A Coup Or Not? Semantics Could Affect Us Aid To Egypt

Was the change in Egypt's government a coup or not? For members of Congress, the difference is more than a question of semantics. U.S. law requires that aid be cut off to a country that undergoes a military coup — which, if it were to happen in the case of Egypt, would bring on dramatic consequences.

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In Washington on Capitol Hill, there are varying reactions to the events in Egypt. Congress was on vacation last week when Mohammed Morsi was ousted from power. Now, they're back and confronted with a big question about what happened in Cairo. Will they declare it a military coup? If they do, U.S. law would require all military aid to Egypt to be suspended. As NPR's David Welna reports, there's little consensus about whether that assistance should be cut off.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: After Israel, Egypt is the number two recipient of U.S. foreign aid and nearly all of the one and a half billion dollars it gets goes to its military. One of the first members of Congress to call for stopping that aid was Arizona Republican Senator John McCain. This was McCain, Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "FACE THE NATION")

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election.

WELNA: McCain called what happened in Egypt last week a military coup, but other prominent Republican lawmakers are not so sure. Here's how Speaker of the House John Boehner responded when asked whether there had been a coup in Egypt and aid should be suspended.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: One of the most respected institutions in the country is their military. And I think their military, on behalf of the citizens, did what they had to do in terms of replacing the elected president.

WELNA: Boehner added he would wait to consult with the Obama administration, which has refrained from calling Mohammed Morsi's overthrow a coup, on how to move ahead on Egypt. California Democrat Barbara Boxer chairs a Senate panel promoting democracy around the world. She, too, is reluctant to call Morsi's ouster a coup.

SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: Whether this is a coup or not is going to be determined. The fact of the matter is, and this is important, some of the leaders that I respect, such as ElBaradei, said it was not a coup. Basically, said it was the people expressing the fact that they had lost confidence, they were desperate to have an inclusive government.

WELNA: And here's Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez.

SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: Look. I think it's a very fluid situation and the ultimate conclusion is we have to see what happens, what actually takes place moving forward. Is there a quick transition to a civilian government or not?

WELNA: The top Republican on the Senate foreign relations panel, Tennessee's Bob Corker, agrees. He says now is not the time to decide whether there was a coup in Egypt that violated the Foreign Assistance Act.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: It could well have been a coup and, you know, an observer would say that certainly, you know, it appears that it might have been. But I think jumping to that this second, we're talking about aid - we can do that over the course of the next few weeks.

WELNA: It is indeed a tricky situation for both the White House and Congress, says Maine Republican Susan Collins, who's a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: I don't think the answer, however, is to pretend that it wasn't a military coup. I think the answer is for the administration to come to Congress and seek a change in the law, if that's what they want.

WELNA: And Middle East expert Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution says there's a clear risk the U.S. is taking by not suspending military aid to Egypt.

ROBERT KAGAN: The rest of the world will see very clearly that if we don't like the democratically elected leader and there's a military coup against him, we wink at it.

WELNA: If you accept, that is, that what happened in Egypt was a coup. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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