The Obama administration is turning to its top officials to tout democracy and political transparency for Egypt, a message that took on a hollow tone as the Egyptian military installed a new leader for the country and began rounding up its ousted president and his supporters.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Friday called Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, for a second time in as many days. The Pentagon said Dempsey had spoken earlier with Lt. Gen. Sedki Sobhi, the chief of staff of Egypt's military, although the Pentagon wouldn't disclose details about any of the calls.
High-level diplomacy consultations took place Thursday when Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and national security adviser Susan Rice briefed President Barack Obama on their calls to counterparts in Egypt, Israel, Turkey and other U.S. partners in the region.
That round of calls conveyed "the importance of a quick and responsible return of full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible," Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said at the time. The U.S. officials also pushed for what Meehan called "a transparent political process that is inclusive of all parties and groups" and urged all parties to avoid violence, she said in a statement.
Behind the scenes, the U.S. was signaling to Egypt and its allies that it accepts the military's decision to depose President Mohammed Morsi, and was hoping that what fills the vacuum of power would be more favorable to U.S. interests and values than Morsi's Islamist government. But those hopes were tempered by very real concerns that a newly emboldened military would deal violently with the Muslim Brotherhood, sending Egyptian society further into chaos and making reconciliation more difficult.
The Obama administration's stance, which carefully avoided the legal implications of calling the military's intervention a coup, won something of a bipartisan endorsement Friday from the Republican chairman and the top Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California and Democrat Eliot Engel of New York issued a joint statement that criticized Morsi for not embracing "inclusiveness, compromise, respect for human and minority rights and a commitment to the rule of law."
"We are encouraged that a broad cross-section of Egyptians will gather to rewrite the constitution," the lawmakers said. Like Obama, they urged the Egyptian military "to exercise extreme caution moving forward and support sound democratic institutions through which the people and future governments can flourish."
In spite of U.S. urging, Egyptian authorities arrested and detained the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, General Guide Mohammed Badie, on Thursday, although he was later released and emerged publicly Friday to speak defiantly before a cheering crowd of pro-Morsi supporters, vowing to reinstate ousted Morsi and end military rule. Morsi, a leading member of the Brotherhood, and at least a dozen presidential aides already had been placed under house arrest.
Meanwhile, the military opened fire Friday on pro-Morsi protesters marching on the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo, threatening to further escalate the confrontation. But the military also oversaw the swearing-in of Adly Mansour, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, as Egypt's interim president, illustrating the military's desire to be seen as quickly returning the nation quickly to civilian control.
Morsi's ouster also threatened a divided reaction in Congress. One view tended to support the Egyptian military's action because of the longtime partnership between the U.S. and Egyptian military officials as well as perceived threats by Morsi to the type of democracy Egyptians aspired to during their 2011 revolution. Another view, however, noted that U.S. law called for an end to aid to a country if a military deposed its democratically elected government, even amid promises of a return of power to its people.
Obama on Wednesday, while not calling Morsi's ouster a coup, said he was ordering the government to assess what the developments portended for aid to Cairo.
The U.S. considers the $1.5 billion a year it sends Egypt to be a critical U.S. national security priority.
The administration faced difficult choices amid the ongoing crisis. If it denounced the ouster of Morsi, it could be accused of propping up a ruler who had lost public support. Yet, if it supported the military's action, the administration could be accused of fomenting dissent or could lose credibility on its commitment to the democratic process.
The administration is acting as if it accepts what happened in Egypt -- and actually believes it could turn out for the best with the Islamist Morsi no longer in charge. At the same time, officials are attempting to keep their distance, laying down markers for what they want to see in the long term while leaving it up to the military to make sure that happens.
But the White House may also be concerned that in the short term, the situation could spiral out of control, with the military using the clamoring in the streets as an excuse to confront the Muslim Brotherhood with excessive force. In bringing up U.S. aid in conversations with Egyptians without cutting it off, the U.S. leaves itself room to escalate the situation if need be, but also to work with Egypt's new government if it moves in the right direction.
After Morsi's ouster Wednesday, Obama said the U.S. would "not support particular individuals or political parties," acknowledging the "legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people" while also observing that Morsi won his office in a legitimate election.
Egyptian military leaders have assured the Obama administration that they were not interested in long-term rule following their toppling of Morsi.