Egypt violence: US hardens its tone, but is criticized as too soft

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the crackdown by Egypt's military but announced no sanctions, leaving critics to suggest US policy toward a key Mideast partner is ineffectual.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during a statement on the ongoing situation in Egypt before a press briefing at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday. Though Kerry said the violence in Egypt is deplorable, he did not announce sanctions.

The United States hardened its rhetoric toward Egypt’s rulers in the wake of Wednesday’s repressive violence, which left scores of Egyptians dead. But it stopped short of slapping the country’s military leaders with any practical sanctions – deepening the sense of a US policy toward a key Mideast partner that is both passive and incoherent.

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the Egyptian military’s crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi as “deplorable.” In a statement to reporters Wednesday afternoon, he said reaching a political solution to Egypt’s deteriorating crisis “has been made much, much harder, and much, much more complicated by the events of today.”

The US also “strongly opposes” the military leadership’s declaration of a “state of emergency,” Secretary Kerry said. He called on Egypt’s rulers to end the state of emergency “as soon as possible.”

Violence appeared to be spreading across Egypt after security forces stormed the Cairo camps of protesters led by Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. 

Kerry’s statement appeared in part to be an effort to correct an impression of US passivity left earlier in the day by a White House spokesman who said “the world is watching” events unfolding in Egypt. But State Department officials were at pains to explain why the military’s repressive violence, undertaken despite intense US diplomatic efforts last week to avoid such an outcome, did not result in any consequences.

The US annually provides $1.6 billion in assistance to Egypt, most of it in military aid.

State Department officials say the US continues to review its policy toward Egypt in light of events there, but they suggest the Obama administration continues to believe that it would be neither in US national security interests nor in the interest of regional stability for the US to cut or suspend aid to Egypt’s military rulers.

Administration officials also intimate that US-mandated consequences would be unlikely to compel Egypt’s rulers to take certain actions or to follow a different path anyway.

“We can’t force a solution here,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, speaking with reporters after Kerry’s statement. “We can play a productive role.”

Rather than emphasizing consequences, at least for now, the US will continue to press Egypt’s interim civilian government and military rulers to refrain from violence and instead turn wholeheartedly to fostering a political transition that includes free and inclusive elections and the delivery of a new constitution.

“Our focus is on getting back to a sustainable path to democracy,” Ms. Psaki said.

The US response echoed that of other world powers, including the European Union, which last week joined the US on a diplomatic mission to Cairo to dissuade Egyptian authorities from resorting to violence in the standoff with Morsi supporters. Egypt’s military rulers rebuffed the international efforts at reconciliation, deeming them a “failure.”

EU officials condemned Wednesday’s violence and urged restraint. “The reports of deaths and injuries are extremely worrying,” said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. “We reiterate that violence won’t lead to any solution and we urge the Egyptian authorities to proceed with utmost restraint.”

But many human rights organizations found the US position wanting, and urged the Obama administration to shift course and to underscore its condemnation of Egypt’s violence by suspending aid.

“The US government should suspend military aid to Egypt immediately, to reinforce the White House’s statement condemning the violence against protesters, and show that there are consequences for the Egyptian military’s unbridled violence against its own people,” said Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president at Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog of freedom and human rights worldwide.

The US should have suspended aid “long ago due to ongoing violations,” Mr. Calingaert added. Still, “doing so now would convey to the Egyptian people, and the world, that the US government does not condone this slaughter,” he said.

Another rights organization, Human Rights First, said the US should signal a get-tough shift in its Egypt policy “by immediately suspending military assistance to Egypt and making a clear protest about today’s actions by the security forces.”

The New York-based organization also warned that a weak response by the US to Egypt’s repressive acts could suggest to other regimes in the region facing protests that they risk little by resorting to violence.

“Perceived US passivity in the face of the Egyptian government’s crackdown will make it easier for other US allies, like Bahrain, to use similar tactics against their own protest movements, thereby escalating conflicts throughout the region,” said Human Rights First international policy adviser Neil Hicks. “It also undermines US credibility in its calls for President Assad and the Syrian regime to end its violent assault on civilians seen as supportive of the US-backed Syrian opposition.”

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