Why the West needed Egypt's putsch
More than eight months have passed since the coup in Egypt which toppled the elected president Mohammad Morsi after a one year in office. The coup shattered the enthusiasm (which had accompanied the Arab Spring two years earlier) for a future democratic Arab world.
This enthusiasm reached a high mark when former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak (a dictator who had been in power for over 30 years in the most populous Arab country) was overthrown in 2011. By the time of Morsi’s removal from power, the spring had started to look like an autumn, at least in the eyes of those expecting a smooth transformation to democracy.
Hopes hadn’t been this high in the Arab world for decades, and the subsequent disappointment couldn’t have been any more bitter. The democratic Arab world, which seemed so near, slipped away.
The obvious questions - one that many have ever since volunteered to answer - were: Why did the Egyptian democratic experiment unravel so quickly? Why after the so glorious revolution of the Tahrir Square was Egypt’s first elected president toppled? What happened and who is to blame?
The answers for these questions always dependent on some evaluations of what the revolution was about, what took place during Morsi’s one year in power and what happened ever since he is toppled.
In the public discourse in English, two interconnected narratives have emerged. Each of these narratives try to explain in retrospect what went wrong during the revolution and what derailed the revolution even since that joyous day of February 2011, when Mubarak finally stepped down.
Both narratives place the blame either squarely on the Muslim Brotherhood or on a general undemocratic culture of which they represented the most striking example. These narratives have, of course, some grain of truth, but they mostly conceal what is at the heart of the downfall of the Egyptian democratic experiment.
While they show, in fact exaggerate the fragility of the democratic culture in Egypt, they deliberately obscure the fact that Western powers and, to a greater degree, their regional and local allies could not have accepted to live with a democracy in Egypt. These narratives don’t take into account the West’s long history of preempting democratic change in the region.
There is no conclusive evidence - certainly at the level of the self-confession of the 1953 coup in Iran — that Western powers have indeed orchestrated the recent coup in Egypt, or in the minimum gave it the green light. However, the conduct of Western powers and their allies in the region toward the current regime in Cairo is quite revealing.
If this conduct is closely read against a background of significant historical examples of Western tampering with popular will in Muslim and Arab countries, then a clear picture of what culminated in the 3 July coup can be glimpsed.
This is not to say that the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t commit some serious mistakes which also made the work of those who sought to topple their regime relatively easy. This included an inability to appreciate the extent of the corruption in the military establishment, an inability to grasp the immaturity of the Salafi movement, and the extent of intelligence infiltration of their party.
The Brothers also failed to reach out to, and assuage the fear of some of the few but principled liberals, and they hesitated to institute rapid measures to involve key individuals from the large, albeit unorganized, segment of disgruntled youth.
All these are factors which contributed to the downfall of the Morsi regime. It should be noted, however, that these are contributing factors; accelerants that neither triggered nor could have per se brought Morsi’s regime down.
Egypt from coup-etiology to Koftalogy
The weeks that followed the coup constituted a period for many to mourn the senseless violence that the regime carried out in an effort to mute protests. The period was also a time of celebration for those who thought this was a triumph for a certain loftier ideal: “liberal democracy.”
Like most coups, the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi was not presented as a coup. What happened was portrayed as the professional intervention of a national army, responding to the demands of the majority of Egyptians to correct an experiment, which had gone terribly wrong. It is common knowledge now that the popular support, which was highly stressed during the weeks and months after the coup, was extremely exaggerated.
Although the ludicrousness of the claims that accompanied the coup was exposed bare, the trend of making diabolically exaggerated claims continued to intensify as the new regime’s needs to supplant the worsening situation on the ground with a world of hyperbole grew.
The most recent example of these exaggerations is the government’s allegation that an army doctor had invented the panacea of modern times: a device that remotely detects and cures HIV, Hepatitis C and possibly others viral infections.
The founder of Koftalogy - as a US-based Egyptian doctor sardonically referred to this man’s research—turned out to be neither from the army nor a medical doctor. With Koftalogy, Egypt no longer lives in the twilight zone, as professor Khaled Abu El Fadl noted in the weeks after the coup. It has soared far beyond that. To be sure, there is little that is new in the nature of the lies themselves.
Most are still reminiscent of the 1960s when Egypt tested on local newspapers the first supersonic fighter-jet in the world. It is ironic that whenever Egypt is this intoxicated with demagoguery and barefaced lies that it seems to coincide with the Muslim Brothers being tortured behind bars.
The West: Looking forward
Despite the brutality of the new regime, its increasingly bizarre comportments received little attention in the West. The meek expressions of concern and vague wishes “of a speedy return to constitutional order” coming from the West in the days and weeks after the coup couldn’t hide the excitement in decision-making circles over the events.
Instead of seeing the coup as a flagrant violation of the constitutional order in an infant democracy (which some academics did), the attention was shifted to speaking of the ills of the Muslim Brothers, or sometime worse, the absence of a democratic culture in the region.
Many elatedly noted that you wouldn’t find a Thomas Jefferson amongst the Muslim Brothers or anywhere, for that matter, in Egypt. The earlier promotion and gender change of the controversial activist, Asmaa Mahfouz, to be the Thomas Jefferson of Egypt, was an exception.
Democracy, many argued, is not just about elections. It is a culture and a process. And the Muslim Brothers failed to rule democratically. The implicit message is that the MB had to go and it was good they did, even if no explicit endorsement of the coup was initially made.
US President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, followed the same line. Kerry has recently gone even further to parrot the Egyptian military official line, describing the army’s venture as a restoration of democracy. One has to have read Obama's Audacity of Hope too many times to call what is happening in Egypt “a restoration of democracy”.
Support for the coup inside Congress was, from the beginning, far more obvious. The early split on the Congress floor on Egypt was not about whether this was a good step but rather on how to best protect US interests and reputation, specifically making sure the US doesn’t look as if it was supporting a coup.
To prevent that perception some sugarcoating was needed — a poudre aux yeux technique. With the exception of a few levelheaded democrats, most Congressmen saw no “good guys” on either sides and certainly not among the MB.
It is ironic - although expected - that Israel, which sells itself as the sole democracy in the region, was rapturous. Although aware of the sensitivity of being seen as backing any Middle Eastern power, the Israelis did little to hide their joy.
In the words of one of its high-ranking intelligence officers, “there is [sic] no two schools of thought in Israel” on the coup. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak as well as other high ranking Israel military officers and diplomats were clear that the change was positive and urged the West to support Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
Having defined its security in terms contrary to the aspirations of the Arab masses, Israel has reasons - contrary to rumors in the Arab world that Morsi had a good relationship with the Israelis - to welcome with a sigh of relief the ouster of the Ikhwani president. Rather than triggering Congress’s backing for the coup, AIPAC, Israel’s most powerful lobby in DC, only had to play a supportive role.
For this one, the lobby needed only to cheer the Congressmen as they marched. They didn’t need to cajole them.
Algeria: The genesis of Western monomania of Islamism
What happened in Egypt is simply a more complex version of some early problems (Algeria of 1992, Hamas of 2007 and the Iranian coup of 1953). The problem is that a real democracy in the Arab world, and the Muslim world for that matter - unless something slips out (it is still not certain that Tunisia will be that exception despite the enormous sacrifices that the local Islamists made to keep accord) - is not welcome from key players in world politics.
By jockeying local and regional allies, these powers have rendered, and will seek in future to render fruitless, any attempt at real democratisation in these countries.
The fear of course is not of democracy - most Western countries are fine with democracy in principle - although their allies locally and regionally dread it. The fear is of a democracy that will bring to power people who have an agenda at odds with the current arrangements of power differentials, which could be traced back to the colonial era.
The central dilemma, however, is that no organized and meaningful political group - whether one that would earn the liberals’ "benedictory" descriptor of "civil society" or not - would accept to continue to work within the existing paradigm because its very own popularity must, by necessity, rest on a critique of that very paradigm.
Since the existing world paradigm is clearly contrary to the aspirations of the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslim, we are then left with two scenarios; 1) the democratic ascension of a gradualist group (such as the MB) who will not make radical changes warranting a global fear-mongering, but who will not accept not to start undoing this paradigm; and 2) a violent rise to power of groups of similar inclination.
The second scenario is easy to deal with, and the West has dealt with leaders arriving to power through such means and also with groups espousing radical tendencies. Therefore, any new instance would simply look as deja vu. The first scenario is the most complex–from the perspective of major world powers–and hence its undermining requires the deployment of all resources in ways that ensure that the entire debacle is viewed as a local issue.
Although the details of who conspired to carry out what coup and how will eventually be known, the temporary guarding of the information is important to continue to promulgate the larger narrative of a benevolent West, supporting good causes, and a messy rest continuing to languish under the weight of the contradictions of its histories and cultures.
This was what we saw in Algeria in 1992. For long, the event was portrayed for the public audience in the West as well as in the east as simply a bloodbath instigated and sustained by Muslim fanatics — the same Muslim fanatics who had overwhelmingly won the elections in 1991. We know for years now - thanks to several publications and many testimonies of former Algerian intelligence officers - that those claims were lies.
