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WASHINGTON — Fearing a political-military implosion that could throw its most important Arab ally into chaos, the Obama administration has abandoned its hands-off approach, delivering pointed warnings to the three main players in the crisis: Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, protesters demanding his ouster and the powerful Egyptian military.
U.S. officials said Tuesday they are urging Morsi to take immediate steps to address opposition grievances, telling the protesters to remain peaceful and reminding the army that a coup could have consequences for the massive American military aid package it currently receives. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the delicate diplomacy that is aimed at calming the unrest and protecting Egypt’s status as a bulwark of Mideast stability.
The officials said Washington has stopped short of imposing a to-do list on Morsi, but has instead offered strong suggestions, backed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid, about what he could do to ease the tensions. Those include calling early elections, appointing new cabinet members, firing an unpopular prosecutor general and expressing a willingness to explore constitutional change. The army has been told that the $1.3 billion in foreign military financing it receives each year from Washington could be jeopardized by a coup or the appearance of a coup.
The White House, State Department and Pentagon all refused to comment on any specific steps the administration would like to see taken, saying any actions are for Egypt to decide.
However, the officials said President Barack Obama outlined the suggestions to Morsi in a phone call late Monday from Tanzania where he was wrapping up a trip to Africa. Around the same time, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called his Egyptian counterpart to point out that U.S. law requires cuts in military assistance in most cases when a country’s armed forces are involved in an unconstitutional change in government, the officials said. Meanwhile, diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo have been speaking with the opposition, the officials said.
While military assistance would technically be at risk if the army intervened, the administration would be hard pressed to make significant cuts in it as the aid, a total of $1.5 billion a year, is deemed critical to U.S. national interests as well as those of allies like Israel and broader regional security.
In their conversation, Obama “encouraged President Morsi to take steps to show that he is responsive to (opposition) concerns, and underscored that the current crisis can only be resolved through a political process,” the White House said in a statement released before the president left Tanzania.
As Obama flew back to Washington, some of his top national security advisers were meeting at the White House Tuesday to plot a way forward. The conclusions of the so-called “deputies committee” meeting were not immediately clear. The committee usually meets to prepare policy options for the president and his Cabinet, which gather in what are known as “Principals Committee” meetings.
The administration had tried to remain above Egypt’s political fray, quietly counseling all sides to cooperate and compromise for the good of the country and the broader region. But officials said they determined that the low-key approach was no longer tenable after all sides hardened their positions on Monday. First, the army gave Morsi a 48-hour deadline to take action or face military intervention. That emboldened the protestors demanding Morsi’s immediate departure, while the president himself dug in his heels and rejected the ultimatum.
Those developments prompted Obama’s and Dempsey’s calls to Cairo as well as a subtle shift in the administration’s language, the officials said.
Where previous statements had stressed Morsi’s position as Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, the emphasis is now on the importance of the democratic process and respecting the principles of the revolution that led to strongman Hosni Mubarak’s toppling in 2011.
Obama told Morsi in their phone call that “the United States is committed to the democratic process in Egypt and does not support any single party or group,” the White House said on Monday. “He stressed that democracy is about more than elections; it is also about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government, including the many Egyptians demonstrating throughout the country.”
At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki restated the administration’s priority on the democratic process.
“It’s never been about one individual,” she told reporters. “It’s been about hearing and allowing the voices of the Egyptian people to be heard.”
In Cairo, meanwhile, the U.S. embassy said it would be closed to the public on Wednesday when the ultimatum expires. On Friday, the State Department had warned U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Egypt in light of the uncertain security situation and moved to reduce its diplomatic footprint in the capital by allowing some non-essential personnel and the families of embassy staffers to leave the country at government expense.
At the Pentagon, spokesman George Little would not say whether the U.S. has received any commitment from the Egyptian military to provide security for any Americans at the embassy in the event of riots or a coup.
Asked whether the U.S. would cut off military relations with Egypt if the military takes control of the government, Little said that he would not speculate on legal conclusions. But, he added that generally, “there are consequences that can flow from such political developments.”