The Coup Disguised as a Popular Uprising or the Other Way Around

Canada Day is the first day of July every year, and we have our Fourth of July, and of course the French have Bastille Day in the middle of the month. July is a good enough month to start a new nation, and perhaps when the third day of July rolls around each year, Egyptians will now celebrate… something or other. The voice of the people was heard, or it was shouted down – it’s hard to tell, but this was the day things changed:

A year after coming to office, Egypt’s first democratically elected president was swept aside by the military leaders who long presided over this country and proved Wednesday in a series of extraordinary maneuvers that they never really left.

President Mohamed Morsi’s dramatic fall from power came after months of political turmoil and days of tense protests, as millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for his exit. Those protesters were jubilant Wednesday night, celebrating the ouster of a leader they viewed as both autocratic and incompetent.

But Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters were irate, and Morsi himself was adamant that he remained the nation’s president. Aides said early Thursday that he was under house arrest as security forces rounded up at least a dozen top Muslim Brotherhood leaders, shuttered three television stations and surrounded Islamist demonstrators. Troops and tanks fanned out across Cairo, as clashes erupted in several cities.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. Two and a half years ago people there finally got fed up with thirty years of Hosni Mubarak – a real thug – and had themselves a revolution. It was time for an election – the people there would choose their own government for the very first time. Democracy was finally coming to the largest Arab state, but this made the United States a bit queasy, as Mubarak had been useful. He had moderated the stance of the other Arab states in the region, telling them to calm down about Israel when things got too hot. We could use him as an intermediary with some very bad actors, and we tossed him a few billion dollars a year in military aid, so other nations in the region would take him seriously – but his own people hated his guts, and we believe in democracy. We had to cut him loose and reluctantly support the revolution, chiming in late, urging caution. We had no choice. Government should be of the people and for the people and by the people – Abraham Lincoln said so. It’s just that sometimes that sort of thing is geopolitically counterproductive, and it’s not like the Egyptian people didn’t notice. Obama delivered his famous reconciliation speech in Cairo – we could all get along in a new age of mutual respect – but now they know we were worried, about us, not about them. We weren’t the good guys anymore, if we ever were.

Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann screamed bloody murder – we had turned our back on Hosni Mubarak, the only man in the region who was keeping Israel safe, and Israel was Jesus Land, damn it. Yes, Obama had betrayed Israel, and that could not be forgiven. It seems some things are more important than democracy, but then no one paid any attention to those two. The situation was difficult. One does not thwart the will of the people. At least we don’t. The people get to choose their leaders. We don’t step in when they make the wrong choice, except in Iran in 1953, engineering a coup that brought back the Shah – but we learned our lesson there. We eventually had to fly the Shah to Panama, and it’s been one Ayatollah after another over there ever since. Oops. Some say Henry Kissinger was instrumental in arranging for the CIA to assassinate Salvatore Allende a few decades later, in 1973, when the folks in Chile elected the wrong guy – another damned socialist. In the world of Kissinger’s realpolitik it had to be done, but no one likes to talk about it, and, if we did that, we shouldn’t have done that. As in Iran in 1953, we did arrange the coup, or at least paid for it.

We have a pretty nasty track record, and when the Egyptian people rose up against Hosni Mubarak, it was probably best to show we’d changed our ways – the people of Egypt could elect whomever they chose. No doubt our war in Iraq – to remove an Arab leader we didn’t like, even if he had nothing to do with the planes flying into the World Trade Center or any of that – made things even more difficult for us. We are the guys with the massive military that will come in and destroy your country and then make sure you have the right sort of government – one to our liking. Only Dick Cheney and his friends ever believed we were “liberators” – everyone else saw more of the same. Obama wanted to change that, and he wasn’t alone. Many thought it would be cool if Americans were the good guys again, so many cheered the Egyptian people back then. We should stand with them. Hell, we kind of had to stand with them.

Then they elected this Mohamed Morsi fellow, who represents the Muslim Brotherhood, which put us in an awkward position. We’ve never had much use for the Muslim Brotherhood, and now we had to keep saying maybe it’ll all work out, maybe it’ll all work out – but it didn’t. Morsi turned out to be a bit of a buffoon, and incompetent – and he blocked out all the other factions in Egypt and he was quickly turning a stable secular state into a second-rate intolerant fundamentalist Muslim mess. He can’t work with others – he dismisses them as insignificant. He let the economy fall apart. It was just that the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organized political operation in Egypt at the time – no one else could even find the office stapler – so he won by default.

