The spirited debate over suspension of aid to Egypt has given rise to a good argument over how to encourage progress in Egypt toward stable, responsible, and democratic government. We know what we would, as Americans, like ideally to see there: respect for civil liberties such as freedom of speech and press, an independent judiciary, religious freedom, free elections, and so on. And we would like to see an end to violence, whether by the state or by political and religious factions. We would like to see a system based on law, rather than on mob action or military fiat.
Some argue that a suspension of aid, which is clearly required by U.S. law when there is a coup, is foolish right now because we need to stay close to the Egyptian military. Others say the vast majority of Egyptians rose up to throw the Muslim Brotherhood out, so an aid suspension would insult and enrage them. Still others say there was not really a coup, because what the military did responded to the millions of Egyptians who went to the streets to eject President Morsi.
Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act says, "None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree: Provided, That assistance may be resumed to such country if the President determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office."
Now, there are good coups and bad coups, coups we like and coups we don't like. But it seems very clear that Morsi won the presidential election, and whatever point public opinion reached in Egypt he was removed by the Army—not by impeachment and not by a revolution. A "duly elected head of government" was "deposed by military coup or decree." So the issue is whether to respect our law.
Look back at all those things we want for Egypt, and the answer should be obvious: We will do our friends in Egypt no good by teaching the lesson that for us as for them law is meaningless. To use lexicographical stunts to say this was not really a coup, or to change the law because it seems inconvenient this week, would tell the Egyptians that our view and practice when it comes to law is the same as theirs: enforce the law when you like, ignore the law when you don't. But this is precisely the wrong model to give Egypt; the converse is what we should be showing them as an ideal to which to aspire.
Those who argue that we'll destroy our relations with Egypt, or with the Egyptian army, are in my view exaggerating—especially if we explain that we expect to maintain those relations, and work closely with them, and seek to resume aid as soon as their promised elections take place. But whatever harm we do to those relations, we do far greater damage to our own international reputation, to Egypt and its political development, and to our political culture if we treat our laws as infinitely malleable and ultimately unserious. That's a lesson we should not be teaching the Egyptians—or ourselves.