When mass protests filled Tahrir Square earlier this summer, the Egyptian military gave then-President Mohamed Morsi an ultimatum to meet popular demands or face intervention. Morsi was removed from power, and the question of whether that move was the result of a coup or a popular revolt is one that will determine whether the United States can legally continue to provide aid to Egypt. Kojo explores what’s at stake in this debate for both countries, and how it may affect conversations about American aid throughout the world.


  • Morton Halperin Senior adviser, Open Society Foundation
  • Ozan Varol Assistant professor of law, Lewis & Clark Law School;
  • Ashraf Khalil Journalist; and author of "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation" (St. Martin's Press)


  • 13:30:13

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIEgypt is again at a crossroads. President Mohammad Morsi is in custody and interim government is crafting a new constitution and elections are on the horizon. But in the U.S. officials are still hung up on one three-week-old question. Was it a coup or not? The question is not about semantics. It's about U.S. law. As it stands, the U.S. must restrict foreign aid to militaries who overthrow a democratically-elected predecessor. But applying the law has never been straightforward.

  • 13:30:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn 1999 the U.S. cut off funding to Cote d'Ivoire following a coup. But in 2009 when a coup shook Honduras, it kept aid flowing. And in Egypt's case, how American leaders define a coup is crucial. It could shape our relations with the entire Middle East. So what makes a coup a coup? Joining me to explain is Morton Halperin. He has experience in this stuff.

  • 13:31:05

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's a foreign policy expert who has served in the Johnson, Nixon and Clinton administrations. He's now senior advisor to the Open Society Foundations and an international grant -- that is an international grant-making organization focused on advance in democracy human rights and reform. Morton Halperin joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:26

    MR. MORTON HALPERINIt's my pleasure to be here.

  • 13:31:27

    NNAMDIJoining us from studios in Portland, Oregon is Ozan Varol. He is a professor of law at Lewis and Clark Law School. Ozan Varol, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:38

    MR. OZAN VAROLThank you for having me.

  • 13:31:40

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Cairo is Ashraf Khalil. He is a journalist based in Cairo and author of "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation." Ashraf Khalil, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:55

    MR. ASHRAF KHALILThanks a lot.

  • 13:31:55

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, you can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think of the recent ousting of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi? Was it for better or for worse, 800-433-8850? Morton, while Egypt prepares for the future, the U.S. State Department seems a few steps behind. Secretary of State John Kerry still hasn't determined whether Mohammad Morsi's ousting at the beginning of this month was a coup or not. Why can't the State Department say what everyone else is saying, that this was a coup?

  • 13:32:27

    HALPERINWell, I think it's clear that it was a coup and that the war is absolutely clear that the aid has to be suspended. Now that doesn't mean that they couldn't go to the congress and ask them to approve a waiver as they did with Pakistan after 9/11 to resume the aid. But administrations -- all administrations don't like to be tied down. They hate restrictions, especially ones that don't have waivers in them. And so with this one they've begun to look for ways around as they did, as you say, in Honduras.

  • 13:32:59

    HALPERINIn Honduras' case they said, well we're not sure the coup's going to be successful. So maybe it's just a military push that's going to fail. And even three, six months later when it was clear that it was successful, they still did not make the finding. I think it's just the normal reaction of the State Department. They want to make their own policy choices and don't want to be bound by the congress. But the war is the war and I think they need to recognize that there was a coup.

  • 13:33:25

    NNAMDIAs you say, the law specifies that foreign exchange to governments that come to power by way of a coup must be suspended. But what is exactly at stake here?

  • 13:33:34

    HALPERINWell, in the short run, nothing except the symbolism of it because we've recently given all the aid for this year to Egypt. So it's -- we're really talking about next year's aid, which the congress has to appropriate as well as it being -- figure out how to deal with this provision. And I think when congress appropriates the money, they will say something about whether it can go to Egypt notwithstanding the coup. And that's the place to engage in the policy decision. That's several months down the road. We'll have a better sense of what's going on in Egypt.

  • 13:34:07

    MR. ERIK EKHOLMSo I think the right thing to do is to say, yes there was a coup but we're going to work with the congress to figure out the right thing to do. And we're going to have several months to see and make it clear to the military that if they start moving back in to running the government, that the money is in fact going to be suspended.

  • 13:34:23

    NNAMDIOzan Varol, let's pursue this definition issue a little farther. Immediately following Morsi's ousting, not everyone agreed about what happened, that Egypt's Wikipedia page civilian editors sparred over whether it was a popular vote or a military coup. So how do you define a coup?

