By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - The Bush administration urged Congress on Wednesday not to cut U.S. aid to Egypt, arguing such punishment for Cairo's democracy crackdown would damage U.S. national interests.
Since 1979, the United States has pumped more than $60 billion of aid into Egypt, but many in Congress are growing impatient with Cairo over the slow pace of democratic reform and a pattern of crushing political dissent.
While acknowledging U.S. concern over Egypt's reforms, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said Cairo was a "formidable" partner, from fighting terrorism to allowing U.S. overflight rights to Iraq and providing troops for Sudan's Darfur region.
"Their role is irreplaceable and critical in many instances," Welch told a sub-committee of the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations.
"It would be damaging to our national interests," added Welch, when asked whether he thought U.S. aid should be cut.
Several lawmakers want greater accountability from Egypt over aid, particularly after Egyptian security beat demonstrators and detained journalists covering a protest in Cairo last week in support of judges who face disciplinary action for criticizing election abuses last year.
They fear the Egyptian government is backtracking on some of the relative freedoms allowed last year during the election and at the peak of a U.S. campaign for political change and democracy in the Middle East.
"The time has come to seek greater returns from our investment in Egypt," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican.
EXCUSE FOR REPRESSION
She said the United States needed to make sure fighting terrorism was not used as an excuse for repression by Egypt's government or for stifling legitimate political dissent.
"It is time to evaluate our aid to Egypt and ensure that it is used effectively and efficiently to provide for short- and long-term stability," added Ros-Lehtinen.
The State Department has publicly criticized Egypt twice in the past month for its crackdown but has made clear aid should continue at current levels. Last week President Hosni Mubarak's son made a secret visit to the White House in a bid to reduce tensions between the two countries.
Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel and Iraq and gets nearly $2 billion a year from Washington in military and economic assistance.
California Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee, has called for an urgent review of that assistance.
His latest call coincided with a report last week by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, which said the state and defense departments had not properly assessed how aid to Egypt helped U.S. security goals.
Senior State Department official Michael Coulter conceded a more "qualitative" approach was needed toward Egypt and that better benchmarks should be used in aid.
But Coulter said military aid, which accounts for more than half of total assistance, had paid "high dividends" in many areas, including Egypt's commitment to trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said conditionality of aid to Egypt would not work. "We need to revisit the aid relationship but the idea that we can change Egypt is wishful thinking," he said.
U.S senate cuts aid to Egypt over democracy