By Jill Dougherty and Jamie Crawfrd
In spite of tensions with Egypt over its recent crackdown on democracy support groups, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will issue a national security waiver allowing $1.3 billion in foreign military financing to flow again to the Cairo government, a senior State Department official told CNN.
Secretary Clinton, a senior State Department official confirmed, will certify Friday to Congress that Egypt is meeting its obligations under its peace treaty with Israel. In addition, "on the basis of America's national security interests," the official said, "she will waive legislative conditions related to Egypt's democratic transition."
The decision not to affirm that Egypt's military leadership is transitioning to civilian rule sparked immediate outcry on Capital Hill but the State Department official said Egypt is moving forward.
"On the democracy side, Egypt has made more progress in 16 months than in the last 60 years," the official said in explaining Clinton's decision.
"Yet Egypt's transition to democracy is not yet complete," the official added, and more work remains to protect universal rights and freedoms, and the role of NGOs and civil society."
The funds are not given in cash; all the money goes to U.S. firms with contracts to supply U.S. military and defense equipment, weapons, training and services to Egypt.
"These decisions reflect our overarching goal: to maintain our strategic partnership with an Egypt made stronger and more stable by a successful transition to democracy. "
Even before the State Department official revealed Clinton's decision, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, criticized it, saying he was "disappointed."
"I know Secretary Clinton wants the democratic transition in Egypt to succeed," he said in a statement, "but by waiving the conditions we send a contradictory message. The Egyptian military should be defending fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, not harassing and arresting those who are working for democracy."
Leahy urged Clinton to retain some leverage over Egypt by holding back funds if Egypt does not meet it stated mileposts on the road to democratic transition, including passing a new constitution and protecting human rights. The secretary, he said, should "use the flexibility the law provides and release no more taxpayer funds than is demonstrably necessary, withholding the rest in the Treasury pending further progress in the transition to democracy."
The State Department official, however, indicated that the Obama administration will retain some control: "Just as we do with our military assistance to every country," the official explained, "we will disburse security funding as needed to meet contractual obligations, and we will maintain the flexibility to make adjustments to our Foreign Military Financing program at any time if conditions require it."
Initial bipartisan reaction to the decision on Capitol Hill was largely negative.
"I am disappointed by the timing of the Secretary's decision to issue a partial waiver of restrictions on FMF funds for Egypt while the Egyptian government's transition is ongoing," Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX.) said in a written statement. "The State Department needs to make the case that waiving the conditions is in the national security interest of the United States. I expect the Secretary to follow the law and consult the Appropriations Committee before any funds are transferred."
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, told CNN earlier this week that while he did not think a decision from the administration was imminent, he was having conversations with Clinton about the "complicated and complex" decision.
"We still have a number of other issues that need to be addressed," McCain told CNN. "But there is also the overall issue of the delicate situation politically in Egypt today. They've got elections coming up. So we want to weigh on these factors."
McCain is chairman of the board for the International Republican Institute, whose offices were raided by Egyptian authorities in December. The offices of two other American non-governmental organizations - National Democratic Institute and Freedom House - were raided as well.
Some employees of the groups, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, were prevented from leaving Egypt for weeks because of a travel ban imposed by the government. Egyptian authorities allowed them to return to the United States earlier this month.
Democracy groups also decried the Secretary's waiver. Neil Hicks, international policy advisor of the rights advocacy group Human Rights First, told CNN Clinton's decision is the "worst possible scenario that we were thinking of because it seems as though they have issued the waiver and therefore completely disregarded the issue of human rights and democracy conditions."
He said Human Rights First would support a phased rollout of the funds. "It would show that there is some leverage on the human rights and democracy issues," he said."
But the State Department said continuing the aid to Egypt goes far beyond its sometimes rocky transition to democracy.
"The secretary's decision is designed to promote our strong support for Egypt's enduring role as a security partner and leader in promoting regional stability," the State Department official said. "Egypt has maintained 30-plus years of peace with Israel. It contributes to nonproliferation, counterterrorism and peace in the region and beyond."
"In the days to come, we look to Egypt's leaders to keep the democratic transition on course and to make continuing improvements in Egypt's protection of universal human rights and freedoms."