Egypt’s military-led government said it was “reviewing” its strategic relationships with the U.S. and other Western governments critical of its crackdown on Islamists, deepening the divide between the Obama administration and Cairo.
Amid expectations of more violence in coming days, the death toll rose on Sunday as dozens of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed in Cairo in what the government described as a prison-break attempt. The Islamist movement’s leaders called for continued defiance against Egypt’s generals, despite signs that their supporters were becoming limited in their ability to take to the streets.
The weekend developments were the latest signs of the limited ability of the administration of President Barack Obama to influence events in Egypt. The White House, while deciding Friday to postpone joint-military exercises with Egypt, has indicated it plans to continue sending $1.5 billion in military and economic aid to Egypt as a means to try to guide events there.
But the announcement by Egypt’s foreign minister of the review of its ties to the U.S., and growing opposition on Capitol Hill to the aid, might make this impossible.
“The attempts to internationalize the discussions about this event is something that Egypt rejects,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said Sunday. “I ask the foreign ministry to review the foreign aid of the past and to see if those aids are used in an optimal way.”
The comments from Mr. Fahmy hewed to a theme that has dominated Egypt’s airwaves and newspapers the past two months: disappointment and hostility toward criticism of Egypt’s security forces by Western governments. Interim-government officials have also complained of “biased” coverage in Western media.
Criticism of the Egyptian military’s actions grew on Capitol Hill. A widening number of U.S. senators took to the Sunday news shows to challenge Mr. Obama’s Egypt policy.
“I think the actions of the last week no doubt are going to cause us to suspend aid,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) on ABC. He added that the U.S. should “recalibrate” its aid to Egypt while keeping open lines of communication with the Middle Eastern nation.
The prisoner deaths book ended a bloody week of clashes that have spawned political violence unprecedented in modern Egypt. Egyptians are now looking at yet another week of potential flare-ups after supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohammed Morsi announced weeklong protests.
The violence has hardened attitudes on both sides, strengthening the appetite for resistance among both Mr. Morsi’s supporters and his opponents. Leaders of the movement backing Mr. Morsi issued a call for further demonstrations on Saturday night, the same day that a police raid ended an armed overnight standoff at a Cairo mosque in which at least 173 people were killed. Egypt’s military spokesman said 120 soldiers died in the siege.
“We believe that Egyptians are determined to get their freedom back peacefully,” said one senior Brotherhood official. “In history, all the revolutions were against very powerful regimes. They succeeded to overthrow them. And this is what we believe that the Egyptian people will do.”
In speeches, political leaders in the military-backed government justified last week’s crackdowns and asked public to remain steadfast in the face of what they describe as a terrorist threat posed by Mr. Morsi’s supporters.
Senior government officials have defended the crackdowns, saying military and police have shown restraint.
Nevertheless, Cairo’s crowded capital made a tentative return to normal life on Sunday, even as a monthlong, all-night curfew first imposed last Wednesday remained in place. Businesses that had been shuttered on Saturday were open for the first day of the Egypt’s workweek, and the city’s familiar congestion once again returned.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry called for an end to the so-called “popular committees” of local residents who have set up roadblocks during the curfew hours. The committees, which the ministry had encouraged for the much of the past week, had been “abused” by local thugs, the ministry announced.
Both General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Egypt’s minister of defense and the head of its armed forces, and Mr. Fahmy, the minister of foreign affairs, said that security forces were prepared to use force against pro-Morsi protesters if the former president’s supporters continued to use violence. Leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood, which backed Mr. Morsi’s presidency, have argued that their demonstrations are peaceful.
“What we do is a reaction and not an action, and we exercise a great deal of self-restraint,” said Gen. Sisi in a televised address Sunday afternoon. “I am confirming that those who attack, however, we will face them strictly.”
Mr. Fahmy’s announcement of a foreign-policy review was a thinly veiled swipe at U.S. criticism of Egypt’s recent crackdown on Pro-Morsi protesters. Many Egyptians believe the U.S. has taken the Brotherhood’s side.
Some Egyptians have also expressed outrage at Mr. Obama’s announcement last week that U.S. forces wouldn’t participate in the biannual “BrightStar” military exercises scheduled for this fall. Mr. Obama said he was withdrawing from the exercises after at least 600 people died when the military forcefully dispersed a pro-Morsi protest camp last Wednesday.
The U.S. has given Egypt $1.3 billion each year in military aid since the early 1980s.
Though leaders in Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood have pledged to maintain their vigils, there were signs Sunday that continuing violence had put a dent in the group’s ability to organize supporters. In one sign of disorganization, the group canceled one of about a half-dozen marches originally planned for Sunday. But a separate march to the Supreme Constitutional Court in the Maadi neighborhood of Cairo didn’t materialize after conflicting reports from Brotherhood spokesmen over the cancellation of all demonstrations on Sunday.
A small group, numbering some two dozen, held a rally about a mile from the courthouse. “Where are your big numbers now?” one passerby shouted mockingly at the group.
By Matt Bradley, Jay Solomon and contributions by Leila Elmergawi, Tamer El-Ghobashy and Maria Abi Habib
First Published in the Wall Street Journal