WASHINGTON — Three months after President Barack Obama ordered a high-level review of U.S. aid to Egypt following a military takeover, the White House settled on a middle ground Wednesday: maintaining key assistance for security and counter-terrorism efforts while suspending delivery of tanks, helicopters and other new military hardware.
The decision seeks to rebuke the Egyptian military for its ever-expanding crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood movement, but also to maintain what Obama has called "a constructive relationship" with a historically crucial Arab ally.
U.S. officials announced they would withhold delivery of "big ticket" military systems worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams tanks, Harpoon missiles and Apache helicopters. They also said they would suspend $260 million in direct cash assistance to the Egyptian government.
The administration said it would continue funding for counter-terrorism, border security and security operations in the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, which are key to Israel, and would still provide spare parts for Egypt's large roster of U.S.-made tanks, warplanes and missile systems.
In a briefing for reporters, U.S. officials said they wanted to send "a pretty clear message" to the Egyptian military to end the violent clampdown and restore democratic institutions. But illustrating the difficult balance the White House is seeking to strike, officials emphasized that core U.S. security interests in the region, including the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty, would not be jeopardized by the cuts.
The fate of U.S. assistance to Egypt — a $1.55 billion annual package widely viewed as a linchpin of stability in the Middle East — has been one of the most vexing questions for the Obama administration since July, when the Egyptian army deposed the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi; forcibly broke up pro-Morsi protest camps; and jailed as many as 2,000 of his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with his Egyptian counterpart, Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, for 40 minutes Wednesday to explain the decision. Officials said the aid could be restored once the Obama administration was satisfied that Egypt was taking steps back toward democratic rule.