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Cut Off U.S. Aid to Egypt? It’s Not Just a Good Idea, It’s the Law

There has been a military coup in Egypt, overthrowing the democratically elected President. By law, the U.S. must cut off aid to Egypt until a democratically elected government has taken office.

On Wednesday, July 3 the Egyptian military forced the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. (Photo: AFP)Here's the relevant law, from the webpage of Senator Patrick Leahy:

Coups d'Etat Sec. 7008. None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to titles III through VI of 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 d'etat or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d'etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role: Provided, That assistance may be resumed to such government if the President determines and certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office: Provided further, That the provisions of this section shall not apply to assistance to promote democratic elections or public participation in democratic processes: Provided further, That funds made available pursuant to the previous provisos shall be subject to the regular notification procedures of the Committees on Appropriations.

The plain meaning of the law is clear. U.S. aid must be cut off until there is a democratically elected government. The only exception is aid "to promote democratic elections or public participation in democratic processes." If someone wants to argue that U.S. military aid to Egypt - which is the overwhelming majority of U.S. aid - falls under this exception, let them put forward that argument forward for all to see.

Some people would like to claim that a coup is not a coup if there were demonstrators in the streets calling for the removal of the democratically elected President.

This argument is, of course, nonsense. By this standard, the coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 was not a coup; by this standard, the coup against the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009 was not a coup; by this standard, the coup against the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002 was not a coup; by this standard, the coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953 was not a coup. By this standard, the word "coup" would have no objective meaning, except perhaps "overthrow of a democratically elected government that we like by people that we don't like."

Middle East scholar Marc Lynch correctly noted, as reported in the New York Times:

"Military coups are often driven by popular mobilization and received by popular acclaim, but this does not change what they are," said Marc Lynch, a Middle East scholar at George Washington University. "It is possible, of course, that this will be the sort of coup which 'resets' the political arena and quickly restores civilian rule. The military can't help but to have learned the lessons of 2011, when their direct rule went so badly. But it's still a coup." [My emphasis.]

In addition to the importance of adhering to the rule of law - not a small thing in its own right - there are other good reasons to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt.

The Obama Administration says that it wants to use the threat of an aid cutoff to pressure the Egyptian military to quickly restore democratic rule and to not repress supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But a key question hangs over the Obama Administration: is it wielding a credible threat?

It is widely believed in Egypt that the U.S. is not capable of following through on the threat to cut off aid.

Cutting off U.S. aid would prove that this belief is wrong. Cutting off some part of U.S. aid (at least) would be a start. And aid could be restored once a democratically elected government is in place - exactly as the law says and exactly as the Obama Administration says it wants.

If U.S. aid is not cut off, it will set a bad precedent elsewhere. Every military in the world that receives U.S. aid will know that in this case, U.S. law was not enforced. This will be an invitation to others that are tempted to overthrow democratically elected governments: how can we make our coup be like the coup in Egypt, and thus escape the legally mandated aid cutoff?

If we cannot cut off aid to Egypt when an aid cutoff is mandated by U.S. law, under what circumstances could we do it?

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