RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
The U.S. Congress has been on the sidelines throughout the current crisis in Egypt. Over the past three decades, though, Congress has played a key role in the American relationship with Cairo. During that time, Congress approved more foreign aid for Egypt than for any other nation except Israel. The autocratic regime that receives that assistance is on its way out, but as NPR's David Welna reports, the aid is likely to keep flowing - at least, for now.
DAVID WELNA: It was Egypt's decision to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 that really opened the foreign aid spigot for the world's largest Arab nation. Maryland Democrat Senator Barbara Mikulski is on the appropriations panel that's approved aid for Egypt every year since then.
S: The funding that we provided came out of the Camp David accords. It had almost a treaty-like status to do that. They played a very important role in keeping the peace.
WELNA: In recent years, U.S. aid to Egypt has been about a billion and a half dollars a year; most has gone to the Egyptian military. Its funding has increased while economic assistance and money for fostering democratic groups is only half what it was just five years ago. Still, not many lawmakers are second-guessing how that money was spent.
S: I don't like looking backwards and saying we should've, could've, would've.
WELNA: Senator Frank Lautenberg is a New Jersey Democrat. He defends the military aid for Egypt, which by law, is spent on American-made weapons.
S: The fact of the matter is that among the allies that we have there - which are darn few - that we had a fairly stable relationship.
WELNA: For Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, that U.S. assistance has paid big dividends.
S: It has helped to encourage Egypt to be responsible, for the most part, in its dealings with Israel, for example, and to keep the Suez Canal under control in a way that has allowed the free passage of ships.
WELNA: Arizona Republican Senator John McCain worries all that could change.
S: This whole thing is fraught with danger - not just the Suez Canal, but the spreading of radical extremism. If Egypt turned into a radical Islamic state, it could have implications for the Israeli- Palestinian issue. I mean, this is a very critical point in history, in the Middle East.
WELNA: Senators are, in fact, divided on whether Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should step down now. Joe Lieberman is an independent from Connecticut.
S: The fact is that he has consistently been a force for moderation against extremism, and for peace in the region.
S: Mubarak should resign - and should resign right now.
WELNA: That's Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat. He says Mubarak's departure could hasten a political transition.
MONTAGNE: Letting the government be taken over by the vice president, General Suleiman, who is well thought of in the Arab communities as well as in Israel and the United States.
WELNA: Many senators say the U.S. should use its influence to push Egypt to hold free and fair presidential elections this year. But South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham says it's simply not enough to demand a freely elected government.
S: The concern from an American perspective: Who would make up that government? I think it would be wise for us to be on the ground floor of helping this transition, rather than having a totally hands-off policy.
WELNA: There's concern among leading Republicans in Congress that the Islamic group Muslim Brotherhood could come out on top in Egypt. Still, GOP Senate leader Mitch O'Connell prefers to let the Obama administration grapple with this crisis.
S: My view is America ought to speak with one voice. And we have one president and one secretary of State, and I think they ought to speak for America with regard to the crisis in the Middle East.
WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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