U.S. Cancels Military Exercise With Egypt Amid Crackdown

President Obama announced the cancellation of a joint military exercise with Egypt in the wake of that country's military government crackdown on protesters. At least 500 were killed in those skirmishes, including 40 police. For more, David Greene speaks with NPR's Scott Horsley.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

Egypt is still reeling from the bloody crackdown on demonstrators by the country's military government yesterday. At least 500 people were killed, including 40 police, after security forces cleared two camps where supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohammed Morsi had been sitting in for weeks.

The Obama administration has repeatedly condemned Egypt's military crackdown over the past 24 hours. Today, in his first public comments, President Obama backed up that condemnation with some action.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back. As a result, this morning we notified the Egyptian government that we are canceling our biannual joint military exercise, which was scheduled for next month. 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.

GREENE: We're joined in the studio by NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. And, Scott, this is really both some threatening language from the president and a tangible response, saying that he's going to cancel these military exercises.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: That's right, David. Up until now, we'd heard a lot of words from the administration, beginning with White House spokesman Josh Earnest yesterday, and then later with the secretary of state, John Kerry. But to cancel the exercises that were set for September is really the visible sign of the U.S. displeasure. And also, of course, it would have been terrible optics for the United States to have its armed forces standing shoulder to shoulder with Egyptian security forces when they're the ones who've been carrying out this bloody crackdown.

GREENE: Well, the president said beyond these - cancelling these military exercises, that he's directed his team to look at other options. What do you make of it?

HORSLEY: Of course, the big hammer is some adjustment to the foreign aid that the United States contributes to Egypt. They're our number two recipient of foreign aid, $1.3 billion. And up until now, the administration has really bent over backwards not to say that that money is in jeopardy. That, for example, is why the administration has not formally labeled the ouster of President Morsi as a military coup.

GREENE: Because that word coup would have triggered a decision to take away aid.

HORSLEY: Exactly. Had they called it a coup - which it really is, in all but name - U.S. law would have automatically cut off the aid. So the administration has been loath to do that.

GREENE: It's some serious words from the president, saying that cooperation cannot go on as usual with Egypt. I mean, clear frustration from this White House about the images yesterday. But the - I mean, this is a difficult situation because the relationship between the United States and Egypt, incredibly important.

HORSLEY: That's right. As the president himself said today, Egypt is a cornerstone of peace in the Middle East, and that's a strategic relationship that the United States does not want to play around with. And also, the president has said that he believes that ongoing engagement with the interim government in Egypt could be helpful in the transition back to something like a civilian, democratically elected government.

That said, Obama says it's going to be up to the Egyptian people to really carry out that hard work, and he says the U.S. can't dictate events in Egypt. That's pretty obvious from this side of the ocean. Although he also said, you know, it's tempting for people in Egypt to use the U.S. as a scapegoat for what's gone wrong, and partisans on both sides of the fight there have been doing that.

GREENE: Yeah. He seemed to get a little testy by the fact that both sides in this conflict have been pointing the finger at the United States.

HORSLEY: Yeah.

GREENE: What was he talking about?

HORSLEY: Ultimately, he says it's up to the Egyptians to do the hard work of moving back to a democratically elected government.

GREENE: And the United States being blamed by both sides? I mean, he said at one point, that people have been pointing fingers at the United States for supporting President Morsi. I mean, it really does sound like the United States has become a big part of the conversation there in a way that makes the president really uncomfortable.

HORSLEY: Well, and getting blame from both sides.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: We'll be watching this - clearly, a really important relationship. Scott, thanks so much for coming in.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, David.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley.

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