US cancels military drills with Egypt

US cancels military drills with Egypt
Fri Aug 16, 2013 11:02:04

President Barack Obama says the United States is canceling joint military exercises with Egypt next month, saying normal US cooperation cannot continue in light of the armed forces’ bloody crackdown.

“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces,” Obama said on Thursday on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, where he is on vacation.

“We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest,” he said in his first public remarks since the crackdown began early Wednesday. More than 600 people have been killed and thousands wounded.

Washington provides $1.3 billion in military aid and about $250 million in economic aid to Egypt every year, which it has been reluctant to cut off for fear of losing leverage there and in the broader region.

Stopping military exercises in Egypt was one clear way the White House could show its displeasure. It was the first significant US move to penalize Egypt’s military rulers. Previously, the US government had announced a decision to halt delivery to Egypt of four US-made F-16 fighter jets.

Obama said the state of emergency should be lifted in Egypt and a process of national reconciliation started.

“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,” Obama said.

“Going forward, I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the US-Egyptian relationship.”

He did not elaborate, but the State Department said the United States would review its aid to Egypt in “all forms.”

The military drill, which dates back to 1981, is seen as a cornerstone of US-Egyptian military relations. It began after the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel.

Obama, who departed for a game of golf shortly after making his statement, vented frustration that both sides in the Egyptian conflict were blaming the United States for the turmoil in the country since the military ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, on July 3.

The United States has insisted it is not taking sides. But it chose not to condemn Morsi’s ouster or call for his reinstatement, leaving the impression that it had tacitly sided with the military and accepted a coup.

“We’ve been blamed by supporters of Morsi. We’ve been blamed by the other side as if we are supporters of Morsi. That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve,” Obama said.

Pentagon spokesman George Little also said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke “at length” on Thursday with Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and the contacts would continue even as Washington assessed the various aspects of its relationship with Egypt.

He said the issue of aid was affected by “a complicated set of factors.”

Cutting off US aid to Egypt could be tricky because of complex financing arrangements that allow Egypt to stretch out its purchases of US military equipment over several years; breaking the contracts would impact US defense contractors as well as the Egyptians.

Held every two years, the “Bright Star” exercise was also canceled in 2011 because of the political turmoil in Egypt following the ouster of longtime autocrat and US ally Hosni Mubarak.

Several thousand US troops had been slated to participate in the exercise, which was due to begin Sept. 18, said Max Blumenfeld, spokesman for US Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and central Asia. He said past exercises focused on integration of naval forces, airborne operations, field exercises and disposal of explosive ordnance.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, said that military aid to Egypt should stop under a US law that triggers an aid cutoff if a military coup has taken place. The administration has repeatedly said it has not determined whether the military’s actions in Cairo amounted to a coup.

BA/BA

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