Egypt quandary deepens for White House

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 20, 2013 

— President Barack Obama convened his National Security Council on Tuesday to weigh whether the U.S. should cut off aid to Egypt, as he struggles to respond to a continuing crisis that has led to the imprisonment of its democratically elected president and the deaths of nearly 1,000 civilians.

The Obama administration has been reviewing its Egyptian strategy since last month, but the White House said that no immediate decision is expected following Tuesday’s meeting.

“This is a matter of taking a close and careful look at the assistance that the United States provides to our partners in Egypt,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “And that evaluation is based on a few things. It’s based on ensuring that we’re in compliance with the law. It’s based on an analysis of the national security interests of the United States of America. . . . But it’s also affected by the actions taken by the interim Egyptian government.”

An aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, said his panel had been told that the “transfer of military aid was stopped” and that “there is no indication of how long it will last.”

Earnest, peppered with questions on the issue for nearly an hour at the daily White House briefing, repeatedly said aid had not stopped, though he refused to say whether Leahy was wrong.

“It’s inaccurate to suggest that we’ve cut off aid to Egypt,” he said. “We can go round and round on this. I’m trying to be as clear and candid as I can.”

From Washington to various foreign capitals, the Obama administration’s policy choices were the subject of debate: temporarily halt releasing funds already earmarked for Egypt, provide a midway response between no action and a full cutting of aid, or make deep reductions as the Egyptian military continues to thwart calls to return to a democratic path.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday became the latest lawmaker to call on Obama to cease assistance until Egypt meets certain conditions, including a commitment to hold democratic elections, provide political and religious freedoms to its people and uphold international treaties.

“I hope the democratic transition in Egypt gets back on track for the sake of the Egyptian people, the region, and United States’ interests,” he said.

Since July 3, when the Egyptian military deposed deeply unpopular President Mohamed Morsi, the Obama administration has struggled to come up with a coherent response.

Officials engaged in verbal acrobatics to avoid mentioning the word “coup,” a legal determination that would’ve forced a cutting of aid. They waited days as Morsi languished in jail, uncharged, before calling for his release – and even then he was only mentioned indirectly as part of “politically motivated arrests.”

The administration dispatched Deputy Secretary of State Williams Burns to Cairo for crisis talks, but those were unsuccessful and were undermined by a competing visit at the same time by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The administration previously announced that it had canceled next month’s Bright Star joint military exercises with the Egyptians and suspended delivery of four F-16 fighter jets that Egypt had previously ordered.

“The president’s failure to suspend aid to the Egyptian military is a strategic error that undercuts those objectives and weakens U.S. credibility, after repeated calls by the U.S. administration for Egyptian authorities to avoid bloodshed have been disregarded,” said a statement from the Egypt Working Group, a collective of influential think tank scholars who advise policymakers on bilateral relations.

Mahmoud Karem, a former Egyptian diplomat who has served as ambassador to the European Union, Tokyo and other posts, said cutting aid would confirm Egyptians’ suspicions that the United States was siding with the Islamists, who are routinely portrayed as terrorists in Egyptian media. Karem said recent killings shouldn’t overshadow the “war on terrorism” that the Egyptian military is waging in the lawless Sinai, an extremist haven that’s awash with weapons smuggled in from Libya.

“Egyptians feel sold out,” Karem said.

On Monday, two dozen soldiers were executed in a border town after attackers ambushed their convoy. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that fueled Morsi’s candidacy, condemned the slayings, and an extremist group that’s claimed previous attacks denied responsibility.

Few would dispute Morsi’s missteps – expanding his own presidential powers, refusing to include his opponents in a unity government – but analysts argue that the military’s ouster and subsequent brutal crackdown on Islamists cannot go unheeded if Obama is serious about seeing a democracy take root in Egypt.

With Egypt’s reliance on American counterparts for training, maintenance and logistics, U.S. analysts say, not even Saudi Arabia’s offer to cover any Western aid cuts would help much. The Egyptians could be left with a lot of sophisticated equipment, but without the capacity to use it.

“If the United States disengages from Egypt, the Egyptian military is, for all intents and purposes, inoperable,” said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com, hallam@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01, @HannahAllam

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