Now what do we do? What just happened was a military coup, and there are rules:

Responding to the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in a statement that U.S. law is clear that foreign aid “is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree.”

“The Morsi government has been a great disappointment to the people of Egypt, and to all who wish Egypt a successful transition to responsive, representative government under the rule of law,” said Leahy, who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations. “He squandered an historic opportunity, preferring to govern by fiat rather than work with other political parties to do what is best for all Egyptians. Egypt’s military leaders say they have no intent or desire to govern, and I hope they make good on their promise.”

“In the meantime, our law is clear: U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree. As we work on the new budget, my committee also will review future aid to the Egyptian government as we wait for a clearer picture. As the world’s oldest democracy, this is a time to reaffirm our commitment to the principle that transfers of power should be by the ballot, not by force of arms.”

That’s fine, but that puts us in the position of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which we never liked in the first place, and thwarting the will of the people – who wanted this guy gone. Obama is in a pickle here, with stuff like this:

“Measures announced by the armed forces’ leadership represent a full coup categorically rejected by all the free men of our nation,” Morsi tweeted from his official Twitter account Wednesday night…

Across town, tens of thousands of Morsi supporters, who had gathered to defend what they called the “constitutional legitimacy” of Egypt’s first elected leader, broke into enraged chants as news of Morsi’s ouster came crashing down upon them.

There’s trouble coming. You don’t want to piss off the Muslim Brotherhood:

Political analysts have warned that no matter how warmly the military’s move may have been received by the many liberal and secular Egyptians who deeply resent Islamist rule it would not bode well for the country’s democratic future. Even if Egypt moves quickly to new elections, they said, future civilian leaders will govern with the knowledge that the military could step in at any time. Before Morsi’s election, the nation was effectively governed by the military for six decades.

Analysts have also cautioned that the military’s removal of an elected president could provoke an Islamist insurgency – much like what Algeria experienced in the 1990s after its powerful military canceled an election ahead of an imminent Islamist victory at the polls.

Some of Morsi’s Islamist backers, whom television crews have filmed conducting military-styled exercises during their nighttime sit-ins, said Wednesday that they were prepared to fight.

Whose side are we on? One must tread carefully:

President Barack Obama said Wednesday he is “deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian constitution” and called on the military to “move quickly and responsibly to return authority back to a democratically elected civilian government.”

Yeah, but who will they elect this time, if there even are elections at some date in the future?

In Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch worries about that:

There remains a very real, urgent risk of major violence and further political or even state collapse, of course. But even if the worst is avoided, Egypt faces a real risk of becoming trapped in an endless loop of failed governments, military interventions, and popular uprisings. The very idea of democratic legitimacy has taken a severe beating, and the coming constitutional reforms and new elections will not pass easily. Building real consensus behind genuinely democratic institutions has to remain the guiding light for U.S. policy and the Egyptian political class, no matter how difficult this appears.

Building real consensus behind genuinely democratic institutions is a fine idea. That took us a few years over here – from 1776 to 1789, from the loopy Articles of Confederation, where each state was its own nation, really, to the Constitution, where who is responsible for what is clearly spelled out and careful checks and balances between all the parts of government are set up. These things take time. The Bastille fell on July 14, 1789, and what followed were Robespierre and his Reign of Terror and then that short and strange Napoleon. Modern, stable France was a long way off. This democracy thing isn’t easy, and Daniel Larison says here that he expects “large numbers of Morsi supporters will regard any new government created as a result of the coup as illegitimate and will seek to sabotage and undermine it” – which is just human nature, and there is more bad news:

That bodes ill for religious and political minority groups that will probably be scapegoated in response to Morsi’s overthrow, since they will make for easier targets and have been identified with the coup. Perversely, the coup may have done what the Muslim Brotherhood could not have done for itself, which is to return it to the role of a persecuted opposition movement.

Here’s an assessment from Nathan Brown:

Yes, it is true that the Brotherhood did well in elections; that it was not able to govern fully but still saddled with responsibility for Egypt’s insurmountable problems; that important state actors never accepted its authority; that its opposition was unified only by a desire to make the Brotherhood fail; and that Egypt’s rumor mill transformed preposterous rumor into established fact with breathtaking speed.

