President Obama announced Thursday the U.S. had canceled the Bright Star joint military exercises with Egypt following the brutal crackdown of protests by the Egyptian government that have left more than 500 dead.
"While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets," President Obama said.
Obama urged the Egyptian forces to lift the state of emergency that was imposed after more than 500 reportedly were killed as security forces broke up Brotherhood demonstrations Wednesday and Thursday.
However, the president did not mention any plans of cutting the $1.3 billion in annual military aid the U.S. pays to Egypt. He did not answer questions on the topic following his Thursday morning press briefing from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing.
The military exercise cancellation follows the White House decision in July to delay delivery of four F-16 fighters to Egypt because of the escalating violence. Obama said the U.S. "strongly condemns" the violence in Egypt, but wanted to continue "engagement" with the Egyptian military and the interim government.
After Obama's announcement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel released a statement saying he called Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel al-Sisi – who led the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in early July – to say the U.S. will continue to maintain a military relationship with Egypt.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, Thursday to urge restraint in the bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that has forced the cancellation of Bright Star next month.
"In my discussion with Minister Al-Sisi, I reiterated that the United States remains ready to work with all parties to help achieve a peaceful, inclusive way forward," Hagel said in a statement released by the Pentagon.
Hagel said the U.S. Defense Department intends to maintain its military relationship with Egypt despite the cancelation of the Bright Star exercise.
"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," he said.
The biannual Bright Star exercises began in 1980 and grew out of the Camp David accords in 1979 that resulted in a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. Several of the exercises involved as many as 70,000 troops and included representatives of 11 nations in a show of force to demonstrate the U.S. military's ability to back up regional allies.
Bright Star is now the oldest exercise in the U.S. Central Command's area if operation, with participation by 10 allied countries. The last exercise included military units from Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Greece, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, France and Pakistan.
This will be the second Bright Star in row that the U.S. has canceled. Bright Star 2011 was called off two years ago this month. The U.S. State Department said at the time that Egypt and the U.S. mutually agreed to postpone the exercise until 2013 because the Egyptian government was in the middle of a transition.
In 2009, the U.S. sent to Bright Star about 300 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division and 1,000 Marines with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, along with reservists from the 701st Combat Operations Squadron, and 710th Combat Operations Squadron.
CentCom had been planning for next month's exercises for some time, but "sometimes things happen and you just have to turn them off. It's all about flexibility and adapting to current events," CentCom spokesman Max Blumenfeld said.
Critics of administration led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called for the immediate suspension of the military aid until the Egyptian military showed signs of speeding the return to democratic rule.
"President Obama says he deplores violence in Egypt, but the foreign aid continues to help pay for it,"Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in a tweet.
Under the Foreign Assistance Act, the U.S. must cut off military and economic assistance to countries that experience a military coup. The U.S. has done this previously against Mali, Thailand, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast and other nations.
The White House has gone to great lengths to not use the word coup, with spokesman Jay Carney noting that the "designation carries with it very serious consequences."
Though democratically elected in 2012, Morsi began consolidating power for the Muslim Brotherhood, a once outlawed organization that he led and emerged from the anti-Mubarak protests. He reinstated an Islamist-dominated parliament that the country's high court had earlier labeled unconstitutional and began trying to put his own leaders at the head of the military.
Popular protests against Morsi's government for a time sparked concerns that the military would crack down on the protesters. The military instead sided with the demonstrators and pulled Morsi from power, which even Morsi critics such as Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-SC, called a military coup.
Since the July 3 takeover, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been the main point of contact between the Obama administration and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the U.S.-trained Egyptian Defense Minister and the prime mover in the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.
Hagel and al-Sissi have spoken by phone at least 15 times since Morsi was removed and placed under house arrest.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was wrapping up a four-day visit to Israel and Jordan, has also been in frequent contact with his counterpart, Maj. Gen. Sedki Sobhi, the Egyptian chief of staff, but Dempsey has not spoken with Sobhi recently, the Pentagon officials said.
The threat to cut off military aid to maintain whatever leverage the U.S. had with the Egyptians "was always a one-bullet gun," said Eric Trager, a Mideast analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
By canceling Bright Star, the Obama administration appeared to be "trying to slice the bullet into many parts," Trager said. It was a way of "signaling displeasure" while trying to preserve options, Trager said.
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