President Obama interrupted his vacation Thursday to announce that the United States will cancel a planned joint military exercise with Egypt to protest the government crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters yesterday that killed over 500 people. But, Obama said, broader American interests mitigated against canceling the over billion dollars in US aid to Egypt at this time.
“Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world, and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically- elected civilian government, we’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people,” Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts Thursday.
“Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama continued, saying the U.S. had notified the Egyptian government earlier Thursday that it was cancelling the military exercise, Bright Star, planned for next month. “The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days. The cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop.”
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a phone call with Egypt’s defense minister and de facto military ruler Gen. Al-Sisi, “made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk,” he said in a statement Thursday.
Former US Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner deplored the violence, but said there were many warning signs that the protracted standoff between Egypt’s interim government and supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Morsi was heading towards confrontation.
“Without in any way leaving the impression that I think the bloodshed [is excused], this has been about the least surprising outcome,” Wisner, who served as Obama’s special envoy to Egypt in 2011, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“It has been warned for the longest time,” he continued. “These negotiations were not going to go anywhere, because [the Muslim] Brothers had a view about what they were trying to accomplish.”
“The Brothers thought they could defy the odds, and … drive a wedge between the international community and the government, and in that sense they have hardly succeeded,” Wisner said. “Second, they thought they could drive a wedge between” the Egyptian people and the military-led government. While they haven’t managed to do so to date, he assessed, “I can’t argue that they won’t eventually have some success.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood has reached a point where it sees this as the last battle — so, it’s either win it or die as a ‘martyr,’…victory or death,” Egyptian analyst Wael Nawara wrote for Al-Monitor Thursday, describing the expanding Muslim Brotherhood protests as “no longer a sit-in, but a sprawling town, even a city-state, with fortifications, internal police force…and border control officials.”
Wisner cautioned Washington against overreacting, stressing U.S. statements need to strike a balance, to keep ties with Cairo from further fraying and to try to urge the political transition back on track.
“Egypt is a country that is very important to the United States, and it’s important to maintain a relationship with that country and those responsible for its future,” Wisner said, suggesting language US leaders might use in a statement. “At the same time, we look to those people to act with good judgment and restraint, and we deeply regret the loss of life and violence.”
“Nobody wins” from the bloodshed and deepening polarization in Egypt, he said. “It’s just at a moment like this, one has got to recognize the limitations.”
Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate foreign relations panel, endorsed Obama’s moderate actions, saying it was wise for the U.S. to try to be a “voice of calm.”
“I appreciated much of what the president had to say, and while it reflected an arms-length disapproval of the military’s actions, I wish he had stressed more clearly the need for the Muslim Brotherhood to also act responsibly,” the Tennessee Republican said in a statement Thursday. “I hope the White House is actively working with other countries in the neighborhood behind the scenes to reduce tensions between the parties and get the democratic process back on track.”
(Photo of President Barack Obama speaking on Egypt in Chilmark, Massachusetts August 15, 2013, taken by the White House pool photographer, via CBS’s Major Garrett.)