WASHINGTON -- The United States is withholding $260 million in cash and hundreds of millions in military hardware such as tanks and fighter jets to send a message to longtime ally Egypt that it must return to a democratic path after a military ouster of the elected Islamist president and a brutal crackdown on his supporters, Obama administration officials said Wednesday.
Analysts who monitor U.S.-Egyptian relations said that the move was largely symbolic, however, and leaves untouched key components of an ironclad alliance that’s been in place since Egypt became the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel, in the 1970s.
Five senior administration officials, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity in accordance with administration policy, said that the cuts come after a review of Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion aid package that began in August, at the beginning of a lethal government campaign to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group to which ousted President Mohamed Morsi belonged.
They said the U.S. wouldn’t be delivering F-16s fighter jets, M1 Abrams tank kits, Harpoon missiles and other equipment for a total cost they estimated in the hundreds of millions.
The officials said that the United States would continue supplying parts for military equipment, military training and education, and support for counterterrorism and border security programs for the volatile Sinai Peninsula. In addition, the U.S. will still fund programs for Egyptian civilians that focus on democracy-building, health and education, as well as the development of the country’s private sector.
The tone of the announcement muted the warning embedded in the action, with U.S. officials at every turn stressing that the aid suspension was temporary and subject to “continual review,” and that U.S. officials and their Egyptian counterparts would remain in close contact as Egypt attempts to recover from a turbulent, bloody summer.
“They left the call on a very cordial, professional and positive tone,” one senior administration official said, describing the phone conversation in which Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Egypt’s strongman, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el Sissi, about the aid suspension. The officials stressed that the suspensions were temporary, to be reinstated when Egypt “is represented by an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government based on the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and an open and competitive economy,” as a statement from the State Department put it.
Still, they bristled at suggestions that the cuts weren’t deep enough to change a military that appears bent on re-establishing an authoritarian order in which Islamists and other dissidents are sidelined.
“It’s a pretty clear message that we care about the things we say we care about,” one senior administration official insisted.
Adel Iskandar, an Arab studies scholar who lectures at Georgetown University in Washington, said that the United States doesn’t seem to be pushing for more than a vote, which in Egypt’s current anti-Brotherhood frenzy is likely to cement military rule and Islamist isolation.
Using U.S. leverage to push for real democracy, he said, would mean the reintegration of the Muslim Brotherhood. That idea would be a non-starter not only for the generals, but seemingly also for the Brotherhood, which is locked in what Iskandar called a “do-or-die” existential fight.