The White House was careful Monday to avoid calling Egypt’s regime change a “coup,” underscoring the dilemma President Obama faces as he tries to manage a thorny conflict between the Egyptian military’s actions and U.S. law, which bans aid to countries where a coup has taken place.
“This is an incredibly complex and difficult situation,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters in response to questions about how the Obama administration viewed the Egyptian military’s ouster last week of Mohammed Morsi, the nation’s first democratically elected president.
“We are going to take the time necessary to review what has taken place,” he said, conspicuously not using the word “coup.”
There may well be time. The Obama administration in May quietly delivered the vast majority of this year’s aid package to Egypt — $1.3 billion in military assistance out of the roughly $1.5 billion annual allocation.
But if the White House were to announce a cutoff of future aid, it would likely would send shock waves through the government tentatively taking shape in Egypt, where more than 50 people were killed Monday by security forces and the leader of the nation’s Muslim Brotherhood called for the overthrow of the nascent regime.
As a result, several foreign policy heavyweights in Congress are speaking out. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, has called for a close review, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has said the funding should be cut off until elections restore a democratic government.
Mr. McCain’s posture is in line with the Foreign Assistance Act, the 1961 law that allows Washington to send aid to a nation “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup” only after “a democratically elected government has taken office.”
Although Egypt’s military rulers have signaled a desire to hold elections, the process is likely to take significant time. On Monday night, Egypt’s interim president issued a constitutional declaration that set a six-month transitional period during which amendments to the suspended constitution will be put up for vote. Parliamentary and presidential elections will follow.
Analysts say the Obama administration has a number of options. One would be to simply cut off aid — a move regional scholars say might provoke Egypt’s military leaders to abandon the country’s 34-year-old peace treaty with Israel.
A total cutoff also would hurt U.S. defense companies. Egypt has placed repeated orders for M1A1 Abrams tanks since the late 1980s, according to a February 2012 article in Foreign Policy by Shana Marshall, a research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Braindeis University.
At the time, Mrs. Marshall wrote that one order totaling $1.3 billion from Egypt would keep production lines at a General Dynamics manufacturing facility in Lima, Ohio, “open until 2014, building knock-down kits that are then shipped and assembled in Egypt.”
Another approach would be for the administration to declare officially that what occurred in Egypt was something other than a coup. Such a declaration, which some analysts expect in the coming weeks, would require the State Department legal adviser to issue an official determination that no coup occurred.
Such a determination is not likely to be made easily, said John B. Bellinger III, who served as the State Department’s legal adviser during President George W. Bush’s second term. Mr. Bellinger, now a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter, said via email that Mr. Kerry “would have to stretch a bit to conclude that a coup had not occurred.”
Mr. Bellinger noted a third alternative: asking Congress to permit the law to be waived in this case.