This article appeared at The Nation on July 5, 2013.
The United States doesn’t classify the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Morsi regime as a “coup” since that would suspend $1.3 billion in aid to country’s armed forces. Honduras in 2009 was a similar case, where President Obama’s initial description of the military coup was retracted so that aid could continue flowing to the newly installed rump government there. A similar Orwellian logic led our security hawks to scorn the several democratic elections of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela as “illegitimate” while obscuring the American role in the attempted coup of 2002. In Haiti, the 2000 election of Jean-Bertrande Aristide was denounced as “illegitimate,” while the 2004 coup, in which Aristide says he was “kidnapped” by the United States, was described as a necessary transition in official speak. Under the Helms-Burton law, normalization of relations with Cuba depends on the removal of the Castros and the Communist Party and guarantees of a market economy before there can be legitimate elections. Before this latest round, Washington instigated infamous coups against the democratically elected governments of Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s.
That’s why our US officials—and the voices of the mainstream media—are so tongue-twisted in describing Egypt. A coup is never a coup until the powerful name it so.
One must conclude either that Washington knew all about the planned coup in Cairo (unlikely), or that our “best and brightest” intelligence experts knew almost nothing in spite of that $1.3 billion arrangement with Egypt’s military.
So what? some are asking. Weren’t Morsi and the Brotherhood a clique of undemocratic thugs? And shouldn’t Americans join the celebrations we see on CNN? Doesn’t the fact that millions are seen rejoicing in Morsi’s fall mean that this was a popular uprising and not a coup?
Let’s untangle the web.
First, certainly the Muslim Brotherhood has authoritarian tendencies and an ambition to use power for itself. These arise from successfully surviving as an underground during many decades of torture, imprisonment, infiltration and banning by the US-supported Mubarak dictatorship. It is associated with religious fundamentalism as well. Such clandestine movements often fail in the attempted transition to more open and democratic settings, or fragment and split apart. Having been banned for years, they see their aspiration for recognition as all-important. But legitimacy is precisely what their defeated foes refuse to grant. For a parallel example, consider how many white right-wing Americans refuse to accept Barack Obama’s legitimacy as our elected president. The same is true in Egypt for foes of Morsi and the Brotherhood. The resulting standoff is toxic to systems which rely on mutual recognition and coexistence; in the analysis of the International Study Group it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy:
"The more the opposition obstructs and calls for Morsi’s ouster, the more it validates the Islamists’ conviction [that] it will never recognize their right to govern; the more the Brotherhood charges ahead, the more it confirms the others’ belief of its monopolistic designs over power. Even if leaders back away from the brink, this could quickly get out of hand…” (February 4, 2013)
In this context, two sets of facts are of utmost importance. First, the Brotherhood won the democratic parliamentary elections of 2011–12; Morsi won the presidential election of June 2012 and the December 2012 referendum on the new constitution. These real victories might be qualified as being less than strong mandates but more than legitimate by accepted standards of democracy. Morsi, for example, won the presidency by only 51 percent. The turnout for approving the new constitution was only 32 percent, with 56 percent of Cairo residents voting against, though the measure passed 64 percent to 36 percent. Those are signs of a country impossibly divided, even broken, but they are legitimate electoral outcomes. There is really no basis for recognizing the new regime or the process by which the generals have seized power, except by a convoluted fudging of these facts. For example, the 2013 appropriations bill requires that, as a basis of military and economic funding, the United States “shall certify that the Government of Egypt 1) has completed the transition to civilian government, including holding free and fair elections; and 2) if is implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association or religion, and due process of law.” The conditions can be waived by the White House only “in the national security interests of the United States” and with a detailed justification to Congress. That may be why Senator Patrick Leahy is temporarily suspending action on the appropriations measure.
