The United States will review – but not automatically cut off – the $1.5 billion in aid it sends to Egypt annually in the wake of the military ouster of President Mohammed Morsi and the suspension of the country’s constitution, President Barack Obama said Wednesday.
U.S. law calls for the military and economic aid to be suspended when an elected head of government is removed by military coup d’etat or decree. Obama on Wednesday stopped short of using the word “coup” in his carefully worded statement.
Instead, he called on the military to “move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process.” He also cautioned against any “arbitrary arrests” of Morsi and his supporters.
The military ouster poses a vexing problem for the Obama administration as it and many lawmakers have long considered the $1.3 billion in military aid critical to stability and U.S. interests in the turbulent Middle East.
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Indeed, members of Congress also avoided using the word “coup” in statements Wednesday, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor saying the Egyptian military “has long been a key partner of the United States and a stabilizing force in the region, and is perhaps the only trusted national institution in Egypt today.”
But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Budget Committee that oversees State Department aid, said that although Egypt’s military leaders have said they have no plans to govern, U.S. law is clear: “U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
Leahy, who was among a number of members of Congress who threatened earlier this year to cut off Egypt’s funding over its treatment of international civil society workers, said his committee would review future aid to Egypt “as we wait for a clearer picture.”
And he added, “As the world’s oldest democracy, this is a time to reaffirm our commitment to the principle that transfers of power should be by the ballot, not by force of arms.”
In contrast, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said he hoped Morsi’s ouster would improve the situation in Egypt.
“I encourage the military and all political parties to cooperate in the peaceful establishment of democratic institutions and new elections that lead to an Egypt where minority rights are protected,” he said.
The White House, which released a photograph Friday of Obama meeting with his national security team in the White House situation room to discuss the developments in Egypt, did not have to immediately rule whether the ouster was a coup.
The administration in 2009 suspended some education and military aid to Honduras in the wake of the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya but never suspended all the country’s aid, saying it was still looking at whether Zelaya’s removal met the definition of a military coup under U.S. law.
The U.S. has provided significant military and economic assistance to Egypt since the late 1970s aimed at sustaining the 1979 Camp David Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
“You probably won’t hear the U.S. government call this a coup, you’ll probably hear a different terminology used because if it’s a true coup it does raise questions about U.S. assistance,” said Michael Singh, a former director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush who’s now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center.
Singh noted that the military assistance, along with training and officer exchanges, has afforded the U.S. a critical relationship with the Egyptian military.
“I think U.S. policymakers will be even more loath to put that on the table or give that up, given that the military’s proven so pivotal in these transitions,” Singh said.
Edward Djerejian, founding director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel, said he believed it would be difficult to categorize the ouster as a “classic” military coup.
He noted that the country’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, announced the plans surrounded by other Egyptians, including the head of the Coptic Church, Salafists and Islamists.
“What the Egyptian military is portraying now is that it was responding to the will of the people,” Djerejian said. “It is not a military coup that’s generated by the military alone, they’re responding to the will of the people who voted with their feet in the millions, and what they’re proposing is an inclusive government that represents the various factions.”
But the aid may be one of few U.S. options to influence events in the Middle East.
“Washington loves to think it’s central to everything and, really, it’s not,” said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East analyst for the Brookings Institution and a University of Maryland professor. “It’s not a failure or a success. This is about Egypt finding its way. It’s not about Washington.”
Ali Watkins of the Washington Bureau contributed.