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US quietly suspends military aid to Egypt, but won't call uprising a coup

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Louafi Larbi/Reuters

(Read caption) An Egyptian army soldier stands guard atop an armored personnel carrier (APC) as he talks on his mobile phone in Giza, south of Cairo Monday, August 19. The US had quietly suspended military aid to Egypt, but won't call uprising a coup.

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• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Obama administration officials and the office of US Sen. Patrick Leahy, head of the appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations, say that the White House had quietly suspended military aid to Egypt. But any leverage gained over Egypt's increasingly recalcitrant, violent military leaders may be negated by Saudi Arabia's pledge to fill the funding gap.

"To those who have announced they are cutting their aid to Egypt, or threatening to do that, [we say that] Arab and Muslim nations are rich ... and will not hesitate to help Egypt," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said yesterday in a statement, according to Agence France-Presse. 

The number of international allies of Egypt's interim government has dwindled as the death toll rises, yesterday cresting over 900. But Saudi Arabia has only doubled down on its backing of the military government, which it has said is fighting "terrorism and sedition."

One of the biggest questions prompted by Egypt's bloodshed has been whether the United States would classify the military ouster of elected President Mohamed Morsi as a coup, thus requiring it to cut off aid. But it appears as if the US has already put a hold on the money under the radar. That avoids a public determination on the coup question that would be hard to walk back from. 

“[Senator Leahy’s] understanding is that aid to the Egyptian military has been halted, as required by law,” said David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy, according to The Daily Beast.

The Obama administration did not feel obligated to make a public announcement because the $585 million of pledged aid is not due until the end of September, making the suspension essentially theoretical at this point, The Daily Beast reports.

But two administration officials told The Daily Beast that administration lawyers decided it was best to observe the law restricting military aid on a temporary basis, as if there had been a coup designation, while at the same time deciding that the law did not require a public announcement on whether a coup took place.

“The decision was we’re going to avoid saying it was a coup, but to stay on the safe side of the law, we are going to act as if the designation has been made for now,” said one administration official. “By not announcing the decision, it gives the administration the flexibility to reverse it.”

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Reuters reports that Gulf monarchs, who were shaken by the protests that swept Egypt and several other countries in the region, see Morsi's ouster as a chance to restore stability in the region "and are determined to spend their oil billions to bring back trusted friends." That is particularly true in Egypt, which was long Riyadh's "most powerful" ally in the Middle East. Army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has close ties with the Saudi monarch after serving in Riyadh for years.

The Saudis see well-organized Islamist movements like Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood as "the only ones that could emerge to challenge their rule," a Saudi journalist told Reuters.

To the monarchy, the Brotherhood is an "ideological competitor with an aggressively activist political doctrine" that opposes Riyadh's relationship with the US and seeks to destabilize its government, according to Reuters. 

The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have also shown their backing for the military with their pocketbooks. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi pledged a combined $8 billion within days of Morsi's ouster, and Kuwait chipped in $4 billion of its own. That $12 billion dwarfs the $1.3 billion in aid provided by the US annually.

Saudi Arabia's willingness to strike out at the US on a foreign policy issue shows how concerned it was about the Brotherhood's rise, The Washington Post reports. 

But the unusually bold foray into foreign policy represents a big risk for the traditionally staid and cautious kingdom, jeopardizing its reputation as the leader of the Muslim world, reigniting a simmering power struggle with rivals Qatar and Turkey, and potentially harming its relationship with Washington.

That Saudi Arabia is prepared to confront Washington over the crisis is an indicator of how deeply Saudi leaders were unsettled by the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood consolidating its hold over the Arab world’s most populous nation, analysts say.

“It’s not about expansionism,” said Gamal Soltan, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo. “The Saudis are doing these things out of fear rather than greed.”

Meanwhile, Qatar and Turkey have maintained their support for the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, although both have taken hits on the regional stage that make their backing less decisive than Saudi Arabia's.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Mr. Sisi to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose heavy handed crackdown on a popular uprising prompted a civil war that has left roughly 100,000 Syrians dead. “Bashar or Sisi, there is no difference between them,” Mr. Erdogan said, according to the Washington Post.

Parts of US aid temporarily on hold include the $585 million of $1.3 billion in fiscal 2013 foreign military financing due in September, the delivery of Apache helicopters already paid for, and economic support funds for programs that would directly benefit the Egyptian government, the Daily Beast reports.

That money may not make much of a difference in the Egyptian military's political calculations, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned yesterday.

“Our ability to influence the outcome in Egypt is limited,” he said, according to the Daily Beast. “It’s up to the Egyptian people. And they are a large, great, sovereign nation. And it will be their responsibility to sort this out.”


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