WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States renewed calls Monday for Egypt’s military rulers to pursue reconciliation with their political foes but acknowledged Washington only had “limited” influence over events in the Arab state.
While President Barack Obama’s administration said it was reviewing all aid to Egypt in the aftermath of a violent crackdown against protesters backing ousted president Mohamed Morsi, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel warned against over-estimating Washington’s leverage with Cairo.
“The interim government of Egypt must get back to an inclusive approach to reconciliation in Egypt,” Hagel said during a joint news conference at the Pentagon with his Chinese counterpart, General Chang Wanquan.
But he said Egypt was a sovereign country and that Washington had only a modest ability to shape the political situation.
“Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited,” Hagel said. “It’s up to the Egyptian people. And they are a large, great, sovereign nation.”
Hagel has had more than 15 phone conversations with Egypt’s army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, since the officer led a coup against Morsi, the country’s first elected president.
But Hagel and other top U.S. officials have failed to persuade military forces from firing on Morsi loyalists in the streets, with more than 800 killed in the brutal crackdown.
Due to the violence in Egypt, Obama last week announced the United States had canceled a joint military exercise with Egypt scheduled for next month. And the Pentagon has postponed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets for Egypt.
But the Obama administration has chosen to maintain the flow of U.S. military aid, which comes to $1.3 billion a year.
Asked why the United States did not cut off all assistance as some lawmakers have urged, Hagel said Washington had “serious interests” in the region, including efforts to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
As Hagel and the White House reiterated that U.S. assistance to Egypt was under review, a U.S. official said the administration was weighing whether to postpone the delivery of other military hardware, including Apache helicopters and M1A1 Abrams tanks.
“That’s being considered,” the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
The New York Times reported the U.S. government also might withhold transferring some financial aid to signal Washington’s displeasure.
“It would be inaccurate to say that there’s been a policy decision to ‘stall’ the remaining money, as no additional policy decisions have been made at this point,” said another U.S. official, who asked not to be named.
“In terms of timing, appropriated funds are obligated and expended on a rolling basis through the year.”
Since the 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt, the United States has provided billions in military aid to Cairo while in return securing access to the country’s airspace and special privileges for U.S. naval ships passing through the strategic Suez Canal.
At the White House, officials declined to comment on indications that former president Hosni Mubarak could soon be released soon if all corruption charges against him are dropped, but also condemned the detention of Morsi.
“The legal proceedings against former president Mubarak are something that’s ongoing inside of Egypt. That is an Egyptian legal matter and something that I’ll leave for them to determine,” said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.
But he added, “politically motivated detentions inside Egypt should end, and that certainly would include the politically motivated detention of former President Morsi.”
With no sign of the street violence receding, Hagel said the U.S. government was working closely with security forces there to ensure the safety of its diplomats and other Americans in Egypt.
“Protection of Americans in Egypt, not just only our diplomats but all Americans, is of the highest priority,” he said.
The attacks on pro-Morsi protesters have prompted international condemnation, with Western states threatening to cut off aid.
Morsi backers have vowed new demonstrations and Sisi, the army chief, promised a “forceful” response to any violence from protesters.