07/15/2013 04:49 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

A Coup is a Coup; a Democracy is More Difficult to Define

Democracy is neither a simple concept nor a tidy process. But fundamental to democracy is the rule of law. Not a parsed or convenient interpretation of the law. The law as written.

Section 508 of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act plainly states that if a democratically elected head of government is overthrown by a coup or decree, U.S. foreign aid must stop. Period. No waivers. No exceptions.

Rather than face this fact and take advantage of it, the Obama Administration and several members of Congress want to deny that the Egyptian coup was a coup so U.S. aid will continue. Everyone outside the Capitol beltway, and certainly millions of Muslims in Egypt and the wider world recognizes President Mohammad Morsi's ouster by the Egyptian military as a coup What sort of message do we send about the rule of law in the American system when we are clearly in violation of our own law?

This crisis presents an opportunity. Current U.S assistance to Egypt consists of $250 million in Economic Support Assistance and $1.3 billion in military aid, the bulk of which is to purchase U.S. weapons. The president should go to Congress to get a waiver to restructure the program and continue it in modified form, much as Pakistan aid was restarted after 9/11.

As important as ESA is, it is a drop in the bucket compared to aid flowing in from Suni countries anxious to clip the Muslim Brotherhood's wings. By some estimates, these commitments now total more than $20 billion. The U.S. comparative advantage lies with the military aid. After recognizing the coup as a coup, deliveries of military equipment should be frozen until Congress provides waiver authority. And deliveries should be slowly and carefully thawed as Egyptian democracy is restored.

Meanwhile, in order to help the return to democracy, the U.S. should pledge a substantial sum, perhaps $100 million, to support the drafting of a constitution and holding elections. Thawing of military aid should be harmonized with this process and the funds taken from the military account. It was the military that created this situation and they should feel some pain for that.

Elections often present dilemmas for democracy. The U.S. pushed the Palestinian Authority to hold elections to provide a government that could negotiate with Israel. Those elections in January 2006 produced a Hamas victory and a split in authority with a militant Hamas now controlling the Gaza Strip. Be careful what you ask for,

The Egyptian elections after the fall of Mubarak produced a Muslim Brotherhood dominated majority. That majority was consolidating power so it could institute "majoritarian rule" ignoring the rights of those who did not vote for it. But its incompetence led to a military coup supported by a likely majority popular uprising. What is more democratic, a close election between two flawed candidates or a popular uprising leading to a military coup?

In addition to the rule of law, honored in neither Egypt nor America so far in this case, democracy demands the protection of minority rights and a system that allows the minority a chance to become the majority by legal means. Morsi's "majoritarianism" got him in trouble ignoring this essential point. President Recep Erdoğan is also facing protests for following this path. doing in Turkey. (Speaker Boehner take note.)

There is no one single test to determine a democratic government. Elections, representation, majority rule, minority rights and the rule of law must all be considered. But, like pornography, we know it when we see it. And we do not see it today in Egypt.