  • 13:34:41

    VAROLI also agree that this was a coup. I think at the outset there was some room -- some legal room for legal interpretation, and here's why. This coup that happened just a few weeks ago looks a little bit different than the coup that happened in 2011. In 2011 the Egyptian military ousted the Mubarak regime. And then they actually assumed power for themselves. So they formed the supreme council of the armed forces and they actively managed the transition process to democracy.

  • 13:35:07

    VAROLIn this coup, the military again deposed a leader but then they did not assume power for themselves. They immediately appointed a civilian interim president and a civilian interim prime minister. And so at least there's some existing legal definitions that may not have qualified as a coup. But the statements by the interim civilian leaders make it clear that they see their authority as flowing from the military statements. In other words, the military seems to be the ultimate authority in Egypt currently. And so under any existing definition of a coup, in my view, what happened in Egypt is a coup.

  • 13:35:46

    NNAMDIAshraf Khalil, Western governments may be doubting whether they should call it a coup, but do Egyptians on the ground there have any doubt?

  • 13:35:57

    KHALILWell, it depends who you ask. Egypt is absolutely polarized right now so you ask one side is it a coup, they get -- the anti-Morsi crowd gets real angry at the word coup. They spent the last few weeks just fuming at the international press, at foreign government called it a coup, they took exception to the semantics a bit. For the pro-Morsi crowd, for the Muslim Brotherhood, it's absolutely a coup. You know, they've labeled their movement the anti-coup movement. They call themselves the pro-democracy movement.

  • 13:36:32

    KHALILAnd that's one of the reasons they've been so resistant to all of these olive branches or dialogue and come to the table and have a few ministries in this new government because this was a coup. Why would we compromise in the face of a coup? And so I think the brothers know they're not going to convince the other side in Egypt. That's why they've been focusing internationally. They've been appealing to foreign governments and their national human rights organizations. They're trying to win the international vote because nobody's getting their mind changed inside of Egypt.

  • 13:37:05

    NNAMDISpeaking of inside Egypt, Ashraf, recent reports show that the region of North Sinai was a point of contention between the military and former President Morsi. How could that have factored into the coup?

  • 13:37:21

    KHALILWell, right now, I mean, you know journalism, Kojo, so right now we're getting this wave of tick tock. We're getting this wave of recreations of how Morsi went wrong, you know, how his last days went. You know, what were the pivotal moments in the relationship between Morsi and his military? Because they very much seemed to be on the same side as of last fall around September or October. That was their honeymoon.

  • 13:37:48

    KHALILAnd so there's a lot of emphasis being placed on differing opinions on how the situation in Northern Sinai should be handled, as that was the start of tension between Morsi and Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi who, if you all remember, was elevated to the position just last September, you know, owing his job completely to Morsi. So where did things go wrong?

  • 13:38:11

    KHALILYeah, there's a lot of talk about how each side felt the other was undermining them on how to handle a very delicate situation with security in North Sinai.

  • 13:38:22

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. What do you think of the recent ousting of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi? Do you think it was for better or for worse, 800-433-8850? You can send us email to kojo@wamu.org. The Daily Show recently mocked the State Department's reluctance to use the word coup. Let's give a listen.

  • 13:38:45

    UNIDENTIFIED MANSo that's all strategy. We think we can get around our own coup rule if we can just manage to not use the word coup. This is like a game show. Your challenge is to describe the events in Egypt by if you say the word coup you will lost everything. It's like the $100,000 Pyramid except it's $1.6 billion, and the pyramid is an actual pyramid.

  • 13:39:11

    NNAMDIWell, Morton Halperin, Secretary of State John Kerry has said the State Department needs more time to figure out what happened in Egypt. Having been in the State Department yourself in previous administrations, can you tell us what the procedure is like there when there's a government shakeup such as this abroad?

  • 13:39:28

    HALPERINWell, it varies from case to case. I was in the department when the coup in Pakistan happened. And we took the position then within a few hours that there had been a military coup. And that was because the democratically-elected government had been replaced. So that's an important distinction between the first and second coups in Egypt. The first coup was against Mubarak, who had not been democratically elected. So that could be thought of as even a democratic coup or coup leading to democracy.

  • 13:39:58

    HALPERINBut here it's clear there was a democratically-elected leader in an election which most international observers thought was a free and fair election, and the person was deposed by the actions of the military. So it is a coup. I think the State Department, when it doesn't want to come to a decision has a million ways to study the problem carefully.

  • 13:40:21

    HALPERINThe favorite phrase of the State Department is, we are reviewing the situation carefully, and watching for developments. I think their hope is that the political situation in Egypt will become clearer, and it'll it be clear where things are going before they have to make any final decision, and they think that announcing that it was a coup will be in effect choosing sides as was explained. The country split in half. And so if you say it is a coup, you've picked one side. If you say it's not a coup, you've picked the other, and so the diplomatic thing to do is say we're studying it to see if there's a coup.