Second, it is claimed by the anti-Brotherhood forces that Morsi turned dictatorial last November 22 when declaring himself temporarily immune from judicial review. That act triggered formation of the new National Salvation Front led by several former presidential candidates. Morsi’s dilemma was that he faced absolute opposition from the Mubarak-era judiciary, and so circumvented their obduracy to push the constitutional measure as a voter referendum. From his point of view, Morsi had no choice. From the opposition view, he became the new Mubarak. The heart of the dispute was the Brotherhood’s quest for a more Islamic form of governance against the opposition’s implacable opposition to the Brotherhood’s having any legitimacy. But if Morsi was wrong in sending the constitution to a popular vote, his maneuver was ratified by a democratic vote. On the other hand, the new “tamarod” (rebellion) movement, which claims to have collected 20 million petitions, had no constitutional basis whatever for petitioning the Supreme Constitutional Court for a presidential recall (Congressional Research Service report, June 27). It doesn’t seem to matter now that this entirely novel proposal has been bypassed by the generals who, in turn, are scrambling to justify their deeds.
It is almost certain that US funding will keep flowing to the generals and whatever “technocratic government” they install. Without the funding, Egypt will collapse. Only with the funding does the United States have leverage. The lobbyists for the beneficiaries (among them, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) will make certain that the spigots are kept open.
The levels of US funding are based on formulas agreed upon as part of the 1979 Camp David Agreement. In general, they favor Israel by a 3:2 ratio despite the vast difference in size of the two countries. Egypt ranks fifth in US foreign assistance behind Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Since 2009, Egypt has received approximately $250 million yearly in “economic” assistance compared to $1.3 billion yearly for its military. The economic assistance has been cut by more than half the amount that was allocated during the Mubarak years, despite the evidence that the Egyptian economy today is a basket case (malnutrition and poverty rising, crime spiking, a stagnant GDP of 2.2 percent last year). The United States and Western powers are seeking an IMF austerity program that would cut subsidies for food and gas, steps that might cause a total implosion. Foreign exchange reserves are nearing rock-bottom. As a matter of fact, they were projected to run out in June.
For the moment, the mainstream media and many progressives might be celebrating the exuberant street protests as evidence of “second chance” for democracy in Egypt. Certainly Egyptian liberals, revolutionaries, Facebook bloggers, womens’ rights groups and others have reason to feel heady, even ecstatic, at the experience of accomplishing another revolution from below so quickly. But sooner rather than later, the headaches will return. The country is paralyzed by division: the Islamists split between Brotherhood and Salafists; the secular liberals, students, women and intellectuals representing only 20 percent of the population; the self-interested, US-financed army a force serving its own interests. If Morsi couldn’t create a new center, the reason might not have been because he was paranoid or heavy-handed but because there is for now no viable center as Egypt emerges from decades of dictatorship. If no one can rule and power-sharing is impossible, what then? Another Syria or Algeria, countries going through long civil wars?
Since American (and Israeli) policy for decades has been to maintain a cold peace on the Egyptian front, what now? Morsi and the Brotherhood were always more than the Israelis and the neo-conservatives wanted to accept. But from a rational perspective of national interests, Morsi was an independent and constructive force. Morsi was a mediator between Israel and Hamas in the cease-fire agreement of 2012. He also tried to mediate indirect Israel-Hamas discussions after the cease-fire, and the talks among the Palestinian factions aimed at closing the gap between Fatah and Hamas. Two-thirds of Israelis in late 2012 said Morsi had a positive impact on diminishing Gaza violence. In the long run, however, the rise of Morsi and the Brotherhood—along with the Arab Spring—have implied a new center of gravity in the Middle East, one more favorable to Palestinian interests and the brokering of a statehood agreement.
The few Americans—some of them in high places—who believe that deepening chaos in the Arab world is somehow good for the Israelis, and therefore good for the United States, tend also to indulge in visions of Armageddon and the Apocalypse. They may be quietly rejoicing now, but the future they fantasize is one of perpetual war with its inevitable blowback. Their less-religious brethren in the national security state have a parallel preference for maintaining sectarian divisions, or sometimes sectarian dictatorships, against the perceived threat of nationalist unity anywhere in the Third World. They are pleased, on the whole, that their bloody Mubarak era has passed without giving rise to a unified nationalist Egyptian state standing up in the midst of the seething Arab world, one that would make the Arab oil monarchies tremble on their thrones and even force the Israelis to face a formidable new ally for the Palestinians at the tables of negotiation.
The gates of Hell are swinging loose.