BRUSSELS – The European Union on Wednesday decided to suspend exports of weapons and goods that could be used for internal repression but did not halt aid programs for fear of hurting ordinary Egyptians already hit hard.
Instead, the 28 EU foreign ministers called on the military authorities and the supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement to resume negotiations to avoid further bloodshed.
"It was decided ... to suspend all arms deliveries that can be used internally," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius following the emergency meeting in Brussels. "We have decided to maintain our aid for the Egyptian population because it already suffers enormously," he added.
Clashes between Egyptian security forces and Morsi's supporters have killed hundreds of people since last week.
"We do believe that the recent operations of the security forces have been disproportionate and we're worried about the resulting alarming number of people that have been killed," said the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"We call on all sides to stop the cycle of violence, to stop the provocations, to stop the hate speech," she said, adding that the EU "strongly condemns" the recent violence.
While the EU lacks the military muscle and long-standing ties that give the U.S. a special position in dealing with Cairo, the EU is Egypt's biggest trading partner and a major source of aid, loans and tourists. The EU and its member states last year pledged a combined 5 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in loans and aid for Egypt.
The bloc's decision to suspend some export licenses falls short of a full weapons embargo, but many member states including Germany and Britain have already suspended new exports to Egypt.
EU ministers shied away from more radical steps such as cutting aid programs right away or imposing economic sanctions, hoping to maintain its political leverage as a broker in the crisis by continuing to talk to both sides in Egypt, who are less suspicious of the EU than of the U.S.
Ashton was the first international dignitary whom Egypt's military-backed interim government allowed to meet Morsi in detention. Still, a joint meditation effort with the U.S. failed, leading to last week's bloody crackdown on Morsi's supporters.
It left the EU walking a tightrope of what is politically feasible.
"Doing too much would risk upsetting completely the current power in Egypt, but not doing enough risks corroborating this vision of a Europe that is extremely cynical," Elena Aoun, professor of international relations at Brussels University, said before the meeting.
The U.S. so far has canceled joint military exercises and delayed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets in response to the violence, but it is still weighing whether to suspend some of its annual $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt.
Egypt, the most populous nation in the Arab world, is a longtime U.S. ally and has been the bedrock of Washington's Middle East policy, not least because of its peace treaty with Israel. Egypt also controls the Suez Canal, an important trade route, and has so far granted the U.S. fast passage through the canal to deploy carrier groups to the Persian Gulf.
Moreover, EU threats to cut some aid may not frighten Egypt's leadership since Saudi Arabia — a long-time critic of the Muslim Brotherhood — has pledged to plug any shortfall. Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf nations, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have so far promised $12 billion in new aid.
EU officials insisted that Egypt's leaders know that they need business, investment and tourism from Europe if they want to succeed in pulling their economy back from the brink.
Losing support from the EU, the world's biggest economy, "cannot be made up for by one, two or three Gulf states," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
The EU is Egypt's biggest trading partner with a trade volume of about 24 billion euros in 2011 (then $34.5 billion), compared with $8.2 billion with the United States.
The ultimate goal, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said after the meeting, must be a political solution which would also avoid further destabilizing the region.
"I am fundamentally convinced there is no alternative to getting both of them around the negotiating table," Timmermans said.
Otherwise, he warned, "I would consider it tragic that at the end of the road we are back in the 1990s, with a permanent state of siege and an underground Brotherhood that partly get involved in terror."