WASHINGTON – Egyptian military leaders have assured the Obama administration that they are not interested in long-term rule following their toppling of President Mohammed Morsi and have appointed a government of civilian technocrats to temporarily run the country in an apparent bid to forestall potential U.S. sanctions, American officials said Wednesday.
The administration would be forced to suspend its $1.5 billion in annual military and economic assistance to Egypt — which is deemed a critical U.S. national security priority — if the ouster is determined to have been a coup d'etat. Under U.S. law, the unconstitutional ouster of a democratically elected government by a country's armed forces would trigger an aid cutoff. However, such legal determinations can take time and the officials said they believed Egypt's military was trying to take steps to keep such a finding from being reached.
In conversations between senior Egyptian army officers and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, senior Egyptian army officers pledged to put a civilian government in place quickly, if not immediately, after removing Morsi from power, the U.S. officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak by name about the private conversations that occurred over the past week.
The officials also said the Egyptian military pledged to take steps to ensure the safety of Americans in Egypt, including the embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Alexandria.
The White House, State Department and Pentagon declined to comment on what actions the administration is considering in response to the ouster of Morsi, Egypt's first-ever democratically elected president, who had been in power for only a year, along with the suspension of the Islamist-backed constitution and call for early elections.
However, the State Department appeared earlier Wednesday to be laying the groundwork for a tacit acceptance of the military move.
The department said it was disappointed with Morsi's response to opposition protesters demanding his ouster, saying the Muslim Brotherhood leader had not presented any plans to address their legitimate concerns when he addressed the nation in a televised speech late Tuesday.
At the same time, the department refused to criticize Egypt's military for setting a Wednesday deadline for Morsi to take steps to end the political crisis that has engulfed the country for months or face the intervention of the armed forces.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration was displeased that Morsi had not used his speech to outline reform plans, as called for by the opposition and by President Barack Obama in a phone call Monday. Officials who monitored the address "felt there was an absence of significant specific steps laid out in President Morsi's speech," she said.
"We had said that he must do more to be truly responsive and representative to the justified concerns expressed by the Egyptian people. And unfortunately, that was not a part of what he talked about in his speech," she told reporters. She added that Morsi's proposal for the formation of a unity government was not new and has been rejected by the opposition in the past as unsatisfactory.
"Last night was an opportunity for him to propose new steps, which he ... did not," Psaki said.