  • 13:40:54

    NNAMDIOzan Varol, when a coup happens, some group or faction sidesteps the electoral process and seizes power. Put that way it sounds like the opposite of democracy, yet you have proposed the idea of quote unquote "democratic coup." Why do you think some coups can be more democracy promoting, if you will, than others?

  • 13:41:14

    VAROLYeah. Essentially my argument in that article which was published last summer in the Harvard International Law Journal is that not all coups are equally anti-democratic. So some coups are distinctly more democracy promoting than others because they overthrow a dictatorship, or an authoritarian government, and facilitate free and fair elections in a short span of time. So the prime example of this is the Portuguese coup of 1974.

  • 13:41:38

    VAROLThere the Portuguese military deposed the Estado Novo regime which was western Europe's oldest dictatorship, facilitated free and fair elections of civilian leaders within two years, and established a thriving democracy in Portugal. And other example I cite in the article is the 2011 coup in Egypt that ousted the autocratic Mubarak government.

  • 13:42:02

    NNAMDIHere is Iman in Chantilly, Va. Iman, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:42:08

    IMANGood afternoon, thanks for taking my call.

  • 13:42:10

    NNAMDIYour welcome.

  • 13:42:10

    IMANI just want to say that this is the most disgusted I ever was because what happened is Morsi did not come by force. He was elected by 52 percent of the people. If those people they disagree with that, they should wait until his term is over. You can't just play game for the other people, because it's like -- if the people who disagree about Barack Obama, 40 percent -- or 48 percent, and they say we want to recall Barack Obama, this country will be a civil war. It's the same thing.

  • 13:42:46

    IMANI think that when it involve the president, he should never say anything and should tell those people if they have a court system, they should go to the court system, and let the court system in that country decide what happens in that country.

  • 13:42:59

    NNAMDIOkay. Iman, thank you very much for your call. Ashraf Khalil, some supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi are saying that that the reason that U.S. officials won't call it a coup is because they helped to orchestrate it. What does views like Iman's, or implications does it have for how Egyptians view the U.S.?

  • 13:43:20

    KHALILWell, I'm not seeing a lot of evidence that the U.S. helped to orchestrate the coup. I mean, if you asked the anti-Morsi people a month ago, they were heavily anti-U.S. because they thought the U.S. was in bed with the brother. So it's common sport out here for everybody to think the U.S. is conspiring against them. But it does appear that a lot of foreign governments saw this coming. There's a lot of details coming out of last-minute shuttle diplomacy involving the U.S. involving particularly the European Union with diplomats warning Morsi in mid-June that this is coming, you have to make compromises or they're going to move against you.

  • 13:44:00

    KHALILSo is doesn't appear the U.S. gave a red light. We can definitely say that, and people make of that whatever they wish. The coup -- I just wanted to add one more quick thing about the State Department thing. One thing your readers -- should listeners should get into is because of this coup semantics game, the State Department briefings every day have become hilarious. The State Department spokesman is playing -- spokeswoman is playing this ongoing thing with particularly an AP reporter named Matthew Lee who is hammering her every day, why won't you call it a coup? Are you trying to avoid saying Morsi's name, that sort of stuff. It's become amazing theater.

  • 13:44:41

    NNAMDIWell, this is Washington where we create amazing theater every day. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on whether what occurred in Egypt is a coup or not, and the implications for U.S. foreign policy, but you can still call us at 800-433-8850, or send email to kojo@wamu.org. Send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:46:37

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about coup or revolt. Why defining Egypt's transition matters. We're talking with Ashraf Khalil. He joins us by phone from Cairo. He is a journalist based in Cairo and author of "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation." Ozan Varol is a professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School. He joins us from studios in Portland, Oregon.

  • 13:46:57

    NNAMDIAnd joining us in our Washington studio is Morton Halperin, senior advisor to the Open Society Foundation, an international grant-making organization focused on advancing democracy, human rights, and reform. Morton Halperin is a foreign policy expert who has served in the Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton administrations. Morton, some coups can seem like will of the people. In Egypt's example, the military ousted Morsi as millions of protestors were rallying against him. What difference does it make if the public seems to back the coup?

  • 13:47:28

    HALPERINWell, I think it does make some difference, but in the case of Egypt, it's further complicated by the fact that they're in the middle of a democratic transition so that they do not have a democratically adopted constitution. They have judges who are appointed by the previous dictatorship making the decisions about -- or trying to make decisions about the nature of the constitutional system and what's supposed to happen.

