WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry quietly acted last month to give Egypt $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid, deciding that this was in the national interest despite Egypt's failure to meet democracy standards.
Kerry made the decision well before an Egyptian court this week convicted 43 democracy workers, including 16 Americans, in what the United States regards as a politically motivated case against pro-democracy non-governmental organizations.
Rights groups believe Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi is retreating from democratic freedoms, notably in a new civil society law and in proposals for judicial reform that critics see as a way to purge judges perceived as hostile to the government.
Despite stating in a May 9 memo that "we are not satisfied with the extent of Egypt's progress and are pressing for a more inclusive democratic process and the strengthening of key democratic institutions," Kerry said the aid should go forward.
Ruled for three decades by authoritarian former President Hosni Mubarak, a close U.S. ally, Egypt has long been seen as a bulwark of stability in the Middle East, notably because it was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Under U.S. law, for the $1.3 billion to flow the secretary of state must certify that the Egyptian government "is supporting the transition to civilian government, including holding free and fair elections, implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion, and due process of law."
The legislation, championed by Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, also gives the U.S. government the ability to waive that condition if it deems this in the U.S. national security interest and provides a detailed justification.
According to the May 9 memo, the U.S. national interests served by the aid include increasing security in the Sinai, helping prevent attacks from Gaza into Israel, countering terrorism and securing transit through the Suez Canal.
"A strong U.S. security partnership with Egypt, underpinned by FMF (Foreign Military Financing), maintains a channel to Egyptian military leadership, who are key opinion makers in the country," Kerry wrote in the memo which was obtained by Reuters.
"A decision to waive restrictions on FMF to Egypt is necessary to uphold these interests as we encourage Egypt to continue its transition to democracy," he added.
The memo was sent to congressional appropriations committees without fanfare and some aides did not know of its existence.
In contrast, when the State Department last year waived the restrictions, it announced the decision and explained its reasoning to reporters.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, argued that the State Department should have been more open about the decision and had lost a chance to try to influence Egypt on rights.
"By issuing a waiver without any public discussion, it has at the very least missed a significant opportunity to ... raise its concerns about the political trajectory in Egypt," she said.
Wittes said that last year's waiver occurred at a time when Egypt had made some progress toward greater democratic reforms, while this year "the waiver was issued in the context of a negative trajectory in Egypt's transition to democracy."
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; editing by Christopher Wilson)