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Egypt crisis not likely to damage U.S. security interests in region

President Obama cancels a joint military exercise that was already in doubt because of Egypt's preoccupation with the domestic crisis.

August 15, 2013|By Paul Richter
  • President Obama takes a break Thursday from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to address the crisis in Egypt.
President Obama takes a break Thursday from his vacation on Martha’s… (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)

WASHINGTON — The brutal military crackdown on civilian protesters in Egypt has damaged President Obama's already battered prestige and credibility in the Middle East, analysts say, but the deepening crisis isn't likely to threaten America's core security interests in one of the world's most volatile regions.

Egypt's powerful military leadership may be offended by Obama's decision Thursday to cancel a biennial joint military training exercise that was scheduled to start next month to show his displeasure with the rising death toll, arbitrary arrests and virtual martial law.

But the generals who toppled the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3 are not likely to suspend crucial counter-terrorism cooperation with Washington, halt oil tankers and other commercial shipping in the Suez Canal, or jettison the peace treaty with Israel that has formed a cornerstone of regional peace for three decades.

Obama thus chose his words and his actions carefully when he interrupted his vacation to address reporters Thursday on the resort island of Martha's Vineyard. He said he deplored the violence and condemned the "dangerous path" Egypt's military has chosen.

But he also made clear that Washington seeks to sustain its commitment — including $1.5 billion annually in military and economic aid — to the interim government in Cairo in the hope it will return to civilian rule.

"But 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.

The military exercise that Obama canceled, known as Bright Star, is not essential to security cooperation. Indeed, there were already doubts it would go forward since the Egyptian military may be too distracted to take part in sustained airborne, naval and desert maneuvers that involve thousands of troops.

"This was a bit of an empty gesture," said Jeffrey Martini, a Mideast specialist at the nonpartisan Rand Corp. think tank.

Still, the Egyptian military may try to use Obama's announcement to bolster its battered domestic political standing, portraying itself as resisting American bullying.

"I can see them trying to build this up as an affront and trying to ride anti-American sentiment," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, an advocacy group in Washington.

The generals could register their pique by cutting back security operations in the increasingly violent Sinai region, which borders Israel, or reducing protection of the country's Coptic Christian churches. Several dozen Coptic churches, monasteries, schools and shops were reportedly attacked and firebombed during this week's tumult.

But senior commanders are unlikely to sever counter-terrorism cooperation with Washington, since it helps maintain security in Egypt, or withdraw from the peace treaty with Israel, risking a confrontation with a better-armed foe while Egyptian troops are preoccupied at home, analysts said.

The Obama administration was accused of vacillating when a popular uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak, the longtime strongman and close U.S. ally, during the "Arab Spring" revolts two years ago. But the violence was relatively constrained, the military mostly stayed in its barracks, and Washington sought to support the nascent democracy that followed.

This time, the White House has struggled not to appear ineffective. Critics say it is unable to influence events and not fully committed to the democratic principles it espouses.

Administration officials have failed in repeated attempts to prevent or stop the military from assaulting civilians, nearly 600 of whom have been killed this week. Nor has the White House labeled the overthrow of Morsi a coup, which would trigger a cutoff in U.S. aid, or called for Morsi's reinstatement.

"We appreciate the complexity of the situation," Obama said Thursday of the competing interests.

Obama also acknowledged the anger and frustration many Egyptians feel about American attempts to lower tensions and bring about a political reconciliation without taking sides. He chided his critics, including those in Egypt, who blame America for their ills.

"We've been blamed by supporters of Morsi," Obama said. "We've been blamed by the other side.... That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve."

Administration officials have argued that the anti-American criticism is proof that they are impartial. But the message from Washington has been mixed at times.

This month, Secretary of State John F. Kerry suggested that the military overthrow of Morsi was carrying out the will of the majority of Egyptians, a comment he quickly sought to clarify. Months earlier, however, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, appeared to belittle public opposition to the pro-Morsi Muslim Brotherhood.

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