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Tough balancing act for U.S. after Morsi ouster

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and his national security team trod delicately Thursday in the aftermath of the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, urging the restive nation to quickly return authority to a democratically elected civilian government and avoid violence.

The administration still declined to take sides in the volatile developments as Egypt's military installed an interim government leader.

Obama met with his national security team for briefings on their calls to Egyptian leaders and other partners in the region, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.

The carefully worded messages from the U.S. officials conveyed "the importance of a quick and responsible return of full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible," Meehan said.

The series of calls by Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice went to officials from Egypt, Israel, Qatar, Turkey and Norway.

The U.S. officials also urged a transparent political process in Egypt and the avoidance of "any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters," Meehan said.

The delicate diplomacy highlights difficult policy choices for the administration:

Denounce the ouster of Morsi outright, and the United States could be accused of propping up a ruler who has lost the public's support. It's a prospect with eerie echoes of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, whom the United States supported for decades before the 2011 revolution that cleared the path to power for Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.

Look the other way, and the United States could be accused of fomenting dissent or 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. 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 hand, with the military using the clamoring in the streets as an excuse to confront the Muslim Brotherhood with excessive force.

In bringing up U.S. aid in conversations with Egyptians without cutting it off, the United States 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 was forcibly removed from office, Obama said the United States 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.

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