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Rethinking the aid

The depth of Wednesday’s violence breathed new life into the debate over how Congress and the Obama administration could be using American aid as a tool to steer Egypt toward a path more aligned to U.S. desires for democracy in the region.

According to a June report by the Congressional Research Service, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient — after Israel — of U.S. bilateral assistance since 1979. More than 80 percent of the roughly $1.5 trillion sent annually in recent years has been military-related.

Some analysts say the White House’s approach has been too soft-footed.

“The Obama administration has been very cautious and tentative in its responses to successive waves of changes inside of Egypt — and this tentative approach has left them little leverage over the situation there,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow focused on the Middle East and South Asia at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

While he acknowledged that Egypt’s political strife represents “a difficult situation for any outside actor, including the U.S. to have much leverage” over, Mr. Katulis added that “we should condition our security assistance on how well the Egyptian government is performing in advancing stability and dealing with threats.”

“We should condition our economic assistance on progress toward inclusive democratic governance,” he said. “The current authorities in Egypt are not doing a good job on either front.”

But any move to cut the aid could carry a variety of difficult political and geopolitical implications.

Some analysts have noted how a quick cut could hurt certain sectors of the U.S. weapons manufacturing industry. The June Congressional Research Service report noted that “one of the cornerstones of U.S. military assistance to Egypt” is a 25-year-old program involving U.S.-Egyptian co-production of the M1-A1 Abrams battle tank, for which the prime contractor is Michigan-based General Dynamics Corp.

The tank production program aside, many believe the aid is essential to maintaining regional security. While it bolsters the Egyptian military’s ability to crack down on Islamist terrorists or protesters, it also motivates whoever is in charge in Egypt to honor the country’s 34-year-old peace treaty with Israel.

“It would be a mistake to immediately and unilaterally cut off aid to Egypt, which would weaken Egypt’s ability to fight al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militants who have carved out a sanctuary in the Sinai Peninsula and possibly jeopardize Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel,” said James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

Impact on peace talks?

Questions have swirled in Washington, meanwhile, over the extent to which the Obama administration’s recently rejuvenated push for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have played into the White House’s acceptance of, or acquiescence to, the Egyptian military’s actions.

The military government in Cairo, the argument goes, stands to facilitate success in the process far more than Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood would have, particularly with regard to neutralizing the potentially crippling opposition to the process presented by Hamas.

While the U.S. government classifies the militant Islamist group as a terrorist organization, Hamas holds political control over the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, which borders Egypt.

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