By Carlo Muñoz - 08/15/13 06:02 PM EDT
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a stern warning to Egypt's military leaders on Thursday, saying the country's bloody crackdown on government protesters is putting Cairo's long-standing relationship with the Pentagon "at risk."
Hagel conveyed the message during a telephone call to Egyptian Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
"I reiterated that the United States remains ready to work with all parties to help achieve a peaceful, inclusive way forward," Hagel told the Egyptian military chief, according to a Pentagon statement.
During the call, Hagel emphasized the department's desire to "continue to maintain a military relationship" with Egypt, which extends back to the rule of Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak.
President Obama issued a similar threat on Thursday after announcing the cancellation of a large-scale military exercise between American and Egyptian forces.
That exercise, known as Bright Star, would have involved hundreds of U.S. ground troops, as well as American warplanes and ships, working in tandem with the Egyptian military and other regional allies.
Prior to Obama's announcement, Defense Department leaders had expressed confidence the Bright Star exercises would continue as planned, as part of the department's efforts to strengthen military ties with the North African country in the wake of the tumultuous Arab Spring movement.
Last September, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told reporters the Navy expected to begin regular, joint operations with the Egyptian military for the first time since Mubarak's ouster in February, 2011.
But Wednesday's massacre of more than 500 Egyptian protesters at the hands of the country's armed forces has put those ties increasingly in doubt.
“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama said in a seven-minute address Thursday from Martha's Vineyard, where he is on a family vacation.
Aside from bilateral military exercises and operations, that "traditional cooperation" has resulted in $1.3 billion in U.S. foreign and military aid being sent to Egypt annually.
But the White House and Pentagon have reached a tipping point in whether to continue that support, as Egypt continues to struggle in its transition into a stable, democratic regime.
"[The] United States has made it clear that the Egyptian government must refrain from violence, respect freedom of assembly and move toward an inclusive political transition," Hagel told al-Sisi.
"Recent developments, including the violence that has resulted in hundreds of deaths across the country, have undermined those principles," he added.
The Pentagon suspended initial deliveries of F-16 fighter jets to Cairo in July, due to the rising violence in the country.
At the time, Pentagon officials felt the move would only be a temporary measure and the multi-billion F-16 fighter deal with Cairo would eventually proceed in the near future.
But the fallout from al-Sisi's crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo and elsewhere may permanently scuttle the F-16 deal and other big-ticket U.S. weapons sales to the country's military.
Egyptian military forces moved in on a number of protest sites in Cairo on Wednesday to flush out supporters of Morsi who had been occupying the sites for the past several days.
At least 525 people, including 43 members of the police forces, were killed in raids against the encampments of protesters who oppose the removal of Mohammad Morsi, the nation's first freely elected president, and his Muslim Brotherhood government on July 3.
Since Morsi's ouster, Hagel has been in regular contact with al-Sisi and his cohorts in the Egyptian military.
Secretary of State John Kerry blasted the military's “deplorable” crackdown as a “serious blow” to peace and democracy during a five-minute declaration at Wednesday's daily State Department press briefing. He stopped short of announcing any aid cut, however.