But it is also undeniable that Morsi and the Brotherhood made almost every conceivable mistake – including some (such as reaching too quickly for political power or failing to build coalitions with others) that they had vowed they knew enough to avoid. They alienated potential allies, ignored rising discontent, focused more on consolidating their rule than on using what tools they did have, used rhetoric that was tone deaf at best and threatening at worst. Had they hired a consultant from the Nixon White House, they would have done a more credible job, at least by being efficient.

The Morsi presidency is without a doubt one of the most colossal failures in the Brotherhood’s history. What lesson will the movement learn from it, if any?

That’s hard to say, because they’d been on a roll:

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its sister organizations represent the most successful non-governmental organizations in Arab history. No other movements have been able to sustain, reinvent, and replicate themselves over so much time and space. And there are two secrets to that success: a tight-knit organizational structure that rewards loyalty and the ability to adjust and adapt.

And those two features led to the experiment with political Islam that is now in such grave crisis. The organizational tightness of the Brotherhood made it more able than any other potential opposition force to organize for campaigns: In many countries, they were the only political party worthy of the name (even in places where they were banned from calling themselves a party). And their adaptability allowed them to take advantages of the cracks and openings that appeared in Arab authoritarian orders over the past few decades.

When the uprisings of 2011 occurred, the Egyptian Brotherhood had become sufficiently adept at the political game that it hit the ground running far faster than any possible competitor. And the organization had also evolved over the past couple decades to place politics at the center of its agenda. Founded as a general reform movement that carried out charity, self-improvement, education, mutual assistance, preaching, and politics, the Brotherhood had become a primarily political creature.

But just as its political project seemed poised to realize full success it suddenly and ignominiously collapsed. The immediate reaction among its members will be to complain that the Brotherhood was cheated. And in a sense it was, but complaint will not substitute for reflection forever.

They need to realize a few things, like this:

The tight-knit organization built for resilience under authoritarianism made for an inward-looking, even paranoid movement when it tried to refashion itself as a governing party. In fact, the organization was led by figures… who were themselves pure creatures of the organization, but the best of them tended to be fairly inexperienced at dealing with the world outside of it. …

The problem lay in the choice of a political strategy. The Brotherhood’s mistake in such a view would be that it thought it could win and govern.

This sounds like the Republicans for the last forty years in America, but that’s beside the point. We have a problem here, and the day before the coup, or the popular uprising if you see it that way, Jeffrey Goldberg really wished we had put more pressure on Morsi:

The crisis of the past few days, which may end in a military coup (which would then start the next crisis), might have been avoided had the Obama administration used its leverage – the $1.5 billion in aid the U.S. is giving Egypt this year, for starters – to force Morsi to include the opposition in his government from the outset. It didn’t. And the Egyptian masses noticed.

It’s too late now and Charles P. Pierce is rather puzzled:

The argument seems to be that the administration didn’t bring sufficient pressure to bear on the current Egyptian government to diversify its governing coalition. Withholding military aid seems to be the suggested technique, although how that would have made Morsi and his government less autocratic will have to be explained to me better than Goldberg does here. Morsi is, after all, the elected president, no matter how badly he may have turned. Withholding arms from him would have given him his own special piece of anti-Americanism to use among his followers.

Daniel Larison says it doesn’t matter as we lose no matter who it is that eventually runs Egypt:

As long as the U.S. provides aid to the Egyptian military, the U.S. is bound to be resented by whichever political groups do not control the government. That isn’t going to change even when the government is a genuinely elected one. If the protesters are successful in driving the extremely unpopular Morsi out, there will always be an incentive for the forces defeated at the last election to stage mass protests demanding the early resignation of the incumbent. There will also be an incentive for those protesters to identify the U.S. as the incumbent’s supporter in order to blame Washington and to vilify the current leader. Because the U.S. will presumably continue to provide aid to the Egyptian military for reasons that have little to do with internal Egyptian politics, there is no way that Washington can “fix” this by throwing its support to the “right” people.

We hit the wall here. We support democracy, so we cannot support a military coup. As awkward and distasteful as it is, we have to be on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood here – but we believe in the will of the people too. They should decide things – and they wanted a military coup. We thus should ridicule the Muslim Brotherhood, as simultaneously excessively authoritarian and incompetent. Or maybe we should just shut up – but Egypt is too important – it’s the lynchpin to too much over there.

There are no good options here, which is why every Republican will now say this is all Obama’s fault. We’ll hear how President McCain or President Romney or President Palin would have handled this – as if it matters. This is not the New American Century. It’s the same old chaos out there, as usual.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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