White House Press Secretary Jay Carney refused to call the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohammed Morsi a "coup," in a press conference with reporters on Monday. That follows President Obama's statement on the military takeover, which also omitted the word coup. "We are going to take the time necessary to review what has taken place," Carney said. "This is a complex and difficult issue, with significant consequences." The Egyptian military calls it a "popular uprising"—Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik said it was "Absolutely not" a coup on Sunday. The facts seem pretty simple: a democratically-elected government was removed by military force. But calling it a coup has side effects. The U.S. government would have to halt its $1.5 billion assistance to Egypt.
The Foreign Assistance Act requires aid to be cut off if "duly elected head of government is deposed by military act or decree." The New York Times' Peter Baker explains that Obama is delaying defining the event to increase his bargaining power. "Obama seemed content to let the debate play out in hopes of using the possibility of an aid cutoff to influence the situation without actually pulling the trigger yet," Baker reports. It seems to be a powerful bargaining chip. On Sunday, the Times' David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh reported that Egyptians have a sarcastic term for their patron: "Mother America." When American officials told Morsi's foreign policy adviser that a military takeover would soon begin, an Egyptian aide texted, "Mother just told us that we will stop playing in one hour." Mother America is waiting to see what the military does next, Baker reports, because Obama's "aides made clear that he would escalate his response depending on where the Egyptian military went from here." State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki says, "We're just not taking a position."
This means there's now a debate raging in Washington over whether the definition of "coup" or aid to Egypt is more important to maintain. In a statement released on Monday, Arizona Sen. John McCain said he understood the military had broad public support in taking out Morsi last week. "However, 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. Saying the law is "very clear," McCain concluded, "I do not want to suspend our critical assistance to Egypt, but I believe that is the right thing to do at this time." At Bloomberg View, Harvard professor Noah Feldman writes, "the whole reason the law exists is to deter a coup like this one -- which is why it would be terrible policy to wink at its violation." The law is supposed to force the U.S. president to support democracy, instead of whichever coups he likes.
But many disagree. Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger tells Foreign Policy, "I do not believe now is the time to cut aid… 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 Sen. Bob Menendez doesn't want to end aid either. Republican Rep. Mike Rogers said said the U.S. needed to help stabilize Egypt. "I would not try to circumvent the law by calling this something it is not," Rogers said on CNN on Sunday. It's an interesting idea: change the law, instead of the definition of words. But changing the law might prove more difficult for this Congress.