CAIRO (AP) — Washington's decision to withhold millions of dollars in mostly military aid to Egypt is fueling anti-U.S. sentiment and the perception that Washington supports Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president the military ousted in a July coup.
That could boost the popularity of the military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whom the U.S. is trying to pressure to ensure a transition to democracy and ease the fierce crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
The aid freeze could also embolden Morsi's supporters to intensify their campaign of street protests in the belief that the military-backed government is losing the goodwill of its top foreign backer. The protests, met by a fierce response by security forces that has left hundreds dead, have kept the new government from tackling Egypt's pressing problems after 2 ½ years of turmoil.
Still, Egypt's military-backed government is unlikely to abandon the road map it announced when Morsi was removed in a July 3 coup — to amend the nation's Islamist-tilted constitution and put the changes to a nationwide vote before the end of the year, and hold parliamentary and presidential ballots in early 2014.
"Egypt is not so desperate that it needs to compromise on its political agenda," the U.S.-based global intelligence firm, Stratfor, wrote this week.
"The United States will be the one to eventually readjust to the old reality of backing unpopular regimes that can preserve U.S. influence in the Nile River Valley."
Warnings that Washington might cut off aid were met with a defiant response in the Egyptian media.
"Let American aid go to hell," screamed the banner headline of Thursday's edition of Al-Tahrir, an independent daily that is a sworn critic of the Brotherhood and the United States.
Egyptian newspapers and television have for weeks taken a deeply hostile line toward the United States, portraying Washington as unhappy to see Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood lose power and lambasting it for allegedly meddling in Cairo's affairs.
The U.S. announced it was freezing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, most of it meant for the armed forces, as a show of displeasure over Morsi's ouster and the subsequent crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist allies. Washington said the aid would be restored if "credible progress" was made toward setting up an inclusive, democratically elected government.
In its announcement Wednesday, the U.S. State Department did not provide a dollar amount of what was being withheld, most of it linked to military aid, but officials in Washington said it included 10 Apache helicopters at a cost of more than $500 million, M1A1 tank kits and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
The U.S. also is withholding $260 million in cash assistance to the government. The U.S. had already suspended the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets and canceled biennial U.S.-Egyptian military exercises.
In Egypt's first official reaction, the Foreign Ministry said the U.S. move raised questions about Washington's commitment to supporting the Arab nation's security goals at a time when it is facing terrorist challenges.
That was a reference to a burgeoning insurgency by Islamic militants, some with al-Qaida links, in the strategic Sinai Peninsula, as well as scattered attacks in other parts of the country.
In its statement, the Foreign Ministry said Cairo was keen to maintain good relations with Washington, but will independently decide its domestic policies. It also said Egypt will work to secure its "vital needs" on national security, a thinly veiled threat that it would shop elsewhere for arms and military hardware.
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