CAIRO — 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 1/2 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," George Friedman, founder of 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.
One official said the military was considering stripping U.S. warships of preferential treatment in transiting the Suez Canal or curbing use of Egypt's air space by U.S. military aircraft. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.
Cairo has built close ties with Washington in the 34 years since Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The aid has long been seen as Washington's reward for Egypt's commitment to peace after it fought four wars against Israel between 1948 and 1973.
The Egyptian military may have gained the most from those close relations, using $1.3 billion annually to replace its aging Soviet-era arms and warplanes with high-tech American weapon systems, state of the art jet-fighters, Apache gunships and battlefield tanks. Over the years, thousands of Egyptian officers from all branches of the military traveled to the United States for training or to attend military schools.
The biennial war games, codenamed "Bright Star," gave the two militaries large-scale human contact in a simulated battlefield and in 1991, Egyptian troops fought alongside the Americans as part of the U.S.-led coalition that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
El-Sissi, a career infantry officer who attended the U.S. War Academy, has credited the United States for its huge role in modernizing the Egyptian military over the past three decades.
In a three-part interview published this week in a Cairo daily, he said he appreciated the dilemma the Obama administration found itself in after Morsi's ouster, having to carefully navigate between respect for U.S. laws on aid to foreign nations where a democratically elected government is toppled and a reliable ally that has for decades safeguarded its interests in a volatile and strategic region.
But the suspension is unlikely to push him to back down.
The military-backed regime in Egypt enjoys the support of key Arab nations, including ones with deep pockets like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These allies have poured billions of dollars into Egypt's anemic coffers and are likely to continue to do so to win the common fight against Islamists.
The 58-year-old el-Sissi, who has not ruled out a presidential run in elections due next year, stands to gain more popularity at home. In a country where anti-U.S. sentiment runs high, mostly over Washington's perceived bias in support of Israel, anyone seen to be standing up to the United States gains in popularity.
Already el-Sissi is being widely compared to the late charismatic president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, whose socialist-leaning rule and tense relations with Washington earned him near divine status among Egyptians and fellow Arabs.
In contrast, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's toppled autocratic leader, jealously protected and maintained close ties with the U.S. from the time he took office in 1981 and for the next 29 years. One goal of the revolution that toppled him was to end what many Egyptians see as Washington's undue influence over Cairo's policies under Mubarak.
"The popular mood does not seem to care" about the aid suspension, said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian scholar who has a dual-Egyptian-U.S. nationality. "As a matter of fact, most Egyptians who can speak out feel, 'Just as well, we would like to end this Catholic marriage with the U.S.,'" he told Associated Press Television in an interview.