Kerry Raises ‘Potential of Civil War’ in Egypt As Reason for Morsi’s Ouster

By Patrick Goodenough | July 19, 2013 | 4:25 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry holds talks with President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo on March 3, 2013, four months before Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian military. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

( – Two full weeks after the Egyptian military ousted President Mohammed Morsi, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was still “much too early to make pronouncements” on what took place.

But Kerry also became the first administration official to suggest publicly that the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi may have been necessary to avoid a civil war.

A determination of how the U.S. should view and respond to the developments, Kerry said during a visit to Jordan Wednesday, was complicated by the fact that “you had an extraordinary situation in Egypt of life and death, of the potential of civil war and enormous violence, and you now have a constitutional process proceeding forward very rapidly.”

Those comments – raising the specter of civil war and noting swift progress in the political transition since Morsi’s enforced departure – provided a hint of the type of argument the administration may ultimately use to justify a decision not to cut aid to Egypt, a requirement under U.S. law in the case where an elected government is toppled in a coup.

Since the army removed Morsi on July 3, a step which President Obama said had “deeply concerned” the U.S., no administration official has until now publicly raised the potential of civil war as a factor.

The administration says a high-level review is underway to determine future policy towards Egypt, based both on the legal requirements but also on other factors and objectives.

Speaking to reporters in Amman, Kerry said he was “not going to rush to judgment” on the matter.

“I’m going to wait till our lawyers have done their homework, ’til I have the appropriate facts and information in front of us.”

“I will say this,” he added, “that what complicates it, obviously, is that you had an extraordinary situation in Egypt of life and death, of the potential of civil war and enormous violence, and you now have a constitutional process proceeding forward very rapidly.”

“So we have to measure all of those facts against the law, and that’s exactly what we will do.”

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egyptian defense minister and army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo last March. On July 3, al-Sisi removed President Mohammed Morsi from office. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

When pressed on the “coup” determination question, State Department spokesmen up until now have merely observed that millions of Egyptians were unhappy with the regime, but they have not raised concerns about civil war.

The administration’s muddled response to the situation has also been seen in its position on Morsi’s arrest. More than two weeks after his detention on July 3 he remains in custody at an undisclosed location.

In his initial statement on the crisis, Obama called on the military “to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters.”

But in his comments on the unfolding situation three days later, Kerry was silent on the matter, and at a daily briefing on July 8 State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressly declined to call on the interim authorities or the military to release Morsi, saying that the administration was “not taking a position on this specific case.”

The next day, Psaki said the U.S. had expressed concern about “arbitrary arrests” of Muslim Brotherhood members, a position she repeated on July 10. But when asked whether the administration was calling for Morsi’s release she demurred. She did acknowledge that no charges had been brought against him.

The first time the State Department called publicly for Morsi’s release was on July 12, hours after German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle issued a statement demanding “an end to the restrictions placed upon Mr. Morsi's freedom of movement.”

Asked then whether the U.S. agreed with Westerwelle’s call, Psaki said, “we do agree.”

She declined to say what had prompted the change in stance, saying merely “I can’t speak to all of the internal thinking on everything, but obviously we haven’t said it before today.”

The State Department has not called on Egypt’s interim authorities to charge or release Morsi, thus not taking into account the possibility criminal charges may yet be brought against him.

Asked whether it was the administration’s understanding that Morsi had not committed a crime, Psaki replied, “The United States doesn’t make an evaluation of that.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow