An Egyptian Black Friday?

by Henry Precht

The starting point for understanding Egypt’s August 14th massacre is Black Friday — September 8, 1978 — during the Iranian Revolution.

On that day, 35 years ago, the Shah’s troops killed an untold number of demonstrators in Jaleh Square in south Tehran. Martial law had been declared the day before, but Iranians opposed to the Shah weren’t aware and filed into the square to be confronted by gunfire from soldiers. The government said that fewer than a hundred were killed; the opposition claimed over 1,000. The latter figure was believed by most Iranians.

The same calculus is true of the August 14 shootings in Cairo: the government reports some hundreds killed; its opponents claim thousands have been gunned down.

Few outsiders understood after Black Friday that a turning point had been reached in Ayatollah Khomeini’s struggle against the Shah. It was downhill for the ruler from then on. The Shah was at war with his people, it can be seen in retrospect; there was no way that he could prevail. The Carter Administration, like most outsiders, failed to grasp that. Focused on talks between Israelis and Egyptians at Camp David, the president, together with his Middle Eastern guests, issued a statement of support for the Shah and hope for his “liberalizing” promises.

Something of the same — support [for a return to democracy] and hope [for nonviolence] was President Barack Obama’s message after August 14. He recognizes that Egypt is sharply divided, the Muslim Brotherhood has close to a popular majority, the military have the guns and the US is distrusted and often despised by both sides. Treading carefully, he cancelled next month’s joint military exercise — perhaps aware that visiting American troops might be in danger of deadly attacks by extremists. But he left on the table for now the next tranche of military aid (over $1 billion) — perhaps aware that cancellation would be deeply offensive to nationalists and the blocked contract for F-16 aircraft a burden on the US budget.

Unwisely, he didn’t go far enough.

If Obama is to be true to American values, he should avoid hurting the Egyptian people, but support their aspirations for democracy and dignity. That means no sanctions against the country as a whole or the military as an institution. It does not mean that individual Egyptians responsible for the killings should be immune from US sanctions.

The president should ban any official US contact with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, his appointed president, prime minister, minister of the interior and any other officials who can be deemed guilty of authorizing violence after the coup and in the subsequent crackdown. The president should call on them to withdraw in favor of a small and politically balanced committee formed by resigned vice president Mohamed ElBaradei (no friend of the US). This committee, in turn, Obama would suggest, would select three individuals — one from the Muslim Brotherhood, one from the military ranks and one distinguished, independent Egyptian — to form a governing triumvirate. Each of the three would be acceptable to the other political elements.

The US would try to enlist other outside powers — EU members, Turkey, Russia and the Arab League — in backing some such scheme. Together they would demand an end to violence by all parties and the release of political prisoners. President Mohamed Morsi, after a very brief return to office, would resign for the good of Egypt — encouraged by the US and other outsiders and, with luck, by some of his MB colleagues. The constitution and parliament would be restored pre-coup. In effect, August 14 would represent a reversal of the coup rather than the beginning of a civil war.

If a plan of reasonable compromise is not worked out very soon, the threat of prolonged sectarian and civil strife is very real. A point of no return is approaching. Every death on the streets creates new martyrs willing to sacrifice themselves. Think Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. Think Iran in 1978.

Photo Credit: Mohamed Azazy

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.