The Obama administration turned to its top officials to tout democracy and political transparency for Egypt, a message that took on a hollow tone as the Egyptian military installed a new leader for the country and began rounding up its ousted president and his supporters.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and national security adviser Susan Rice were among those who briefed President Barack Obama on Thursday on their calls to counterparts in Egypt, Israel, Turkey and other US partners in the region.
The calls conveyed "the importance of a quick and responsible return of full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible," said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.
The US officials also pushed for what Meehan called "a transparent political process that is inclusive of all parties and groups" and urged that those in charge of Egypt's government avoid any arbitrary arrests of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his supporters. Avoiding violence by any group or party was also part of their message, she said in an emailed statement.
Behind the scenes, the US was signaling to Egypt and its allies that it accepts the military's decision to depose Morsi, and was hoping that what fills the vacuum of power would be more favorable to US interests and values than Morsi's Islamist government. But those hopes were tempered by very real concerns that a newly emboldened military would deal violently with the Muslim Brotherhood, sending Egyptian society further into chaos and making reconciliation more difficult.
In spite of US urging, Egyptian authorities arrested and detained the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, General Guide Mohammed Badie, on Thursday. Morsi, a leading member of the Brotherhood, and at least a dozen presidential aides already had been placed under house arrest.
The military also oversaw the swearing-in of Adly Mansour, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, as Egypt's interim president. The Muslim Brotherhood declared it wouldn't work with the new government and called for a wave of protests.
Morsi's ouster also threatened a divided reaction in Congress. One view tended to support the Egyptian military's action because of the longtime partnership between the US and Egyptian military officials as well as perceived threats by Morsi to the type of democracy Egyptians aspired to during their 2011 revolution. Another view, however, noted that US law called for an end to aid to a country if a military deposed its democratically elected government, even amid promises of a return of power to its people.
Obama on Wednesday, while notably not calling Morsi's ouster a coup, said he was ordering the government to assess what the developments portended for aid to Cairo.
The US considers the $1.5 billion a year it sends Egypt to be a critical US national security priority.
The administration faced difficult choices amid the ongoing crisis. If it denounced the ouster of Morsi, it could be accused of propping up a ruler who had lost public support. Yet, if it supported the military's action, the administration could be accused of fomenting dissent or could lose credibility on its commitment to the democratic process.
The administration is acting as if it accepts what happened in Egypt — and actually believes it could turn out for the best with the Islamist Morsi no longer in charge. At the same time, officials are attempting to keep their distance, laying down markers for what they want to see in the long term while leaving it up to the military to make sure that happens.
But the White House may also be concerned that in the short term, the situation could spiral out of control, with the military using the clamoring in the streets as an excuse to confront the Muslim Brotherhood with excessive force. In bringing up US aid in conversations with Egyptians without cutting it off, the US leaves itself room to escalate the situation if need be, but also to work with Egypt's new government if it moves in the right direction.
After Morsi's ouster Wednesday, Obama said the US would "not support particular individuals or political parties," acknowledging the "legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people" while also observing that Morsi won his office in a legitimate election.
Egyptian military leaders have assured the Obama administration that they were not interested in long-term rule following their toppling of Morsi.