WASHINGTON - Secretary of State John Kerry last month approved $1.3 billion in annual US military aid to Egypt, despite concerns over democratic progress by the country's new government, a US official said Friday.
All such aid is "carefully considered," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, but it was felt the funding was necessary to help "preserve important regional interests."
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On May 10, Kerry quietly approved the transfer of the annual aid, notifying the US Congress of his decision, she confirmed.
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.
According to the May 9 memo, the US 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 US 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 at the time.
"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 recently.
Under US 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."
Psaki defended Kerry's approval of aid for the fiscal year 2013 saying it was in US national security interests and helped such things as "maintaining access to the Suez Canal and the interdiction of weapons smuggling."
The move came well before Tuesday's sentencing by a Cairo court that handed down jail terms and fines on 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO workers in what Kerry has denounced as a "politically-motivated trial."
The sentences were just the latest move to raise tensions between Washington and the government of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.
In general, rights groups believe Morsi 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.
Last year, the funds were held up after the Egyptian authorities first moved against the US-funded non-governmental organizations. Kerry's predecessor Hillary Clinton finally gave the green light for the funds to be paid in March.
AFP and Reuters contributed to this report
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