As Egypt teetered on the brink of civil war, President Barack Obama condemned the savage crackdown on protesters, and cancelled joint military exercises scheduled for next month. But he stopped short of halting US military aid to Cairo, and laid part of the blame for the bloody confrontation on the former Islamic government of the ousted Mohammed Morsi.
In his first remarks since the forceable clearance of camps of Morsi supporters, Mr Obama struck a deliberately cautious and even-handed tone, for fear of further inflaming a crisis that could destroy the last vestiges of stability in the Middle East. Indeed, his words only underscored the virtual powerlessness of outsiders to influence events.
“America cannot determine the future of Egypt,” he declared, stressing that “we don’t take sides with any party or political figure”. America had been blamed by both sides, the US president noted, but “that approach will not help”. Egyptians themselves “are going to have to do the work”. Mr Obama urged an end to the state of emergency and steps towards national reconciliation. But, he warned, “change takes time, and a process like this is never guaranteed.”
In his condemnation of the bloodshed, Mr Obama’s language mirrored those of almost every other Western leader. But they also reflected Washington’s special dilemma of how to deal with the turmoil convulsing the key Arab ally, whose 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel remains a key to regional stability.
The only immediate step he announced was the scrapping of the annual ‘Bright Star’ US-Egyptian military exercises in the Sinai. That would be followed by a detailed assessment of the situation in Egypt by his national security team, which would determine “further steps as necessary”.
More significantly, however, he refused to go along with calls from Congress and elsewhere for an immediate end to the $1.3bn of military assistance.
There is a strong possibility that Egypt may deteriorate into further violence – much worse than that which took place on Wednesday. The US may be worried that if it were to cut off aid now, it would be left with little influence.
Today, on the resort island of Martha’s Vineyard where the Obamas are taking a short summer holiday, the president refused to call the Egyptian army’s overthrow of Mr Morsi a coup – which would have triggered suspension of the aid – and spoke merely of “intervention”.
Moreover, while deploring the brutal methods of the military-backed regime for its brutal methods, he had criticism for the former Morsi government, which he said had not been inclusive, and whose departure had been sought by “millions” of Egyptians. He also demanded an end to reprisal attacks by Morsi supporters on churches of the country’s Coptic Christian minority.
But however carefully the US treads, the grim and near-unanimous assessment here is that the crisis is likely to get worse, with even more lives lost, before it gets better. The repercussions too are likely to reach far. Not only does Egypt’s de facto return to the old days of military rule sound a knell for hopes raised by the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, it could also harden Islamic extremism across the Middle East. Having seen a government considered moderate by Islamic standards overthrown in the most populous Arab country, radicals in other countries will conclude the only way forward lies outside the existing political system, many analysts believe.
Separately, with its southern neighbour in chaos and Syria to the north in the grip of civil war, Israel may be even less inclined to make concessions in the new round of peace talks with Palestinians that have just begun in Jerusalem.
Even US military aid is not irreplaceable. Conservative oil-rich Gulf states, only too happy to see a setback for the Islamist movement that threatens their own legitimacy, have already pledged far larger financial support.
Meanwhile Navi Pillay, the top United Nations human rights official, has demanded an independent, impartial inquiry into what happened. “The number of people killed or injured, even according to the government’s figures, point to an excessive, even extreme, use of force against demonstrators,” she said. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was even blunter, describing the events as a “very serious massacre”.