WASHINGTON - By all accounts, the generals removed the democratically elected president, put him in detention, arrested his allies and suspended the constitution. Army vehicles and soldiers in riot gear roamed the streets, while jet fighters roared overhead.
But was it a military coup d'etat? For the White House and the new Egyptian government, that is the $1.5 billion question.
President Barack Obama's government Thursday was reviewing the implications for U.S. aid to Egypt after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, and under U.S. law it has no choice but to cut off financial assistance to the country if it determines that he was deposed in a military coup. Egyptian officials argued that what happened was not a coup but a popular uprising.
For the moment, Obama seemed content to let the debate play out in hopes of using the possibility of an aid cutoff to influence the situation without actually pulling the trigger yet.
In his only public statement since Morsi's ouster, Obama carefully avoided using the "c-word," as some in Washington termed it, although his description of events certainly sounded couplike. But aides made clear that he would escalate his response depending on where the Egyptian military went from here.
The question goes to the heart of Obama's handling of Egypt. As one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, Egypt has long depended on Washington's beneficence, and the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has been reluctant to shut off the spigot, to keep the country committed to its longstanding peace agreement with Israel.
While the White House doubted that the military's seizure of power would be quickly reversed, it hoped to use its aid leverage to avoid violence.
But some specialists said the aid cutoff provision should be invoked promptly.
"The law is there for a reason," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department official under Obama. "It's there to incentivize governments that came in place through military coup to go back to democratic rule as soon as possible."
In Cairo, opponents of Morsi argued that his ouster did not qualify as a military coup because it came only after millions of protesters took to the streets, an argument quickly adopted by the government.
"It's not a coup because the military did not take power," Mohamed Tawfik, the Egyptian ambassador in Washington, told Foreign Policy magazine. "The military did not initiate it. It was a popular uprising. The military stepped in in order to avoid violence."
But the government's move to arrest dozens of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including its leader, Guide Mohamed Badie, and his influential deputy, Khairat el-Shater, could test that argument.
"With the entire world calling this a coup, why isn't the American administration calling it so?" Wael Haddara, a senior adviser to Morsi, asked in a telephone interview. The administration's "verbal acrobatics," he added, denied the obvious.
"What is a coup?" he said. "We're going to get into some really Orwellian stuff here."
At stake is a lot of money. Since 1979, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel. Obama's budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 proposes $1.55 billion for Egypt, with $1.3 billion for the military and $250 million for economic aid.
The Foreign Assistance Act says no aid other than that for democracy promotion can go to "any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d'Ã©tat," or where "the military plays a decisive role" in a coup. The law allows no presidential waiver, and it says that aid cannot be restored until "a democratically elected government has taken office."
As a practical matter, there would be no immediate impact if Obama concluded that the Egyptian crisis constituted a coup, because Washington disbursed this year's aid in May and presumably would not deliver more until next winter or spring. But it would convulse a relationship long predicated on the flow of U.S. money.
"The law by its terms dictates one thing, and sensible policy dictates that we don't do that," said Howard Berman, a Democrat who is a former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "That's why the executive branch gets to decide whether it's a coup or not. Under the plain meaning rule, there was a coup."
But with regard to aid, he added, "I wouldn't cut it off," and he urged the administration to "be more assertive" in using the financial assistance to pressure Egyptian officials to protect or restore freedoms.
Washington cut off aid in the past after military officers overthrew civilian governments in Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, Fiji and, at one point, Pakistan. More recently, and more relevantly, the Obama administration declined to see a coup when the Egyptian military helped push out the longtime president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, a move that likewise had broad popular support.
But Mubarak had never been the choice of a genuinely free election, while Morsi's subsequent election, although disturbing to many in Washington because of his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, was widely deemed democratic.
"Military coups are often driven by popular mobilization and received by popular acclaim, but this does not change what they are," said Marc Lynch, a Middle East scholar at George Washington University. "It is possible, of course, that this will be the sort of coup which 'resets' the political arena and quickly restores civilian rule. The military can't help but to have learned the lessons of 2011 when their direct rule went so badly. But it's still a coup."
The process of determining whether a coup is a coup usually falls to the State Department's legal adviser, and it can take weeks or even, as with Honduras in 2009, months.
"State might be able to avoid sanctions by finding that a civilian government (the judge) is still in control, although that would appear to be a stretch," John B. Bellinger III, who held that job under President George W. Bush, said by email.
In the meantime, the White House may not come under much pressure from Congress to cut off assistance. While Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the head of a foreign aid subcommittee, said he would "review future aid to the Egyptian government," other congressional leaders expressed little appetite for that, in part because the Muslim Brotherhood is not a favorite in Washington.
"Our longstanding cooperation with Egypt, which is essential for stability in the region, should remain a priority," Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
By PETER BAKER
The New York Times