By Jill Dougherty
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy's bid for more power blindsided Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, as her spokeswoman told reporters Monday, had no forewarning about his upcoming political maneuverings.
Clinton met with Morsy in Cairo last Wednesday in an effort to broker a cease-fire in Gaza but there was no discussion about Morsy's plans for his own government.
"She heard about it when everybody else heard about it," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
Morsy's announcement that he was assuming new powers shielding his decisions from judicial scrutiny raised red flags in Washington but officials also were more immediately concerned by the potential for violence after thousands took to the streets to protest the president's move.
Since Morsy's announcement, which comes as an assembly is writing a new Egyptian constitution, the Obama administration has been seeking clarification. So far, the conclusion is the move appears to be temporary.
"When he says it's temporary," Nuland explained, "our understanding is it's temporary until there is a constitution that can be approved, but the concern was that there were various, you know, issues that were not well represented in the way he went forward with this."
On Monday, Secretary Clinton spoke by phone with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr and, according to Nuland, stressed again the United States' view that the constitution should not "overly concentrate power in one set of hands."
The U.S. has been calling for all "stakeholders" in the constitutional process to be included in discussions, and that appears to be happening, with Morsy consulting with various groups, including the judiciary.
But, Nuland cautioned, "It is a very murky, uncertain period in terms of the legal and constitutional underpinnings, which makes it all the more important that the process proceed on the basis of democratic dialogue and the consultations."
Morsy's move, coming days after he played a key role in working out a Gaza cease-fire, has raised questions on Capitol Hill over U.S. funding to Egypt. Nuland stressed U.S. support for a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund agreed to last week.
When it comes to U.S. help, she said "We've also been clear with the Congress that we think that the support in the form of economic support funds that we've pledged to Egypt should go forward."
The Obama administration wants Congress to approve an immediate cash infusion of $450 million, part of an overall package of $1 billion to support Egypt's transition after the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Nuland added a caveat: "But, obviously, I think everybody's watching now, (to see) that this current set of issues has a democratic resolution."