In my book, the definition of a military coup is pretty clear. It’s when the armed forces take over a country by force or by fact. But as far as the United States is concerned, it seems not to be so simple.
If they described the overthrow of President Morsi in Egypt “a coup”, American law would have required that foreign aid to the country be stopped. There are a number of reasons why President Obama’s administration does not want to cut the aid, so they have had to pretend that there was no coup. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has even called the coup “restoring democracy”. Irony is dead.
You might think that the threat of the loss of a billion dollars a year would be an incentive to keep the Egyptian Generals in line, but apparently Obama doesn’t think so. Prior to Wednesday’s massacre, Washington was making no threats, just pleading privately with the Generals not to kill civilians. And what was President Obama’s reaction after the bloodshed? He said that he was very, very disappointed and was even going to cancel a forthcoming military exercise.
As I understand it, Obama’s government thinks that if they cut aid, the gap will be filled by one of more of the rich, Arab dictatorships, who would prefer not to have democracy break out in a neighbour. Certainly the dictator of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, publicly congratulated the Egyptian armed forces after Wednesday’s bloodbath. It’s political doublethink: if we don’t keep paying them, they won’t do what we want. If they don’t do what we want, then we still have to keep paying them.
Another factor is the way that “aid” actually works. Rich Western countries such as the USA don’t lovingly write a blank cheque so that poorer countries can improve their health, education and so on. Aid always comes with strings, typically the requirement to spend the money in the donor country. Often, it’s on military items, meaning that “aid” is actually a subsidy to the donor country’s arms manufacturers.
Sadly, I wasn’t even surprised at the coup or the bloody repression which has followed. It was clear to me that the Egyptian revolution, though it appeared to bring democracy, had actually failed. President Mubarak was deposed, but the Generals who had kept him in power all remained in place. They initially made themselves the government, ruling for 18 months, but even after ostensibly handing authority to the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi, they retained powers to manage the drafting of a new constitution, and had given themselves legal independence from civilian government control.
During his one year in office, Morsi had been trying to reduce the power of the military, but from a position of weakness. He had achieved the “retirement” of Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a Mubarak-oldtimer who had headed the junta which had ruled after the revolution. Unfortunately for Morsi, the man he selected as a replacement for Tantawi, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, became the leader of the recent coup.
I wouldn’t call Morsi a good leader, or the best man for the job, but then I’d say the same about David Cameron. The democratic processes that put them in power were moderately fair, and the democratic response should be to shrug and hope for a better outcome next time; maybe even get off your butt and do some campaigning. But the people of Egypt, particularly secularists and non-Moslems, couldn’t stand for what they saw as a post-election power grab by Morsi, and in the spirit of the revolution, took to the streets.
But like any revolution I’ve ever heard of, the people lose. Sometimes there’s a change of bosses, but not this time, 2013 in Egypt. It’s still the same group of men who have been running the country, with the help of American money, for the last forty years.