The ouster of Mohammed Morsi puts the U.S. in an awkward position: By law, the administration is supposed to cut off aid to a country after a military coup, but Egypt's military has been a key to regional stability. As the administration considers its next steps, it's come under criticism from all sides in Egypt over how it's handling the situation.
Tamara Wittes is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She says Egypt's secular politicians and activists saw the administration trying too hard to work with Morsi's Islamist government.
"Then, of course, when push came to shove, Morsi found the U.S. was not going to step in on his behalf, and so the Muslim Brotherhood feels betrayed by Washington," Wittes says. "The last relationship the U.S. has left with Egypt's centers of power is with the Egyptian military."
But there, too, the U.S. found it had little leverage, says Michele Dunne, the director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
"The United States sent a signal that it didn't want to see a military coup, and the military ignored the United States and went ahead and did it anyway," she says.
The U.S. gives Egypt $1.3 billion a year, much of it in aid to the military. "That should be useful leverage," Dunne says, "but the U.S. has failed to play the aid card in the past — and Egyptian generals are well aware of that.
"The Egyptian military knows this assistance is purely about security matters, and it has nothing to do with how the country is run," Dunne says.
In recent years, Congress has imposed conditions on U.S. aid to Egypt to ensure that the country stays on the path of democracy, but Secretary of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton before him waived those conditions to keep aid flowing. Dunne points out that the latest waiver came just in May — at a particularly bad time as tensions were building among political factions in Egypt.
"The United States really misdiagnosed what was going on in Egypt," she says. "They didn't criticize Morsi when he took some very undemocratic moves, extremely controversial, that eventually caused this enormous wave of dissent."
Now the aid question is back in the news again because U.S. law clearly states that aid must be cut in the case of a military coup and the administration can't waive that provision. The White House has stopped short of calling it a coup so far, and State Department lawyers could take weeks to decide if it was. But the administration did release a statement saying it is "deeply concerned" by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove Morsi and suspend the constitution.
Wittes argues the U.S. should suspend aid — to give the Egyptian military a signal that it needs to move quickly to hold new elections.
"That's why that provision in the law exists, to give an incentive to governments that come about through a coup to get back to democratic elections and democratic rule," Wittes says.
She argues that instead of looking for a way to get around the aid cut-off, U.S. diplomats should use this as leverage to press the Egyptian army for a clear timetable to restore democratic rule and to stop its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.