WASHINGTON – Three months after President Barack Obama ordered a high-level review of U.S. aid to Egypt following a military takeover there, the White House settled on a middle ground Wednesday: maintaining key assistance for security and counter-terrorism efforts while suspending delivery of tanks, helicopters and other new military hardware.
The decision seeks to rebuke the Egyptian military for its ever-expanding crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood movement, but also to maintain what Obama has called “a constructive relationship” with a historically crucial Arab ally.
U.S. officials announced they would withhold delivery of “big ticket” military systems worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams tanks, Harpoon missiles and Apache helicopters. They also said they would suspend $260 million in direct cash assistance to the Egyptian government.
The administration said it would continue funding for counter-terrorism, border security and security operations in the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, which are key to Israel, and would still provide spare parts for Egypt’s large roster of U.S.-made tanks, warplanes and missile systems.
In a briefing for reporters, U.S. officials said they wanted to send “a pretty clear message” to the Egyptian military to end the violent clampdown and restore democratic institutions. But illustrating the difficult balance the White House is seeking to strike, officials emphasized that core U.S. security interests in the region, including the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty, would not be jeopardized by the cuts.
“There will be no diminution in Egypt’s ability to be a strong security partner for the United States,” said a senior administration official.
The fate of U.S. assistance to Egypt – a $1.55 billion annual package widely viewed as a linchpin of stability in the Middle East – has been one of the most vexing questions for the Obama administration since July, when the Egyptian army deposed the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi; forcibly broke up pro-Morsi protest camps; and jailed as many as 2,000 of his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The counter-terrorism programs are at the core of the U.S.-Egyptian military relationship, and Pentagon officials have called on Egypt’s generals for years to modernize their force and improve border surveillance.
Senior Israeli officials have urged the Obama administration not to cut aid substantially for fear of weakening the Egyptian military, which has honored the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, or pushing it closer to Persian Gulf governments that have pledged billions in aid since Morsi’s ouster.
But U.S. officials have been dismayed by the generals’ continued crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. On Sunday, as the nation marked a major military holiday, security forces fired live ammunition at Brotherhood marchers, leaving 57 people dead, according to the government’s tally.