NEW YORK // The US decision to suspend military aid to the Egypt is “flawed”, the Egyptian foreign ministry said on Thursday, vowing not to be influenced by pressure from Washington on its domestic affairs.
The Obama administration is temporarily halting shipments of several large military systems, including Apache attack helicopters, F-16 jets, M1-A1 tank parts, and Harpoon missiles, as well as US$260 million (Dh954.2m).
According to US officials, Wednesday’s move was intended to signal Washington’s displeasure at the pace Egypt’s democratic transition since the military removed the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi from power, as well as the continuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It is a flawed decision in terms of content and timing and raises serious questions over the United States’ readiness to provide strategic support to Egypt’s security programmes,” the foreign ministry said.
The aid freeze comes during a period “of dangerous terrorism-related challenges” faced by Egypt, even if the measures are only temporary.
Egypt will not bow to the increased pressure from the US, a long-time ally, and “will continue to take decisions regarding its domestic affairs with full independence and without foreign pressure”.
Critics of the US decision say the US risks further erosion of its influence in the Middle East at a time when its commitments are increasingly being questioned by traditional allies after President Barack Obama backed out of military strikes on Syria over its chemical weapons use and a recent thaw in relations with Iran, an adversary of US allies in the Gulf and Israel.
But the decision to suspend some military aid to Egypt was only taken reluctantly in the face of mounting pressure in the US Congress, analysts said, and does not reflect a major shift in its relations with Cairo.
Administration officials discussing the move on Wednesday went out of their way to underscore the continuing importance of the relationship. Border security and counterterrorism programmes, particularly in the Sinai peninsula, where militants have carried out a number of recent attacks, will not be affected.
The US will continue its military training, education programmes and deliver spare parts for most of the military systems it provides, an administration official said.
“What we’re trying to make clear is this is not meant to be permanent; it’s meant to be the opposite,” the official said.
The suspension is meant to send a modest signal to the Egyptian military, but the most important signal is directed at the members of Congress who have called for a full cut-off of aid to Egypt since July, when the Morsi government was deposed after millions in Egypt called for it to resign during unprecedented protests.
The Obama administration has refused to refer to this as a coup, which would legally trigger an end to US assistance, and the suspension may be an attempt to stave off deeper cuts.
“There is lots of pressure on Obama to show some displeasure and that’s all he’s doing,” said William Rugh, the former ambassador to the UAE who now teaches diplomacy at Tufts University.
“Lot’s of people in Congress are very upset about the leadership change that took place and Congress has to approve all spending including the billion-and-a-half dollars that goes to Egypt, and the president can’t ignore that.”
The decision to suspend the some of the aid was probably not a surprise to the Egyptian military, said Joshua Stacher, an expert on the US-Egypt military relations at Kent State University.
“There was just a big US military delegation in Cairo last week, they absolutely discussed this,” Mr Stacher said.
“Obama is a master of using rhetoric and slight modification to policy for grabbing headlines when the underlying fundamentals of the relationship are not being changed.”
Critics have said the suspension could open space for both US adversaries and allies to step in with their own assistance, weakening America’s position in the region.
Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries have pledged at least $12 billion so far to the interim government and on Monday Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, visited Riyadh on his first foreign trip, a reflection of Saudi Arabia’s growing political and financial importance in Egypt.
But from the Egyptian military’s perspective, even large sums of money cannot replace its relationship with its American counterparts and their long integration with US weapons systems and training, Mr Stracher said.
“It’s not that they don’t have leverage, it’s that they’re not using the leverage they have against the generals. Training will continue, the informal connections between high-ranking Egyptian military personnel and American personnel … those will remain intact.”
While the foreign ministry voiced its anger over the suspension, it is unlikely the military will react drastically, said Marina Ottaway, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington.
“The idea that in a moment of pique Egypt would change to different suppliers such as China or Russia does not seem very likely on larger scale,” she said.
“Egypt has very serious problem in the Sinai now and they need US cooperation on this, and to be integrated into counterterrorism efforts that the US and other countries are carrying out across the Sahara and Sahel region.”
After Israel, Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US aid, with most of it coming after the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979. The US has given Egypt $71.6 billion in aid between 1948 and 2011, with $1.3bn each year in military assistance since 1987, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Among other strategic benefits, the US military receives perks in exchange, including intelligence cooperation, flyover rights and the movement of troops and material through the Suez Canal to supply US forces in the Arabian Gulf.