08/08/2013 12:26 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

It Was a Coup. Is a Junta next?

In my last post I argued that the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi by the Egyptian military was a coup and that the Obama administration's refusal to acknowledge this fact was an attempt to not follow the U.S. law that required terminating U.S. aid. I suggested that the $1.3 billion in military aid, mostly to purchase U.S. arms, be withheld and any new deliveries be halted. I also proposed that $100 million be transferred from the military to support new, democratic elections and that resumption of such aid be paced to reflect specific steps to restore democracy.

Except for a symbolic delay in delivering four Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, the Obama administration has done nothing to acknowledge the coup.

During their just completed visit to Egypt at the request of President Obama, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (r-SC) committed truth by referring to the military takeover as a coup. In a news conference after meeting with General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the defense minister and emerging strong man, together with Vice President Mohamed Baradi and interim Prime Minister Hazen Beblawi it was clear they were not on the same page. Sen. Graham's statement said that: "The people who are in charge were not elected. The people who were elected are in jail. The status quo is not acceptable." The Egyptian hosts were not amused.

The senators along with representatives of the European Union and some Gulf States were trying to urge all sides to get involved in the political process, to get the jailed members of Morsi's Justice and Development Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, released and avoid further bloodshed. The government has now declared this attempted political reconciliation a failure and has renewed its threats to clear the streets of pro-Morsi demonstrators. Not surprisingly, they put the blame on the pro-Morsi forces.

The Morsi forces are understandably skeptical of the political process and their ability to participate fairly in it so long as Morsi and other leaders are in jail and face criminal charges and street protesters face more deaths and forcible removal. Restoring their confidence and keeping the Muslim Brotherhood in the system despite calls by some to turn to violence will not be easy. But it is essential for stability and the legitimacy of any new elections.

The key to the Muslim Brotherhood's return to the political process is General al-Sisi. Excerpts of an interview by Lally Weymouth with al-Sisi appeared on Slate on August 3rd. He complained that the U.S. had turned its back on Egypt and that delaying the F-16 was no way to treat an ally. He said that he was not interested in running for president, but it was not a Sherman-like denial. Perhaps a more revealing statement may have been: "I am the most aware of the size of the problems in Egypt. That is why I am asking: Where is your support? " His portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood was not flattering: "The idea that gathers them together is not nationalism, it's not patriotism, it is not a sense of a country -- it is only an ideology..."

Those do not sound like the words of a man who will chance the Muslim Brotherhood's return to power, or who will relinquish his political power. So the issue is, how to persuade the military to stick by the timetable they have set for a new constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections? Senators Graham and McCain said that this was not the time to cut U.S. aid. So, when would be the time? When the timetables for writing the constitution or holding elections slip? When the Justice and Development Party is outlawed? When the Muslim Brotherhood is declared a terrorist organization? When Morsi and his senior associates are given show trials on trumped up charges?

The U.S. leverage in Egypt is not great, but it is not nothing. The U.S. needs to work with our allies, and especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states who may see it in their interests to damage the Muslim Brotherhood, to it make clear that a repeat of 1954 when a military coup led to a junta ruling Egypt for nearly six decades is not acceptable. Military aid is the best tool in a not-large tool kit. We should not hesitate to use it if the largest and most important Arab nation appears ready to return to darkness.