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White House Shields Aid to Egypt by Avoiding Talk of Coup

U.S. Delays Delivery of Four F-16s to Egypt, Pentagon Says
A picture of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi is worn on the head of a niqab-clad woman as supporters of Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood march towards Cairo University on July 19, 2013. Photographer: Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images

The Obama administration, in a move that may protect U.S. aid to Egypt, has concluded that it doesn’t have to make a formal determination on whether the ouster of President Mohamed Mursi was a coup, a State Department official said.

Making such a determination, which potentially would have required cutting off aid, wouldn’t be in the U.S. national interest, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said today. Egypt is a stabilizing force in the region, and it’s to the U.S.’s advantage to continue providing aid, she said.

“Our national security interests influence our policy as it relates to aid with Egypt,” Psaki told reporters at a State Department briefing. “We reviewed the legal obligations and determined we did not need to make a determination one way or the other.”

Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president, was ousted on July 3 by the military after days of protest by opponents of his Islamist-backed government. President Barack Obama asked U.S. agencies that day to review whether Mursi’s removal required halting about $1.5 billion in U.S. aid, of which $1.3 billion is in the form of military assistance.

A U.S. law requires denying “any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by a military coup d’etat or decree,” or a coup “in which the military plays a decisive role.”

National Security

The administration concluded that “the continued provision of assistance to Egypt, consistent with our law, is important to our goal of advancing a responsible transition to democratic governance and is consistent with our national security interests,”Psaki said. “Egypt serves as a stabilizing pillar of regional peace and security, and the United States has a national security interest in a stable and successful democratic transition in Egypt.”

Psaki didn’t provide a legal rationale for not making a determination about whether a coup occurred. Her comments came after Deputy Secretary of State William Burns briefed members of Congress in closed sessions yesterday.

Psaki said the administration will work with U.S. lawmakers “to determine how best to continue assistance to Egypt in a manner that encourages Egypt’s interim government to quickly and responsibly transition back to a stable, democratic, civilian-led and inclusive government.”

McCain Stance

Members of Congress had differed over whether U.S. aid needed to be suspended. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, has said the law shouldn’t force a cutoff of military assistance.

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain said while he didn’t want to suspend the aid, U.S. law was “very clear” that assistance had to be withheld. Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the State Department and foreign operations, also has said the law clearly calls for a cutoff.

Burns’s visit to Capitol Hill came a day after the Defense Department said it was delaying the planned delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt because of the “fluid situation” there after Mursi’s ouster.

Supporters of Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood have held daily protests since the army’s intervention that ousted him. Almost 100 people have been killed in clashes, as the violence undermines efforts by the new army-installed government to ease tensions and revive the economy.

Street Protests

The Brotherhood has called Mursi’s removal a coup, demanded his reinstatement and objected to efforts by the interim government to forge a transition.

Egyptian judicial authorities today accused Mursi of conspiring with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported. The allegations also include attacks on security buildings, jailbreaks, murder and abduction, MENA reported, saying Mursi would continue to be detained for 15 days during the inquiry.

Thousands of supporters of the former president flocked to Cairo’s Rabaa el-Adawiya square, while thousands of his opponents gathered in Tahrir Square, amid warnings the continuation of more than a month of protests was dragging Egypt deeper into conflict.

Mursi’s opponents were responding to a call by Egypt’s military chief, Abdelfatah al-Seesi, for Egyptians to take to the streets and give the military and police a broad mandate to combat “violence” and “terrorism.” The Muslim Brotherhood urged rallies today against Mursi’s ouster, putting the Islamists on a collision course with the army.

Obama Concerns

“The Obama administration is concerned by any rhetoric that inflames tensions and could possibly lead to more violence,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling yesterday to Florida with Obama on Air Force One.

While Earnest didn’t address the coup designation directly, he said “we’ve stated publicly that it is our view, it is the view of the administration, that it’s not in the best interest of the United States of America for us to make significant changes to our assistance to Egypt at this point.”

The U.S. is “engaged in a number of conversations at a number of different levels with Egyptian officials,” Earnest said. “And part of that message is the reiteration of our view that they should move expeditiously back in the direction of democratically elected government.”

Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since 1979, after Israel, according to the Congressional Research Service.

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