Coup Or No Coup In Egypt? U.S. Still Hasn't Decided

The Obama administration still has not determined whether the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was a military coup. At issue is whether the U.S. would cut off roughly $1.5 billion in aid to a strategic Middle East ally. But this is not the first time the U.S. has been faced with this sort of dilemma, and there are ways around it.

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Coup or no coup: That's been the question debated in and outside Egypt since President Mohammed Morsi was forced out. To many, it's a classic case of a coup, but the Obama administration has yet to use the term. At stake is more than a billion dollars in aid to Egypt. The White House says it's a complex legal issue. And as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, there are ways for the administration to get around it.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The events that unfolded in Egypt on July 3rd not only brought down the government there, but also created a tricky foreign policy dilemma for the Obama administration. Egypt is considered a strategic Middle East ally, a relationship which Washington wants and needs to nurture. But if the U.S. makes a legal determination it was a coup, then by law, Washington would have to cut off the $1.5 billion in aid. Secretary of State John Kerry illustrated how the administration is wrestling with the facts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: You have an extraordinary situation in Egypt of life and death, of the potential civil war and enormous violence, and you now have a constitutional process proceeding forward very rapidly. So we have to measure all of those facts against the law.

NORTHAM: Ted Piccone, the deputy director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, says there's no question it was a military coup.

TED PICCONE: Call it what it is. I think there's a real question of credibility when we don't state the facts honestly.

NORTHAM: Piccone says cutting aid doesn't necessarily mean a complete rupture in the relationship. He says the U.S. could just temporarily turn off the financial spigot, work with Egypt to get back on the Democratic path, and then restore assistance. Piccone says the U.S. has done this in other circumstances many times in the past. He points to the 2009 military takeover in Honduras.

PICCONE: There was reluctance to call it a coup at first. Then we did. We suspended assistance, and there was a lot of effort made to reach negotiation between the parties that were in conflict. And then we turned the assistance back on, once there was return to free and fair election.

NORTHAM: But Nick Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the George W. Bush administration, says cutting off aid to Egypt - even temporarily - would reduce American influence at a time when it's most needed. Burns says President Obama needs to consult with congressional leadership about modifying the law or dropping it all together.

NICK BURNS: Because the president, any president in the future is going to need the flexibility to conduct diplomacy at a rapid pace in order to safeguard the interests of the United States. And to be bound by laws that require him to take actions that may not be in the interest of the United States doesn't seem to be a very sensible approach.

NORTHAM: But there are waivers to the law, which other presidents have used in the past in special circumstances. Donald Ritchie is the historian of the U.S. Senate.

DONALD RITCHIE: Look at the situation: Pakistan's had many revolutions, and how many civilian-elected governments have been overthrown by the military periodically in the last few decades?

NORTHAM: And we stuck by Pakistan?

RITCHIE: Well, yes, exactly. We want Pakistan to be an ally, so we tolerate, in a sense, whatever the circumstances.

NORTHAM: Ritchie says U.S. foreign policy has always been a conflict of American idealism and realism.

RITCHIE: All through American history, we've had these situations where we've endorsed democratic governments, but we had to side with governments who have been less-than-democratic for one reason or another. And that was certainly truest during the Cold War, when basically anyone who was anti-communist was our ally.

NORTHAM: Like others, Ritchie says the Obama administration could take the simplest route and just keep delaying a decision on the ouster of the Egyptian president. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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