Was It A Coup? The White House Still Isn’t Saying

U.S. says cutting off aid immediately is not in its interests

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Amr Abdallah Dalsh / REUTERS

A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi stands in front of army soldiers at the Republican Guard headquarters in Nasr City, a suburb of Cairo, on July 8, 2013

Nearly a week after the Egyptian military deposed President Mohamed Morsi, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Obama Administration still hasn’t determined if the apparent coup d’état was indeed a coup.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Carney engaged in a bit of lexicographic jujitsu when repeatedly asked if, when and why the U.S. hasn’t called Morsi’s ouster a coup. He said the U.S. is “going to take the time necessary to review what has taken place,” and is in no hurry to brand the transfer of power a coup, which would require the government to cut off $1.5 billion in aid to the country.

Merriam-Webster defines coup d’état as “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics; especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.” The Obama Administration’s definition is more nuanced — and hard to pin down. From Carney’s comments, as well as State Department press secretary Jen Psaki’s remarks on Monday, it’s possible to see the general rubric: a coup isn’t defined only by the transition of power, but by how quickly the new regime moves to hold elections, how the citizens of the country view the takeover and — nebulously — whether it is in the interests of the U.S. to call it a coup.

(MORE: With Egypt in Crisis, Is Obama Playing It Too Safe?)

“To be blunt, there are significant consequences that go along with this determination, and it is a highly charged issue for millions of Egyptians who have different views about what happened,” Carney told reporters, saying there was no timetable for the review. “I would say that we are going to take the time necessary to review what has taken place and to monitor efforts by Egyptian authorities to forge an inclusive and democratic way forward. And as we do, we will review our requirements under the law, and we will do so consistent with our policy objectives. And we will also, of course, consult with Congress on that.”

“There are millions of people on the ground who do not think it was a coup,” Psaki said in her daily briefing. “We factor lots of factors in.”

In an attempt at justification, Carney said the Administration believes immediately cutting off aid to the Egyptian military would not be in the best interests of the U.S. And at the moment, lawmakers of both parties, in a tacit acknowledgement that cutting off foreign aid to the Egyptian military would further destabilize the country, are allowing the White House to skate around the letter of federal law. Senators Robert Menendez and Bob Corker, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectively, issued noncommittal statements on Wednesday calling for the return of democratic government, and were equally acquiescing to the Administration’s position on the Sunday shows. “The situation in Egypt is a tenuous one,” Boehner said in a Monday afternoon press conference. “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. But anything further, I think we’ll wait for consultations with the Administration on how we would move ahead.”

(MORE: Did Egypt Experience a Coup? The West May Not Be Sure, but Turkey Is)

But for most, including the media and veteran lawmakers like Senators John McCain and Patrick Leahy, it’s not that complex. “It was a coup,” McCain said on CBS Face the Nation on Sunday. On Wednesday, Leahy called on the Obama Administration to cut off aid to Egypt in compliance with federal law.

Not that McCain wants to cut off aid entirely, calling on the Administration to follow the letter of the law, but also to “explore creative and lawful means to cooperate with the Egyptian military on a limited basis.” Another alternative includes Congress quickly passing a bill to carve out a national-security exemption for Egypt.

Under existing federal law, included in every appropriations bill for more than a decade, 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 law does not offer a definition of coup d’état.

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