THE real story behind the military coup in Cairo led by Gen al-Sissi is much more complex than the western media is reporting. Far from a spontaneous uprising by Egyptians, what really happened was a putsch orchestrated by Egypt’s “deep government” and outside powers – the latest phase of the counter-revolution against the so-called Arab Spring.
A year ago, Egyptians elected Mohammed Morsi president in their first fair democratic election. Morsi came from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, an eight-decade old conservative movement of professionals dedicated to bringing Islamic principles of public welfare, politics, education, justice, piety and fighting corruption.
But the deck was stacked against Morsi and the Brotherhood from day one. The brutal US-backed Mubarak had fallen, but the organs of his 30-year dictatorship, Egypt’s pampered 440,000-man military, judiciary, academia, media, police, intelligence services and bureaucrats, remained in place. Even Morsi’s presidential guard remained under control of the Mubarak forces.
The dictatorship’s old guard – better known as the “deep government” – sought to thwart every move of the Brotherhood. In fact, the stolid, plodding Morsi only became president after more capable colleagues were vetoed by the hard-line Mubarakist courts.
Morsi should have purged the “deep government”, notably the police, secret police, judges, and media who were sabotaging the democratic government. But Morsi was too soft, and the entrenched powers arrayed against him too strong. He never managed to grasp the levers of state.
Ironically, after all the media hysteria in North America over the alleged dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood, it turned out to be a dud.
The Brotherhood stumbled from one crisis to the next as Egypt’s economy, already in terrible shape before the 2011 revolution, sank like a rock. Tourism, that provided 17% of national income, evaporated. Unemployment soared over 13%, and over 50% among angry urban young. We have seen this same phenomena in Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria, Pakistan, and Western Europe. Severe shortages of fuel and electricity sparked outrage.
Egypt’s curse is that it cannot feed its surging population of over 90 million. So Cairo imports huge quantities of wheat and subsidises retail prices for bread. The US sustained the Sadat and Mubarak regimes with boatloads of wheat discounted 50%. This vital aid tapered off when Morsi took power. Food prices in Egypt rose 10%.
Equally important, ever since Anwar Sadat invited the US to rearm his outdated military, Egypt’s Armed Forces have become joined at the hip with the Pentagon. Just as Turkey’s 500,000-man armed forces were, until 11 years ago, and Pakistan’s so remain today.
Armies of many Muslim states are designed to control their populations, not defeat foreign enemies. The only Arab military force in recent memory to beat an invader has been the guerilla forces of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel with Obama
The US provides Egypt’s military US$1.5 billion annually, not counting tens of millions of “black” payments from CIA to leading generals, police chiefs, commentators and bureaucrats.
Egypt’s military has been re-equipped with US F-16 fighter-bombers, M-1 heavy tanks, armoured vehicles, radars, electronic systems, and artillery.
Washington has supplied Egypt with just enough arms to control its population and intimidate small neighbours, but not enough to wage war against Israel.
Further, the Pentagon sharply limits Egypt supplies of munitions, missiles and vital spare parts. Many of Egypt’s generals have been trained in US military colleges, where they formed close links with US intelligence and the Pentagon. CIA, DIA, and NSA have large stations in Egypt that watch its military and population.
Under Mubarak, the US controlled Egypt’s military and key parts of its economy. When Morsi and the Brotherhood came to power, Washington backed off for a while but in recent months apparently decided to back the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratic government.
This fact became perfectly clear when the White House refused to call the military coup in Cairo a coup. Had it done so, US law would have mandated the cutoff of US aid to Egypt.
US politicians and media, with shameless hypocrisy, are hailing the overthrow of Morsi as a democratic achievement. In North America, anything labelled “Muslim” has become ipso facto menacing.
The counter-revolution of Egypt’s “deep government” was financed and aided by the US and Saudi Arabia, cheered on by Israel, the UAE, Britain and France. Tiny Qatar, that backed Morsi with US$8 billion, lost its influence in Cairo. The Saudis will now call many shots in Egypt.
In recent weeks, mass street demonstrations in major Egyptian cities against Morsi were organised by the police, secret police and the Mubarakist structure. Fears of the Brotherhood were whipped up among Egypt’s nervous Coptic Christians, 10% of the population, who form much of the urban elite.
Then there were tens of thousands of unemployed, highly volatile young street people, as we saw in Istanbul, ready to explode at any excuse. Large numbers of Egyptians were fed up with stumbles of Morsi’s government – even some of his former Salafist allies – and the threat of economic collapse. Liberals, Nasserites, Marxists joined them.
There may be some armed resistance against the coup, but it will likely be crushed by Egypt’s military and attack-dog security forces. Senior Brotherhood officials are being arrested, and pro-Brotherhood media gagged, while Washington turns a blind eye.
As of now, the threat of a real civil war such as Algeria suffered in the 1990′s after a US and French-backed military coup seems unlikely, but not impossible.
Meanwhile, the military has installed a puppet president. The old US “asset” Mohammed el-Baradei may take over as civilian frontman for the generals, who prefer civilian sock puppets get blamed for Egypt’s economic and social crises.
So much for democracy in the Middle East. The overthrow of a moderate Islamist government will send a message to the Muslim world that compromise with the western powers is impossible and only violent resistance can shake the status quo.
Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist, writing mainly about the Middle East and South Asia. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes democracy starts with a coup, not a free election
by Camilla Cavendish
So the Arab spring has faded into an arid winter. The military coup in Egypt — and that’s what it was, despite our attempts to pretend it wasn’t — is a reminder of how wilfully naive the West has been about the challenges of planting democracy in new soil.
In sweeping away Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the generals have fulfilled the wishes of the millions of Egyptians who came onto the streets on June 30. But those ranks of sand-coloured tanks set a dangerous precedent for other nations, which may be tempted to settle scores on the streets, not in parliament.
Whether the army will really relinquish control again is far from certain. As it rounds up Muslim Brotherhood officials and fires on Morsi supporters, the backlash will only feed the classic refrain about the need for strong men to restore law and order. This refrain is no less dangerous for being true.
How premature the British and Americans now look in their rush two years ago to eulogise about Twitter hashtags and digital revolution inspiring a new dawn in Cairo and Tripoli. Morsi did not bring emancipation, but an increasingly authoritarian theocracy. The people were right to want him out, after he in effect mounted his own coup in November by issuing a “constitutional declaration” that set him above the law.
The slow slide from tyranny to sectarianism in parts of the Middle East in the past two years is a stark reminder that the simple arrival of a ballot box should never be mistaken for democracy. The much-heralded overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 was soon followed by an even worse tyranny voted in by the people. The Algerian spring of 1991 brought elections won by Islamists, a result that was swiftly annulled by the military.
I vividly remember the hopes of a young Egyptian reporter who was working in our London office when Morsi was elected. Despite not having voted for him and being deeply suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, this young man reflected soberly that the very fact of elections was a seed from which better things might eventually grow.
What he understood — and what too many western leaders seem to forget in their haste to claim victory from afar — is that democracy does not happen overnight. True democracy is not achieved by a few elections but by the development of a slew of institutional checks on government power: a free press, an independent judiciary, a neutral civil service, protections for minorities, freedom of religion and respect for the rule of law. As Professor Vernon Bogdanor said in a recent lecture: “For democracy to be effective and to survive, power needs to lie, not with the people, nor with the legislature, but with the constitution.”
Minority rights, an independent judiciary and a free press were established in Britain long before full universal suffrage arrived. The vote was not extended to all adult men and women in Britain until 1928, later than in Germany. But British democracy proved more stable, because by 1928 the rights of the opposition in parliament had been enshrined for more than a century.
The ideas of tolerance, so powerfully promulgated by John Locke in the 17th century and later by John Stuart Mill — who famously warned that democracy could lead to tyranny of the majority — were part of the fabric of society before the vote.
Property rights were also established in Britain by the time suffrage came. This is especially relevant to Egypt. For the rights that guarantee democracy also tend to promote prosperity. That is what the world saw towards the end of the 20th century, when democratisation swept Africa, Latin America and finally eastern Europe, as communism came crashing down.
At that time the Arab world seemed immune to democracy. But the revolutions of 2011, which took so many Arab watchers by surprise, were essentially a cry for freedom against poverty. They were a revolt against the intolerable failure of autocratic regimes to provide jobs, fuel and food to populations that were exploding in size.
When the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in 2011, it was a scream against the municipal officials who had arbitrarily confiscated the fruit and scales that were his livelihood. When the Cairo restaurant owner Abdou Abdel-Moneim Jaafar set himself alight in front of the Egyptian parliament, it was because he had been denied government coupons for bread. Many other traders stood up against the crushing hand of the state that kept them poor.
By the end of the Mubarak regime Egypt was more than $30bn (£20bn) in debt, with a quarter of young people out of work. For decades the regime had kept itself afloat on a tide of remittances, foreign aid, oil, gas and tourism revenue, much of it grabbed by the elites.
The situation only worsened under Morsi. Unemployment has risen, tourism has plummeted as a consequence of instability and inflation has ballooned.
You can’t eat sharia: that is the lesson of the Morsi regime. Whoever ends up in charge must find a way to unlock Egypt’s spirit of enterprise and create jobs. That has to mean ending the stranglehold of elites, Mubarak’s “deep state” that Egyptian analysts talk darkly about, in which former loyalists still run state agencies and provinces and benefit from fuel subsidies.
It must mean agreeing to tolerate human rights groups and to build civil society in order to unlock a $4.8bn IMF programme that has been stuck in negotiations for a year and that could in its turn unlock more funding from the United States and European Union. It must also involve protecting property rights to bring the stability of contract law.
All this seems horribly unlikely as the tanks roll down Cairo streets. Yet those celebrating in Tahrir Square are still hoping the generals will stick to their promises and usher in a better future. The foundations of a civil society are in place. Campaign groups and Mohamed ElBaradei, the opposition leader, have submitted proposals for constitutional changes including equal rights and religious freedoms.
The test for the generals will be: are they prepared to countenance demands to enshrine minority rights in a new settlement? And will they allow the Muslim Brotherhood, which itself had excluded minority views from decision making, to be included in the political process? Unless the answer is yes, democracy will not take root.
There is no time to lose as the country becomes increasingly polarised between those who still trust the army and those who resent the ousting of Morsi. The army must start Egypt on the path towards new elections as quickly as it can and move to enshrine tolerance in a new constitution. Otherwise Egypt’s first brave attempt at democracy may prove to have been its last.
What a shame the West raised impossible expectations about a process that its own history shows takes decades, not weeks.