Obama Administration Resists Cutting Off Egypt Aid

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Monday that the United States has limited influence in Egypt, where a violent crackdown by Egypt's military has left hundreds of protesters dead. Hagel's comment comes as some in Congress suggest the U.S. does have substantial leverage. They want the the U.S. to cut off military aid to Egypt.

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And late tonight a new development in Cairo: state media report that security forces have arrested the top leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Mohammed Badie just over a week ago. He's the latest member of the Brotherhood to be rounded up by authorities. Bahdie, like ousted President Morsi, is accused of inciting violence.

Meanwhile, the White House says it is deeply disturbed by the rising violence in Egypt. But the Obama administration says it's made no decision on whether to withhold any economic or military aid to Egypt's interim government. NPR's Larry Abramson reports on what leverage, if any, that aid gives the U.S. as it tries to manage the crisis.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: The State Department today denied media reports that the administration has decided to withhold some of the one and a half billion dollars Egypt gets in aid from the U.S.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that until that decision is made, aid will continue to flow.

JEN PSAKI: We have not made a policy decision to put a blanket hold on the economic support fund, ESF, assistance. Clearly, that review is ongoing.

ABRAMSON: Similarly, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel denied media reports that the delivery of Apache helicopters to Egypt's military will be delayed. Hagel himself has made at least 17 phone calls to Egyptian army leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, urging his counterpart to end the violence and restore democracy. Hagel said the U.S. will keep communications channels open.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: We continue to work with all the parties to try to help, as much as we can, facilitate a reconciliation, a stop of the violence. Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited. It's up to the Egyptian people.

ABRAMSON: The administration apparently sees the aid package as its chief leverage on the situation, but some in Congress say it's time to use that influence to make a statement. Over the weekend, Arizona Senator John McCain told CNN the U.S. must act.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: For us to sit by and watch this happen is a violation of everything that we stood for. And when we threaten something as we did - that we would cut off aid, as the administration did, and then not do it, then you lose your credibility and your influence.

ABRAMSON: So far, the U.S. has decided to delay the delivery of four fighter jets and has called off a military training exercise originally scheduled for later this year. When asked why the U.S. will not go further, Defense Secretary Hagel said simply, the U.S. has interests in Egypt and the Middle East. Some observers say the U.S. could put those interests at risk if it ends aid. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, for one, Egypt gives U.S. warships priority access to the Suez Canal. And that, he says, is key to keeping Iran in check.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: And as long as we're not going to deploy large amounts of our forces forward to deal with Iran, we have to be able and ready to move as quickly as possible. And that means access to the canal.

ABRAMSON: And, Cordesman says, Egypt's role goes well beyond the canal. He says the U.S. also needs overflight rights over Egypt in case the U.S. decides to take action in Syria. In addition, Egypt's peace treaty with Israel keeps one of the largest Arab armies from threatening a key U.S. ally. And, Cordesman notes, Egypt is also central to fighting regional terrorism.

CORDESMAN: Egypt plays a critical role in securing the Sinai. Egypt plays a critical role in securing the entrances to Gaza and putting pressure on Hamas.

ABRAMSON: Cordesman also says that Egypt may be less afraid of losing that aid than some in Congress realize. Recently, Arab neighbors have made financial promises that would more than make up for the U.S. contribution. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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