Egypt is still not a coup in Washington

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

  • Published
Egyptian protester in Tahrir Square (15/07/13)

US Secretary of State John Kerry has again refrained from characterising the ousting of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi by the military as a coup.

Washington's hesitation to use the term has drawn accusations from the pro-Morsi camp that the US was complicit in the coup. For the White House, it is an on-going and agonising determination that has legal and possibly even security implications.

"This is obviously an extremely complex and difficult situation," said Mr Kerry, speaking in Amman during a news conference with his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh.

"The fact is we need to take the time necessary because of the complexity of the situation to evaluate what has taken place," he said.

Mr Kerry, and other American officials, have repeatedly said it was important to take the time to determine what exactly had happened in Egypt - even while prominent US lawmakers like Senator John McCain, analysts, and supporters of Mr Morsi, have said it is clearly a coup.

Under US law, most aid must stop to "any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d'etat or decree" or toppled in "a coup d'état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role".

The US provides $1.15bn (£756m) of aid a year to Egypt, $1.13bn of it military.

But the ''coup legislation" does not set a deadline, so the administration can use delaying tactics before reaching the legal determination, while it looks into the possibility of allowing aid to continue and hopes that the situation in Egypt improves rapidly.

'Get a waiver'

Mr Kerry expressed concern about instability in Egypt and called for an end to political arrests but said it was too soon to judge how the situation would unfold.

In the build-up to the removal of Mr Morsi, the US was clearly uncomfortable with the prospect of a coup but failed to convince him to compromise with the opposition or push the military to find a different way forward.

Image caption,
John Kerry has said it is too early to know what will happen in Egypt

But Washington had never been comfortable with Mr Morsi as a president either, so it has now come around to accepting the new phase.

William Burns, deputy secretary of state, said on a visit to Cairo earlier this week: "Despite our concerns about the developments of the past two weeks, we believe that the on-going transition is another opportunity... to create a democratic state that protects human rights and the rule of law.

"We hope it will be a chance to learn some of the lessons and correct some of the mistakes of the past two years."

Although almost everyone in Washington agrees the administration of President Barack Obama should say it was a coup, opinions are divided about whether the US should suspend aid or find ways to maintain the flow.

Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian foreign minister and vice-president at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace overseeing Middle East studies, said: ''The US' best strategy now is to call it a coup, to respect US law, but to get a waiver, because it's not necessarily constructive to stop aid to Egypt."

There is no waiver in the ''coup legislation'' but Congress is looking into passing a bill that would allow aid to continue even if a legal determination is reached that Mr Morsi's ousting was a coup. Similar legislation was approved for Pakistan in 2001.

"The US has been accused of interfering on this or that side, cutting off aid will further antagonise the Egyptians and will not result in any additional leverage for the US," said Muasher.

When Mr Morsi was in power, his opponents accused the US of being in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood, while American officials repeatedly explained they were simply trying to work with a president who had been democratically elected.

Cutting off aid now would only confirm that impression in the anti-Morsi camp.

Undermining the treaty?

A US official speaking anonymously expressed concern about a possible violent backlash in Egypt from anti-Morsi forces if the US declared his removal a coup.

But Khalil el-Anani, a Durham University scholar who focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood, warned that the US' continued reluctance to describe the events as a coup would also fuel anger towards the US among supporters of the Brotherhood and the wider Middle East - the kind of anger that al-Qaeda would tap into.

He urged the US to make aid conditional on progress towards democracy and respect for human rights, including an end to the rounding-up of members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Washington is also concerned that cutting military aid to Egypt could undermine the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. American military aid to Egypt started after the 1979 Camp David accords.

Although nothing in the accords mandates the US to provide aid to Egypt, there is an expectation that as long as Egypt abides by the treaty, it can expect aid in return.

Under the Congress Appropriations Act of 2012, US military aid to Egypt was also made conditional on progress in the transition towards a civilian government and general respect for human rights. At the end of last year, Congress put a hold on aid to Egypt because of a clear deterioration in the political transition.

In May, Mr Kerry used a waiver included in the act to lift the restrictions, citing national security interests. These included the need to support Egypt as it increased security in the Sinai or helped secure transit through the Suez canal - among other goals directly tied to US national security - according to Mr Kerry.

But Tamara Wittes from the Brookings Institution said while the US is worried that cutting aid would rupture the relationship with the military, it should work on ways to hold the military accountable. She said that while the relationship with the Egyptian military was close and beneficial, it was not without tension.

Along with 11 members of the Egypt Working Group which brings together analysts, former officials and human rights activists, Ms Wittes signed a statement calling to suspend aid and warning that "cajoling on democracy while keeping aid flowing did not work when the military ruled Egypt in the 18 months after Mubarak's fall, and it did not work to move President Morsi either."