by Mitchell Plitnick
When is a coup not a coup? When calling it that carries repercussions that make a bad situation worse.
US President Barack Obama is struggling with recent events in Egypt. Once again he’s presented with a situation in the Middle East where he has few good options but is still facing expectations based on a long history of US influence over events — an influence that is no longer situated in reality.
In contrast to the revolution that deposed Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the ouster of Mohammed Morsi raises some profound questions, not only for foreign powers, but for Egyptians themselves. There is no doubt that Morsi brought a lot of this on himself. He neglected the major issue for almost all Egyptians, the economy; he shamelessly tried to grab dictatorial powers; he did not follow through on his campaign promises to include the widest spectrum of Egyptians in his government; and, when confronted with all of this, he remained obstinate.
All of that led to the June 30 demonstrations, organized by young Egyptians of the grassroots Tamarod (Rebel) movement, which included both the liberal and Salafist camps. That is a wide spectrum of Egyptians demanding Morsi to resign. The military — the power that controlled Egypt until Mubarak’s fall — stepped in very quickly and gave Morsi two days to respond before removing him from the presidency. It is not unreasonable to say that the military action was hasty. It certainly was likely, from the onset, to split Egypt between Mulsim Brotherhood supporters (even if they agreed that Morsi had bungled the job and needed to go, an opinion that was far from rare among those who opposed the military action) and those supporting the military’s action.
The military removed a sitting and democratically elected president; that’s a coup, and everyone knows it. Whether or not it should be officially dubbed as such, with all the accompanying policy ramifications, is a different matter. For the radical neoconservative, Elliott Abrams, US aid to Egypt should be cut off, as US law demands when a coup occurs. In this, Abrams stands against the desires of the Israeli government as well as the Obama administration. But he does not stand alone.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin and Republican Senator John McCain are also calling for the suspension of aid to Egypt. The concern, which they share with Abrams, is that the Egyptian military needs a stern warning in order to move with all deliberate speed toward restoring a civilian government. Elections are the key.
By contrast, many other members of Congress from both parties are supporting Obama in his determination not to cut funds for Egypt. The reasoning here is that the Egyptian economy is already reeling badly and cutting off US aid would not only exacerbate that situation, it also removes what leverage we might have in pushing the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) toward relinquishing power.
Both bits of thinking are misguided. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already moved to bolster their position in Egypt by pledging $8 billion to help Egypt weather its economic crisis. The gift is being given for reasons beyond promoting Egyptian stability. The Saudi/UAE rivalry with Qatar took a strong pro-Saudi turn with the deposition of Morsi. Qatar had backed him, as they had backed the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of that brand of Islamism throughout the region. But even before this, the succession of power in Qatar was already leading to Qatari adventurism’s end in the region. The Saudi/UAE support is meant to push that process along and cement Egypt against a Brotherhood revival.
This is surely met with approval in virtually all corners of Washington and Jerusalem, and, it should be added, within significant segments of Egypt. The SCAF wants the Brotherhood marginalized, as does the United States. But with the SCAF bringing this about in such a direct and draconian manner — mass arrests, heavy-handed use of force and shutting down media outlets deemed pro-Brotherhood — there is a real risk of undermining fragile hopes for stability in Egypt.
Obama is right in resisting calls to label the coup a coup. Yes, it’s playing fast and loose with both the truth and with US law, but no good is going to come out of alienating the SCAF and cooling our relationship with it. The plan the SCAF has in place is actually a pretty good one, if it plays out as written. The Western myopia that defines democracy through the ballot box will not serve well in Egypt. Before new elections, a constitution must be at least provisionally in place, lest we witness a repeat of June 30. It was this lack of structure that allowed Morsi to abuse his power and gave the Egyptian people no recourse to address that abuse but to march for his ouster.
But for even a constitutional structure to bring stability to Egypt, it will need to be as inclusive a process as possible, and that means finding a way to include the Muslim Brotherhood. Right now, the SCAF seems intent on marginalizing and radicalizing them. No doubt, the Saudis and other Gulf states are not unhappy with that state of affairs. Israel, too, is probably content with seeing the SCAF undermine not only the Brotherhood in Egypt, but pushing back the regional aspirations of the other Brotherhood branches and similar Islamist parties (not least the one in Turkey, the ruling AKP, whose own increasing lean toward Islamism could be discouraged by these events).
Less value is being placed on finding a way to reset the Egyptian revolution while not radicalizing the Brotherhood. It’s a complicated issue. The Brotherhood’s own behavior, even before June 30, indicates the comfort level they have with their familiar position of a besieged and persecuted opposition, a role they are quickly assuming once again. Right now, they’re assuming that role in isolation, but if Egypt’s economy continues to flounder, if the SCAF continues its heavy-handed approach and, most especially, if whatever government finally takes hold is deemed as inadequate as Morsi’s, they could find themselves in a popular position once again, as in 2011.
The US, and the Europeans, are in a position to influence some method of including the Brotherhood in Egypt’s future government. Indeed, the US seems to have already begun trying, though the approach was ham-handed and the Brotherhood interpreted the effort, not surprisingly, as an attempt to get them to legitimize the coup.
It is not the time for the US to try to bully Egypt or to taint whatever good relationships it has, and it still has a good one with the SCAF. But the US must recognize that a lot of its friends are holdovers from the Mubarak regime and that too much interference is very likely to backfire. A gentle and understated hand is necessary to help convince the SCAF and the currently forming technocratic government to work hard to include the Brotherhood as partners while still bringing in a government that will be very different from the one that was just toppled. That needs to be the key feature of the constitutional process. It is possible that this is what the Obama administration intends and, if so, they must stand fast against foolhardy voices like those of Levin, McCain and especially Abrams.
Photo Credit: Hossam el-Hamalawy