  • 13:47:51

    HALPERINSo it's a much more complicated situation than in Pakistan, for example, where there was a constitution, there was a legally democratically elected government and the military just overthrew the government. So I think on policy terms, what to do about what happened in Egypt is complicated, but the fact is there was a democratically elected president and he was removed by the military. That is the definition of a military coup.

  • 13:48:17

    NNAMDIOzan Varol, what -- to what extent do you think U.S. law allows for a distinction between what you would call a democratic coup and an anti-democratic one?

  • 13:48:28

    VAROLIt really doesn't have much room at all. It essentially just prohibits any financial assistance to the government of any country that has been deposed by a coup d'etat. So there isn't a lot of wiggle room or nuance involved in the law for the type of coups that I talk about in my article that depose a dictatorship and give way to a democracy. But I should also mention, of course, as Morton mentioned, that this last coup does not qualify as a democratic coup because it was staged against a democratically elected president.

  • 13:49:00

    VAROLNow, granted, there is much to criticize about the Morsi government. His majoritarian governance style, his persistent disregard of opposition voices and the constitution that was drafted under the Muslim Brotherhood, his tutelage as well, but in democracies the way you get of rid of inept leaders is through the ballot box and not through a military intervention.

  • 13:49:21

    NNAMDIAshraf Khalil, how do you explain this? Many pro-democracy activists in Egypt who praised the beginning of democracy when Hosni Mubarak fell, are also praising this most recent coup. How does that work?

  • 13:49:37

    KHALILHow that works, the internal logical that is so confusing from the outside is that a lot of these people have watched the Brotherhood for the past year and have come around to this position. What's been most frightening to me and one of the most (word?) elements for me, just that I'm covering here, is the idea -- multiple opposition people who a year ago -- you had secular opposition (unintelligible) original revolutionaries who a year ago were the ones saying, let's give them a chance, let's work with them. They've earned their right at the table. They're not going to go away.

  • 13:50:12

    KHALILThere were other oppositions voices that had nothing to do with (unintelligible) from day one. But this is a lot of people who were saying let's give them a chance. And you talk to them six months later and they're like, hmm, I'm a little disappointed with how this is going. And you talk to them a few months ago, and they're like, Morsi has to go right now. He is a threat to democracy. So it's really the way he has governed.

  • 13:50:35

    KHALILA lot of it could actually be called bad politics. This failure to prioritize consensus building pointing to that 51 percent as if it means everything and, A, ignoring the fact that it's only 51 percent, and, B, ignoring the fact that half of that 51 percent didn't even vote for Morsi the first time around. They were anti (unintelligible) . These were people who were voting for Morsi as the lesser of two evils and he alienated all of those people who also voted for in the past year. So that's one of the things that hopefully explains the intensity and the apparent hypocrisy of what you're seeing from overseas. You know, I think people here are very aware of how this looks from outside.

  • 13:51:19

    NNAMDIMorton Halperin, the anti-coup law seems directed at promoting democracy abroad, but of course Egypt plays a strategic role in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Is foreign aid just a tool for promoting American values, or securing American interests abroad?

  • 13:51:34

    HALPERINWell, I think it's both, but I think it reflects fundamental principle which I think is an American value, which is to say once there is a democratic transition in a country, and the people of that country choose their leaders by a democratic election as happened in Egypt, then the rest of the world, and especially the democratic countries in the world, owe their support to the people of the country who have established a democracy. And I think the Congress has reacted in my view properly to say there needs to be some absolute rules, and one of the absolute rules is, if there's a coup which overturns a democratically-elected government, and it only applies if the coup overturns a democratically-elected government, then the aid has to stop.

  • 13:52:17

    HALPERINAnd if the U.S. government thinks there are reasons, including how to restore democracy to start resuming the aid, it can go back to the Congress and get permission to do that, and get permission to do democratic transition aid for example as it's doing in Mali now. But the absolute rule I think is correct, and reflects a fundamental American value which is that we need to stand with people who have established the democracy.

  • 13:52:44

    NNAMDIFrom a foreign policy standpoint, what interests would the U.S. be looking to protect in Egypt?

  • 13:52:50

    HALPERINWell, the aid to Egypt is almost all military aid, and it's really a payment to the Egyptian military to support the peace treaty with Israel, and that's why as a policy matter makes this so complicated. It is strongly in the American interest as it is in the Israeli interest, and the interest of peace in the world for the Egyptians to continue their peace treaty and to continue to honor their peace treaty with Israel. And that aid was promised to the Egyptian military as the price for going along with the peace treaty, and they have honored that treaty through the Mubarak regime and now through the regime.

