US refuses to decide whether Egypt events were a coup

Calls to amend law that obliges US to cut off aid when coups take place, but not to determine what constitutes a coup

The Obama administration told Congress on Thursday it had no plans to determine whether a military coup occurred in Egypt, avoiding a decision that would force most of the annual $1.55bn in US aid to be cut off.

The deputy secretary of state, William Burns, delivered the message in briefings to senior members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, several lawmakers told reporters after meeting him.

The question of whether a military coup took place has vexed the White House. Under US law, most aid must stop to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree” or toppled in “a coup d’etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role”.

But the law does not oblige the White House to make a decision.

“The law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination,” said an Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Speaking after the session with Burns, Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, said the Obama administration might never make a decision on the matter and suggested the law needed to be changed.

“No determination has been made. It’s possible that no determination will ever be made,” Corker told reporters.

The Egyptian armed forces deposed Morsi on 3 July after huge street protests against his rule, clearing the way for last week’s installment of an interim cabinet charged with restoring civilian government and reviving the economy.

Current and former officials have said the administration has no appetite for terminating aid, almost all of which goes to the military, for fear of antagonising one of Egypt’s most important institutions.

“Egypt is a very strategic country in the Middle East and what we need to be is an instrument of calmness,” Corker told reporters.

“We need to deal with our laws in such a way that allow us to continue to be that instrument of stability in the region,” he said. “It’s likely that very soon we will try to deal with this issue, which is a quandary, legislatively.”

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