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US Lawmakers Question Wisdom of Withholding Aid to Egypt

Some U.S. lawmakers think President Obama's decision to withhold some military assistance to Egypt, pending what the administration calls "credible progress" toward a democratically-elected government following a July coup, may undermine U.S. security interests in the Middle East.

With the violence in Egypt continuing, Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel and other lawmakers are questioning the timing of Washington's decision to hold back major weapons from a long-time ally.

"The region is falling apart. Syria is spiraling out of control. Iran looms as a significant threat. It just seems to me it's not very wise to risk alienating our traditional allies and friends," said Engel.

Withholding tanks and attack helicopters punishes a military that toppled an increasingly-authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood-led government, said Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

"We're hanging General [Abdel Fattah] al-Sissi and the people that we are applauding for defeating radical Islam in Egypt, we're leaving them hanging out to dry," said Rohrabacher.

Despite Rohrabacher’s comments, the administration has taken a more nuanced view of the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president. Since his overthrow, human rights groups have deplored the crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, mass arrests and other widespread abuses.

The U.S. says the decision to hold back tanks, missiles, and attack helicopters does not affect its support for counter-terrorism efforts in the lawless Sinai peninsula, which borders Israel.

"They have considerable operational capability in the Sinai that they are using, and we are assisting them with sustaining those weapons systems that they do have which do overpower the extremists," said Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet.

Since Morsi's ouster, the Obama administration has been trying to reassure both pro-democracy activists and the military-led government that replaced him, says American University professor Akbar Ahmed. Ahmed feels that trying to play to both groups weakens U.S. standing in Cairo.

“If Egypt has a vacuum of power, authority, finances, someone is going to fill that. It's going to be either Russia, maybe China, or more immediately the Saudis," said Ahmed.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have both moved to help fund Egypt's interim government.

Considering the levels of funding coming from the Gulf monarchies, Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch feels the U.S. must take action to maintain relevance.

"Given the vast resources that Gulf states have provided to the interim government, we must act in a way to preserve our influence. Part of that is through assistance. Part of that is continuing to advocate for democracy," said Deutch.

Nonetheless, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones says Washington is pushing for democracy.

"We have explained this in great detail to the interim government. And as we re-calibrated our assistance, [we] focused on core national interests of the United States," said Jones.

The Obama administration says its partnership with Egypt will be strongest when there is an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government based on the rule of law.