With an estimated death toll of over 1,000 people since Wednesday, the fever in Egypt appeared to break over the weekend. Then came reports, confirmed by the Egyptian government on Sunday, that at least 36 Islamists were killed while in military custody.
While confirming the killings of the detainees on Sunday, the Ministry of the Interior said the deaths were the consequence of an escape attempt by Islamist prisoners. But officials of the main Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, described the deaths as “assassinations,” and said that the victims, which it said numbered 52, had been shot and tear-gassed through the windows of a locked prison van.
If the battle for the narrative is any indication, the clashes between the Egyptian military and supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi are spiraling beyond the point where reconciliation seems possible (if it ever was). Making matters worse, earlier today, it was reported that 24 Egyptian policemen were killed in Sinai during an ambush near the borders between Egypt, Gaza, and Israel.
As the picture grows more grim, no one in the world seems to agree on what to do about it. The lack of uniformity among American lawmakers was evident on the Sunday morning talk shows, where representatives took three different postures: End American aid to Egypt, keep the aid, and modulate the aid.
The violent crackdown has left Mr. Obama in a no-win position: risk a partnership that has been the bedrock of Middle East peace for 35 years, or stand by while longtime allies try to hold on to power by mowing down opponents. From one side, the Israelis, Saudis and other Arab allies have lobbied him to go easy on the generals in the interest of thwarting what they see as the larger and more insidious Islamist threat. From the other, an unusual mix of conservatives and liberals has urged him to stand more forcefully against the sort of autocracy that has been a staple of Egyptian life for decades.
So far, President Obama has canceled joint military exercises with Egypt, postponed the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, and spoken out against the violence from his vacation pad in Martha’s Vineyard. Late last night, it was reported that preliminary steps are being taken to cut civilian aid to Egypt, which is like pulling a weed out of a redwood forest.
Military aid to Egypt dwarfs civilian aid: of the $1.55 billion in total assistance the White House has requested for 2014, $1.3 billion is military and $250 million is economic. The civilian aid goes to such things as training programs and projects run by the United States Agency for International Development.
Meanwhile, the representatives of the European Union said it would “urgently review” the body’s relationship with Egypt during an emergency session this week.
In a rare joint foreign policy statement, the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council said it’s the responsibility of the army and the interim government to end the violence.
Calls for democracy and fundamental rights “cannot be disregarded, much less be washed away in blood,” and “the violence and the killings of these last days cannot be justified nor condoned,” Jose Manuel Barroso, of the commission, and Herman Van Rompuy, of the council, said.
There are no shortage of pundits and experts calling for both the disruption and continuation of American aid to Egypt. One of the more nuanced arguments–despite this scorcher of a headline: Speak Softly and Carry No Stick–is made by James Traub, who suggests that while the decision to pull aid may not make a material impact (the Saudis and others will happily pony up to match the deficit), it’s an imperative as a matter of optics (to borrow a tired phrase) and a matter of self-esteem (to borrow another).
Statesmen, of course, must make painful choices that look ugly from the outside. The United States does not criticize Saudi Arabia’s appallingly repressive regime for the same reason it used to pull its punches on Mubarak’s Egypt: It wouldn’t help, and there are other fish to fry. But Saudi oppression is a steady state, and Egypt has just engaged in an orgy of brutality that has riveted the world’s attention. The United States cannot look away and pivot to Asia on this one. On the other side of the balance, if the U.S. were to withdraw its support, Egypt would still be very unlikely to change its pro-Western regional posture — which is a matter of national self-interest. Thus if there is little to be gained by the moral gesture, neither is there much to be lost by it. Even a cool-headed calculating consequentialist might then pull the plug.
Very surreal. Meanwhile, Reuters reports this morning that former president Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in 2011, will be released from prison, possibly in the next week. Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison last year for his role in the deaths of protestors during the Arab Spring. We’ll update you as we learn more.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.