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.
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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.
The “cleanest and least contorted approach would be for Secretary Kerry to conclude that a coup had occurred but for Congress to pass legislation allowing the President to waive the sanctions in order to allow aid to continue, although perhaps with certain restrictions to encourage rapid new elections,” he said.
Lawmakers could lift language almost verbatim from the Pakistan Waiver Act, passed under similar circumstances in 2001, after the 1999 overthrow by Army Gen. Pervez Musharraf of that nation’s elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
The act authorized Mr. Bush to restart the flow of American aid, which had been halted in light of the coup, on the condition that such aid “facilitate the transition to democratic rule in Pakistan” or be “important to United States efforts to respond to, deter, or prevent acts of international terrorism.”
Remarks by some lawmakers suggested that a similar legislative fix could be in the making for Egypt.
“I do not want to suspend our critical assistance to Egypt, but I believe that is the right thing to do at this time,” Mr. McCain said in a statement Monday, adding that Egypt’s coup leaders should “move urgently to establish a constitutional and democratic framework that enjoys maximum popular support, that leads to successful elections as soon as possible, and that creates conditions for the resumption of U.S. foreign assistance.”
Others say the stakes are too high to even consider cutting the aid.
“Continued aid will maximize our influence as events unfold and assist the Egyptian people in their fight for freedom,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican, said in a statement. “If the United States abandons a key point of leverage at this critical juncture, it will only increase the likelihood that violence and radicalization will pollute the process.”
On Monday, dozens of Morsi supporters were killed outside the Republican Guard headquarters when troops fired upon their sit-in. The Brotherhood political arm put the death toll at 73, though the state health ministry put the death toll at 51. “Bloodbath!” Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad announced on Twitter.
The political fallout was strong Monday as several leading political figures and imams called for an independent investigation and for an end to violence in response to the bloodshed.
Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of the fabled Al-Azhar Mosque and Egypt’s top cleric, warned of civil war and said he would go into seclusion until the violence stopped. The Al-Nour Party, the only Islamist group to back Mr. Morsi’s ouster, responded by suspending its involvement in political transition talks with the interim government.
The Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political wing, called for “a peaceful uprising against those who want to steal their revolution with tanks and armored vehicles.”
The Obama administration continued to dance carefully around the double-edge sword of Mr. Morsi’s overthrow.
On one hand, many were glad to see the Muslim Brotherhood leader ousted. He had drawn the ire of the West — and of Egypt’s own secular opposition — for acting undemocratically while in office to consolidate power into the hands of Islamist political factions, control the nation’s military leadership and crack down on non-Islamist media.
On the other hand, he was widely accepted as the nation’s first legitimately elected leader after the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Morsi’s removal by the military has thus raised concerns of a dangerous backslide in Egypt’s revolution.
Mr. Obama continues to feel “deep concern about the actions of the Egyptian military in removing President Morsi from power,” Mr. Carney said.
“But we are mindful,” he said, “about the polarization in Egypt and the views of millions of Egyptians about the undemocratic governance of the Morsi government and their demands for a new government.”
Reps. Edward R. Royce, California Republican, and Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, voiced similar sentiment Friday.
“It is now up to the Egyptian military to demonstrate that the new transitional government can and will govern in a transparent manner and work to return the country to democratic rule,” they said.
• Dave Boyer and Shaun Waterman contributed to this report.