15 Aug 2013

Obama: US relations with Egypt ‘cannot continue as usual’

President Obama breaks off from vacation to speak on the Egypt crisis – declaring America’s traditional co-operation “cannot continue while civilians are being killed in the streets”.

President Obama strongly condemned the violence in Egypt and announced the United States would be cancelling a planned joint military exercise due to be held next month.

“We deplore violence against civilians. We oppose the pursuit of martial law”, he said, in a statement delivered from Martha’s Vineyard, where he is spending his summer vacation.

The president said the Egyptian people “deserved better”, and called on the Egyptian authorities to refrain from using violence, and lift the state of emergency. And he said his national security team had been asked to assess the future of relations between the two countries – and any neccessary steps.

“We’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people”, he said, insisting that the US would not take sides with any party. “The cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop”.

And to those who have been quick to pin blame on America for failing to stem the violence, Obama declared that the United States could not determine Egypt’s future. “We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt – but Egyptians are going to have to do the work”, he said.

We deplore violence against civilians. We oppose the pursuit of martial law. President Obama

There was no mention of America’s $1.3bn in aid to the Egyptian military, something the administration has been reluctant to address. Earlier the White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked why the US refused to declare the situation was tantamount to a coup.

“It is not in the interests of the United States to make that declaration”, he said.

Obama at podium (reuters)

The president had been under some pressure to make a statement on Egypt, after critics upbraided him for continuing to play golf on his vacation while civilians were being killed on the streets of Cairo and beyond.

Former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld condemned what he called a botched policy by the administration. “The people that we’ve sent there to deal with the problem have not done a particularly skillful job, in my view. It’s unfortunate”, he told Newsmax.

According to CNN, Obama held a briefing with key officials on Thursday morning, including defence secretary Chuck Hagel, secretary of state John Kerry and national intelligence director James Clapper, which pressed home the severity of the situation.

Call for calm

A source told the network that attacks on churches and police stations had also prompted Obama to call for calm on both sides, and for protestors to demonstrate peacefully.

Today’s announcement marks the second time the joint military drill, known as Bright Star, has been cancelled: it was abandoned in 2011 amid the turmoil surrounding the overthrow of Egypt’s long time dictator, Hosni Mubarak.

America’s influence over the country’s current rulers, however, remains highly questionable. Numerous calls for restraint and for sensible negotiations by both sides have gone unheeded.

William Dobson, in Slate Magazine, suggests that the ability of the US to dictate events on the ground has been overstated: the military were firing on people, even as John Kerry was declaring that they were “restoring democracy”.

Zero-sum game

“Presidents no longer win or lose big strategic states in some zero-sum contest for global supremacy”, he said, but that was not the same as keeping silent, or still worse, being complicit in crimes of violence by continuing to underwrite a dictatorship.

In the meantime, as relatives of the hundreds of people who were killed in Wednesday’s violent crackdown bury their dead, anger has been spilling over onto the streets across Egypt.

And despite those calls for restraint and for peaceful negotiation on all sides, Egyptian authorities have now authorised police to use deadly force, to protect themselves, and key state institutions, from attack.