Drama in Egypt a semantics headache in Washington

Senator issues detailed warning cautioning US law may require Egypt to be cut off from Congress' purse.

July 4, 2013 18:24
4 minute read.
US Congress

US Congress 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – Among the flurry of statements produced by congressional aides for their bosses in the wake of the Egyptian disruption on Wednesday, one senator issued a detailed warning. In no uncertain terms, the Vermonter cautioned that US law may require Egypt be cut off from Congress’s purse due to the actions of its military.

“Our law is clear: US aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree,” said Patrick Leahy, who oversees the Senate subcommittee on foreign aid.

The statement came just hours after Mohamed Morsi was forcibly removed from office by the military before the end of his tenure. He was told that he was no longer head of state by generals; and whether that constitutes a coup, or at minimum a decree issued by military brass, is causing stress in Washington.

That’s because Leahy is correct.

A provision in the law uses similar language: “Assistance is prohibited to the government of a country where the duly elected head of government of the recipient country has been deposed by military coup or decree,” the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act reads, in its detailing of proper allocation of foreign military financing (FMF), “unless the president has notified Congress that a democratically elected government has since taken office.”

US President Barack Obama reflected on those legal concerns in a measured statement, calling on the Egyptian military to “move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible.”

“We are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian constitution,” said the president. “Given today’s developments, I have also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under US law for our assistance to the Government of Egypt.”

Further complicating Obama’s calculus is the fact that millions of Egyptians rallied in favor of Morsi’s departure, and that the military announced a road map for return to civilian rule that was blessed by Egypt’s Muslim and Christian religious leaders.

But Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood retain backing from a broad swath of Egyptian society, even as he alienated many of his countrymen.

Egypt receives more FMF than any other country save for Israel, amounting to over a billion dollars a year. Many of its military officials have studied in the United States and have extensive ties with their American counterparts.

Recent history suggests Obama might take his time on deciding the future of US aid to Egypt and, by extension, Washington’s relations with the country.

When Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was ousted in June 2009, Washington temporarily suspended aid but did not cut about $30 million in assistance until more than two months later.

Even then, secretary of state Hillary Clinton did not determine as a matter of law that a coup had taken place.

Eric Trager, an expert on Egyptian politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Obama should neither label Morsi’s ouster a coup nor cut off US aid.

“The Obama administration should recognize that as undemocratic as a coup is, it was the result of the basic fact that President Morsi had completely lost control of the Egyptian state,” Trager said by telephone from Egypt.

“Democracy was not the primary thing at stake in Egypt these last few months” but rather Morsi’s mismanagement and fears of collapse of the Egyptian state, he said.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, warned Egyptian military leaders of consequences if Morsi’s overthrow were viewed as a coup.

“At the end of the day, it’s their country and they will find their way, but there will be consequences if it is badly handled,” Dempsey told CNN.

Obama also warned against further violence, indicating that Washington’s ultimate decision on aid to Egypt will depend on how Egypt’s armed forces handle the transition in the coming weeks.

US lawmakers also welcomed Morsi’s departure but called for a quick transition back to democratic rule – with a close look at the aid budget.

Leahy on Wednesday promised a review of the $1.3 billion in military aid and $250m. in economic aid sent to Cairo each year.

Washington has cut off aid following military coups several times before. In April 2012, the United States suspended at least $13m. of its $140m. in annual aid to Mali following a coup in the West African nation.

Programs that did not go directly through government ministries were not affected.

Any Obama support for Egypt’s new government is unlikely to face opposition from Republicans in Congress, who had been skeptical of Morsi’s Islamist government.

“Morsi was an obstacle to the constitutional democracy most Egyptians wanted,” said Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

Republicans also voiced strong support for Egypt’s military, whose close ties to Washington stretch back to the 1979 Israeli-Egypt peace accords.

“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,” said US Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House.

“Democracy is about more than elections,” he said.

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