  • 13:53:26

    HALPERINAnd that may be a policy reason six months from now to resume the aid, but it's not -- cannot be an excuse not to obey the law now.

  • 13:53:34

    NNAMDIHere is James in Washington D.C. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:38

    JAMESYeah. Hi. I just wanted to through out there that there is some evidence the U.S. supporting the opposition activists and politicians through the State Department's National Endowment for Democracy and that sort of thing. And under Egyptian law, foreign political funding is not allowed, and the U.S. government also is not supposed to fund subversive activities against democratically elected governments. So there is some evidence that the United States was supporting at least the opposition groups.

  • 13:54:16

    NNAMDIJames, I'd like to have Ashraf respond to that, but if you've been listening to the broadcast, you should know that there are a lot of the pro-democracy activists in Egypt who have been accusing the U.S. of being too close with the Morsi regime.

  • 13:54:28

    JAMESRight. They are anti-U.S. on both sides of the battle it seems.

  • 13:54:33

    NNAMDIAllow me to have Ashraf Khalil respond about the notion that the U.S. has been helping opposition elements -- opposition to the Morsi regime. Ashraf?

  • 13:54:43

    KHALILI think the U.S. has been spreading money around in all directions. I mean, one of the things that came out when the National Council -- when NBI and IRI got busted months back, one of the more amusing things that came out was that one of the most enthusiastic recipients in NBI's political training was (unintelligible) . So it was -- the money is spread around equally.

  • 13:55:11

    NNAMDIWell, Morton...

  • 13:55:14

    KHALILOh, can you hear me know? Hello?

  • 13:55:15

    NNAMDIYes, I can.

  • 13:55:18

    KHALILSorry. I lost the audio there. Sorry if I stopped in midsentence.

  • 13:55:21

    NNAMDINo. You did not. We heard everything you said. But I'm going back to Morton Halperin because we're running out of time. Morton, Congress reinstates the anti-coup legislation each year as part of the annual budget for the State Department Foreign Operations. Senate happens to be marking up that bill this week. Anything likely to happen there?

  • 13:55:38

    HALPERINI think -- well, they're marking it up in the committee, but nobody thinks it's going to come to the floor for months. So I think they'll put some kind of a place holder in the committee bill which probably will provide conditions under which the aid can be resumed. And when the bill finally comes to the floor, which will be in September, I think there will have to be a debate in the Senate and in the House, and my guess is at that point there will be a waiver put in saying that the president can resume the aid if he thinks it will contribute to the evolution towards democracy in Egypt.

  • 13:56:14

    NNAMDIAnd Ozan Varol, some people might be saying yeah, it's maybe one thing to say that there seems to be a democracy tilt in this coup, but others are saying can a democracy really function if the military intervenes any time it sees fit, anytime there seems to be some kind of popular objection to something a government does?

  • 13:56:34

    VAROLYeah, absolutely. And this is why I think this coup sets a dangerous precedent, because you did have established democratic procedures, unlike under Mubarak, for ousting this unpopular leader, but the military resorted, albeit with popular support, to a military coup instead. And I think relying on military interventions when you do have established democratic procedures is somewhat like relying on an overprotective parent to do your homework for you. The homework will get done, you'll oust the leader, but in the end you won't learn anything.

  • 13:57:11

    VAROLAnd I think the opposition groups in Egypt would very much learn quite a bit from -- well, they need to learn how to run for elections. I think protesting is easy, but running an electoral campaign is hard, and that's something that they will need to learn without relying on the military to oust unpopular leaders.

  • 13:57:29

    NNAMDIFinally, Morton, Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike have been calling this ousting a military coup. This is apparently an issue that is not falling along partisan lines.

  • 13:57:38

    HALPERINNo, not at all. There are Democrats -- just like in Egypt, some of the Democrats in Egypt are for it, some are against it. The same is true here. People who are passionately about democracy are split, and those who don't care so much about democracy are split as well. So I think we need to deal with this both as a legal issue, in my view, the coup took place, the money has to stop, and then have a policy debate about how to move forward in the best possible way.

  • 13:58:05

    NNAMDIMorton Halperin is a senior advisor to the Open Society Foundation, an international grant-making organization focused on advancing democracy, human rights, and reform. Ozan Varol is a professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School. And Ashraf Khalil is a journalist based in Cairo and author of "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation." Thank you all for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Politics Hour – October 20, 2017

Friday, Oct 20 2017Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy discusses his efforts to address gang violence. Plus, D.C. Councilmember Trayon White joins us to recap the "grocery march" protesting food deserts east of the Anacostia River.