Everybody coups, let me say upfront, is not my expression but John Oliver’s on The Daily Show last night. But I actually don’t agree with Oliver’s point about the June 30th popular uprising in Egypt that led to the military intervention that deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi. Oliver seems to be claiming, substantially, that ‘a coup by any other name’ is still a coup, to paraphrase Shakespeare; or more vulgarly, ‘if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s a duck.’
But if Oliver insists that it was a military coup that deposed Morsi, then he must accept that Morsi himself, in his short but catastrophic one-year administration, staged repeated unconstitutional coups-by-decree against every legitimate opposition he encountered: he staged a coup against the military, decapitating the entire top tier of generals, including Field Marshall Tantawi; to their credit, the generals went quietly. He attempted to decapitate the entire top tier of judges by decreeing a immediate retirement age of 60; the judges, for their part, dug their heels in, and Morsi backed off. He attempted to decapitate the opposition media by harassing and pursing talk show hosts and closing down media channels. Morsi also staged a coup against the constitution, by declaring himself and his decrees above judicial review while he railroaded overnight a Muslim Brotherhood-cobbled ‘constitution’ against the strident objections of the entire spectrum of the political opposition.
In other words, Morsi acted illegitimately from day one, and was hell-bent on purging all government and non-government entities of political opponents and replacing them with incompetent but sworn Muslim Brotherhood. He ignored the fact that his narrow margin of election at the ballot box came, not only or even mostly from Islamist supporters, but from a wide swathe of the liberal, secular, revolutionary forces that deposed Mubarak in 2011, and that only voted for Morsi in 2012 because they could not stomach voting for his Mubarak-clone opponent in the election.
The irony, today, is that Morsi’s Moslem Brotherhood supporters cling with a death grip to the claim of ‘legitimacy’ as grounds for re-instating the deposed president. The same people who now claim the sanctity of the ballot box forget that they have always claimed, and still claim, that Shari ’a is above democracy, ballot boxes, and man-made laws.
If June 30th 2013 was a military coup, it was a military coup by popular demand, not all that different from January 2011; after all, it was the generals, in the end, who went to then-president Mubarak on February 11 and told him that it was time to go. So John Oliver is right in a way: everybody coups. But a rose by any other name is not the same. Whether the Obama administration calls it a coup or not makes a great deal of difference legally as far as aid to Egypt is concerned. Most of the 1.3 Billion in aid goes to the Egyptian military, and much of it comes back to the U.S. in the form of arms industry contracts; the aid also guarantees Egypt’s adherence to the peace treaty with Israel. Suffice it to say, it is not in U.S. interests to stop military aid to Egypt.
Not to mention that U.S. foreign policy is unpopular enough in Egypt today without any added grievances. To the bemusement of American media commentators, both the Muslim Brotherhood side and the liberal secular side seem to be critical of U.S. foreign policy at the moment, and each side is accusing the other of being the ‘teacher’s pet.’ The unfortunate fact is that there is a widespread perception, regardless of political bent, that the ‘West’ is carrying through a long-term strategy of destabilizing and fragmenting the Arab Middle East, with Iraq and today Syria as the prime examples. Until that perception is changed, whatever the U.S. does, it will be damned if it does and damned if it does not.
But the West is right to point out that the newly re-enfranchised liberals are displaying heedless triumphalism and attempting to marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood too harshly. Returning to the repressive measures of the past and settling of accounts can only exacerbate the fractures in Egyptian society and lead to more instability. The Brotherhood and their supporters are not going away; the only option- difficult, distasteful, and uncertain as it may be- is to attempt to co-opt and re-engage the more moderate currents among the MB in the democratic process, while containing the more extremist currents. Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s Jon Stewart and the Islamists’ bête noir, made that same point in an article recently.
Hubris brought Mubarak down, and hubris brought Morsi down. That is a lesson that should not be lost on the new liberal/secular administration of Egypt. Or it will be ‘everybody coups,’ again.