in the 2011 omnibus bill strengthens the provision, excluding from American aid any nation experiencing a “coup d’etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.”

Although events in Egypt appear to conform perfectly to these criteria, it’s unclear whether the Obama administration will cut off revenue to the strategically important nation anytime soon.

“Given today’s developments, I have directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the Government of Egypt,” President Barack Obama said in a statement released Wednesday evening.

But the president also refused to call the takeover a coup, indicating his administration’s wariness to label events in Egypt before deciding how to proceed.

Time reports that the $1.3 billion marked for the Egyptian military in 2014 is around 20 percent of that organization’s total budget. Without that money, the army may be unable to keep the peace should an extended confrontation develop between Morsi’s supporters and opposition activists.

“The Egyptian military has long been a key partner of the United States and a stabilizing force in the region, and is perhaps the only trusted national institution in Egypt today,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a statement Wednesday.

The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee echoed that sentiment.

“In determining the future of U.S. assistance, the administration should look at the regional picture with our national security interests in mind,” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said in a Wednesday announcement. “Our long-standing cooperation with Egypt, which is essential for stability in the region, should remain a priority.”

Their comments indicate that the administration would face little protest from congressional Republicans if they decide to ignore or circumvent the law on foreign assistance.

But politicians from the president’s own party may be less forgiving.

“Our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree,” said Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chair of the budget committee which oversees foreign aid.

John Bellinger, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out in his blog on Thursday that unlike many parts of the Foreign Assistance Act, the provision restricting foreign aid “does not include Presidential waiver authority.”

If Wednesday’s events are determined to be a coup, President Obama would have to seek “specific statutory waiver authority” from Congress in order to keep payments to Egypt flowing. President Bush received such authority in 2001, when Congress approved assistance to Pakistan’s military government following the September 11th attacks.

Obvious power grabs by foreign military leaders have usually resulted in the swift restriction of U.S. aid. Last year, American assistance to Mali was terminated just four days after disaffected soldiers overthrew the Saharan nation’s civilian government.

But when a military coup enjoys widespread popular support or vital U.S. interests are at stake, the State Department often moves more slowly.

Although President Obama almost immediately condemned a 2009 military takeover in Honduras, six weeks later the State Department continued to equivocate over whether the situation in the small Central American country met the legal definition of a coup.

In that instance, deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was widely accused of acting unconstitutionally and in contempt of his people’s wishes, including by prominent members of his own party and the Honduran Supreme Court. Over two months after the coup, the State Department finally suspended most aid to Honduras under a different provision of federal law.

The situation in Egypt looks more like Honduras than Mali. Millions of Egyptians, disaffected with President Morsi’s economic mismanagement and suppression of civil liberties, wholeheartedly support the military takeover and view the Egyptian armed forces as guardians of secular-democratic values.

Combined with the need for a stable partner in a volatile region, the coup’s popularity may prevent a State Department decision on foreign aid for months or longer.

On Thursday President Obama exhorted Egypt’s military to “return full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible.” Some speculate that the White House may use the threat of a foreign aid cutoff to pressure Egyptian generals to rapidly restore civilian rule.

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