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Obama Caught in Dilemma on Egypt

  • Kent Klein

As the Egyptian military continues its bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other protesters, U.S. President Barack Obama is facing a dwindling range of options for dealing with the crisis. Obama has, so far, refused to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt's interim government.

The president has made it clear that his administration is rethinking its dealings with Egypt's military.

“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,” he said during a Thursday announcement that the U.S. had cancelled upcoming, biannual joint military exercises.

Obama has avoided labeling the military's overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last month as a "coup." Such a statement would automatically halt $1.3 billion of U.S. aid each year to Egypt's military. The White House is worried that doing so would diminish U.S. influence with the military leaders.

Some prominent American Muslims, including Mahdi Bray, were hoping for tougher action.

“We, the American Muslim Alliance, we want to make it very clear that we will continue a vigorous campaign of what we call 'no cash for coup' — calling for the immediate suspension of U.S. assistance [and] financial aid to Egypt as the result of, indeed, the coup,” said Bray.

Tarek Radwan, associate director for research at Washington’s Rafik Hariri Center, calls that a positive step. But he said the United States' ability to affect the behavior of Egypt's armed forces was fading.

“Because the engagement with Egypt has been so limited and so narrowly focused, we have very few options, and thereby have very little influence over what is going to happen now. The last semblance of assertive action that we can take is to, in fact, suspend military aid,” said Radwan.

Egypt's military leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, was probably willing to risk losing the U.S. aid, according to Daniel Serwer, a scholar at Washington’s Middle East Institute, because Egypt's neighbors were making much bigger donations.

“I think General Sissi, before this crackdown, must have calculated, ‘I lose the American assistance.’ What he calculated [was] that this was an existential struggle between him and the Muslim Brotherhood, and that he had to do this in order to survive,” Serwer said.

But Radwan said a stoppage of aid could have some impact. He did not believe the Egyptian military wanted to jeopardize relations with Washington.

“The aid is not only about the money. It is about the relationship itself. It is about the ability to engage with the United States, and cutting that off would begin a sense of isolation that I do not think even the Egyptian military would be very comfortable with,” said Radwan.

As the crisis continues in Egypt, Obama's policies are likely to evolve further.

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