For the first time in a generation, Egypt is in strategic play. It could either stay a U.S. strategic partner and maintain peace with Israel, or it could join an Islamist axis with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Recent events show how quickly the pendulum can swing. In the span of just over a week, President Obama proposed a multibillion-dollar economic aid package for Egypt, and then the supposed U.S. ally turned around and opened the Rafah border with Hamas-controlled Gaza.
The timing was as significant as the action itself. Egypt appears to be playing hardball, seemingly looking to extract additional concessions in exchange for continued loyalty.
While the administration remains silent for now, Congress is looking to push back.
No one has formally introduced legislation yet, but conversations with Hill staffers and several members of Congress over the past week indicate that Congress will not hand over billions without applying significant pressure on Cairo.
"We must do all we can to ensure Egypt remains a strategic ally," explains Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican.
Mr. Kirk, who has a long track record of leading bipartisan efforts to strengthen U.S. security in the Middle East, has not unveiled legislation yet. He did say, however, that the key principles are that Egypt "keeps its commitments under the Camp David peace accords, allows safe passage through the Suez Canal and works to stem the flow of weapons into Gaza."
Rep. Steven R. Rothman, New Jersey Democrat, who sits on the House foreign aid panel, supports Egyptian aid, but stresses that it must be contingent on "our national interests [being] addressed properly."
The most immediate concern for Congress is closing the Rafah border crossing. Few in Congress are willing to accept a major U.S. aid recipient allowing the free flow of goods and people into a terrorist-controlled territory.
Also of serious concern is that Egypt has fixed the recently sabotaged pipeline that supplies natural gas to Israel and several Arab nations, but the flow of gas has yet to restart.
Congress has been down this road before. For the first couple years after Israel withdrew from Gaza, Egypt's enforcement of the border was shaky at best.
The George W. Bush administration was not seen as applying strong pressure on the Mubarak regime, so Congress attached strings to fiscal 2008 Egyptian aid. Congress conditioned at least $100 million of U.S. assistance on three requirements, the most important of which was that Cairo "detect and destroy the smuggling network and tunnels that lead from Egypt to Gaza."
Egyptian border security soon improved. Though not miraculously better, things were trending in the right direction. Hamas' political and economic fortunes - which typically go hand in hand - plunged, with the terrorist group becoming deeply unpopular in Gaza, according to several respected polls in early 2010.
After the botched Israeli raid on the flotilla a year ago, however, Egypt eased up on its border enforcement in a show of "solidarity" with its Arab brethren.
Now it's an open question whether or not Egypt will make serious efforts to prevent smuggling into Gaza.
Any aid package that Congress passes will almost certainly require that Egypt complete the underground wall to close off the myriad tunnels as well as continue cooperating with the United States and Israel on other anti-smuggling activities.
Both the military and economic assistance will contain other conditions to help keep Egypt in the U.S. orbit.
One idea being discussed is ensuring that Egypt cannot increase its military presence in the Sinai unilaterally without first reaching an agreement with Israel. Egyptian military access to U.S. weap- onry also could be tied to fulfillment of obligations under the Camp David Accords, adhering to agreements to supply natural gas to Israel and keeping the Suez Canal open to the West - and closed to Iran.
With freer and increased trade on the table, there are other levers Congress could exercise. Debt forgiveness, loan guarantees and market access could be conditioned on Egypt adhering to existing agreements and cooperating on security efforts against not just Hamas, but also Iran and other terrorist entities.
What's clear is that Egypt cannot be trusted simply to remain a U.S. ally. Too much anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiment has been building over the years. Even in a quasi-democracy, the urge to pander will be strong.
One of the first major actions of the post-Mubarak government was brokering a truce between Fatah and Hamas, which not only helped usher a terrorist group into a power-sharing agreement, but also dealt a blow to U.S. hopes for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
That move could be seen as simultaneously playing to the Cairo street and warning America that Egypt's loyalties are up for grabs. The economic assistance that President Obama wants for Egypt could give the United States a strong hand in shaping its future, but effective leverage won't come through good will alone.
Egypt's future contains many question marks, but one certainty is that Congress won't let Egypt slip away without a fight.
Joel Mowbray is an adjunct fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
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