U.S. Balancing Egypt Security Interests Against Aid Law

The Obama administration is seeking to reconcile national-security interests in Egypt against a law that requires the U.S. to end aid to countries where governments have been toppled by military coups.

As Republican and Democratic lawmakers called on the administration to obey that law, White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday the U.S. won’t rush a decision about whether the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohamed Mursi constituted a coup.

“I would say that we are going to take the time necessary to review what has taken place,” Carney said. “This is a complex situation, and it is not in our interests to move unnecessarily quickly in making a determination like that because we need to be mindful of our objective here -- which is to assist the Egyptian people in their transition to democracy and to remain faithful to our national security interests.”

At the State Department, spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said that providing aid “doesn’t mean we have supported, even prior to this, every action taken by the government of Egypt, but there are security interests in the region, there are security interests for the United States.”

Egypt has been a linchpin of U.S. security policy in the Middle East, offering American submarines and military vessels expedited passage through the Suez Canal, and honoring a peace agreement with Israel since 1979. Of the $1.55 billion in U.S. aid President Barack Obama allocated for Egypt in his fiscal 2014 budget request, $1.3 billion goes to the military.

Complex, Difficult

“I’ll be blunt, this is an incredibly complex and difficult situation,” Carney told reporters at his daily briefing at the White House. He said the administration is consulting with Congress, reviewing its legal obligations and considering its policy objectives.

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain questioned the administration’s reluctance to act more quickly to suspend aid. “It is difficult for me to conclude that what happened was anything other than a coup in which the military played a decisive role,” McCain said in a statement yesterday.

“Current U.S. law is very clear about the implications for our foreign assistance in the aftermath of a military coup against an elected government,” McCain said. “I do not want to suspend our critical assistance to Egypt, but I believe that is the right thing to do at this time.”

McCain’s comments followed a similar statement on July 3 by Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who heads the appropriations subcommittee for the State Department and foreign operations.

Army Respected

McCain and Leahy may be in the minority, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group. “You’re seeing increasing signs that Congress does not want” the administration “to follow the letter” of the law, he said.

House Speaker John Boehner yesterday said Egypt’s military is “one of the most respected institutions in the country” and “on behalf of their citizens did what they had to do in terms of replacing the elected president.”

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, declined to comment specifically on whether aid should be suspended, saying “anything further will await for consultations with the administration on how we should move ahead.”

One reason for the Obama administration’s hesitation to say whether Egypt experienced a coup is that “the law is not drafted for situations like this,” Alterman said.

The military’s action in Egypt appears to have had broad public support, Alterman said, and Mursi may not have left office any other way.

Striking Balance

The U.S. will need to have a “very frank conversation” with Egypt’s military about actions that would make it hard to sustain their current relationship, “but you don’t want a meat-cleaver approach with an automatic cutoff of aid,” Alterman said. “What the White House needs to do is take an assessment of U.S. interests and values and find a way to strike a relationship that reflects the balance of both.”

U.S. officials continued to reach out to Egypt’s military officials and political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Psaki said.

Security forces clashed with Mursi supporters yesterday, leaving at least 51 dead in violence that prompted calls by the Brotherhood’s political arm for Egyptians to “rise up against those who want to steal their revolution with tanks and armored vehicles.”

The Brotherhood said the shoot-out outside a Cairo barracks was unprovoked. The army said protesters tried to storm the barracks and troops came under fire from attackers.

Political Process

Psaki said the administration is urging the Muslim Brotherhood “to engage in the political process and to support the process to full civilian government through elections.” The U.S. isn’t taking sides in the dispute, she said.

Carney called on the military “to use maximum restraint” and condemned “the explicit calls to violence made by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Psaki said U.S. officials had received no reports of Mursi’s whereabouts or his condition since July 3, when he was arrested.

At both the White House and State Department, the administration said public calls for Mursi to step down were one reason for its reluctance to call the military takeover a coup.

While Obama has a “deep concern” about the military removing Mursi from power and suspending the constitution, Carney said “it is also important to acknowledge that tens of millions of Egyptians have legitimate grievances with President Mursi’s undemocratic form of governance and they do not believe that this was a coup.”

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