LONDON – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry backed away Friday from his candid comments that seemed to signal American support for the Egyptian military coup and the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.
The U.S. has tried hard not to appear as if it is taking sides in the crisis. But when Kerry said Thursday in Pakistan that the Egyptian military was "'restoring democracy" in leading the July 3 coup, it left the impression that the U.S. backed the military action. Kerry moved quickly to defuse the flap, saying on Friday that all parties — the military as well as pro-Morsi demonstrators — needed to work toward a peaceful and "'inclusive" political resolution of the crisis.
His backpedaling came after his comments were denounced by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which insists that the democratically elected Morsi is the legitimate leader of Egypt.
"Does Secretary Kerry accept Defense Secretary (Chuck) Hagel to step in and remove (U.S. President Barack) Obama if large protests take place in America?" a spokesman of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Gehad el-Haddad, asked.
The flap over Kerry's remarks came at a bad time. Just as Kerry was in London trying to clarify his statement from the day before, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was landing in Cairo to urge Egyptian leaders to avoid violence and help facilitate a political exit strategy to end the stalemate that has paralyzed Egypt and deeply divided the country.
It is unclear if Burns will meet Morsi, who has been kept out of sight since being overthrown on July 3. The military has established a civilian government and called elections for next year, but pro-Morsi protesters say they won't break up their massive street demonstrations until he is returned to power. More than 130 Morsi supporters have been killed and hundreds of others have been injured since the military coup. Last Saturday, an estimated 80 protesters, mostly Morsi supporters, were killed in clashes with security forces in one of the worst single crackdowns on a protest in Egypt's nearly three years of turbulence.
"The last thing that we want is more violence," Kerry said before meeting in London with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates. "The temporary government has a responsibility with respect to demonstrators to give them the space to be able to demonstrate in peace. But at the same time, the demonstrators have a responsibility not to stop everything from proceeding in Egypt."
In his interview with Geo TV in Pakistan TV, Kerry said, "The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descendance into chaos, into violence," Kerry told the Pakistani television channel. "And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment so, so far. To run the country, there's a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy."
"By killing people on the roads?" the TV correspondent asked Kerry.
"Oh, no. That's not restoring democracy, and we're very, very concerned about, very concerned about that," Kerry said. "I've been in touch with all of the players there. And we have made it clear that that is absolutely unacceptable, it cannot happen."
State Department officials said Kerry's remarks about violence being "absolutely unacceptable" were an indication that the secretary was not favoring either side in the conflict, which Obama administration has painstakingly avoided calling a coup.
The Obama administration told lawmakers that it won't declare either way whether Egypt's government overthrow was a coup. Making a legal determination that the Egyptian army had ousted Morsi in a coup would have triggered a suspension in the $1.3 billion in military aid the U.S. provides each year. Conversely, a determination that a coup had not occurred would have flown in the face of the uncontested facts that the army removed Morsi from power and has detained him incommunicado in an undisclosed location for weeks.
Kerry also said that the U.S. was working with EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton and foreign ministers of other countries to try to find a way to help resolve the Egyptian crisis peacefully.
"The story of Egypt is not finished yet, so we have to see how it unfolds in the next days," Kerry said.