Top Pentagon leaders have maintained their long-standing close contacts with the Egyptian high command even as the White House weighed a decision on whether the military takeover amounted to a coup that would sever ties and cut off aid by law.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel again phoned his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, on Monday to urge restraint after Egyptian troops allegedly opened fire on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, killing more than 50 and wounding more than 480, Pentagon chief spokesman George Little said Tuesday.
"Historically, the Department of Defense has had a close relationship with the Egyptian military," Little said of the flurry of phone calls Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made before and after the military takeover last week to al-Sisi and others in the Egyptian military leadership.
Little yesterday said the U.S. was also looking forward to holding the "Bright Star" bi-annual joint military exercises with the Egyptian military in September, assuming that the ongoing street violence subsides and the military takes steps to restore democratic rule.
At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said "we're cautiously encouraged" by the Egyptian military's announcement of a six-month timetable for rewriting the constitution and holding new parliamentary and presidential elections. During the transition, economist Hazem el-Beblawi would serve as prime minister, the military said.
The Muslim Brotherhood quickly denounced the military's moves and vowed to restore Morsi to power.
The military takeover posed a dilemma for the Pentagon and the White House. Under the Foreign Assistance Act, the U.S. must cut off military and economic assistance to countries that experience a military coup, and the U.S. has invoked the act in the past against Mali, Thailand, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast and other nations.
Carney acknowledged the policy consequences of calling what has occurred in Egypt a military coup, and he backed away from the term.
"The designation carries with it very serious consequences," Carney said. "We have policy objectives here" that take precedence in seeing a transition to democracy by a stable Egyptian ally, he said.
"I think it would not be in the best interest of the United States to immediately change our assistance programs to Egypt," Carney said yesterday, referring to the $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance that the U.S. gives Egypt annually.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. has given Egypt more than $70 billion in assistance since the signing of the Camp David peace accords with Israel in 1979.
Muslim Brotherhood officials scoffed at the U.S. refusal to call the ouster of Morsi a military coup. "This is not just a military coup, it is a bloody coup," Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad said in an op-ed for The Washington Post.