WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday condemned the Egyptian military’s brutal crackdown on Islamist protesters and canceled a joint military exercise with US troops that had been scheduled for next month, but he stopped short of halting $1.3 billion in annual US military aid to the country.
The response by the president — who interrupted his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to deliver an audio statement — is part of a delicate balancing act. The White House appeared to be weighing the need to engage Egypt’s generals against concerns that the United States not appear too cozy with an unelected government that is depending on bullets and bulldozers to thwart opponents.
“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces,” he said. “We deplore violence against civilians.
“The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days,” added Obama, who demanded the regime share power with opposition leaders.
Obama also spread blame for the country’s strife, stating that the former government led by Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood party, had failed to be inclusive before it was overthrown by the military six weeks ago.
The president’s measured response and incremental steps underscored the administration’s difficulty in responding to the quickly shifting atmosphere in a country that had long been an outpost of stability, a key US ally within a volatile and hostile region.
The attacks on Islamist protesters follow a miscalculation in Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s statement two weeks ago, which appeared to amplify the military leaders’ legitimacy by portraying them as agents of popular will.
“The military did not take over, to the best of our judgment, so far, to run the country. There’s a civilian government,” Kerry had said in Pakistan. “In effect, they were restoring democracy.”
As those comments drew initial criticism, an anonymous aide told the Wall Street Journal that Kerry “did not stick to the script.” While not explicitly backtracking, Kerry later issued a milder statement, calling on all parties to work toward a peaceful and democratic solution.
The Egyptian military’s rule has grown increasingly violent since then, threatening stability in the Middle East in addition to inflicting harm on the Egyptian people. More than 630 people have been killed since Wednesday, and clashes continued Thursday. The State Department issued a new travel warning Thursday, urging US citizens to avoid the country and to depart if living there.
Jeremy Pressman, a University of Connecticut political science professor specializing in the Middle East, said Wednesday’s attacks effectively rebuked the State Department’s back-channel efforts to persuade the military to begin building democratic institutions.
The crackdown “showed that did not work,” Pressman said. “The Egyptian military, like most institutions, is out to protect their power and their authority.”
Kerry’s assertion that the military was interested in advancing the popular will was also proved false amid the violence on the streets, he said.
“For tens of millions who probably don’t support the military — probably they support the Muslim Brotherhood — this is not the people’s will,” Pressman said.
Kerry, taking a very different tone Wednesday, offered one of the first voices of condemnation, calling the violence “deplorable.”
Tarek Masoud, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School who specializes in Middle Eastern politics, said he does not know whether Obama’s latest response is the right one, but it may be the only option, given the uncertainty of the situation. The Muslim Brotherhood protesters are not “100 percent peaceful” either, he said, citing attacks on Christians and churches.
“He’s trying to thread a very difficult needle,” Masoud said. “He wants to show the appropriate level of criticism for the violence that the Egyptian government has meted out on the protesters, but at the same time, does not want to foreclose the possibility of the Egyptian military stepping back and engaging in a kind of reconciliation process that will allow the Egyptian-American relationship to continue.”
Obama has stopped short of using the word “coup” to define the Egyptian military takeover, which would trigger an end to the $1.3 billion US military aid to Egypt under American law. The closest Obama came to threatening financial penalties on Thursday was announcing that his national security team would assess “further steps we may take, as necessary.”
Egypt’s military is among the biggest beneficiaries, after Israel, of aid from the United States.
In his speech, Obama called on Egyptian leaders to end the state of emergency. At the same time, he said, the path to democracy would be long, difficult, and uncertain. He noted that Morsi had been elected democratically but that millions, “perhaps even a majority of Egyptians,” had called for his ouster.
“We appreciate the complexity of the situation,” said Obama. ”While we do not believe that force is the way to resolve political differences, after the military’s intervention several weeks ago, there remained a chance for reconciliation and an opportunity to pursue a democratic path.”
Instead, Obama said, “We’ve seen a more dangerous path taken.”
Obama used his speech to try to quell criticism from within Egypt that the United States has not lived up to its promise to defend liberty or that it has played a role in fomenting violence. The United States, he said, would support Egypt but it would not take sides and it was up to the Egyptian people to forge their own path.
“I know it’s tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what’s gone wrong,” said Obama, whose 2009 speech in Cairo reaching out to the Muslim world was one of the centerpieces of his foreign affairs agenda early in his first administration. “We want Egypt to succeed. We want a peaceful democratic prosperous Egypt. That’s our interest.”Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.