U.S. lawmakers push to restructure Egypt aid

WASHINGTON Tue Mar 19, 2013 12:12am GMT

An anti-Mursi protester, with his eyes closed due to tear gas fired by police, gestures while holding the national flag during clashes near the gate of El-Quba, one of the presidential palaces, in Cairo February 15, 2013. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

An anti-Mursi protester, with his eyes closed due to tear gas fired by police, gestures while holding the national flag during clashes near the gate of El-Quba, one of the presidential palaces, in Cairo February 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers have seized upon a domestic spending bill as a chance to tighten controls on how Egypt's Islamist government can use well over $1 billion (662.62 million pounds) in military and other aid that Washington sends to Cairo each year.

Five senators - four Republicans and one Democrat - offered separate amendments related to the aid to a fast-track spending measure that seeks to avert a government shutdown on March 27.

U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern about Egypt's stability. But they have also worried about the future policies of its Islamist government, its relations with Israel and anger at vitriolic comments about Jews that Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi made in 2010, when he was a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement.

They seized upon the spending bill as a chance to clamp down on Cairo, days before President Barack Obama visits the region on his first presidential trip to Israel.

"In the 21st century, America's foreign assistance must reflect our values as well as our interests," said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who introduced one of the amendments.

Two years after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the most populous Arab nation is deeply divided and its government is struggling with a worrying slide in currency reserves and a soaring budget deficit.

The amendments are among some 125 added to the bill, a U.S. domestic spending measure known as a continuing resolution.

It was not clear how many, if any, of the five Egypt amendments would survive negotiations on a final version. The Senate is expected to vote on a final version on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Washington provides $1.3 billion per year in military aid to Egypt. The United States also said early this month it would give the country $250 million in budget aid after Mursi promised to make the painful economic reforms necessary to secure an International Monetary Fund loan.

The senators - Rubio, fellow Republicans John McCain, James Inhofe, and Rand Paul, and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee's State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee - are not pushing to cut the aid.

Leahy and McCain are seeking to ensure the military aid is used for counter-terrorism, border security or special operations, meeting Egypt's most pressing security needs, not major defence equipment such as F-16 fighter jets or M1 tanks.

Rubio also would block the disbursement of additional economic support funds and new foreign military financing contracts until Cairo begins to enact economic reforms and Obama's administration certifies it is protecting human rights.

Paul's amendment, co-sponsored by Inhofe, seeks to cut off all assistance to Egypt until Mursi says in English and Arabic that he intends to uphold the Camp David peace accords.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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