WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will announce curbs on a significant part of nonessential military aid to Egypt within a few days, U.S. officials said Tuesday, marking a shift in American relations with one of its key Arab allies.
Officials would not provide figures about how much of an annual total of $1.2 billion in aid would be withheld, but said the primary focus will be a hold on shipment of a dozen AH-64D Apache helicopters from an order originally placed four years ago.
Provision of crucial spare parts for the extensive U.S. military equipment Egypt already has and training for the Egyptian armed forces will continue, officials said. They said aid that supports counterterrorism initiatives and ongoing Egyptian relations with Israel, including security efforts in the Sinai Peninsula and monitoring Egypt’s border with the Gaza strip, would also continue.
U.S. officials described the decision, coming three months after a military coup toppled elected President Mohammed Morsi, on the condition of anonymity. Neither Congress nor Egyptian officials have been notified of the decision, and the announcement could be postponed.
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“We will announce the future of our assistance relationship with Egypt in the coming days,” Caitlin Hayden, the National Security Council spokesperson, said in a statement.
Citing President Barack Obama’s address to the U.N. General Assembly last month, Hayden said, “As the president made clear at UNGA, that assistance relationship will continue.”
The Apache shipment that will be placed on hold is part of an $820 million, 12-aircraft order dating from 2009. The hold, which can be lifted at a later time, is more a symbolic move than a substantive loss for the Egyptians, who already have about three dozen Apaches from previous orders.
The decision reflects increasing frustration within the Obama administration that Egypt’s military leadership, now running the country, is not moving swiftly enough toward new democratic elections.
Egypt’s coup and ensuing political violence has challenged Obama, forcing him to choose between maintaining relations with a strategic partner in the Middle East and punishing the military government there for toppling Morsi in July and cracking down on his supporters.
Hundreds have been killed in the violence, which has spiked again in recent days.
U.S. law forbids most aid to countries whose elected governments are overthrown in a military coup — a term Obama declined to use, as a result. Exceptions include money deemed in the U.S. national security interest, such as counterterrorism assistance.
The administration had tried to persuade the Egyptian military not to use force to oust Morsi or end street encampments by his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and warned that a cutoff of aid was possible.
The large block of aid, which is mostly used by Egypt to order U.S.-made defense equipment like Apache helicopters and F-16 warplanes, is a bedrock of U.S. security and diplomatic policy in the Middle East. The administration had already suspended the transfer of some military equipment.
The money, historically second only to U.S. annual aid to Israel, is tied to Egypt’s decision more than 30 years ago to make peace with the Jewish state. Egypt and Israel work closely on border security in the Sinai, along the Gaza border and elsewhere.
The administration has been reviewing aid since the July coup, and was loath to suspend it for fear of losing what little leverage the United States had to pressure Egypt’s military government to call new elections. Several Gulf states, opposed to Morsi and his Islamist supporters, have donated billions to the military government.