Obama Cuts Military Exercise, Not Aid: Death toll in Egypt rises to 525

Rabaa Adawiya mosque

Responding to yesterday’s unprecedented violence in Cairo, President Obama this morning cancelled a biannual joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercise that had been scheduled for September. “While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” the President said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing with his family.

The president did not, however, order that the United States cut off the $1 billion annual primarily military aid to Egypt in the aftermath of the brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi. He did suggest that possibility was not out of the question, however. “Going forward, I've asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.- Egyptian relationship.”

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Critics will surely charge that the president’s comments today were not strong enough to deflect the Egyptian military from the path of confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood that it has chosen. Many have been urging a stronger stance from the United States in the aftermath of the military's crackdown on the Brotherhood. The official death toll from yesterday's violence has been raised to 525; thousands have been wounded and violence continues to break out around the country. Since the two mass sit-ins in Cairo were cleared by Egyptian security forces yesterday, Coptic Christian churches and facilities around the country have been the targets of reprisal attacks.

The president said that while “it's tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what's gone wrong,” America “cannot determine the future of Egypt. That's a task for the Egyptian people. We don't take sides with any particular party or political figure.”

His administration has refused since the July 3 overthrow of the Morsi presidency to describe the act as a military coup—that would trigger an automatic cut off of aid to Egypt—and President Obama declined today to do so. He did urge that the state of emergency declared yesterday be lifted, thatthe rights of women and religious minorities should be respected and that a “process of national reconciliation should begin.”

“The Egyptian people deserve better than what we've seen over the last several days,” he said, adding, “the cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop.

“We call on the Egyptian authorities to respect the universal rights of the people. We call on those who are protesting to do so peacefully and condemn the attacks that we've seen by protesters, including on churches.

“Violence,” he said, “will only feed the cycle of polarization that isolates Egyptians from one another and from the world and that continues to hamper the opportunity for Egypt to get back on the path of economic growth.”

Before reciting the Angelus in Castel Gandolfo today, Pope Francis asked the crowds gathered there to join him in asking Mary, queen of peace, to hear his prayers for Egypt. As the official death toll rose and as the damaged done to Christian churches was being assessed, Pope Francis invoked Mary, queen of peace, to bring calm to the country. In light of the "painful news" coming from Egypt Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, Pope Francis said he was praying for "all the victims and their families, for the injured and those who are suffering.

"Let us pray together for peace, dialogue and reconciliation in that dear land and throughout the world," the pope told an estimated 12,000 people who joined him in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, for the feast day Mass and recitation of the Angelus prayer.

The United Nations human rights chief today appealed to all parties in Egypt to act with restraint and initiate talks and called for an investigtation of the military attack on what had been largely peaceful protests. “I deplore the loss of life and call on all in Egypt to seek a way out of the violence. I urge the Egyptian authorities and security forces to act with the utmost restraint,” said Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“What is needed is genuinely inclusive reconciliation. I therefore appeal again to all sides to engage in urgent dialogue to avoid further violence and hate speech, with the aim of restoring constitutional order through free and democratic elections.” Pillay said, “The number of people killed or injured, even according to the government’s figures, point to an excessive, even extreme, use of force against demonstrators,” she said. “There must be an independent, impartial, effective and credible investigation of the conduct of the security forces. Anyone found guilty of wrongdoing should be held to account.”

Pillay reminded Egyptian authorities that their security forces are bound by the rule of law and must act with full respect for human rights, including the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. She also stressed that government opponents who have reportedly attacked public buildings and religious sites should be brought to justice, and underlined that demonstrators must ensure their gatherings remain peaceful.

“Wednesday’s tragic events highlight the degree to which Egypt is becoming dangerously polarized,” Pillay said, noting reports of violent incidents in several parts of the country in response to the clearing of sit-ins in Cairo.

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