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In talking about Egypt, Obama officials won’t even mention the word ‘coup’

U.S. officials went to great lengths Monday to avoid calling Egypt’s abrupt regime change a coup, a label that could force a suspension of aid to the stalwart Arab ally at a time when the U.S. appears to be losing leverage in conflicts across the Middle East.

At separate briefings, White House spokesman Jay Carney and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki each responded with verbal acrobatics when journalists asked directly whether the U.S. considered the Egyptian military’s ouster of democratically elected Mohammed Morsi a coup.

Carney deemed it “an incredibly complex and difficult situation with significant consequences” and warned against moving “unnecessarily quickly” in calling it a coup. And when Psaki was asked how the State Department justified not taking a firm position on the removal of an elected leader, she replied with a curt, “We’re just not taking a position on this specific case.”

In another sign that the U.S. is hesitant to challenge publicly Egypt’s military brass, the two offered only muted criticism of the latest escalation in the spiraling political crisis: the deaths of more than 50 people who were killed by security forces firing into a crowd of pro-Morsi protesters outside a military facility in Cairo. Carney and Psaki each urged Egyptian forces to use “maximum restraint” when confronting protesters, then added that protesters, too, should remain nonviolent. The Muslim Brotherhood and some human rights groups, on the other hand, call the incident “a massacre.”

Analysts say the Obama administration’s reluctance to weigh in decisively on Egypt stems primarily from wanting to protect what’s left of U.S. leverage in a changing country that’s still of great strategic importance as the keeper of a peace treaty with Israel.

If the recent events in Cairo are labeled a coup, the United States would have to suspend all but humanitarian aid to Egypt, which is, after Israel, the second-largest recipient of U.S. assistance. Egypt gets $1.5 billion in aid, $1.3 billion of which goes to the military, which is now the country’s de facto ruler.

The administration’s lawyers are reviewing the matter, and U.S. officials said they’d take into account the huge demonstrations of popular support for the military’s power grab that, many argue, make defining what happened in Egypt more difficult than looking up the meaning of “coup” in a dictionary.

“The administration’s response is recognition that it will have limited leverage for changing the military position to remove Morsi, but wants to hold out the possibility that it can suspend aid as a way of enhancing its leverage,” said Eric Trager, a specialist of Egyptian politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center.

“While it’s true that Morsi’s removal has the trappings of a coup, it’s important to examine the context,” Trager added. “By the time of his removal, Morsi was really a president in name only.”

President Barack Obama’s only remarks on the matter came Wednesday in a statement that didn’t call the turn of events a coup, but which promised a review of aid to Egypt.

Nathan Brown, an Egypt specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign policy think tank in Washington, said the close U.S.-Egyptian relations date back to the Nixon administration. Obama, he said, probably would follow his predecessors in accepting almost any government that emerges in Egypt as long as it upholds the peace treaty with Israel and doesn’t disrupt other regional powers, especially U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.

“Ultimately, they’re willing to deal with it. They’ll work with it,” Brown said. “Calling it a coup would disrupt relations, especially in this absolutely poisonous environment in Egypt.”

Some members of Congress were less willing to avoid the word, in spite of its potential impact on Egyptian aid.

“It is difficult for me to conclude that what happened was anything other than a coup in which the military played a decisive role,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Monday in a statement on his website. “Current U.S. law is very clear about the implications for our foreign assistance in the aftermath of a military coup against an elected government, and the law offers no ability to waive its provisions. I do not want to suspend our critical assistance to Egypt, but I believe that is the right thing to do at this time.”

Many members of Congress already had advocated cutting aid to Egypt over that country’s conviction on criminal charges of 43 Americans and Egyptians for working for international pro-democracy organizations. A Congressional Research Service report released just a week before Morsi’s ouster noted that aid to Egypt, “which was contentious during the reign of former President Hosni Mubarak,” was continuing to spark debate between various lawmakers and the administration.

Brown, the Carnegie analyst, said he doubted the Obama administration was eager to wade into a semantics war in which any terminology it chooses will be seen as partisan. One possible U.S. strategy, he said, is drawing out the legal review long enough that some form of elected leadership is in place, in hopes of avoiding a ruling with potentially serious implications for U.S.-Egyptian relations.

“Any time you get the lawyers involved, especially with a situation that’s extremely sensitive, it’s going to take a while,” he said.

The lawyers would have to drag their considerations out only until February, the month Egypt’s transitional president, Adly Mansour, said Monday would be the deadline for parliamentary elections.

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