The United States on Thursday advised Americans to leave Egypt and canceled a joint military training exercise, but stopped short off cutting off aid, reflecting the Obama administration’s attempt to retain some influence as the situation continued to deteriorate following a lethal crackdown on supporters of the country’s deposed president.
President Barack Obama interrupted a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to issue the administration’s sharpest criticism yet of the escalating conflict, condemning the violence and calling for the military to lift martial law.
“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama said, announcing the suspension of Bright Star, a September training exercise.
“The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days," Obama said. "And to the Egyptian people, let me say, the cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop."
Obama didn’t mention the $1.3 billion in military assistance that the U.S. provides the country, but said he’s asked his national security team to "assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.”
The military crackdown and ouster last month of President Mohammad Morsi have posed a vexing problem for Obama and some in Congress who have considered aid to Egypt’s military key to U.S. interests in the Middle East. The U.S. has provided military and economic assistance to Egypt since the late 1970s aimed at sustaining the 1979 Camp David Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Although U.S. law calls for foreign aid to be suspended following coups, the White House and State Department have gone to great lengths to avoid using the word. Obama on Thursday insisted that “after the military’s intervention several weeks ago, there remained a chance for reconciliation and an opportunity to pursue a democratic path.”
Some lawmakers renewed a call for cutting off aid in the wake of the attacks, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who accused Obama of “skirting the issue.”
And Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the cancelling of the war games an “important step,” but added, “our law is clear: aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy."
Obama’s muted rebuke of the military drew criticism from Middle East analysts who’ve monitored the U.S. response to Egypt’s upheaval, and say the administration has been a step behind.
They said the administration was slow to condemn Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies, looked absurd in refusing to declare a coup, and then refused to go much further than expressing “deep concern” over the fact that Egypt’s first democratically elected president was held without charges for weeks.
While Obama’s remarks Thursday included direct criticism of the Egyptian military, analysts said it still sounded like too little, too late.
“Obama’s Egypt policy is always at least two crackdowns behind where it should be,” Joshua Stacher, an Egypt specialist at Kent State University and author of, “Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria,” said on Twitter.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki defended the administration.
In addition to dispatching State Department No. 2 William Burns to Cairo for crisis talks, Psaki said, the U.S. stopped the delivery of four F-16 fighter planes, canceled the military exercises and was reviewing the aid issue.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he told Egypt’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in a telephone call that although the department would maintain a relationship with Egypt’s military, “the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk.”
But until real action is taken on the aid, analysts said Obama’s steps aren’t enough to send a serious message to Cairo.
“It’s more, he had to do something,” said Samer Shehata, a specialist on Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood who teaches at the University of Oklahoma. “The real question is the military aid and what kind of diplomatic cover and support the United States gives Egypt in the future.”
U.S. standing in Egypt has suffered greatly in recent months. However, Shehata said the U.S. was not starting from neutral, as Egyptians remember the U.S. aiding Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime and calling for his resignation only after protests in 2011 gathered steam.
American diplomats grumble privately that they’re “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” in post-Mubarak Egypt. But analysts said that some of the tension was exacerbated by an activist American ambassador, a failure to stress civil liberties and human rights during the post-Mubarak transition, and other missteps as the U.S. struggled to revamp a policy that had been frozen for decades.
Repairing relations would take time, analysts said, but there’s fresh opportunity now that the unpopular U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson, is returning to the State Department in Washington. Her replacement hasn’t yet been named, though news reports have suggested a likely nominee is Robert Ford, a veteran diplomat who served in wartime Iraq and as ambassador to Syria.
Other analysts said that by not canceling aid, the U.S. hasn’t closed itself off.
“Had he suspended aid, the president would not have fundamentally changed the dynamics of the conflict between the military and the Brotherhood,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He would have wasted an opportunity to use that card when it might actually make a difference. You’d want to believe that if we suspend the aid, the violence would stop, but that’s highly unlikely.”
Manal Omar, associate vice president of Middle East and North Africa programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank, said that the U.S. still wields influence in Egypt, though the days of “calling and saying, ‘We need this to happen,’” are over.”
Omar, who returned this week from a research trip to Egypt, said Egyptian political actors who still hope for a U.S. rescue wouldn’t dare express that before a seething and polarized public.
“Whereas people may want U.S. intervention, whereas they may want the U.S. to be involved, it would be very difficult for them to say that out in public and to have legitimacy within the streets,” Omar said.
Obama acknowledged U.S. distrust – and perhaps limited U.S. influence – in his remarks, insisting that the U.S. is a neutral party, despite accusations of taking sides. He called on the military to cease violence – and called on protestors to protest peacefully.
"We’ve been blamed by supporters of Morsi. We’ve been blamed by the other side as if we are supporters of Morsi," Obama said. "We want Egypt to succeed. We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That’s our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work."
Matthew Schofield contributed to this report.
By Lesley Clark and Hannah Allam
McClatchy Washington Bureau