Leahy threatens to cut U.S. aid to Egypt until Mubarak out

By:  Laura Rozen

Amid reports that the Obama administration is negotiating behind the scenes for a swift departure of Hosni Mubarak, a top Senate appropriator is warning he will cut off U.S. aid to Egypt until Mubarak steps down.

"I am just stating the facts: Nobody is going to vote for foreign aid for Egypt ... so long as this is going on," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), chairman of the Senate Appropriations State/foreign ops subcommittee told POLITICO Friday.

"I know Mubarak well, I've been many times to Egypt, and the time is long past for him to leave and to open it up also for our aid to make it more livable for the average Egyptian," he said.

Egypt, which received approximately $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid last year and an additional $250,000 in U.S. civilian assistance, is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance.

But, the Vermont Democrat warned, "that's a pipeline that can easily be turned off." 

The threat could add leverage to the Obama administration's pressure on Mubarak to depart swiftly -- a key demand that several opposition groups insist on before they will enter talks with Egyptian officials on arrangements for a transition authority that can prepare for elections.

U.S. officials stressed there's no single U.S. plan being dictated to the Egyptians.

"We have discussed with the Egyptians a variety of different ways to move that [transition] process forward, but all of those decisions must be made by the Egyptian people," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Thursday. 

Egypt's new Vice President Omar Suleiman - who spoke with Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday - has told intermediaries since Monday he's seeking to negotiate with opposition parties on arrangements for the transition, but several opposition figures including the Muslim Brotherhood as well as former IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei have refused to enter talks with him until Mubarak steps down.

Egypt watchers say beyond the big issue of how quickly Mubarak moves aside, there are several quite complicated issues to work out for a transition arrangement, some legalistic, some logistical, including who decides who's at the table, and whether to hold not just new presidential elections, but new parliamentary elections -- a key interest of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"They have to reach agreement on the lifting of the emergency law and the lifting of banned parties that have been prevented from running in elections, so there's a certain amount of legality they have to negotiate," said former U.S. Amb. to Morocco Marc Ginsberg, whose work takes him frequently to Cairo.

Egypt had "essentially bogus parliamentary elections [last November] that everyone rejected," he said. "So will they also have new parliamentary elections? The Muslim Brotherhood is far more interested in that."

"Then they have people in jail or who have been harassed and prevented from forming political parties such as Ayman Noor, who have to be given a position to play here," he said.

As to the Obama administration's level of trust with Gen. Omar Suleiman -- Mubarak's longtime confidant and former intelligence chief -- he's a "known commodity" Washington is "used to dealing with," Ginsberg said. "Whatever his role, everyone has dealt with him at one time or another."

Leahy said he's been generally impressed with the conduct of the Egyptian military during the uprising, and noted it had been reminded this week of the "Leahy law" which requires a cut-off of U.S. military aid if misused to commit human rights violations.

"They have been reminded through back channels, 'Don't forget the Leahy law,' and to their credit, they are the one stabilizing factor," Leahy said, adding that he has questions about why they hung back Wednesday when pro-regime mobs attacked anti-Mubarak protesters, but noted they moved in since Thursday to separate the two groups.