If Wednesday’s events are determined to be a coup, President Obama would have to seek “specific statutory waiver authority” from Congress in order to keep payments to Egypt flowing. President Bush received such authority in 2001, when Congress approved assistance to Pakistan’s military government following the September 11th attacks.
Obvious power grabs by foreign military leaders have usually resulted in the swift restriction of U.S. aid. Last year, American assistance to Mali was terminated just four days after disaffected soldiers overthrew the Saharan nation’s civilian government.
But when a military coup enjoys widespread popular support or vital U.S. interests are at stake, the State Department often moves more slowly.
Although President Obama almost immediately condemned a 2009 military takeover in Honduras, six weeks later the State Department continued to equivocate over whether the situation in the small Central American country met the legal definition of a coup.
In that instance, deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was widely accused of acting unconstitutionally and in contempt of his people’s wishes, including by prominent members of his own party and the Honduran Supreme Court. Over two months after the coup, the State Department finally suspended most aid to Honduras under a different provision of federal law.
The situation in Egypt looks more like Honduras than Mali. Millions of Egyptians, disaffected with President Morsi’s economic mismanagement and suppression of civil liberties, wholeheartedly support the military takeover and view the Egyptian armed forces as guardians of secular-democratic values.
Combined with the need for a stable partner in a volatile region, the coup’s popularity may prevent a State Department decision on foreign aid for months or longer.
On Thursday President Obama exhorted Egypt’s military to “return full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible.” Some speculate that the White House may use the threat of a foreign aid cutoff to pressure Egyptian generals to rapidly restore civilian rule.
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