While some Islamists were pushed to violence, the most systematic forms of violence (the merciless and senseless massacres) was done by the army, the intelligence services or by groups infiltrated by them. The targets were conveniently the residents of areas (villages and shantytowns) known in the past elections for their strong support for the Islamists. For experts, many of the secrets of that dirty war are now known, but for the general public, especially in the West, the image was - and more likely to continue to be - one of Islamist anti-democratic murderers.
In the Algerian case, Western support was too evident. Although traditionally pompous in their progressive rhetoric and support of ‘freedom and democratic ideals,’ the French made only a lackadaisical effort to camouflage their happiness at what took place in Algeria.
Roland Dumas, then France’s minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke as if Algeria had a cause to celebrate, not a tragedy to mourn: “[it is] an important event of significant consequences.” President Mitterrand spoke somewhat belatedly, stressing France’s principled stance in support of democracy and human rights and hoped democracy will soon be restored.
Although some has seen his response to the coup as “a master class in obfuscation” describing the coup as some point as “abnormal”, Mitterrand, of course, said nothing about the camps of torture that were being set up at the time throughout Algeria because his government had met with and advised the very man who, upon his return from France on 12 January, ordered their construction: Algerian Minister of Interior, Larbi Belkheir (See France and Algeria: A History of Decolonization and Transformation).
Mitterrand’s statement that Algerians should “pick up again the thread” sounds eerily similar to the British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s comment on Egypt: “We have to look forward. This has happened.” Unlike those who were shocked by the event, Hague was ready with that statement on July 4th as if he was expecting the event.
Other Western countries, which equivocated in 1992 on Algeria and on Egypt in 2013, would later acknowledge that they took pragmatic, not principled stances, and deliberately supported the suppression of democracy in Algeria. In America and Political Islam, (a book published by Cambridge University Press), Fawaz A. Gerges cites then secretary of state James Baker commenting on the US position from the events of 1992:
“When I was at the Department of State, we pursued a policy of excluding the radical fundamentalists in Algeria, even as we recognized that this was somewhat at odds with our support of democracy. Generally speaking, when you support democracy, you take what democracy gives you. If it gives you a radical Islamic fundamentalist, you’re supposed to live with it. We didn’t live with it in Algeria because we felt that the radical fundamentalists’ views were so adverse to what we believe in what we support, and to the national interests of the United States.”
Generally speaking, the only general wisdom that an astute observer could glean from Western reactions to democratic experiments in the Arab would is that the West is not willing to tolerate, much less cooperate with, any government in the Arab world that rises through democratic means, unless it looks Western, acts Western and serves Western interests.
Note that in Baker’s statement, the difference was not about democratic ideals (“the first and last election” label), but rather about how their “views were so adverse to what we [the US] believe in and what we support.”
Forget the “radical fundamentalists” in the secretary’s statement because - as we have seen - it mattered, and it will matter, little in future, whether the victors of elections in the Arab world are radicals, as Baker described the Algerian Islamists of 1992, or military resistance movement, as any sensible observer would call Hamas of 2007, or evidently a gradualist and moderate movement like the Muslim Brothers of Egypt in 2013.
Like in Iran in 1953, it took a whole year for the execution of the coup to be completed in Egypt. Part of that time was spent, one must confess, on attempts to make the MB accept to be an elected Mubarak or an elected king Abdullah, or an elected version of UAE system, or in the very minimum to force Morsi to accept a humiliating resignation like that of Chadli Bendjedid in 1992. When the MB proved to have an agenda, which in the long term would have the effect of launching Egypt on a different path, the work to dislodge them by force began.
The billions invested in the Egyptian military and intelligence services, the money spent on various organizations of the so-called liberal and human right groups were now put to use.
In the Egyptian case, the role of regional allies was significant as well. With more money coming from the Saudis and the UAE (Western allies who were worried about the MB as a speaker for Islam and Egypt as a leading power in the region), and with the full support of the Israelis, a campaign of vilification of the MB began.
Of course, many “useful idiots” were duped and many agents and local politicians gullibly fancied themselves being the new leaders of the Cairo colonial post. Their enthusiasm was useful as it added to the human mass necessary to provide a varnish of legitimacy for the coup that was already planned.
Events since have proven one thing: The only active, truly determined, democratic, independent, non-violent (as much as such things could be established in a fluid environment like Egypt), and the sole organization which has in the Egyptian debacle taken the right side of history against massacres and unrelenting campaigns of repression are the Muslim Brothers. This is a plain fact now clear to all who wish to see it.
— Ahmed Meiloud is a PhD student at the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. His research interests include studying the various movements of political Islam across the Arab World, with special focus on the works of the thinkers, jurists and public intellectuals who shape the moderate strands of Islamism. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Main image: Demonstrations and protests during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 in Cairo (Floris Van Cauwelaert)