US balancing act with Egypt grows trickier

Supporters of Mohammed Morsi gather in Cairo
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Supporters of Mohammed Morsi gather in Cairo

In four weeks of quiet but intense diplomacy, the Obama administration has engaged in a balancing act, prodding Egypt's generals to avoid violence and restore a democratic government while trying not to jeopardize any future influence on the military or undermine security arrangements that have been at the heart of a three-decade relationship.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has pleaded in multiple phone calls with the chief of the Egyptian armed forces, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, to change course, while administration lawyers found a legal justification to avoid having to cut off $1.5 billion a year in military aid.

The White House said Monday that it would hold Egypt's military-backed government to its "moral and legal obligations," even as it reiterated it had no plans to cut off aid, beyond a previously announced delay in the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets.

(Read more: Violence doesn't shake up Egyptian stock market)

For the Obama administration, the problem is not simply its relationship with the Egyptian military but also with Israel, whose security interests are weighing particularly heavily on administration officials as they try to nurture a new round of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel depends on Egyptian troops to root out Islamic extremists in the Sinai Peninsula, and Israeli officials have publicly and privately urged the United States not to cut off the aid, which underpins the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Yet Saturday's attacks on members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which left at least 80 people dead, combined with signs that the generals are paying little heed to American officials, have made it increasingly difficult for President Obama to keep striking the balance between security and democracy, according to several analysts.

"If everything you're doing is about preserving the relationship, then it undercuts what you're trying to accomplish," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "I think it's increasingly clear that we can't have both."

(Read more: Egypt's Brotherhood stands ground after killings)

Privately, administration officials concede they are not sure, given the huge stakes and deep bitterness of the battle in Egypt, whether the calls from Mr. Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador Anne Patterson, or other officials are making a difference.

"They understand enough about how our system works to know that it can't be no-holds-barred," a senior administration official said. "But the situation may be so divorced from us and our system that what we say might not be part of their calculus."

Based on the exchanges between Mr. Hagel and General Sisi, the Obama administration still believes it has leverage over the military. General Sisi, the senior official said, has repeatedly asked Mr. Hagel for more "rhetorical support" from the United States.

The conversations, however, have tended to be circular, with Mr. Hagel urging the release of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, and General Sisi replying that if he were released, his life would be in danger. Or with Mr. Hagel asking him to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the general replying that the Brotherhood had rejected such overtures.

(Read more: Dozens shot dead; US tells Egypt to pull 'back from the brink')

Egypt's military has stepped up its patrols in the Sinai in recent months, in response to reports of heightened extremism, which the senior official cited as an example of how it has contributed to regional security.

"The key part of the message Hagel is sending is, 'you're putting that at risk,' " the official said.

How the Egyptian military would respond to a loss of aid is unpredictable. Some analysts said that it would continue to patrol the Sinai because it depends on the support of the Egyptian police, important allies, who are frequent targets of violence by extremists and want the military operating there. Others say the army could claim that without American aid, it no longer has the resources for those operations.

Were that to happen, analysts said, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would face enormous domestic pressure not to make any concessions to the Palestinians, especially on security issues. He probably could not even continue talking to them.

(Read more: Egypt announces criminal investigation of Morsi)

"If the situation in Sinai gets worse, and it starts to affect Israel's security, then Bibi won't have the political support to go on with the talks," said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Egypt and Israel, using Mr. Netanyahu's nickname.

So far, Mr. Kurtzer said, there has been no tension between Israel and the United States over Egypt because neither wants to see aid cut off. But he said that if more Egyptians were killed in the coming days, "it's going to be real hard to turn a blind eye."

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Still, he and others warned that if the White House cuts off aid, it would squander the only leverage the United States has. It would also confirm the suspicions of many in Egypt that the administration backed the Muslim Brotherhood.

"There will inevitably be a backlash against us and in a way that will leave us with no influence," said Dennis B. Ross, a former Middle East adviser to Mr. Obama. "We should not put ourselves in a position of being irrelevant or without any influence given our stakes."

Mr. Ross said the administration should make it clear that it has red lines that if crossed would result in a cutoff of aid. And he said it should enlist Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates, which are even larger financial supporters of Egypt than the United States, to pressure the generals.

(Read more: Harvard professor: Egypt headed for civil war)

"They should use their influence with the Egyptian military to make it easier for us," he said.

The debate over aid, some analysts said, underscored the lack of a fresh strategy for dealing with Egypt. The White House has not conducted a strategic review of its Egypt policy since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, they pointed out.

As a result, its response to the violence in Cairo and Alexandria has been haphazard and fallen back on modest gestures, like withholding the F-16's, which may not be that effective in dealing with a country that is undergoing a wrenching upheaval.

"It still seems we're stuck in this crouched, tactical, reactive pose," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and expert on Egypt at the Center for American Progress. "We've not reimagined how we might engage with Egypt."