US scrambles to avoid Egypt 'coup' designation

July 8, 2013 - 10:35 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration wants to find a way to avoid labeling the overthrow of Egypt's Islamist president a "coup" to keep crucial aid flowing to the Egyptian military without violating American law, U.S. officials said Monday.

While not directly ordering a pre-cooked outcome of a legal review into Mohammed Morsi's ouster last week, the officials said Monday that the White House has made clear in inter-agency discussions that continued aid to Egypt's military is a U.S. national security priority that would be jeopardized by a coup finding. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal administration deliberations.

The legal review being led by State Department lawyers has not been completed, but under U.S. law, a coup determination would require a suspension of all non-humanitarian aid to Egypt, including $1.3 billion that directly supports the Egyptian military.

Some officials concede that a "no-coup" finding may become increasingly difficult to justify given the rising violence among Morsi supporters, opponents and security forces that has led to fears of a civil war.

Egyptian soldiers and police clashed with Islamists protesting the military's ouster last week of the president in bloodshed that left at least 51 protesters and three members of the security forces dead, officials and witnesses said. Egypt plunged deeper into crisis with calls by the Muslim Brotherhood's political party for all-out rebellion against the army.

The carnage outside the Republican Guard building in Cairo — where Morsi was first held last week — marked the single biggest death toll since massive protests forced Morsi's government from power and brought in an interim civilian administration. The administration has condemned the violence and is appealing for restraint from all sides as well as a speedy return to elected civilian governance.

In the latest high-level contact between Washington and Cairo, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke again with Egypt's defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, on Sunday — the fourth conversation in three days, according to Pentagon press secretary George Little.

Little declined to provide details of the conversations. He said the frequent recent calls between the two men is due to the U.S. belief that it's important to maintain open lines of communications during such a turbulent time.

He said the calls have been "lengthy and very candid" and signal the Obama administration's support "for steps that reduce provocations, reduce violence and move Egypt toward a transition that emphasizes democracy and civilian authority."

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.