When is a coup not a coup? Barack Obama faces tricky call in Egypt

EgyptEgyptian military's overthrow of elected President Mohamed Mursi left President Barack Obama grappling. (Reuters)

The Egyptian military's overthrow of elected President Mohamed Mursi left President Barack Obama grappling with a difficult question of diplomacy and language in dealing with the Arab world's most populous nation: was it a coup.

At stake as Obama and his aides wrestle with that question in the coming days is the $1.5 billion in aid the United States sends to Cairo each year almost all of it for the military - as well as the president's views on how best to promote Arab democracy.

If the United States formally declares Mursi's ouster a coup, U.S. law mandates that most aid for its longtime ally must stop. And that could weaken the Egyptian military, one of the country's most stable institutions with long-standing ties to U.S. authorities.

Further complicating Obama's calculus is the fact that millions of Egyptians rallied in favor of Mursi's departure, and that the military announced a roadmap for return to civilian rule that was blessed by Egypt's Muslim and Christian religious leaders. But Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood retain backing from a broad swath of Egyptian society, even as he alienated many of his countrymen.

Obama, after meeting top advisors at the White House, said in a statement that he was "deeply concerned" by the army's actions and had directed the relevant U.S. agencies to review the implications for U.S. assistance to Egypt.

But he did not use the word "coup" and stopped well short of advocating for Mursi's reinstatement, suggesting Washington might be willing to accept the military's move as a way to end a political crisis in a nation of 83 million people struggling with severe economic difficulties.

Recent history suggests Obama might take his time on deciding the future of U.S. aid to Egypt, and by extension, Washington's relations with the country. U.S. law bars "any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d'etat or decree."

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