The Obama administration strongly condemned Wednesday’s bloody crackdown on political opponents of Egypt’s military-backed government but refused to say whether the United States might yank financial or political support for a longtime Mideast ally.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry described the crackdown as a “serious blow” to efforts to restore an elected civilian government in Egypt, six weeks after a military coup.
“Today’s events are deplorable and they run counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion, and genuine democracy,” Kerry said in brief remarks to reporters at the State Department. He took no questions.
The United States opposes the return of emergency rule in Egypt, Kerry said, a reference to the curfew and martial law imposed Wednesday following crackdowns on street demonstrations that supported the ousted Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.
“Egyptians inside and outside of the government need to take a step back. They need to calm the situation and avoid further loss of life,” Kerry said.
Speaking from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where President Obama is vacationing, deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said the military’s crackdown calls into question its commitment to quickly move to restoring civilian rule — the first time the administration has gone that far.
“The violence that we saw overnight is a step in the wrong direction. It is an indication that they’re not currently following through on their promise to transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, that they’re not committed to an inclusive process,” Earnest said.
Still, Earnest said the violence would not force the administration to change its approach to the military government, led by Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
The administration declined to designate Morsi’s ouster as a coup because it would trigger an automatic cutoff of $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Egypt, which U.S. officials say represents diplomatic leverage in the standoff. Earnest said Wednesday that the administration still has no plans to designate Morsi’s ouster as a coup.
Dozens were killed when Egyptian security forces opened fire on demonstrators, some of whom had camped out for weeks in protest of Morsi’s removal and detention.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said Kerry spoke Wednesday with Mohamed el-Baradei, who had just resigned as the best-known civilian face of the military-backed interim government. Kerry did not try to persuade el-Baradei to stay on, she said.
The crackdown confirmed some of the Obama administration’s worst fears of what could happen if the political standoff in the streets was not resolved, and showed the limits of American influence on the interim military-backed government. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and others had repeatedly called for restraint and nonviolence. Kerry, in particular, had publicly cast the military leaders as good stewards.
“As we predicted and feared, chaos in Cairo,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tweeted Wednesday. “Sec. Kerry praising the military takeover didn’t help.”
McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) met with military and other officials in Cairo last week and delivered a bipartisan call for calm.
“I fear that without a quick reversal of current trends, Egypt may be on its way to becoming a failed state,” Graham said in a statement Wednesday.
A group of military officers led by Sissi last month ousted Morsi, who last year had become Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood followers have resisted the coup with demonstrations and protests. The administration has sought to cast itself as a neutral actor in the widening standoff. But some of its public remarks have come under fire.
Kerry, most notably, was widely criticized for telling a television interviewer this month that the military was “restoring democracy” and held a public mandate. He quickly backtracked, repeating the U.S. call for an orderly and swift transition to elected civilian rule.
Neither he nor other U.S. officials have said, however, that Morsi deserved to be reinstated. The official position remains that Egyptians should decide their leader for themselves, but the private message conveyed by U.S. officials for weeks has been that Morsi cannot and should not return.
The administration had increasingly distanced itself from Morsi all spring, following the Egyptian leader’s failure to address economic reforms Kerry and others told him represented a last chance for international financial and political help. Kerry met with Morsi during a brief trip to Egypt in March, when he released $250 million in American aid and promised more if Morsi did the right things.
In Egypt, the administration has been faulted by both sides for its response to the July 3 ouster. Sissi said in a recent interview that Washington had turned its back on Egypt, and he expressed anger over the administration’s decision to temporarily suspend the shipment of fighter planes that were scheduled to be delivered this month. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, has charged that Washington was complicit in the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
Ernesto Londoño contributed to this report.