WASHINGTON - Has Egypt's government undergone a "coup"?
That's the $1.5 billion question, as the question of what to call what happened in Egypt last week is debated. The White House, meanwhile, has said it's weighing whether to apply that label.
It's a point of contention because $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt could hang in the balance: U.S. law states that foreign aid cannot be sent to a country where the military has "play[ed] a decisive role" in a "coup d'etat or decree" to remove a "duly elected head of government."
But even if the military refuses to restore Mohamed Morsi to power, that aid can continue to flow - as long as Egypt holds elections and puts a different leader in place.
Under the law, if Obama certifies to the Appropriations Committee that a democratically elected government is in place, even after a coup, foreign aid can resume. That means the U.S. government could send money to Egypt if elections are held - even if a bona fide "coup" has removed Morsi for good, and if the administration has been forced to suspend aid to Egypt because of it.
Here's the law, as provided by the office of Sen. Patrick Leady, D-Vt., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (Boldfacing added):
Sec. 7008. None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to titles III through VI of this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d'etat or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d'etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role: Provided, That assistance may be resumed to such government if the President determines and certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office: Provided further, That the provisions of this section shall not apply to assistance to promote democratic elections or public participation in democratic processes: Provided further, That funds made available pursuant to the previous provisos shall be subject to the regular notification procedures of the Committees on Appropriations.
The administration appears to want to keep sending aid.
"It would not be in the best interests of the United States to immediately change our assistance programs to Egypt," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told ABC's Jonathan Karl at Monday's daily press briefing.
But if the White House concludes that the military response to Egypt's unrest does indeed qualify as a "coup," and if the military does not allow Morsi to return to power as supporters of his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, are demanding, U.S. aid money can legally resume if Egypt's military allows a democratically elected government to take power.