The Obama administration told lawmakers Thursday that it will not declare Egypt’s government overthrow a coup, U.S. officials said, allowing the United States to continue providing $1.5 billion in annual military and economic aid to the Arab world’s most populous country.
William Burns, the State Department’s No. 2 official, held a closed-doors meeting with House members just a day after Washington delayed delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. It was the first U.S. action since the military ousted Mohammed Mursi as president, imprisoned him and other Muslim Brotherhood members and suspended the constitution earlier this month.
Burns was to brief senators later Thursday.
The administration has been forced into difficult contortions to justify not declaring a coup d’etat, which would prompt the automatic suspension of American assistance programs under U.S. law. Washington fears that halting such funding could imperil programs that help to secure Israel’s border and fight weapons smuggling into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, among other things seen as critical to U.S. national security.
It’s unclear what specific arguments it presented Thursday, but officials said Burns explained how the administration hasn’t declared the power change a coup and doesn’t plan to in future as Egypt moves to restore civilian governance and hold new democratic elections. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the private meetings.
Many from both parties in Congress sympathize with the administration’s view and the need to back a military that has safeguarded Egypt’s peace with Israel for three decades. Still, some across the political spectrum disagree. Republicans from libertarian Sen. Rand Paul to hawkish Sen. John McCain, and Democrats such as Sen. Carl Levin, have demanded the coup law be enforced.
The law stipulates, however, that it’s President Barack Obama and his administration’s decision on how to characterize Mursi’s July 3 overthrow.
White House and State Department officials pointed shortly afterward to the large anti-Mursi protests that preceded the military’s action and said Mursi’s Islamist-led government, while democratically elected, was taking Egypt down an increasingly undemocratic path.
Since then, the president and his national security team have tried to balance support for the military’s proposed return to constitutional rule and democratic elections alongside concern over the crackdown on key Mursi allies. The delay of the fighter jets, scheduled for delivery this month, was the first direct action the U.S. took since the upheaval.
However, the Pentagon said this week the U.S. was proceeding as planned with this year’s joint military exercises. The biennial maneuvers were canceled in 2011 following the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. During Mubarak’s three decades in power, Egypt was the United States’ premier ally in the Arab world and at the heart of its efforts to fight Islamic terrorism, roll back Iranian influence across the Middle East and promote peace among Israel and its Muslim neighbors.
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