In a carefully-written statement issued by the White House on Wednesday evening about the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, one word was conspicuous by its absence – coup.
President Barack Obama said he was “deeply concerned” about the way the Egyptian military had pushed the country’s first democratically elected president from office. But he studiously avoided putting a label on the events of the day.
As the Obama administration scrambles to prevent an outbreak of sustained political violence in one of its key Arab allies, the first order of business will be to explain whether the army’s dismissal of Mr Morsi – announced on state television by a general in a beret and khaki uniform – actually constitutes a military coup.
Under US law, the government is obliged to suspend all aid to countries where the military takes power in a coup. However, the $1.6bn that the US gives Egypt each year represents its principal leverage in the country, especially with the army leaders who are now calling the shots again only a year after presidential elections.
The Obama administration’s relationship with the different political forces that are now swirling around Egypt, including the massive protests of recent days against Mr Morsi, will be largely defined by the way it answers this question.
Even though it has had only limited influence over such fast-moving and febrile events, the US has found itself at the centre of the political crisis, a convenient punchbag for the different political groups in Egypt.
For the anti-Morsi protesters, the Obama administration’s attempts to forge a good relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood made it a co-conspirator with the former president, whose governance over the past year has been savagely criticised. The crowds in Tahrir Square held up posters of Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Egypt, who has become the subject of particular public ire.
At the same time, the US failed to persuade Mr Morsi to take more decisive steps to meet the demands of the protesters, such as a shake-up of his cabinet that would bring in members of the opposition. And it also did not manage to prevent the military from entering the political fray again, despite warnings that any attempt to depose an elected leader would bring “consequences”.
More broadly, critics of the Obama administration say that over the past year it fell back into the pattern of US relations with the Mubarak regime, putting little pressure on Mr Morsi to govern in an inclusive manner as long as he respected Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Until recently, US officials would talk about the relative political sophistication of senior Muslim Brotherhood figures and appear to have been taken aback by the strength of the popular backlash against Mr Morsi.
“We spent too much time talking about the process of elections, and not enough about the outcome, which should be an inclusive political process that has a variety of voices,” says Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Perhaps stung by some of these criticisms, Wednesday’s statement from the White House stressed the steps needed to restore democratic legitimacy to Egypt’s government.
Mr Obama called on the military to return power to an elected civilian government “as soon as possible through a transparent process”. He also warned against “arbitrary arrests” of Mr Morsi and his supporters.
“We expect the military to ensure that the rights of all Egyptian men and women are protected, including the right to peaceful assembly, due process, and free and fair trials in civilian courts,” Mr Obama said.
Mr Obama said the US would review the implications of Wednesday’s events on its assistance to Egypt – a possible warning to the military that aid would be cut off if it does not move quickly to organise new elections.
Around $1.3bn of the annual US aid goes to the Egyptian military, which is equivalent to around one-fifth of its annual defence budget.
However, it is not clear if Mr Obama has the flexibility to use the aid as leverage. Although the foreign aid law does provide the administration a national security waiver for Egypt under certain circumstances, important members of Congress are already calling for the aid to be suspended.
“Egypt’s military leaders say they have no intent or desire to govern and I hope they make good on their promise,” said Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senator who chairs the committee that decides the foreign aid budget. “In the meantime, our law is clear: US aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by a military coup or decree.”