Reacting to the Coup in Egypt

by Elliott Abrams

1. The removal of an elected president by the army is a coup, whether we like that president or not. There are cases where a president is removed by the military pursuant to legislative or judicial action, or due to brazen violations of legitimate judicial or legislative action, as happened in Honduras in 2009. The Obama administration wrongly called that a coup, but what happened in Egypt this week clearly was one.

2. It was not, however, something that came out of thin air. It was the product of misconduct on the part of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. He and the MB knew full well that they had lost the support of most Egyptians and that Morsi had been elected in a 51–48 vote, not a landslide. Instead of seeing that as reason to rule by compromise and collaboration, they saw it as reason to rush toward seizing more and more power. Egyptians had every reason to fear that the MB was seeking to make its hold on power irreversible, and to act to prevent this.

3. Even if this coup was inevitable due to MB conduct, it would have been better if it had been delayed by six or twelve months. More and more Egyptians would have concluded that the MB could not rule and sought not national progress but consolidation of their own power. Any eventual coup would have had wider support. Still, many opponents of the regime — including liberals, moderates, Copts, and democrats — believed that another year of MB rule would have done too much damage to Egypt. It is fair to second-guess them in our private conversations, but we should be modest in substituting our judgment for theirs.

4. Two good effects of this coup are that it may chasten other MB and Islamist groups, and lead to splits in the Egyptian MB. As to the first point, surely MB groups and affiliates in Jordan, Morocco, the Gulf, and elsewhere will feel that something went wrong beyond misjudging the Egyptian army. Egyptian MB leaders misjudged everything: their ability to govern, their ability to run the economy, the tolerance of the political system for their efforts to concentrate power, and the willingness of the army and police to give them slack, for example. So other MB groups must rethink, and must conclude that they will have to take more time and win more hearts and minds, not just try to win one election and then seize permanent power. As to the second point, splits within the MB, recall that initially the Egyptian MB wasn’t even going to run a candidate for president. And Turkish PM Erdogan, an Islamist, was said to have advised going slow against the army, noting that he had destroyed the independent power of the Turkish military — but over ten years, not one. Surely there will now be recriminations within the MB, “I told you so” complaints, personal grudges, principled arguments about who made the gross errors that cost them power — and the more, the better! We can hope that the Egyptian MB’s famous unity and central control will start to crack.

5. Another good effect is to chasten the Qataris, one of whose efforts to claim greater influence in the region came through backing the Egyptian MB with billions of dollars in aid while their Gulf partners (especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE) thought the Egyptian MB was dangerous and held back. All that Qatari money is now a lost investment. Meanwhile Qatar has a new government — a new emir, new prime minister, and new foreign minister. Emir Hamad and Qatar’s foreign-affairs maestro, Hamad bin Jassem, are both gone. One may hope that the Egyptian case will help persuade the new Emir Tamim and his new government to review Qatar’s support for radical groups like the MB.

6. The Obama administration has mishandled Egypt from the day it took office. First it embraced Mubarak, whom Hillary Clinton called a “family friend,” and took no stand against his human-rights violations and increasingly unpopular effort to insert his son Gamal as his successor. When Mubarak fell, the White House was off balance but decided to embrace Morsi with equal enthusiasm. Again, human-rights violations were ignored; Morsi’s prosecutions of journalists and activists for “insulting the president” — more numerous in his one year than Mubarak had racked up in 30 — were not protested. Even the prosecution and conviction of American NGO workers, essentially for the crime of promoting democracy, did not seem to turn the Obamians against Morsi. So today Egyptians believe we were pro-Morsi and wanted him both to stay in office and to accrue more personal power. This is a self-inflicted wound from which we will now have to recover. But who is in charge in Washington? Secretary Kerry seems to ignore Syria and Egypt and to have an obsession with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The post of assistant secretary of state for Egypt has now been vacant for an entire year, and no one has even been nominated to fill it. The current ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, is rumored to be the likely nominee, but Egyptians who oppose the MB view her as having failed them and failed human rights in Egypt. If one defends her because she was simply following policy guidance from Washington, the buck stops in the Oval Office. Has Obama learned anything from this policy debacle?

7. U.S. law now requires that we suspend all aid to Egypt. We should not try to escape that law; coups are a bad thing and in principle we should oppose them. But most of our aid to Egypt is already obligated, so the real damage to the Egyptian economy and to military ties should be slight — if the army really does move forward to new elections. This we should urge it to do, not only out of principle but because the army will ruin itself and its popularity if it tries again to rule directly. Generals are not economists and should wish to escape responsibility (read “blame”) for the increasingly dire condition of Egypt’s economy. An interruption of aid for several months is no tragedy, so long as during those months we give good advice, stay close to the generals, continue counter-terrorism cooperation, and avoid further actions that create the impression we were on Morsi’s side.

8. The failure of the MB in Egypt is a very good thing. It is true that a “stab in the back” legend will now develop in which they were doing just fine, or about to do just fine, until unfairly removed from power. But no Egyptian outside the MB will believe this, and the group that surrounded General Sisi when he announced that Morsi was out is proof of this: democrats, liberals, religious leaders, politicians, all backing the army in its removal of the MB from power.

9. This is an important stage in the “Arab Spring” and probably hails years of instability in Egypt as Islamists fight back. The Egyptian MB was once a terrorist group and elements of it may return to violence, as may other Egyptian Islamists. For the United States, one lesson is that when Islamist groups are elected we should hold them to strict human-rights and civil-liberties standards and to democratic procedures, rather than giving them a pass — as Obama did. Another lesson is that we should always remember who our friends are and should support them: those who truly believe in liberty as we conceive it, minorities such as the Copts who are truly threatened and who look to us, allies such as the Israelis who are with us through thick and thin. No more resets, no more desperate efforts at engagement with places like Russia and Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. A policy based on the simple principle of supporting our friends and opposing our enemies will do far more to advance the principles and interests of the United States.

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