WASHINGTON -- Key U.S. allies are picking clear sides in the bloody showdown between the Egyptian military and its opponents, creating a challenge to the Obama administration’s efforts to remain neutral in Egypt’s worsening crisis.
So far, the administration has shied away from cutting military aid as a punishment for the Egyptian security forces’ mass killings of Islamist supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi. But as the administration buys time with an insistence that it’s conducting “a broad review,” close U.S. partners already are taking much more decisive stances – from some European states slashing aid packages, to Saudi Arabia pledging to bail out the military should the U.S. or other Western nations make such cuts.
One side argues that cutting aid to Egypt’s military rulers would send a strong message that a backslide from the pursuit of democracy is unacceptable and creates space for extremism – the view shared by many prominent Middle East scholars, a large bloc of Congress, Islamist-led Turkey and European states such as Germany and Denmark.
On the flip side, Saudi Arabia and Israel, an unlikely pairing, are urging the United States to maintain strong support for the military leaders in the name of regional stability. That’s Israel’s shorthand for its peace treaty with Egypt, and the Saudis’ for curtailing the regional power of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party behind Morsi’s presidency.
“To those who have announced they are cutting their aid to Egypt, or threatening to do that, Arab and Muslim nations are rich . . . and will not hesitate to help Egypt,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal warned Monday, according to a statement carried by the state news agency, SPA.
Persian Gulf states already have pledged $12 billion – dwarfing the annual U.S. military aid package of $1.3 billion. But analysts warned that the Egyptians risk overplaying their hands with their continued flouting of American requests to stop the bloodshed and work toward national reconciliation.
Experts who’ve closely studied the longtime partnership noted that the Egyptian military is almost totally dependent on American counterparts for training, maintenance and logistics, adding that no amount of Saudi money could counteract the loss of prestige should Egypt sever relations and inch closer to becoming an international pariah state.
Any serious rupture to the arrangement also could have repercussions for big U.S. defense corporations whose lucrative contracts with Egypt provide jobs for Americans.
Egypt benefits from an aid provision that lets it make purchases from the United States against promises of future aid – similar to a credit card. Some U.S. companies, including Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, are building military hardware – such as jets and tanks – that Egypt already has ordered.
Obama’s decision last week to cancel joint military exercises was the first significant U.S. move to chastise the military after Morsi’s ouster July 3. Previously, the U.S. said it would stop delivery of four U.S.-made F-16 fighters.
Fort Worth, Texas-based Lockheed Martin is under contract to supply 20 F-16s to Egypt at a cost of $776 million. News reports have said that 14 of the planes have been delivered through June 30, including seven this year.
There are also domestic political considerations. A national poll released Monday found that 50 percent of the public say Obama hasn’t been tough enough toward the Egyptian military in responding to the violence.
Survey results showed that 51 percent of Americans support cutting off aid to pressure the military, as opposed to 26 percent who said it was better to continue aid in order to maintain influence, according to the poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center from Aug. 15-18 among 1,000 adults.
Still, while the American public favors cutting off U.S. aid, it also believes the Egyptian military provides better leadership than the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that was the driving force behind Morsi’s presidency. According to the poll, 45 percent say the military could provide better leadership, compared with 11 percent who said the Muslim Brotherhood could.
U.S. officials acknowledge the struggle of coming up with a response to the conflict that both protects regional U.S. interests but also lives up to the administration’s vision for a democratic, inclusive Egypt.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel conceded Monday that the U.S. ability to influence events in Egypt is limited.
“We have serious interests in Egypt and that part of the world. This is a very complicated problem,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon. “We continue to work with all the parties to try to help as much as we can facilitate reconciliation, a stop of the violence.”
While the U.S. has said it wouldn’t say whether a coup took place – a legal determination that would force aid cuts – a White House spokesman said Monday that the administration is reviewing its relationship with Egypt, including assistance to the military.
“These decisions about aid and assistance are the kinds of things that are being evaluated on a daily basis,” said Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest. He said any decisions from that review would be in line with national security and the law that governs foreign operations.