President Barack Obama met with his foreign-policy advisers yesterday about how to respond to the crackdown on Islamists by Egypt’s military-backed government, including whether to cut off U.S. military and economic aid.
Among questions facing the president is whether to suspend U.S. deliveries of weapons systems, including 10 Apache attack helicopters due later this month, and whether to release $585 million in funding for Egyptian purchases of military equipment due by the end of next month.
The Obama administration faces growing pressure from U.S. lawmakers to halt most aid, at the risk of jeopardizing whatever influence the U.S. has with Egypt’s military leaders and troubling regional allies. Israel and Saudi Arabia share the Egyptian military’s alarm about the Islamists' political ambitions.
While the administration has reason to criticize the Egyptian government’s suppression of the Islamist opposition, it also needs to consider U.S. long-term interests with Egypt, according to Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington.
“Preserving the strategic relationship that we have with Egypt -- that is key,” Ibish said in an interview. U.S. benefits include security cooperation on terrorism and regional issues, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, preferred access through the Suez Canal for American naval vessels and military overflight rights, he said.
“If we canceled the aid program to Egypt -- cut it off altogether or make it contingent on a bunch of very broad and difficult-to-achieve conditions -- we would be essentially terminating that strategic relationship,” he said.
Obama met yesterday on Egypt with advisers in the White House Situation Room. No statement was issued after the meeting.
The U.S. gives Egypt $1.5 billion a year in military and economic aid, part of which has already been paid this year. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said yesterday that U.S. assistance to Egypt is under review “but it has not been cut off,” disputing reports that aid is being withheld.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that most aid remains on track while the president evaluates U.S. policy, though a small amount of economic assistance that would go to the Egyptian government wouldn’t be paid before completion of a legal review. Much of the money that is flowing goes to nongovernmental organizations or for purposes such as health programs, she said.
Egypt’s military leaders toppled the Muslim Brotherhood-allied government of President Mohamed Mursi, the nation’s first freely elected leader, on July 3 after growing public protest against his actions. The military-backed interim government has since moved against his Islamist supporters, including arresting the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie.
About 900 civilians and 100 police have died since the start of the operation to break up two pro-Mursi sit-ins last week. The government and military leaders, including the Army commander, General Abdelfatah al-Seesi, have largely rebuffed U.S. appeals to avoid violence and work toward reconciliation with Islamists.
Reflecting a growing sentiment on Capitol Hill, Senators Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, issued statements yesterday calling for a halt to U.S. aid.
“American taxpayers should not contribute to a military that slaughters civilians in the street,” Toomey said. Kaine said the U.S. has had a “strategic and historic” relationship with Egypt that’s now in jeopardy.
“The situation in Egypt has deteriorated rapidly and is now intolerable, and our assistance relationship must change,” Kaine said. “We can no longer conduct business as usual.”
Obama said on Aug. 15 that the U.S. was canceling the Bright Star joint military exercise with Egypt that was scheduled to begin next month and directed his staff to review whether further steps were warranted. Earlier, the Pentagon delayed the scheduled delivery of four F-16 fighter jets.
The administration has declined to determine that Mursi’s overthrow was a coup, averting a requirement in U.S. law to cut off aid, as it seeks to maintain some leverage with the Egyptian military. Invoking the law would bar resuming aid unless the president certifies to Congress that “a democratically elected government has taken office.”
Ibish said it isn’t surprising that lawmakers are more eager for aid cuts than the executive branch, which would have to deal with the foreign policy and defense consequences.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been the main U.S. interlocutor with al-Seesi, Egypt’s defense minister, with little success in averting the violent crackdown even though $1.3 billion a year of the American aid comes as military assistance.
Ibish said it’s a mistake to think that any amount of aid would sway leaders who think their nation is in an existential struggle, as those in Egypt do now.
“What the aid gets you is leverage in the long run over big-picture issues,” he said. It’s a misreading of aid to expect it to “give you the kind of leverage where you can call a government that feels besieged” and tell those officials what to do, he said.
Egyptian interim Prime Minister Hazem El Beblawi said yesterday that Egypt’s army could survive without the U.S. military aid.
“We are sorry that at this moment there is a kind of misunderstanding” between the U.S. and Egypt, he said in an interview with ABC News in Cairo. “There is a lot of misunderstanding, and I’m sure that the time will work to the benefit of both sides.”
“I cannot exclude the fact that we need the U.S. as much as the U.S. needs us,” he said.
The Obama administration put deliveries of five major procurement programs, including F-16 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin Corp. and M1A1 battle tanks from General Dynamics Corp., “under review,” according to a State Department document sent to Congress and obtained by Bloomberg News. It was dated July 16, two weeks after Egypt’s military ousted Mursi.
The 10 Apaches due for delivery this month are under a contract with Chicago-based Boeing Co. valued at $171 million, of which $163.7 million had been paid, according to the document.