The coup (let us at least here call a spade a spade) that ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi in July was quietly cheered by the West and, more loudly, by most Egyptians. But no one is cheering now.
The Egyptian army’s decision to unleash deadly force against its own people was as brutal in its intent, if not its scale, as the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad. And yet, as in Syria, the West, which sends billions of dollars to Egypt each year, looks on. The United States and the United Kingdom cannot even bring themselves to describe what has happened in a proper way, let alone take measures that could halt the violence. The semantics surrounding whether the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected government in history was a military coup have reached laughable status.
Both in Washington and London officials have spent the last month squirming through linguistic hoops to avoid using the word “coup.” It has become the dreaded term that must never be uttered in polite political briefings.
The British government cannot even condemn the subsequent actions of the army, despite the bloody backdrop of the events of last week, when two Muslim Brotherhood encampments were violently cleared. Speaking on Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the bloodshed which has left at least 900 dead as “turbulence” and “very bleak.” Bizarrely, Hague added that although the United Kingdom did not approve of “military interventions in democratic processes,” the army’s ousting of Morsi was not illegal, asserting that it was, in fact, a “gray area.”
Well maybe, but what is going on at the moment in Egypt looks pretty black and white to most observers.
For sure, Mohammad Morsi’s presidency was a disaster. His calamitous handling of the economy ultimately led to the demonstrations calling for him to go. Morsi was also guilty of trampling the aspirations of the people who had forced open the floodgates that put him in power. His decision to rush through laws with only the consent of the Islamist-dominated constitutional committee revealed he and the Muslim Brotherhood were little committed to the principle of democracy.
But the problem for the Egyptian military is that its bloody assault on the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters boosted sympathy for the group. And if history teaches us anything about modern Egypt, it is that brute force will not crush the Brotherhood. Indeed as the current violence shows, it may push more people toward greater extremism.
The elections scheduled for November would have offered the Egyptian people, not the army, a chance to boot Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood out of office. It must surely be vital for people in the Middle East, and for Western interests in the region, that those voting for Islamic parties believe democracy offers them a route to government. Otherwise, elections will give credence to Al-Qaeda, which believes that only violence can bring change in the Arab world.
The U.K.’s leverage in Egypt, as in Syria, is limited. Consequently, as it has done in Syria, the British government has taken a decision to do nothing in Egypt. Despite “suspending” a handful of arms export licenses, a foreign official confirmed to me this week that the U.K. was still allowing arms to be exported to Egypt.
At a European Union foreign ministers emergency meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, member states agreed to suspend the export of some military equipment. However, that fell short of an outright ban on weapons sales and the EU only agreed to “review” its large aid budget to Egypt. The EU has currently pledged almost $6.5 billion in loans and grants for 2012-2013.
While Egypt benefits from this money and some access to EU markets, the Obama administration remains the key player, the one to which Egypt’s military listens. But once again Washington has been found wanting on the global stage. Add Egypt to the growing list of regional issues that President Barack Obama seems determined to avoid, from Syria’s brutal civil war to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Canceling a joint military exercise, Operation Bright Star, with Egypt was hardly an adequate rebuke for shooting civilians. Canceling the $1.5 billion annual aid Washington hands over to the Egyptian Army would send a clearer message, but unfortunately it is not one that the United States appears willing to send.
Egypt’s military could still receive on billions of dollars from its conservative Gulf allies, notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, none of which can be described as lovers of the Muslim Brotherhood and all of which feel obliged to be proactive in the absence of U.S. leadership. The three countries recently unveiled an aid package for Egypt that totaled almost $12 billion.
Against the current backdrop of violence it is difficult to see how the army’s promise of a new constitution and fresh elections can include the Muslim Brotherhood, or indeed any Islamist parties. Yet they must be included, because that promise offers the only route toward ending the current bloodshed.
As such, it should be made it clear to Egypt that all trade, aid and exports from the U.S. and the EU will cease until elections take place and a civilian government takes office. Pressure must be applied to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to do likewise, in spite of their aversion to free elections. That requires American leadership, and to a lesser extent European and British leadership.
Are you listening Barack Obama? Because whatever words you use to describe what has happened, Egypt should not be allowed to continue as normal when civilians are being gunned down and, along with their blood, their basic human rights are being trampled into the dirt.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in London.