Living in denial: US policy & Egypt’s military coup

The US must acknowledge that the overthrow of an elected government, replaced by military-appointed officials, is a coup.

Egypt military
The head of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, was sworn in as interim president on July 4 [AP]

Living in denial never ends well, and failure to recognise Egypt’s military coup will prove counter productive for both Egyptians and Western policymakers.

The US is hard pressed to recognise the importance of calling Morsi’s removal and the appointment of leadership by the military for what it is, a coup. If mishandled by the military and interim government Egypt could be set back for at least another generation, adding to modern Egypt’s 60-year history of authoritarian rule. At the same time, it will generate anti-Western sentiment that may well become a significant security threat.

The US and Europe will be judged against their espoused principles and values, their commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights. Thus far they are failing the test, much as they did for decades when they supported authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Latin America, and elsewhere. The US and EU need to act now to counter the hardening perception, based on leaks and credible reporting, that the US knew about and – both through its actions and calculated inaction – supported the military coup.

Commitment to the democratic process has been undermined by the continued reluctance and equivocation of the US and others to call a spade a spade. The overthrow of a democratically elected government and its replacement by military-appointed officials is a coup. At the heart of democracy is a commitment to the democratic process and acceptance of the notion of a loyal opposition. Political leaders are elected to office and turned out of office through recourse to the ballot box. The opposition can oppose, even despise, incumbents and employ every legal means to turn them out of office but they remain loyal to the nation and the democratic process or the entire system has no basis of legitimacy. As Mohamed Adel Ismail, a 26-year-old Egyptian social worker put it: “He [Morsi] made some catastrophic mistakes, that must be said, but my understanding of democracy is you allow him to rule and fail and then vote him out.”

Despite the “interim government,” led by former Mubarak-appointed officials, making promises of political inclusion and a more democratic process, Morsi has been held incommunicado amidst talk of future charges of sedition or other crimes. The Brotherhood has been subjected to wide spread arrests and detention and denounced as terrorists as the military guns down and beats non-violent demonstrators – most recently killing some 51 people and injuring more than 400. The military’s purpose is transparent and in line with the modus operandi of Mubarak for decades:  use brute force to intimidate, repress, and provoke the opposition to violence and then say, “Look I told you they were wolves in sheep’s clothing”.

The perception of existential threat that the Brotherhood now feels must be alleviated. Immediate steps by the US and EU in this direction would include demanding to meet with President Morsi immediately, and demand his immediate release as well as that of all political prisoners and detained family members. In addition, the call for a national dialogue that includes the FJP, military representatives, and other political parties in order to identify a path forward that is acceptable to all.

The US and EU must also call for an independent investigation into the attacks on demonstrators and a process by which any parties that used excessive force will be held accountable. It is important the US and EU stress that any future democratic process must allow for the full inclusion of any and all political parties that have participated in post-Mubarak elections, calling for the setting and strict adherence to a date in the near future for elections in which all parties (including the FJP) are able to participate.

To have the above goals taken seriously by the military-backed government, the US and EU must use their only effective bargaining chip for leverage: the cut-off of military aid in accordance with law, and the withholding of recognition of an interim government until the above steps are taken. At the same time, they should carefully monitor the treatment of Morsi, MB and FJP members, and their supporters and denounce in unequivocal terms the use of weapons against unarmed protestors. This would send a clear message to those currently in power and to the Arab world.

The Arab uprisings signaled a desire for a new way forward, an overthrow of the established order in many Arab countries of authoritarian governments, and a struggle to establish a new kind of democracy. A military-backed coup is clearly a return to the past.  Egypt’s first democratically elected president was bound to make mistakes, due to the  “democratic deficit” in both systems and culture as a result of decades of authoritarian rule.

Indeed, Morsi and the Brotherhood leadership made many mistakes. They proved ill-equipped to make the transition from a movement organised and geared to survival under threat of siege to an inclusive sufficiently representative (politically and religiously) government. But they also did not control the vast majority of the government bureaucracy, including the military, intelligence, judiciary, interior ministry and police forces, which were – and remain still – remnants of the Mubarak regime. This constitutes a deep state bent on bringing down the Morsi government and likely any other that threaten their stranglehold on power and privileges behind the scenes. The international community: US, IMF, a variety of European countries, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, were all lukewarm at best and aggressively obstructionist at worst in assisting the Morsi government to address the daunting challenge of an inherited failed economy and high unemployment. Yet within days after the coup, Saudi and the UAE were quick to promise billions of dollars in aid.

The message the Obama administration is sending, whether intended or not, is that there is a double standard, much as there was in the decades of US support for authoritarian regimes of the past. Now, in emerging democracies, the rules of the game do not apply to a democratically elected Islamic government. This is reflected in the Obama administration’s equivocation and, in effect, denial that the removal of Morsi was a coup just as it was reflected when the George W. Bush administration equivocated about calling water-boarding torture or the rendition programme a violation of human rights and international law.  And before him, his father George H. W. Bush’s administration agreement to the Algerian military’s takeover in the face of the Islamic Salvation Front’s electoral victory, resulting in a ““dirty war” that left more than 150,000 Algerians dead in a population of about 25 million.

Long term Western nations’ interests in Egypt, and the wider region, are best served through representative governments elected through a democratic process, rule of law, and independent institutions.

John L. Esposito is University Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Georgetown University and the President of the American Academy of Religion.