Egypt crackdown continues, despite U.S. curb on aid

The U.S. is expected to announce it will suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Egypt, three months after the ouster of the country's first democratically elected president.
October 9, 2013

Egypt’s military-backed government forged ahead with a sweeping political crackdown against Islamists on Wednesday, even as the United States prepared to withhold some of the military aid it gives to the world’s most populous Arab nation.

Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity announced the effective dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that backed former president Mohamed Morsi.

Meanwhile, court authorities said Morsi — the nation’s first democratically leader — will stand trial Nov. 4 on charges of inciting violence against protesters. He has been held virtually incommunicado since the July 3 coup that ousted him.

The announcements by Egyptian authorities came a day after a senior U.S. official said the Obama administration would soon curtail part of the $1.3 billion in military aid it allocates annually to Egypt.

U.S. officials on Wednesday sought to characterize the suspension of some forms of aid as temporary and said they aspire to maintain a robust military and diplomatic partnership with Egypt. Besides F-16 fighter jets, whose delivery was suspended in July, Washington will not be sending Apache helicopters, M1 tanks or Harpoon missiles under existing contracts, officials told reporters in a conference call. In addition, $260 million in cash payment promised to Egypt’s previous government will continue to be suspended. The money was to go for debt relief and general expenses, and been held up over the Morsi government’s failure to come to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on economic reforms.

“This is not meant to be permanent,” one senior official said during the call, which was conducted on the condition of anonymity for unspecified reasons. “This is meant to be continuously reviewed.”

The delayed shipments are unlikely to affect Egypt’s military prowess. Egypt has about three dozen Apache helicopters and an estimated 1,000 M1 tanks. Provision of spare parts and other maintenance equipment to keep them running are considered far more important than adding to the arsenal. The Harpoon missiles are a sea-launch version that provides offensive naval capability; their transfer had been held up for a number of years before President Obama approved it last year.

The big-ticket items that are not being delivered are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but administration officials said they hope the pipeline of those items will start flowing once Egyptian officials heed calls to govern in an inclusive, democratic way.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel informed Egypt’s military chief, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, about the new measures during a call Wednesday afternoon that officials described as friendly.

The U.S. government is officially barred from providing aid to any country whose elected government is overthrown in a military coup. But the Obama administration has been reluctant to damage ties with the powerful Egyptian military — which it counts on to maintain Egypt’s end of a 1979 peace treaty with Israel — and has avoided using the word “coup.”

Egypt’s government declined to comment Wednesday on the U.S. decision.

“We have not been officially informed of any change,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty. “Until the administration takes its decision and informs us officially, we cannot comment.”

But political elites in Cairo, where anti-American sentiments and broader xenophobia have surged since the coup, dismissed the pending curtailment of aid as irrelevant.

“We do not need this aid,” Mahmoud Afifi, a member of the pro-coup June 30th Front, told the semiofficial Youm7 newspaper. “What we do need is more true national independence.”

Some members of Congress expressed alarm Wednesday that they had not been notified in advance of the changes to U.S. aid.

“I am disappointed that the Administration is planning to partially suspend military aid to Egypt,” Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

The Egyptian military had handled the post-coup developments “clumsily” but had “begun a democratic transition,” Engel said. Cutting aid would undermine that process and the two countries’ relationship, he said.

But there were also voices of support. The London-based human rights group Amnesty International sent a letter to Obama on Wednesday saying that the “U.S. government needs to stop providing arms or allowing back door sales of weapons or equipment that Egypt’s security forces will likely use to violate human rights.”

Bedouin residents of Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula say the military has used Apache helicopters in recent weeks to strike homes and smuggling tunnels in a sweeping, and at times indiscriminate, crackdown in the area along the border with Israel and the Gaza Strip. Militancy has been on the rise in that part of the Sinai.

The Egyptian military has used its F-16s in frequent air shows since the coup, flying low in formation over the capital, or sometimes tracing hearts and patterns in the colors of the national flag in an effort to garner public support. Protesters who support Morsi’s reinstatement have called the shows provocative.

Since the coup, Egypt’s military-­backed government has waged a brutal crackdown against the Brotherhood in a wave of violent clashes and arrests that has decimated the 85-year-old Islamist organization, leaving more than a thousand people dead and thousands more behind bars.

That crackdown continued Wednesday, as the government took steps to implement an earlier court ruling that formally dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood as a legal entity.

The Brotherhood was banned for decades under successive authoritarian regimes but formed a political party after the 2011 uprising that ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak. This year, before Morsi’s overthrow, the Brotherhood applied for nongovernmental-
organization status for the larger group.

Abdelatty, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the government action Wednesday marked the execution of a court ruling last month that rendered the Brotherhood and “all organizations related to it, in terms of organization and finance,” illegal.

The government said Wednesday that it would also seize the group’s assets.

Londoño reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung in Washington and Lara El Gibaly in Cairo contributed to this report.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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