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Column: Egypt Sends a Mixed Message to Egypt’s Military Rulers

The Obama administration is trying to send a message to Egypt’s generals by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S aid. The only problem is that it isn’t entirely clear what the message actually is.

U.S. officials said Wednesday that the administration would delay planned deliveries of F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and M1A1 tanks. The officials said they would also suspend a planned $260 million cash transfer to the Egyptians; congressional aides briefed on the matter said that a $300 million loan guarantee would also be held back. (The U.S. gives Egypt roughly $1.5 billion per year in total aid.)

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. was “recalibrating” its aid to Egypt in response to the military’s continued killing of unarmed protesters demanding the reinstatement of ousted President Mohammed Morsi as well as the arrests and detentions of key opposition leaders. General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Army chief who has ruled the country since removing Morsi from power, has promised to hold new elections and take other steps to restore Egypt’s nascent democratic system, but the officials said the military was taking too long to follow through on its assurances.

“They are in many ways saying the right things,” one of the officials said. “It’s important to us to see those things actually happen.”

At the same time, the administration said that large quantities of military and financial aid would still flow into Egypt. They said the U.S. would continue to provide funding and other forms of assistance for counter-terrorism operations, particularly in the restive and violent Sinai, as well as for nonmilitary aid for health care and education. They also took pains to stress that the aid spigot would be turned back on once Egypt’s generals took concrete steps to relinquish power to a civilian government.

The administration’s public comments were even more conciliatory. White House and State Department officials stressed that they saw Egypt as an important regional power and a vital ally of the U.S. The longstanding relationship between the two countries, they said, would endure.

“Picking up and leaving town and walking away from this relationship wouldn’t be good for the Egyptian people,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said Wednesday. Another official, speaking later in the day, said “the United States wants to see Egypt succeed.”

The Obama administration is trying to walk a very narrow line with the aid cuts, holding back just enough assistance to persuade Egypt’s generals that it means business but not so much as to make Egypt begin reducing its security cooperation with Israel or rethinking its commitment to the Camp David peace accords. That attempt to find a middle ground, though, sparked anger and confusion on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers accused the White House of doing too much and some accused it of doing too little.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who wrote legislation requiring the immediate suspension of aid to any country whose civilian leaders were ousted in a military coup, blasted the administration’s decision.

“The administration is trying to have it both ways, by suspending some aid but continuing other aid,” he said in statement. “By doing that, the message is muddled. If they want to continue aid to the Egyptian government they should ask Congress for a waiver.”

Other lawmakers from Obama’s own party criticized the administration for going too far. “I am disappointed that the administration is planning to partially suspend military aid to Egypt,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “During this fragile period we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them.”

Engel has some unexpected backers: the leaders of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, all of whom have spent months lobbying the White House to leave its aid package to Egypt intact or to even expand it further. The three countries argue that Egypt’s military overthrew a dangerous Islamist government and is a crucial ally in the fight against violent extremism throughout the region.

One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was baffled and angered by the U.S. decision to suspend its aid. The one positive, he said, was that he wasn’t sure how much money would actually be held back, or for how long.

Yochi Dreazen is senior writer for international affairs at Foreign Policy.