White House denounces Egypt crackdown, but little action seen

Olivier Knox

The White House Wednesday angrily denounced a bloody crackdown in Egypt that has left at least 149 people dead in clashes between protesters and security forces. But it was not clear what — if any —  concrete response to the violence would come from Washington.

“The United States strongly condemns the use of violence against protestors in Egypt,” spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement to reporters who followed President Barack Obama to Martha’s Vineyard on his vacation.

“Violence will only make it more difficult to move Egypt forward on a path to lasting stability and democracy and runs directly counter to the pledges by the interim government to pursue reconciliation,” he warned. “The world is watching what is happening in Cairo.”

His comments came as Egypt’s health ministry put the death toll at 149 with another 1,400 wounded in a police raid on supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi at a Cairo protest camp and other clashes nationwide.

The interim government has also imposed a monthlong state of emergency, a move the White House branded a slip away from promises to move toward democratic rule.

In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry called the situation "deplorable" and called on the government to lift the state of emergency as quickly as possible.

"Egyptians inside and outside of the government need to take a step back. They need to calm the situation and avoid further loss of life," Kerry told reporters. "We also strongly oppose a return to a state of emergency law, and we call on the government to respect basic human rights, including freedom of peaceful assembly and due process under the law."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry had spoken to several leaders in the region including Egypt's interim vice president, Mohamed ElBaradei, who resigned Wednesday saying he could not support the violent crackdown.

Earnest declined to say whether the U.S. had been caught by surprise by the overnight massacre of demonstrators.

But a senior administration official, who requested anonymity, pointed out that Egypt's interim government had signaled it planned to clear the square of demonstrators -- and that the U.S. government had publicly warned against that step.

"There was no phone call that said 'we’ve been saying this for days, publicly and privately, and today’s the day,'" the official underlined.

Earnest repeated longstanding warnings that the U.S. is constantly reviewing its commitment of $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt’s military. But he reiterated that Washington would still not label the ouster of the democratically elected president a coup, which would force the administration to freeze that assistance.

“It is not in the best interests of the United States,” he said.

Still, Washington wants “tangible evidence” from the interim government of moves toward democratic civilian rule, and wants it "promptly,"  Earnest said. 

What if no such proof is forthcoming, a reporter asked? Then the United States will … publicly call for it again, the spokesman replied.

Earnest said he was not issuing an ultimatum, insisting that “we can work with our allies and others to put pressure on the interim government to make good on these commitments that they’ve made. We’ll continue to urge them.”

Asked why he thought more rhetoric would change the government’s behavior, Earnest replied: “I think when they sit around the table and they see their friends all around the world urging them to make good on their promise, I think that makes them more likely to make good on their promise.”

But, he said, “I guess this is the ultimate conclusion here: This is something that Egyptians are going to have to resolve.”

Earnest said the president had received a briefing on the situation from National Security Adviser Susan Rice and would continue to monitor events.

Separately, the White House said World Bank President Jim Kim, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, and former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk had joined Obama for a round of golf.

Presidents are never truly on vacation — they always bring high-tech communications, a phalanx of aides and policy dilemmas in their metaphorical luggage. As if to underscore that, the White House released an official photograph of Rice briefing Obama. But there were echoes of another unfortunate moment in presidents-golfing-during-an-international-crisis.

Earnest said Obama was staying on top of the situation while on vacation.

“The president is being kept apprised of the developments and will be briefed as necessary,” the spokesman said.

“He’s already been briefed this morning by his national security adviser, and he’s asked his team to keep him advised as developments warrant. And I anticipate that he will do that over the course of the rest of the day — and probably the rest of the trip,” he said.

It was unclear what other steps the U.S. can take.

It could adopt a piecemeal approach, like withholding individual arms packages from Egypt's military, or recalling the U.S. ambassador to Washington, a move generally regarded as a diplomatic snub. It could cancel or modify a joint military exercise called "Brightstar" in mid-September. It could, though this seems unlikely, take a broader approach and freeze overall aid.