The United States government announced last week that it would not, after all, make a determination as to whether the ouster of Egypt's Mohamed Morsi constituted a "coup." This decision has both important strategic and financial implications for the United States. By not designating Morsi's expulsion as a military coup, U.S. law allows the United States to continue its $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt. This second largest foreign aid package, after Israel, is tied to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and also contributes to the annual budgets of major American defense companies such as Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, which have longstanding contracts with the Egyptian military. While the decision to refrain altogether from taking a position on what occurred on 3 July is unprecedented, the consequence of continuing aid to nations ruled by militaries is not new. It reflects a pattern in which U.S. foreign aid decisions are based more on national security and economic interests than democratic ideals. Failing to classify Morsi's ouster as a military coup signals to the international community the extent to which free and fair elections are (not) a fundamental component of U.S. policy in support of democracy abroad.
The Law Governing U.S. Aid to Foreign Nations
The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA) is the foundational legal framework authorizing and defining U.S. foreign aid. However, Congress relies primarily on general provisions of annual foreign operations appropriation bills and freestanding laws to determine how U.S. economic, military, and humanitarian aid is expended. Through these general provisions, Congress asserts its foreign aid objectives and may limit or impose conditions on foreign aid, as well as authorize new programs. Withholding of aid is aimed to incentivize governments that come about by a military coup to return to democratic elections and rule of law without delay. Yet the executive branch has exercised broad discretion in interpreting these provisions to meet foreign policy objectives, even if the result is American support for undemocratic regimes.