President Obama has canceled U.S.-Egyptian military exercises, and suggested that aid cuts could be coming if Egypt’s military government does not stop its bloody crackdown on protesters and move quickly to new elections.
While telling reporters Thursday that his government “strongly condemns” the violence in Egypt, Obama also said that continued U.S. “engagement” with the interim government in Cairo will help it transition back to democracy.
“But 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 from his vacation home at Martha’s Vineyard.
With a death toll of at least 600, some lawmakers and policy analysts are urging the Obama administration to cut off all aid to Egypt now.
“While President Obama condemns the violence in Egypt, his administration continues to send billions of taxpayer dollars to help pay for it,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016.
The president did not describe the military’s removal of President Mohammed Morsi last month as “a coup,” a declaration that would require ending U.S. aid to Egypt that adds up to about $1.3 billion a year.
Obama spoke a day after Egypt’s interim government used force to clear encampments created by backers of Morsi. The action triggered violent clashes throughout the country, as the government has declared a nationwide state of emergency and a nighttime curfew.
Calling Morsi’s removal an obvious coup, Paul said: “Mr. President, stop skirting the issue, follow the law, and cancel all foreign aid to Egypt.”
Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said a suspension of military aid is long overdue, and may the only real leverage the Obama administration has over Egypt.
Obama’s cancellation of military exercises is only “an incremental step that’s really too little, too late at this point,” Coleman said.
The United States and Egypt had joint military maneuvers known as “Bright Star” scheduled for mid-September. Obama said they cannot go on given the violence that has claimed so many lives and injured thousands more.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he spoke with his Egyptian counterpart about the canceled maneuvers, and added that “the United States has made it clear that the Egyptian government must refrain from violence, respect freedom of assembly, and move toward an inclusive political transition.”
Obama, who met with his national security team on Thursday, said he has asked aides to assess “further steps we may take” if Egypt’s interim government does not honor pledges to conduct new elections as soon as possible and restore a democratic government.
“Let me say that 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.”
The State Department, meanwhile, sent out a travel advisory urging tourists to avoid Egypt, and to leave the country if they are already there.
The two sides in Egypt are offering vastly different estimates of the death toll. The government says more than 600 have died in the violence; the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that includes Morsi, puts the death count at more than 2,500.
In his brief remarks to reporters, Obama made clear he does not want to cut ties to Egypt, saying its relationship with the United States “goes back decades.” The U.S. has long seen Egypt as a bulwark of stability in the Middle East, and treasures its peace treaty with Israel, he said.
Obama applauded the desire of the Egyptian people for freedom and democracy after the fall of Mubarak and said he has long known that change would not come “quickly or easily.
The U.S. also appreciates “the complexity” of the current situation in Egypt, he said.
The Morsi government, while democratically elected, “was not inclusive and did not respect the views of all Egyptians,” Obama said, noting that millions of citizens supported his removal.
While the interim military government promised a restoration of democracy, Obama said that it has now taken “a more dangerous path” that includes “arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s associations and supporters, and now, tragically, violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people and wounded thousands more.”
In the past, Bright Star military exercises involving the U.S. and Egypt have been held every two years, though the 2011 exercises were canceled because of that year’s removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
Bright Star exercises began in 1980, a product of the Camp David Peace Accords. The last time it was held, in 2009, some 5,000 U.S. troops took part, along with military units from Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Turkey and Great Britain.
Members of both the interim government and Morsi supporters have accused the Obama administration of supporting the other side, but Obama said the United States isn’t taking any side.
“We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt,” Obama said. “That’s our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.”
After his speech, Obama played golf at Mink Meadows Golf Club. He is scheduled to return from his week-long vacation on Martha’s Vineyard on Sunday.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook