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Democracy triumphs in America. Now the US must support it in the Arab world

The Capitol riot shook the US to its core. Yet with Egypt, Washington was happy to look the other way when a democratically elected president was deposed by a mob
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks during a bilateral meeting with US president Donald Trump in New York in 2018 (AFP)

It's not just Hollywood. America loves a happy ending. The bad guy skulks off, having wreaked havoc, his evil empire in ruins. He is alive only because he may be needed for the sequel. 

The good guy reclaims his rightful place at the helm. America is redeemed. In relief, everyone eats. 

Had Bruce Willis himself stomped into the Oval Office, fashionably scarred after a succession of near-death experiences and with smoke still rising from Capitol Hill, you would have had Die Hard 6, no less.

The morality play of Joe Biden's return to power was in fact pre-recorded.

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"I think if Americans love their neighbour like they'd like to be loved themselves, a lot of the division in our society would end," said Bush.

"We've got to not just listen to folks we agree with but listen to folks we don't," said Obama.

"It's a new beginning," said Clinton.

All of which is heartwarming and life-affirming. But it nonetheless requires in each and every American home that consumed this pap a sudden onset of amnesia. 

Between them, the three men wrecked the post-Soviet world order.

Clinton lost Russia, Bush lost Iraq and Obama lost Libya and Syria. A once-in-a-generation opportunity to stabilise, demilitarise and disarm was sacrificed to American exceptionalism.

People in Scranton, Biden's home town in Pennsylvania, do not hold fond memories of the flight of jobs which followed Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). If anything laid the foundations for the rise of white supremacist militias, that did.

Conscious or not, the transfer of power in Washington this week was imbued with bucket-loads of meaning. This inauguration evidently meant much more than the passing of one president and the arrival of another. 

We were told that Biden's inauguration speech had echoes of Abraham Lincoln; that the American flags waving in the National Mall were emblems of stubborn endurance; that the National Guard which secured the scene was guarding the nation against itself; that democracy had survived another day.

I do not belittle these sentiments, nor the rising conviction that Donald Trump imperilled democracy. He had little attachment to anything other than his own ego. He patently deserves to answer for his words and actions in office.

Absent without leave

But nor can I forget how successive US administrations have belittled and paid lip service to the same democratic forces when they expressed themselves in Egypt or the rest of the Arab world.

The 10th anniversary of the only mass democratic uprising in the region, the Arab Spring, is a good time to reflect on this.

Trump failed to overturn the democratic order, but Abdel Fattah el-Sisi succeeded in doing just that in Egypt in 2013. 

The massacres in Cairo's Rabaa Square and the Syrian government's chemical attacks in the opposition-held Damascus suburbs of Ghouta, both of which took place in August 2013, ended the era of peaceful uprisings two years after they had started.

The US administration, of which Biden was vice-president, suspended arms sales to Egypt for two years, but stopped short of calling the ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a military coup

The US administration, of which Biden was vice-president, suspended arms sales to Egypt for two years, but stopped short of calling the ouster of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a military coup.

For what took place then in Cairo was a coup, not a second revolution, and it too was built on lies. If Trump built his power on lies, Sisi did even more so, and does so today.

Long before the 2013 coup, the lies were piled on Morsi relentlessly: that he had sold the Suez Canal to Qatar; that his wife had built a personal pool in the palace; that he had packed his administration with his supporters; that he had an American Zionist agenda; that Obama was a Muslim Brotherhood member in hiding. 

On the day of the coup, it was claimed that 32 million Egyptians took to the streets. If true, this would have amounted to one-third of the country's population. 

We now know from the testimony of those who took part in the events of that day that the television pictures were falsified and included counter-demonstrations of Morsi supporters to create the sense that the whole country was up in arms.  

We also know much else about what took place off-stage: that Sisi only moved against Morsi after being promised $20bn from three Gulf states; that Tamarod, the movement established to gather popular support against Morsi, was paid for by the UAE and was a creature of Egyptian military intelligence.

Swallowing of military propaganda

Subversion of democracy was effective both in Egypt and America. Trump was called a pre- or proto-fascist in that he used lies like Hitler and Mussolini to create and incite a violent mob but lacked the ideology to fashion political objectives. 

Once inside the Capitol building, his mob did not know what to do.

The difference between Capitol Hill in 2020 and Cairo in 2013 was that the US media clearly identified the threat that Trump was about to pose. Whereas they looked the other way when a democratically elected president was deposed by a mob. Former British prime minister Tony Blair called it a popular rebellion.

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There were indeed mass demonstrations against Morsi in 2013, but there were also mass demonstrations against Biden after he won the presidential election in 2020. 

Over 74 million Americans voted for Trump, and half of those believe that he "rightfully won". Only slightly fewer, 45 percent, actively supported the Capitol Hill riots. Those are not insignificant figures.

Secular liberals in Egypt not only swallowed the military propaganda hook, line and sinker. They added to it. 

Infamously, the Tahrir activist Alaa Abdelfattah and his mother Leila Soueif called for the sit-in at Rabaa to be dispersed, claiming that the Islamists were "armed with heavy weaponry".

"This is an armed sit-in with heavy weaponry... this does not have a political solution... the solution to this is security. It's clear that they've come with no plan. At the very least, at the very least, bridle them," Abdelfattah said.

What followed, according to an extensive investigation by Human Rights Watch, was the worst massacre of unarmed civilians on one day since Tiananmen Square, and possibly even worse. The world took no notice.

Abdelfattah, his mother and her sister, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, soon found themselves the target of the forces their actions helped come to power.

Abdelfattah was arrested in November that year, charged with protesting without permission and assaulting a police officer. In 2015, he was sentenced to five years in prison for violating a law banning unauthorised protests.  

Released in March 2019 under conditions where he had to spend nights at a police station, he was rearrested in September that year, after which his family says he was beaten and robbed in Tora prison. In March last year, Leila and Ahdaf Soueif, along with Mona Seif, Abdelfattah's sister, were arrested after demanding the release of prisoners. They were released with a fine a day later.

A long list of liberals, headed by the politician Mohamed ElBaradei, who supported the coup against Morsi, fled the country after the Rabaa massacre. He was called a traitor and characterised as stabbing Egypt in the back.

End of the affair?

Lies are not just bad for American democracy, they are bad for democracy and stability everywhere. 

Biden has promised to end America's love affair with autocrats and vowed there would be no more blank cheques for Sisi, whom Trump had dubbed his favourite dictator.

But kicking the habit of funding and selling arms to dictators is not a simple as uttering soundbites. 

Sensing that Trump was a losing bet, the Arab dictators, led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, made a beeline for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, starting a wave of normalisations.

Sensing that Trump was a losing bet, the Arab dictators, led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, made a beeline for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, starting a wave of normalisations

Their logic was crude but simple. If Israel was the portal through which an unknown and highly ambitious Saudi prince, Mohammed bin Salman, could start a personal relationship with the Trump clan and gain power, then Israel too would be their life insurance policy if Trump left.

Biden supports the Abraham Accords that formalised diplomatic recognition and trade with Israel. But his administration should not kid themselves.

These accords were negotiated in secret between spies and despots. They were driven by the worst dictators in the Gulf, the military side of Sudan's shaky transitional government, the king of Morocco and his kowtowing prime minister

They are opposed vigorously by the vast majority of democratic political forces and the Arab people.

If the people in any of the countries that have signed normalisation deals with Israel were to be allowed to express their will, normalisation with Israel would be blown away.

Struggle for democracy itself has not died

The truth is that while the Egyptian revolutionaries of 25 January 2011 have paid a heavy price for their rebellion, while they count themselves to be a lost generation, the struggle for democracy itself has not died. 

Its embers are glowing beneath the feet of every Arab despot.

The first wave of the Arab Spring was crushed only with the application of the maximum use of force all over the Arab world.

Ten years on, the counter-revolution is struggling to maintain control. It is ruinously expensive and militarily inept.

It failed in Libya when General Khalifa Haftar's forces failed to take Tripoli and were turned back to Sirte. It failed in Turkey, when the Turkish people of all political parties fought soldiers on the streets and won. 

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An extravagantly funded lobbying operation to convince Capitol Hill that Mohammed bin Salman was a reformer hit the buffers when the CIA decided that he was almost certainly behind the murder of my friend and colleague Jamal Khashoggi.

Mostly, the counter-revolution failed to provide stable governance and ensure a strong economy for its own people. If the despots could not bet on Trump, Biden should not bet on them to continue in power.

They can only continue in power by applying more and more repression. Their crimes against humanity are a one-way street and there is no backing back down it and retiring peacefully.  

They can not liberalise, nor can they transfer power to rivals, even within the military. They know that if they do, they could put their necks and those of their closest family on the line, such has been the anger their crimes have generated. The Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi ended up crawling into a drainpipe before he was lynched. The same fate may well await them.

Biden should be aware that a Middle East built on absolute monarchs and military dictators is inherently unstable and can not last. It could blow up at any moment. And anything that happens in Egypt would have a ripple effect throughout the region. 

If democracy is good enough for Americans, it is good enough for Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, Moroccans, Iraqis, Yemenis and Jordanians too.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst
David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was The Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.