The U.S. Ponders 'What’s in a Name?' as It Contorts to Avoid an Egyptian 'Coup'

The military takeover in Cairo looks like a coup, walks like a coup and quacks like a coup, but defining it as such could destabilize the new regime and threaten the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

“Tis but thy name that is my enemy. What’s in a name?” bemoaned Juliet on the balcony in Verona as Romeo hid in the bushes below. Quite a lot, as it turned out, both in the tragic end of Shakespeare’s play, and in the U.S. administration’s acrobatic efforts to refrain from using the dreaded word “coup” in describing Wednesday’s military takeover in Egypt.

Of course, if it looks like a coup, walks like a coup and quacks like a coup – to borrow the famous “duck test” most recently used by Benjamin Netanyahu – then it must a coup. But by using the explicit word, the U.S. could find itself triggering a mandatory cutoff of military aid to Egypt that could have far reaching ramifications for Israel as well.

Egypt receives $1.55 billion in annual financial assistance, making it the third largest recipient of foreign assistance, behind Israel ($3 billion) and Afghanistan ($2.2 billion). $1.3 billion in military aid, and another $250 million is earmarked for development and economic assistance. Along with Israel, Egypt was designated in 1989 as a Major non-NATO ally of the U.S.

But according to the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriations Act, which governs foreign assistance, “none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”

Cutting off aid would not only trigger an immediate financial crisis for the Egyptian military, now lords of the land, but it could also be viewed as a violation of U.S. commitments under the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. The Special International Security Assistance Act of 1979 linked military assistance to both countries – though not in a permanent 3:2 ration as Cairo has claimed – and is viewed, by Egypt at least, as part and parcel of the peace agreement itself.

This is the reason that President Obama’s reaction to the deposal of the duly-elected President Morsi tip-toed around the contentious issue of whether or not it was, in fact, a coup. Realizing that to call it anything else puts too much of a strain on reality, however, Obama prevaricated by adding “I have also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the government of Egypt.”

According to Wikipedia, a coup d’état is “the sudden deposition of a government usually by a small group of the existing state establishment—typically the military—to depose the extant government and replace it with another body, civil or military.” That definition would leave very little room for linguistic maneuvers.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, however, makes an intriguing distinction: “Unlike a revolution, which is usually achieved by large numbers of people working for basic social, economic, and political change, a coup is a change in power from the top that merely results in the abrupt replacement of leading government personnel. “ The many millions of Egyptians who cheered the army as it seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood could provide a basis to exempt the coup from the automatic cutoff of aid.

Another way of looking at things was offered in a 2012 article in the Harvard International Law Journal by Ozan Varol, a professor of law at the Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon, which argued that not all coups are born equal. Varol made the case for a new definition of a “democratic coup d’etat”, which is a military takeover that is aimed at establishing or restoring democracy, rather than the other way around. The previous 2011 revolution in Egypt that ultimately saw Morsi brought to power is a prime example of a democratic coup, Varol says.

Writing in Slate yesterday, David Weigel cited two recent precedents – Haiti in 2004 and Honduras in 2009 – in which the U.S. simply ignored the fact that a coup had taken place and thus had no need to take any action on foreign aid. Egypt, of course, is a country of much higher significance and prominence for the U.S. - and for Israel doubly so.

Another approach – which some experts predict will be the road ultimately taken by the Obama administration in order to mollify critics in Congress – would be to place the new regime on notice that it is in potential violation of the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriations Act, and to warn it that foreign assistance would have to be cut unless a schedule for early new elections was submitted in the near future.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet says, but a “coup” by any other name could make all the difference in the world.

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