Coup or no coup is a billion dollar question

A picture of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi burns on the ground in Tahrir Square.

When a military ousts the leader of a country and starts arresting members of his or her political party, it's generally referred to as a coup. But you may have noticed that President Obama hasn't used that word when talking about the Egyptian military's ousting of President Morsi.

That's because "coup" is a $1.5 billion word. That's the amount of foreign aid the U.S. gives Egypt each year. And if Obama decided that what's happening in Egypt right now is a coup, federal law says we would have to pull the plug on that foreign aid.

The vast majority of that $1.5 billion goes to the military -- $1.3 billion to be exact. "And the vast majority of that military aid is actually spent in the United States," says Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The military aid primarily goes to pay for weapons and training. But it also gives the U.S. leverage. One way to use that leverage would be to call this a coup and say to the Egyptian military, "when you complete a peaceful transition to a democratically elected government you can have your $1.3 billion back."

"To not call it a military coup," says Coleman. "I think wastes an opportunity to force a more open transparent democratic process."

There is no doubt that the Egyptian military likes getting aid from the U.S. But international affairs professor Stephen Biddle thinks that $1.3 billion may not be the military's top priority.

"The top most item on their priority list is surely retaining the system of privilege and influence that these officers have enjoyed their entire military career and was threatened by the Morsi government," says Biddle.

There is a much larger problem facing the U.S. If the administration cuts off aid, the U.S. suddenly has a lot less influence in Egypt -- a key ally in the region. "Hence there is a lot of unwillingness to pull the trigger because the fear is that Egypt will then go its own way and the U.S. will have no say in what happens," says Biddle.

And the U.S. would very much like to have a say in what happens.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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