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Obama puts Egypt on alert: The people deserve better

President Obama strongly condemned Egypt's bloody crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood supporters that has so far left 525 people dead and thousands more injured but did not say the U.S. would pull foreign aid from the country.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

President Obama strongly condemned Egypt's bloody crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood supporters that has so far left 525 people dead and thousands more injured but did not say the U.S. would pull foreign aid from the country.

Egyptians mourn at a mosque in Cairo where lines of bodies wrapped in shrouds are laid out on August 15, 2013, following a crackdown on the protest camps of supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi the previous day. (Photo by Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images)

Updated 1:57 p.m.

President Obama strongly condemned Egypt’s bloody crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood supporters that has so far left 525 people dead and thousands more injured but stopped short of saying the U.S. would pull foreign aid from the country. Instead, he canceled a joint-military exercise with the Egyptian army scheduled for next month and said his administration would continue to “assess” the situation for other possible other punitive actions against the country.

“We’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people,” Obama said Thursday in remarks. “But our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets.”

The United States sends $1.5 billion in aid every year to Egypt, a strategic ally in the Middle East, second only to Israel.

“The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last couple of days,” he continued. “We call on those who are protesting to do so peacefully.”

While acknowledging that deposed President Mohammed Morsi’s administration had not been inclusive, the president emphasized the United States would not takes sides in the democratic battles of the country.

“America cannot determine the future of Egypt,” Obama said. “That’s a task for the Egyptian people…We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt, that’s our interest. We recognize that change takes time.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Egypt’s minister of defense, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Thursday to follow up on the president’s decision.

“The Department of Defense will continue to maintain a military relationship with Egypt, but I made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk,” Hagel said.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, the special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, said after the president’s remarks that the U.S. has a difficult strategic balance to strike in Egypt.

“How do we ensure that we still have a voice that many in Egypt will listen to?” Ross said of using aid leverage to stabilize the country. Ross added that, prior to the Arab Spring of 2011, Egypt had functioned under 40-year military dictatorship that prevented the development of civil society.

“We’re working in an environment that doesn’t lend itself very well to build a coalition,” he said.

The bloody crackdown against supporters of Morsi began Wednesday morning when government security forces stormed two camps resulting in the deaths of 525 people. Military-backed government officials quickly declared a month-long state of emergency, prompting interim Vice President Mohamed Mustafa El Baradei to resign his post. Authorities also instituted a military-curfew for everyone except journalists across the country’s major cities.

By Thursday morning, the Morsi faction had struck back against the government attacking the Giza Governor’s building a short distance from Cairo. Protesters there attacked the building with Molotov cocktails and live ammunition, according to police. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights reported that 20 Christian Coptic churches had been burned with seven more across the country damaged, NBC News reported.

Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior authorized officials to use live ammunition in order to protect government buildings, Mohyeldin reported.

Tensions between the military government and protesters had been building over the six weeks since Morsi—Egypt’s first democratically elected president—was ousted July 3. At the time, the Obama administration said that it would not suspend the $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, saying that the situation was “complex” and that pulling the funds could in fact result in worse conditions for the Egyptian people.

The president faced pressure to pull the funds from officials including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said that Egypt’s instability could provide an opening to al Qaeda and pose a significant national security threat to the United States.

France, Germany, and England held meetings with their Egyptian ambassadors Thursday and cautioned against a civil war. Foreign ministers with the European Union said they would meet Friday to discuss the situation. Previously, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, had urged the Egyptian government to end the state of emergency.

Within Egypt, however, at least one press outlet welcomed the crackdown, the Al-Akhbar newspaper ran the headline “The nightmare of the Brotherhood is gone,” according to . The United Arab Emirates also signaled support for the crackdown, praising security forces for having “exercised maximum control.”