WASHINGTON — When it comes to foreign assistance, American law couldn’t be clearer: A coup d’etat suspends funding, period.
But that directive, which has persisted for years in federal appropriations bills, is now clashing with another Washington priority: the apparent desire to foster an alternative to Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s democratically elected Islamist president who was removed from power last week by the Egyptian military.
In recent months, Congress has intimated that it would be happier if his secular foes in the military were running the country. But the law ties Congress’ hands.
On July 3, President Barack Obama said he would “review” what the takeover means for American aid. He called on the Egyptian military “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process.”
Following mass demonstrations from an increasingly restive population, Morsi was removed last week and replaced with the country’s chief justice, Adli Mansour, in the latest development to roil Egypt and a region already on edge from Syria’s ongoing civil war.
The United States provides some $1.55 billion in aid to Egypt annually, most of it defense assistance conditioned on Egypt’s observance of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Congressional leaders cited those circumstances in suggesting that the Obama administration work with the interim government.
But other lawmakers, while noting the flaws in Morsi’s leadership and the popular uprising that led to his ouster, underscored that the language in the appropriations bill left virtually no wiggle room.
“Egypt’s military leaders say they have no intent or desire to govern, and I hope they make good on their promise,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the longtime chairman of the Senate’s foreign operations appropriation subcommittee. “In the meantime, our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree. As we work on the new budget, my committee also will review future aid to the Egyptian government as we wait for a clearer picture.”
Unlike many other spending provisions, the language regarding a coup d’etat does not include a presidential waiver. That leaves the Obama administration three options for working around the provision: Obtain congressional agreement to add a waiver within the next few weeks; accelerate the democratic replacement of Egypt’s interim government; or use executive privilege to work around the lack of a congressional waiver.
The first two options are unlikely. Congress can barely agree on a budget, let alone a waiver on a sensitive issue like Egypt. And with Egypt already roiling with violence, its military would be loath to facilitate the return of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood to power through a hastily arranged election.
The third option — exercising the prerogative of the president to advance foreign policy — could undercut U.S. credibility overseas, conveying an impression Obama has tried to correct: that the United States supports the powers it prefers, regardless of the will of the people.
Obama appears to be hoping for the democracy option, and is taking pains not to describe what happened as a coup, in part because it wants to preserve the leverage it has with the military. “President Obama made clear our deep concern about the decision made by the Egyptian armed forces to remove President Morsi from power and to suspend the constitution,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in Monday’s media briefing. “It is also important to acknowledge that tens of millions of Egyptians have legitimate grievances with President Morsi’s undemocratic form of governance and they do not believe that this was a coup.”
But Carney is saying what the president wants, not what he can do for the decision about whether to cut aid remains in the hands of Congress, which controls the purse strings when it comes to foreign aid.
Pro-Israel officials said this week that they were monitoring first and foremost how any transitional government approached the peace treaty, and that it was too early — and too fluid — to say yet how the events would play out.