White House: no immediate cut in U.S. aid to Egypt
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When is a coup not a coup?
According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, when it is an "incredibly complex and difficult situation" involving key Middle East player Egypt that requires more time to figure out what response would be in the best interest of the United States as well as promoting democracy in Egypt.
Carney came under tough questioning on Monday from White House reporters about last week's ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy by the military, which also threw out the constitution.
U.S. law restricts providing aid in instances of a military coup and some in Congress, including Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, already have called for halting the more than $1 billion a year currently given to Egypt.
However, Carney made clear that no hasty decision would be made.
"It would not be in the best interests of the United States to immediately change our assistance programs" to Egypt, he said.
When asked multiple times if the Egyptian military's move was a coup, Carney stubbornly repeated a lengthy response that essentially said the United States would determine how to proceed at its own pace, based on what's best for its interests and the goal of promoting democratic governance in Egypt.
"What we don't believe is necessary is to hastily reach a determination when the right course of action in our view is to review this in a deliberate manner, to consult with Congress, to review our obligations under the law, and to, in the meantime, encourage the authorities in Egypt to hasten a return to democratic governance in that country, and to a democratically elected government," he said.
It was the first time since Morsy's ouster last Wednesday that reporters had the chance to publicly question Carney about Egypt. The White House issued two statements last week, but Carney held no briefing until Monday.
McCain said Sunday that U.S aid to Egypt's military should be suspended because "the United States should not be supporting this coup."
Instead, Washington should make clear that resuming that assistance "will be directly related to their transition to a civilian government," McCain said told the CBS program "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted on Sunday that the United States hasn't committed much of this year's aid.
"This is an opportunity to have a pause and say to the Egyptians, 'You have an opportunity to come together.' You have to have the military understand that that's what we're looking for, a transition right away, as soon as possible," Menendez told NBC's "Meet the Press."
Carney emphasized the complexity of the situation involving Egypt, the most populous Arab country in the world and one of only two Arab nations to have signed a peace treaty with vital U.S. ally Israel. The other is Jordan.
Egypt also controls the Suez Canal, a crucial sea route used by more than 4% of the world's oil traffic and 8% of its seaborne trade.
"We need to be mindful of our objective here, which is to assist the Egyptian people in their transition to democracy and to remain faithful to our national security interests," Carney said Monday, carefully choosing his words and pausing at times. "So I think that it is fair to say that we will take the time necessary to review the situation, to observe the efforts by Egyptian authorities to forge a way forward, and then we'll consult with Congress and review our obligations under the law ... mindful of our policy objectives."
He began his Egypt comments with a lengthy call for the Egyptian military and people to refrain from violence and work together to put the country back on track for a full transition to democracy.
"The United States is not aligned with, nor is it supporting any particular political party or group," he said. "We remain actively engaged with all sides, and we are committed to supporting the Egyptian people as they seek to salvage their nascent democracy."
His comments made no mention of demands by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to restore Morsy to his elected presidency. Instead, Carney said the United States "will work with a transitional Egyptian government to promote a quick and responsible return to a sustainable democratically elected civilian government."
"But a transitional period must be defined by reconciliation rather than reprisals or rejection of the political process," Carney said. "We call on the Egyptian military to avoid arrests targeting specific groups or movements and to avoid restrictions on the media. We also call on all political parties and movements to remain engaged in dialogue and to commit to participating in a political process to hasten the return of full authority to a democratically elected government."
At the State Department, officials said the situation involving Egyptian aid includes specific complexities. For example, the agreement to provide military aid says any reduction to Egypt requires an equal cut in aid to Israel.
According to senior U.S. officials, the administration is examining three potential options -- calling it a coup and cutting off aid; calling it a coup and issuing a national security waiver to allow aid to continue, or not calling it a coup because the Egyptian military has taken steps to move the country toward a civilian transitional government and subsequent elections.
Or, as Carney put it Monday: "Our decisions with regards to the events that have happened recently in Egypt ... and how we label them and analyze them will be made with our policy objectives in mind, in accordance with the law and in accordance with any consultation with Congress."
CNN's Elise Labott and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.