The Twitter-verse has been abuzz with pundits and journalists coming down on various sides of whether the military’s ouster of President Mohamad Morsi qualifies as a coup. On the one-side are members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and supporters of the MB abroad, which insist the actions of July 3rd constitute a military coup. On the other side are members of the Tamarod protest movement, which insists the ouster of Morsi represents the legitimate expression of the millions, and even tens of millions, of Egyptians who took to the street demanding the MB president be removed.
In the middle are a wide swath of pundits and thinkers weighing in between the factual reality and the political reality. After all, the factual reality is this – what does one call it when the military moves armored vehicles into the public square, rounds up members of the current government, and seizes the television and radio stations, if NOT a coup? Meanwhile, the political reality is that massive numbers of Egyptians support the military’s decision, and that if the United States government chooses to term the events a coup, there are some serious legal implications, including the cessation of U.S. military aid to the Egyptian army.
U.S. law, in part, “restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
Of course the simple reality is that the U.S. government has never felt obligated to strictly adhere itself to the language of the law in comparable cases, including those where there was even less evidence of popular support for the coup than there is now in Egypt.
The perfect example includes the previous Egyptian revolution, in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) maintained control after Mubarak was nudged from the seat of power. Other than a few NGOS and think tanks, there were few who suggested that military aid to Egypt ought to be terminated as a result. (In the interest of full disclosure, The Endowment for Middle East Truth, the organization for whom the author works, has argued for the cessation of military aid to Egypt since the events of Tahrir Square in 2011.)
Against those who argued for ending military aid after the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Obama administration and its supporters insisted that only by arming the Egyptian military did the U.S. maintain a modicum of leverage over events. Yet efforts to utilize that leverage by establishing conditions on aid to Egypt were ignored by the Administration.
Thus, it is rather telling that the Obama Administration feels a sudden tinge of responsibility to honor the letter of the law on aid to Egypt only at the moment when it would most benefit the Muslim Brotherhood.
For their part the MB has made crystal clear that it does not intend to go quietly. This is not the first time the conspiratorial Islamist party has been close to power, but they have never been quite so close to the brass ring before. As of this writing, sporadic reports of violence, including gunfire and Molotov cocktails, have been reported in a number of areas around Egypt. Pro-Morsi Islamists have allegedly thrown opponents off of rooftops in a manner reminiscent of Hamas’s takeover of Gaza. This includes an unconfirmed report of Egyptian Intelligence disrupting a Hamas plot to prepare multiple car bombs. In many ways operating underground, with many of its key leadership in prison, is more natural to the MB than is being in the spotlight of political power. They remain dangerous as a result.
For the Egyptian army, the two things they most likely desire are the continued flow of U.S. dollars to the system of clientelism upon which the army relies, and relative calm. The MB can, with some assistance by the Obama Administration, deny them both.
The best path forward for the U.S. may be to insist that the July 3rd ouster does not count against the letter of the law due to the Morsi government’s own anti-democratic sins (of which there are many). At the same time, the U.S. ought to remind the military that it will uphold conditions on aid if human rights are not respected, and prepare the military leadership for a coming shift away from military to economic aid. At the same time the U.S. might intercede with Saudi Arabia on Egypt’s behalf and strongly encourage the kind of economic aid which might stave off disaster, which only the petroleum-rich Kingdom has the currency reserves to provide.
Of course such action would be a huge departure from the Obama Administration’s previous Muslim Brotherhood-friendly policy. But if even MB-supporting Qatar can, reportedly, make the pivot away from the Muslim Brotherhood, than perhaps the administration can repent as well.
Kyle Shideler is the Director of Research and Communications at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (www.emetonline.org).
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