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The Middle East

Obama Slowly Inches Toward Acknowledging Reality in Egypt

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Egypt at his vacation home August 15 in Chilmark, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Photograph by Rick Friedman/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Egypt at his vacation home August 15 in Chilmark, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

President Obama’s statement this morning condemning yesterday’s bloodbath in Egypt signaled that American patience with the country’s military rulers is running out. But it’s unlikely to cool the febrile atmosphere on Egypt’s streets or forestall continued crackdowns by the government against its Islamist opponents. The headline from Obama’s brief appearance was the announcement that the U.S. is canceling a joint military exercise with the Egyptian military, planned for next month. “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.

Obama said the White House is considering “further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.” That was a highly oblique reference to the $1.3 billion in aid the U.S. provides Egypt, much of which goes to the military. Although numerous observers have called for the U.S. to suspend that aid until the army turns power over to a legitimate civilian government, Obama didn’t go anywhere near that far. Nor did he call for the release of the imprisoned former President Mohammed Morsi, or for the prosecution of individuals involved in carrying out abuses during yesterday’s massacre, or indicate that the U.S. would seek any kind of action in the United Nations Security Council.

That’s because the administration is boxed in by its insistence in recent weeks that the military’s overthrow of the freely elected Morsi was actually a step toward restoring democracy. Obama again tried to make that case today, arguing that Morsi’s government “was not inclusive” and suggesting that after his ouster, “there remained a chance for reconciliation and an opportunity to pursue a democratic path.” But yesterday’s events make abundantly clear that democracy and military rule are irreconcilable. Sooner rather than later, President Obama will have to choose to support one or the other.

Ratnesar is deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek.

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