Despite withholding most military aid to Egypt until it makes progress on democracy and human rights, the U.S. government is still tying itself in knots over whether to describe July's army overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi as a "coup."
The administration's latest rhetorical gymnastics came to light when
U.S. officials briefed Congress this week on their decision to withhold
deliveries of fighter planes, tanks, helicopters and missiles - as well
as $260 million in budget aid to Egypt.
During the briefing, the officials told congressional aides they had
quietly decided to respect a law that bars aid to the Egyptian
government in the event of a military coup - even though the
administration decided over the summer it was under no obligation to
decide whether or not a coup had taken place and so did not have to
apply the law.
Congressional aides said officials from the State Department,
Pentagon and Agency for International Development who discussed Egypt on
Capitol Hill still refused to use what they wryly termed "the C word"
to describe the ouster of Morsi, an Islamist and Egypt's first freely
"They made very clear that they were not calling it a coup," one House of Representatives aide said after a briefing.
The language issue illustrates what some analysts see as a tortured
U.S. policy toward Egypt, where the desire to be seen as supporting
human rights and democracy has clashed with a hope of retaining
influence in a strategically vital country and not upsetting the
"There are a thousand and one ways to describe the intersection
between our interests and our values here," said Jon Alterman, director
of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies think tank in Washington.
Despite this week's aid suspension, President Barack Obama plans to
keep providing some assistance to Cairo, including military spare parts,
training for military officers and funds to promote health, education
and economic development.
Transferring that money, however, will require Congress to give
Obama authority to spend it, one reason he chose to try to avoid
irritating lawmakers by respecting the law against giving aid to
countries where a coup has taken place, officials and congressional
"They did not want to poke their finger in the eye of Congress," said an official.
U.S. lawmakers were annoyed earlier this year when Obama sidestepped
a decision on whether to call the army's overthrow of Mursi a "coup."
Such a designation would have meant automatically suspending about $1.55
billion in annual aid.
The State Department's avoidance of the term "coup" became fodder
for late-night television comedy and raised questions about whether the
United States was acting hypocritically by refusing to call a spade a