Inside Story

US: Walking a diplomatic tightrope in Egypt?

As Washington fails to condemn the military coup, we ask if it can defend democracy in Egypt.

Last Modified: 08 Jul 2013 11:35
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There is a legal process that has to be undertaken to make that determination and the United States is assembling those facts right now ... 

PJ Crowley, former US assistant secretary of state

A military coup in Egypt is placing the United States in an uncomfortable position - how to be seen to be supporting democracy, and maintain its strategic interests in the region.

The White House endorsed the elections which brought a Muslim Brotherhood-led government to power in Egypt. But by failing to condemn the coup, critics say it's condoning the military overthrow of a democratically elected government.

In a statement released by the White House on Saturday, US President Barack Obama denied that Washington was supporting any political group or movement.

"We remain committed to the Egyptian people and their aspirations for democracy, economic opportunity and dignity. But the future path of Egypt can only be determined by the Egyptian people," said Obama.

The White House has been careful to avoid the use of the word 'coup' - an admission that could have serious repercussions for Egypt.

The US is banned by law from giving aid to any country where a democratically elected government has been overthrown by a military coup. Egypt, however, has received annual aid worth $1.5bn from the US, most of which goes to the military.

It does look very much like a coup and whatever reluctance America may have about its definition due to its own legal [standing] is not really much understood in Turkey.

Semih Idiz, a foreign policy expert and columnist for Al Monitor 

Republican Senator John McCain is leading calls for that money to be withheld.

"We have to suspend aid to the Egyptian military because the Egyptian military has overturned the vote of the people of Egypt and we cannot set a precedent," he said.

"Let me put it this way - we cannot repeat the same mistakes that we made at other times in our history by supporting the removal of freely elected governments and so I believe that the aid has to be suspended, that the Egyptian military has to set a timetable for elections and new constitution and then we should evaluate whether we should continue the aid or not."

Egypt was described during the Clinton administration as the most prominent player in the Arab world and a key US ally in the Middle East. And it has been crucial where Israel is concerned. It was the first Arab state to officially recognise Israel, when the two signed a peace treaty in 1979, a deal Hosni Mubarak was keen to preserve when he came to power in 1981.

And Egypt has good reason to co-operate - it has received more than $70bn in military and economic aid since 1948.

So, why would the US administration refrain from characterising this as a military coup? And can the US defend democracy in Egypt while continuing to walk a diplomatic tightrope?

Inside Story, with presenter Mike Hanna, discusses with guests: PJ Crowley, former US assistant secretary of state and now professor at George Washington University; Michael Stephens, a researcher at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI); and Semih Idiz, a foreign policy expert and columnist for Al Monitor online newspaper.

"It does not really matter what the legal definitions are or are universally agreed upon or not agreed upon because I think if you look at it from a regional perspective actually this is viewed through the lens of politics rather than process."

Michael Stephens, a researcher at Royal United Services Institute



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