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WASHINGTON, Aug 15 2013 (IPS) - The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has denounced in unusually harsh terms Wednesday’s bloody military crackdown against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
But, despite a growing chorus of calls by prominent lawmakers, commentators and Egypt experts here to suspend all U.S. aid to the interim government in Cairo that was installed early last month in a military coup d’etat against President Mohammed Morsi, the administration suggested only that it will review “the implications for our broader relationship which includes aid”.
“The United States strongly condemns the use of violence against protestors in Egypt,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where Obama and his family are currently vacationing.
“The violence will only make it more difficult to move Egypt forward on a path to lasting stability and democracy, and runs directly counter to the pledges by the interim government to pursue reconciliation,” he noted.
Earnest added that Washington was also “strongly oppose[d]” to a return to a State of Emergency law which the military announced as the crackdown got underway earlier Wednesday morning.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who, in a widely criticised statement, praised the Egyptian military for “restoring democracy” by ousting Morsi earlier this month during a press conference in Pakistan, echoed Earnest in an unusual appearance during the daily State Department press briefing later in the afternoon.
“Today’s events are deplorable, and they run counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion, and democracy. Egyptians inside and outside of the government need to take a step. They need to calm the situation and avoid further loss of life,” he added.
“The only sustainable path for either side is one toward a political solution. I am convinced from my conversations today with a number of foreign ministers, including the foreign minister of Egypt …that that path is, in fact, still open… though it has been made much, much harder, much more complicated, by the events of today.”
The statements were issued amidst horrific reports of the violence that began with a full-scale military and police effort to clear tens of thousands of pro-Morsi protestors from camps at two major Cairo squares that sprang up in the immediate aftermath of the Jul. 3 coup. Violent clashes between pro-military activists and Brotherhood demonstrators were also reported in Cairo and other cities.
Nearly 300 people were killed in Cairo and elsewhere around the country, according to an evening report by the government health ministry, although Brotherhood officials, which called the killings a “massacre”, said the death toll was many times that number in what was the worst day of violence in Egypt in living memory.
It was precisely the kind of crackdown that U.S. officials – both from the Pentagon and the State Department – had been trying to persuade their Egyptian counterparts to forgo over the past several weeks in hopes that the Brotherhood and its supporters would give up their demand that Morsi be re-instated and that some kind of reconciliation process could get underway.
The administration even appeared to approve a special trip to Cairo last week by two of its fiercest Congressional critics – Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham – for the purpose of conveying to the military, in particular, that any violent crackdown would result in a cut-off of the roughly 1.6 billion dollars, including 1.3 billion dollars in sophisticated weaponry, Washington provides Egypt in aid every year.
“As we predicted and feared, chaos in #Cairo,” tweeted McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, early Wednesday. “Sec Kerry praising the military takeover didn’t help,” he added in a jab at Kerry’s statement in Pakistan.
The administration clearly fears that Wednesday’s violence will greatly diminish, if not eliminate, the possibility of any reconciliation between the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties, such as the more fundamentalist Al-Nour party (which until now has taken a more-neutral role in the ongoing crisis), and the secular forces which backed the coup.
Indeed, the risk of even greater polarisation and escalating civil conflict in the Arab world’s most populous and influential country, whose stability has long been considered critical to U.S. strategic interests in the region, has risen sharply as a result of Wednesday’s bloodshed, according to independent analysts.
“The events in Egypt will provide a substantial boost to extremism, and specifically violent Islamist extremism,” Paul Pillar, a retired top CIA Middle East analyst who now teaches at Georgetown University, told IPS in an email.
“It was bad enough that moderate Islamists are being so clearly and completely excluded from a peaceful, democratic political process. Now the inevitable anger in response to large-scale bloodshed is being added to the mix.”
That observation was echoed by the interim government’s own vice president and a Washington favourite, Mohammed El-Baradei, who resigned in the face of Wednesday’s violence.
“Violence begets violence, and mark my words, the only beneficiaries from what happened today are extremist groups,” he said in his resignation letter.
What precisely Washington will do now remains to be seen. Despite increasing signs over the past month that the military was extending its control over the government – the latest coming Tuesday when the government appointed generals to 19 of the country’s 25 provincial governorships – it has refused to label Morsi’s ouster as a “coup d’etat”, a move that would force it to cut off all U.S. aid.
Cutting off aid, according to officials, risked reducing, if not eliminating, whatever influence Washington retained with the military.
But that position appears increasingly untenable in the wake of Wednesday’s violence. Indeed, the Washington Post editorialised Wednesday Obama’s decision not to cut aid made his administration “complicit in the new and horrifyingly bloody crackdown…”
“The bloody assault on the protester camps – after repeated American opposition to such a move – leaves President Obama little choice but to step away from the Egyptian regime,” wrote Marc Lynch, an influential Middle East analyst who has generally supported the administration’s “quiet diplomacy” with the generals, on his foreignpolicy.com blog Wednesday.
“Washington should, and probably will, call for a return to an elected civilian government, a rapid end to the state of emergency, and restraint in the use of force. When that doesn’t happen, it needs to suspend aid and relations until Cairo begins to take it seriously,” he wrote.
“Particularly after today, the country is much further away from a potential resolution and stability; compared to 24 hours ago, things are much worse,” Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the New York-based Century Fund, told IPS in a telephone interview from Cairo.
He said he favoured “an escalatory step-by-step process in terms of coercive measures or signals of displeasure (by the U.S.), as opposed to an all-or-nothing formulation.
“You can’t sit idly by. There has to be an escalatory roadmap that at least has some teeth,” possibly beginning with the cancellation of the bi-annual Bright Star joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises which normally takes place during the fall.
“In the end, if we’re unsuccessful in changing behaviour, then we have a much more fundamental question about the sustainability of the bilateral relationship despite the strategic importance historically accorded it [by the U.S.],” he added.
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.
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