Egypt’s coup is a political déjà vu

The baffled outrage produced by the recent bloodshed in Cairo is indicative of deep confusion at the heart of the West’s political attitude to Egypt. Shocked by broadcast footage of the crackdown and disturbing accounts of the violence in leading newspapers, Western public opinion is losing patience with its governments’ reluctance to call the coup against Morsi by its real name, and their refusal to bring a notionally US-friendly military junta into line. While understandable, this impatience ignores the long history of Western support for an intolerant military and Saudi Arabia eagerness to support the junta’s anti-Islamist resolve by offsetting the loss of European or American aid with its vast oil revenues. The outraged reaction also underestimates the difficulty of finding a single worthwhile ally in political quarrel that has further complicated the country’s modest steps towards democracy.

Inside Egypt groups that hoped for a fresh start after the ouster of Mubarak are struggling to make sense of the authoritarian streak in both of the main political actors, painfully evident in the uncompromising, confrontational nature of the recent clashes. While the carnage has received most of the attention, the military’s patient undermining of the Morsi government ‒ which included an artificial fuel shortage and prodding unions and public sector employees into crippling strikes ‒ suggests that it has considered the likely political endgame far more carefully than its Western critics. As Jonathan Steele writes in the Guardian, in this context international calls for dialogue sound naive: “Appeals for ‘restraint on all sides’, as though the distribution of power is roughly equal, are also futile. The Brotherhood still has millions of supporters, but they have been traumatised and intimidated by last week’s massacres. The army has shown it holds overwhelming power.”

The new mood is disconcerting. Al Ahram Weekly, a pro-military newspaper, articulates the rising confidence among the supporters of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) very clearly. Its weekly English language edition the analyst quotes the analyst Emad Gad as saying “It is amusing to see America’s congressmen and media delivering threats about US aid. All I can say is that a unique case of self-deception is sweeping America and the West, fanned by a corrupt media repeating hollow rhetoric about the influence they have in Egypt.” The charge of corruption and self-deception is particularly ironic from a newspaper that just a few years ago photoshopped president Mubarak to the front of a group of Middle East leaders meeting with  President Obama (a decision the editor-in-chief defended because it conveyed a “true expression of the prominent stance of President Mubarak in the Palestinian issue”), but it does give a sense of local scepticism towards Western diplomacy.

In another historical irony, Egypt’s courts were poised to grant the release of former president Mubarak at the same time that the current prime minister was reportedly preparing for the legal dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood. The absurdity of this development is best understood by the near-simultaneous arrest of Mohamed al-Zawahiri, brother of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the latest roundup of senior Islamist leaders. The overlap is a near-perfect symbol of what is at stake in the current upheaval, for it was when Egypt’s earlier generation of Islamists disappeared from legitimate politics and into the clutches of Mubarak’s torturers that Ayman al-Zawahiri and his cohorts formed al-Qaeda’s terrorist network. The resurgence of a military government and the criminalization of the Brotherhood is one of several disturbing instances of this political déjà vu.

There are no easy answers left in Egypt, Syria, Libya or Tunisia. Instead of brokering deals with its customary political clients, the West is having to accept its waning influence in the region.  Morsi’s presidency began with the slimmest of margins ‒ Mubarak’s former prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, won 48% of the vote in the presidential elections ‒ and he remained uneasy throughout his time in office. Setting aside the Brotherhood’s considerable shortcomings, it never had much chance of success. Now, however, faced with the authoritarian alternative to Morsi’s highhanded incompetence, Western diplomacy has few practical options and none that can establish a clean break with former “entangling alliances.” Further turmoil is very likely in Middle East but unless the international community can agree on a common response to the region’s multiple crises, it will remain locked-in to the least bad option of decrying every new atrocity and then ensuring that nothing meaningful is done about it.

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