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Egypt: U.S. treads softly as crisis deepens

July 25, 2013 at 1:22 PM   |   Comments

CAIRO, July 25 (UPI) -- Egypt's Old Guard, many linked to former President Hosni Mubarak, is reappearing in Cairo's corridors of power following the July 3 military coup that toppled his democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi.

That might help explain Washington's decision Wednesday to suspend the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets for the Egyptian air force.

It already has lots of F-16s, 240 of them in fact, one of the largest F-16 fleets outside the United States. So the Egyptians aren't going to miss four more.

But those jets are an installment of a $1.3 billion 2009 contract for 16 Lockheed Martin F-16Cs and four F-16Ds, as well as a number of General Dynamics M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks that would be assembled in Egypt.

The arms package is separate from the $1.55 billion in aid the United States provides Egypt every year, $1.3 billion of which goes to the military.

So the delay in delivering the four F-16s assumes much broader and cautionary dimensions for the real power in Cairo, Gen. Abdel-Fatah Sisi, the armed forces commander who toppled Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government.

For one thing, the suspension signals Obama administration is moving away; however, cautiously, from the ambivalence it has shown since Morsi was booted out a year after he became Egypt's first freely elected president since Gamal Abdel Nasser's Free Officers overthrew King Farouk in 1953.

Initially, the administration, reluctant to lose the pillar of its Middle East security strategy, made it clear it was prepared to live with a situation that many in Washington viewed as a military coup, which, if so designated, would automatically mean halting all aid to Egypt.

The administration has studiously avoided branding Morsi's overthrow as a coup as millions of Egyptians stage massive street protests that have triggered deadly clashes with the military.

That may be changing. But the U.S. decision on the F-16s is unlikely to quiet growing anti-U.S. anger from many factions in Egypt for Washington's refusal to condemn Morsi's ouster.

For other autocratic U.S. allies in the region, who had watched with deep misgivings as Obama cut loose longtime ally Mubarak when his dictatorship looked like it was falling in the 2011 pro-democracy revolution, seeing Morsi, the people's choice, upended was a salutary signal that Washington might be prepared to throw them to the wolves as well at some point.

The administration's move to suspend, but not abandon, the F-16 delivery indicates it's looking for a quid pro quo from Sisi.

That could encompass a commitment to new presidential elections and reassurances that his controversial call for millions of Egyptians to take to the streets Friday to back the military will not ignite wider bloodletting.

The apparent restoration in recent days of Mubarak-era officials, supposedly because they're the only ones with any experience running the country, has not gone down well in the streets.

Eleven of the current 34 cabinet ministers approved by Sisi are veterans of various administrations during Mubarak's 32 years in power.

There's a wider dimension to the Americans' reluctance to take a tougher stand regarding Egypt: The United States, as well as European powers, need to maintain relations with Cairo because Egypt is a strategic anchor in a region that seems to be unraveling fast.

"Right now there is little appetite, whether in the Oval Office, the State Department or the Pentagon to do anything that might upset Egypt's role as linchpin of the U.S. Middle East security policy," analyst James Gavin said.

This includes passage rights for U.S. submarines and other warships through the Suez Canal, a strategic waterway linking the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea.

Cutting off military aid to Egypt would also mean big trouble for the U.S. defense industry already struggling with hefty cutbacks in U.S. military spending.

For them the Middle East, particularly Egypt and the Persian Gulf states, means big-ticket arms contracts that will keep them in business.

"Morsi's overthrow raises broader questions about U.S. defense and aid policy toward Middle Eastern states during a time of unprecedented regional tension," Gavin wrote in the Middle East Economic Digest.

"Obama has an unenviable task [of] framing defense policy against the backdrop of a rapidly shifting region. The U.S. has long-term strategic interests that are finding themselves in conflict with each other."

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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