WASHINGTON - The Obama administration signaled Monday that U.S. national security interests will trump its promotion of Egypt's budding democracy, stressing the importance of continued aid to the Egyptian military, which overthrew the elected president last week.
As violence blazed between security forces and supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the White House and State Department both urged the military to exercise "maximum restraint." They also said the military would not be punished with a cutoff of its $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid for toppling Morsi.
But if the American government makes a legal determination that the removal was done through a coup d'etat, U.S. law would require ending all non-humanitarian aid to Egypt, the vast majority of which goes to the military.
Administration officials said lawyers were still reviewing developments to make that ruling. However, the absence of a coup determination, coupled with the administration's refusal to condemn Morsi's ouster, sent an implicit message of U.S. approval to the military.
And officials said the White House had made clear in U.S. inter-agency discussions - as recently as a Monday morning conference call - that continued aid to Egypt's military was a priority for America's national security, Israel's safety and broader stability in the turbulent Middle East that should not be jeopardized.
"It would not be in the best interests of the United States to immediately change our assistance program to Egypt," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. He stressed that more elements - notably what the United States deems best for itself, its Mideast allies and the larger region - than just the physical removal from office of a democratically elected leader would be considered in the legal review.
"We are going to take the time necessary to review what has taken place and to monitor efforts by Egyptian authorities to forge an inclusive and democratic way forward," Carney told reporters. "And as we do, we will review our requirements under the law, and we will do so consistent with our policy objectives. And we will also, of course, consult with Congress on that."
Some members of Congress appeared divided on the question.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized Morsi's performance as president but stressed that he had been elected by a majority of Egyptians in 2012.
"It is difficult for me to conclude that what happened was anything other than a coup in which the military played a decisive role," he said. "I do not want to suspend our critical assistance to Egypt, but I believe that is the right thing to do at this time."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in comments Monday emphasized the important role of the Egyptian military.
"Well I think the situation in Egypt is a tenuous one," he said. "One of the most respected institutions in the country is their military. And I think their military, on behalf of the citizens, did what they had to do in terms of replacing the elected president. But anything further, I think we'll wait for consultations with the administration on how we would move ahead."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called for the administration to slow U.S. aid until Egypt takes steps to restore democracy.
"I think that we need to suspend aid to the new government until it does in fact schedule elections and put in place a process that comes up with a new constitution," he said.
Some others voiced caution. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he had accompanied five Republican senators on a trip to the Middle East last week and that close U.S. allies in the region strongly advised against halting funding for Egypt.
"It's important that we not just shoot from the hip on that," he told reporters
Focusing on U.S. spending, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., tweeted: "In Egypt, governments come and go. The only thing certain is that American taxpayers will continue to be stuck with the $1.5 billion bill."
At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki used similar, if not identical, language to Carney's to describe the current take on developments, pointing out that the U.S. has long provided significant assistance to Egypt even when it had serious concerns about the actions of its government. She appeared to refer to the tens of billions of dollars in U.S. aid sent to the government and military of authoritarian former leader Hosni Mubarak who ruled Egypt for decades without free and fair elections and under emergency decrees that gave him vast powers.
"The reason we have provided this aid in the past doesn't mean we have supported, even prior to this, every action taken by the government of Egypt," she said. "But there are security interests in the region; there are security interests for the United States."
Psaki demurred when asked if deposing an elected leader, placing him under house arrest and appointing a new head of state - as the Egyptian military has done over the course of the past five days - was not a clear example of a military coup. She pointed out that millions of Egyptians opposed Morsi, who had become increasingly autocratic, and did not believe his ouster was a coup.
Some officials, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to describe internal administration discussions in public, said that a "no-coup" finding may become increasingly difficult to justify given the rising violence among Morsi supporters, his opponents and security forces that has led to fears of a civil war.
Meanwhile, Egyptian soldiers and police clashed with Islamists protesting the military's ouster last week of the president. The bloodshed left more than 50 protesters and three members of the security forces dead, officials and witnesses said, and the Muslim Brotherhood's political party called for all-out rebellion against the army.
The violence outside the Republican Guard building in Cairo - where Morsi was first held last week - marked the biggest death count since the beginning of massive protests that led to the fall of Morsi's government. The U.S. 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 Monday - their fifth conversation in four days, according to Pentagon press secretary George Little.
Little would not disclose details of those conversations, but other officials said they had centered on U.S. concerns that the actions of the Egyptian military might force a suspension in American assistance, something the army relies on. They say that Hagel, and other senior administration officials, have told the Egyptian army brass to appoint a transitional civilian leadership and call for new elections and the drafting of a new constitution so as to give Washington some leeway in its legal review of the situation.