US halts tank, jet deliveries to Egypt

State Department says 'large-scale military systems' will be held back until Cairo moves toward democracy

An Apache helicopter flies over the Cairo skyline during demonstrators at Tahrir Square on July 26, 2013.
Ed Giles/Getty Images

The U.S. has put a hold on delivering tanks and fighter jets to Egypt, officials said Wednesday in an apparent show of Washington’s disapproval of a violent crackdown of protesters by its traditional Middle East ally.

In a statement, the U.S. Department of State said certain "large-scale military systems" would not be sent to Cairo "pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections."

The move comes after a July coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi and a brutal crackdown of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters that led to hundreds of deaths.

"The United States continues to support a democratic transition and oppose violence as a means of resolving differences within Egypt," the State Department said.

Reiterating that statement, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that U.S. curtailment of aid to Egypt was "by no means" a withdrawal from a relationship with the country.

Washington will continue to supply parts for military equipment as well as military training. And humanitarian aid will continue to flow.

But in a signal to Cairo’s new military rulers, large-scale military items will be withheld.

The moratorium will affect Abrams tanks, F-16 aircraft, Apache helicopters and Harpoon missiles, a congressional source told Reuters.

Washington also plans to halt a $260 million cash transfer and a planned $300 million loan guarantee to the Cairo government, the source said, after members of Congress were briefed by officials from the State Department about the administration's plans.

The $1.55 billion in annual aid, of which $1.3 billion is in the form of direct military assistance, is the second-largest amount of annual aid that the U.S.disburses — only Israel receives more.    

Egyptian government installations have been under attack in recent months by armed groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, a popular destination for Western tourists. In that realm, the U.S. said it will continue to help provide security.

Egyptian military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali declined immediate comment on the U.S. statement. Before the announcement, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian military leader, described his country's relations with the United States as "strategic" and founded on mutual interests. But he told the Cairo daily Al-Masry al-Youm, in an interview published Wednesday, that Egypt would not tolerate pressure, "whether through actions or hints."

Neighboring Israel also has indicated concern. The Israelis consider U.S. aid to Egypt to be important support for the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel phoned al-Sisi on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the decision.

"They left the call in a very cordial, professional, and positive tone," a U.S. administration official said.

U.S. public opinion

American public opinion leans in favor of stopping aid to Egypt, a Pew study found in August, when clashes between the government and Morsi supporters were at their bloodiest.

According to the poll, 51 percent of Americans say the U.S. should stop sending military aid to the country. Another 26 percent felt the aid should continue so that Washington would retain influence over Cairo, while 23 percent didn’t know.

To date, the Obama administration has been hesitant to label Morsi’s overthrow a coup. But the White House directed that a review take place regarding military aid.

Today’s announcement represents the outcome of that review. “We have decided to maintain our relationship with the Egyptian government, while recalibrating our assistance to Egypt to best advance our interests,” the State Department said.

The U.S. had already begun to limit some military supplies.

In late July, the administration canceled the delivery of a number of F-16 fighter planes, while in mid-August, after weeks of further violence between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated supporters of Morsi, Obama announced the cancellation of biannual military exercises and indicated that reduction in aid could follow.

“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt,” he said at the time, “our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.”

Nevertheless, Kerry said on Thursday that the U.S. would consider restarting some aid to Egypt "on a basis of performance" by the government.

The United States has provided billions of dollars of aid to Egypt since the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that curtailing military assistance and stopping direct cash transfers to Cairo is "the only leverage Washington has" in regard to the recent violence.

But he added, "I'm not convinced that this move will alter the Egyptian government's behavior."

Trial set for Morsi

In a separate development Wednesday, it was announced that Egypt's ousted President Morsi will face trial on Nov. 4 on charges of inciting killings at protests.

The former president has been held in a secret location since his overthrow. If he is brought before the court, it will be his first public appearance since he was deposed.

The trial could further inflame tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army-backed government and deepen the political instability that has hurt tourism and investment in the most populous Arab state.

The trial date and the U.S. military aid announcement come on the back of a recent resurgence of violence between the state and opposition members.

Morsi supporters and security forces clashed again on Sunday, one of the bloodiest days since the military took power, with state media reporting 57 people dead and 391 wounded.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Wilson Dizard contributed reporting.

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