At about 8 this evening, CNN reporters started sharing a scoop on social media: The Obama administration had decided to suspend all aid to Egypt, citing the violent suppression of political dissent in the country since a July 3 military coup removed the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi from the presidency.
Here's what CNN's national security correspondent Jim Sciutto wrote on Twitter:
US to suspend aid to #Egypt - "decision has been made...will take effect in coming days" - US official— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) October 8, 2013
"US to suspend aid to Egypt" has a pretty clear meaning. Not some aid, or not for a few days or weeks or months but "suspended." Cut off, halted, all of it.
CNN's website soon followed with a news story that begins: "The United States will cut off military aid to Egypt in the wake of the July coup against President Mohamed Morsy and the turmoil that has followed, a U.S. official said Tuesday."
Ok, not all aid. Just the $1 billion plus in annual military aid to Egypt, most of which is spent on buying military hardware from US private defense contractors like General Dynamics, which has supplied Abrams tanks to Egypt for years. The news organization cited an unidentified "US official" for the claim.
The White House soon emailed a statement to reporters saying the story was not true. The Monitor's White House Correspondent Linda Feldmann shared the statement with me. The emailed statement says it can be attributed to National Security Council (NSC) spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden and reads in full: "The reports that we are halting all military assistance to Egypt are false. We will announce the future of our assistance relationship with Egypt in the coming days, but as the President made clear at UNGA (United Nations General Assembly), that assistance relationship will continue."
One can focus on language – the difference between "cut off" and "suspend" in CNN's telling versus the administration's statement that "reports that we are halting all military assistance to Egypt are false." Perhaps this means that some small amount of funding for Egyptian officers to come and train with the US military here will be maintained, but big-ticket transfers will be cut off.
Or perhaps CNN just got a story badly wrong. We don't know yet, and the problem with this kind of anonymously sourced story to one lone "official" is that follow-up is difficult.
Repression by Egypt's military-led government since it seized power in July has only grown worse, and the use of heavy-handed tactics against dissenters like the Muslim Brotherhood has been on the rise. On Sunday, over 50 Egyptians – many protesting against the ouster of Morsi – were killed in clashes, and Egyptians are worried that protests called for Friday against the military takeover will lead to more bloodshed.
Aid has flowed continuously to Egypt from the US since the Camp David accords were signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978 – over $60 billion and counting. While Egypt's current military rulers have cultivated new sources of foreign aid, particularly from Saudi Arabia, the US is still deeply entangled with regional security arrangements, particularly when they come to Egypt and Israel. An aid cut-off now, especially since the Obama administration didn't act beyond a symbolic delay of some military hardware after the July coup, would be surprising.
But while it's probable that CNN got much wrong in its early reporting of a US aid suspension to Egypt, it's improbable that some kind of restriction isn't coming down the pike. That was signaled in the NSC spokeswoman's statement where it was written: "We will announce the future of our assistance relationship with Egypt in the coming days."
This is a developing story and all caveats apply. I thought this comment from Steven Cook, a keen observer of the US-Egyptian relationship at the Council on Foreign Relations, shortly after CNN's first reports of the story came out, was astute:
Change is indeed coming. Where exactly it leads, of course, is another matter.