Update at 7:10 p.m.: President Obama’s statement on Wednesday’s developments
The military ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday places the Obama Administration in a difficult situation: if President Obama accepts that a coup has taken place, U.S. law will force him to cut off American military and economic aid to one of America’s closest Middle East allies.
Under federal law, U.S. nonhumanitarian aid must be cut off to “the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d’état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” The developments in Egypt appear on their face to fit the bill precisely. In the past, the U.S. has cut off aid to Mauritania, Mali, Madagascar and Pakistan following coups.
“The law is pretty clear,” said Jon Alterman, a Center for Strategic and International Studies scholar, who formerly worked for the policy-planning staff at the U.S. State Department. “This is going to be an issue.”
At stake is $1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt’s military, or about 20% of the funding for the country’s most stable public institution, which removed Morsi from power Wednesday after weeks of escalating protests and demonstrations. Another $250 million in annual economic aid could also be at risk.
Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, said aid to the Egyptian military should be cut off following the military takeover. “Egypt’s military leaders say they have no intent or desire to govern, and I hope they make good on their promise,” he said. “In the meantime, our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
The White House and the State Department did not respond Wednesday afternoon to developments in Egypt, though aides say Obama has been regularly briefed on the situation. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to specify earlier Wednesday what would constitute a military coup, though she affirmed the U.S. recognition of Morsi as the democratically elected leader. “I’m not going to speculate,” she said, speaking one hour before Morsi was removed from power. “I’m not going to get ahead of where we are in the process or where things are on the ground.”
Egyptian military officials have argued that their actions do not constitute a coup. Retired General Sameh Seif el-Yazal said on CNN Wednesday that the ousting of Morsi was not a coup because the military would not take on an enduring role in Egyptian politics. There is some precedent for the U.S. government hedging on a legal determination of whether a coup has taken place. In 2009, after the President of Honduras was removed from office, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the event a “coup” at a press conference, but then added, “We are withholding any formal legal determination.” Aid to Honduras was eventually suspended for a time under a different provision of U.S. law.
Already U.S. aid to Egypt was operating under federal appropriations law requiring a congressional certification that the country is meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and “is supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.” Those requirements could be waived by the Secretary of State, a step taken by both Clinton and John Kerry.
No such waiver appears allowed in the case of a military coup. Federal law allows Obama to reinstate aid only “if the President determines and certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office.”
Obama is unlikely to face much pressure from Republicans in Congress to cut off aid. In a statement Wednesday afternoon, House majority leader Eric Cantor praised the Egyptian military for taking action, saying, “Democracy is about more than elections.”
“Egypt’s stability is tremendously important for America’s national security and for the security of our allies in the Middle East,” he said. “The Egyptian people have made clear that President Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government has threatened the pluralistic democracy for which they called two years ago.”