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Dec 16, 6:42 PM EST

Bill permits waiver of preconditions on Egypt aid

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration said Tuesday that it welcomes new flexibility in providing up to $1.4 billion in aid to Egypt, a close ally in the Middle East despite its recent sweeping crackdown on dissent.

The massive fiscal 2015 spending bill that Congress passed on Saturday includes a longer list of conditions for releasing aid to Egypt - the bulk in the form of military aid.

Those provisions, which aim to nudge Egypt down a path toward democracy, include holding free and fair elections, allowing peaceful assembly, due process for detainees and the release of American citizens held as political prisoners.

But unlike last year's spending bill, this year's legislation also includes a waiver allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to ignore the preconditions for national security reasons.

"Generally speaking, we welcome the flexibility that the bill provides to further our strategic relationship with Egypt and our national security interests," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday. "That said, there's been no policy decision with regard to our assistance program, which remains under review. And our concerns about Egypt's human rights record, which we speak about frequently, that has not changed."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., did not support the waiver.

"In conference negotiations with the House it was widely recognized that the direction that President (Abdel-Fattah) al-Sissi has taken the country, by turning away from democracy and imprisoning journalists and political opponents, is a mistake. The conditions on military aid, which are far more extensive than in 2014, convey that strongly," Leahy spokesman David Carle said.

"Sen. Leahy did not support it," Carle said, "and he hopes the secretary will not waive the law, as he believes that would send the wrong message to the Egyptian people and to the region as a whole."

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