Fending off a flurry of direct questions, officials at the White House and State Department on Monday refused to characterize last week’s events in Egypt as a military coup.
Though officials did not dispute the fact that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, a democratically-elected leader, was ousted by the military in an extrajudicial fashion, they would not say the word "coup," which has an important legal consequence for the $1.5 billion in aid Congress sends to Egypt every year.
"[We are] taking the time to determine what happened, what to label it," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
"We’re just not taking a position," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes a "coup d’etat" as an "illegal seizure of power from a government," which most legal observers agree matches the events that unfolded in Egypt. Though few think the ruling Muslim Brotherhood governed in an inclusive fashion during its one-year in power, and many decried Morsy’s authoritarian power grabs over parliament and the judiciary, reporters pushed officials to call a spade a spade.
"Each circumstance is different," Psaki said. "You can’t compare what’s happening in Egypt with what’s happened in every other country."
In a line that seemed to justify the military’s actions, Psaki noted that "there were millions of people who have expressed legitimate grievances," referring to opposition protests. "A democratic process is not just about casting your ballots … There are other factors including how somebody behaves or how they govern … That’s a real factor."
Meanwhile, at the White House briefing room, Carney suggested that the Obama administration would not make immediate moves to suspend aid to Egypt. "We think that would not be in our best interest," Carney said, when asked about near-term aid suspension.
Under the law, congressional funding to countries "whose duly elected leader of government is deposed by decree or military coup" shall not be "expended," but the White House may seek to work around the law in order to maintain its relationship with Egypt’s military, which is without question the strongest institution in the country. It’s a sensitive issue for many anti-Morsy protesters and officials, who characterize the president’s overthrow as a "popular uprising," not a coup.
"It’s not a coup because the military did not take power. The military did not initiate it, it was a popular uprising," reasoned Mohamed Tawfik, the Egyptian ambassador to the U.S., in a discussion with Foreign Policy.
Some in Congress have called for aid to be suspended while others want to keep the money flowing in an issue that doesn’t fall easily along party lines. "I believe that we have to suspend aid until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election," Republican Sen. John McCain said on Sunday.
"I do not believe now is the time to cut aid," Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger told The Cable on Sunday. "I believe that it is important for the people of Egypt to know that the United States has not abandoned them as they continue to fight for freedom." Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also backed a continuance of U.S. financial assistance.
On Monday, the Obama administration also appeared reluctant to criticize Egypt’s military. When asked if it would condemn the arrest of Morsy, Psaki said "we’re not taking positions on specific cases … we’re not taking positions on individuals."
Psaki also told the Muslim Brotherhood, which just saw its democratically-elected leader deposed, not to give up on the democratic process. "We urge them to engage in the political process and support the process to full civilian government," said Psaki.
When AP reporter Matthew Lee noted that "they did engage in the process, now their candidate is the loser, and he’s the loser because he was ousted by the military," Psaki said "a democratic process is not just about casting your ballots."