Friday, 12 July 2013

Egyptian coup not benign

Now that the dust has settled over Cairo, what happened and the shape of things to come is marginally clearer. The diverse reactions there, in the region and here at home are reminiscent of the six blind men describing an elephant. Still, there are some more or less recognizable facts:

-While the Egyptian military staged a coup by removing an elected president from office, the popular movement remains potent and cannot (yet) be marginalized.

There was considerable debate about whether the army moving in and physically seizing its putative civilian commander was really a ‘coup’—I find the hair-splitting rather absurd. Yes, there was huge popular support for the action, but isn’t there always? Except for palace coups among dictatorial factions, mass mobilization is a common factor in military takeovers. There were plenty of people in the streets of Santiago in 1973 baying for Allende’s head along with those ready to die to defend him.

That doesn’t mean the Egyptian army can do whatever it likes. However, it has now coopted the civilian movement and lured it into endorsing the military’s own supra-national character. One of the creepiest aspects of the Chilean military’s outlook during their dictatorship (a vision which undoubtedly persists to the present) is that it was and is consubstantial with the Chilean nation, which is to say (and was said to me explicitly), that if the army were to disappear, Chile would cease to exist. Ergo, WE are the nation, not you mere citizens.

This new principle, accepted by the civilian partners eager to replace Morsi with themselves, enables the military guys to view themselves as guarantors of any eventual democracy and to pretend that they are neutral patriots rather than ambitious politicians (and entrepreneurs). Juan Cole points out that this is ‘extremely dangerous’. It was short-sighted of democratic figures like the Coptic Pope and el-Baradi to stand beside General al-Sisi hours after the takeover and applaud. What’s to stop the generals from doing the same to them someday, and what moral authority would they have to resist? They could have offered tacit support from the sidelines while preserving the principle of military subordination to civilian rule, even if only as a fig-leaf.

-The army’s hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood is profoundly anti-democratic and murderous.

The image of the photographer targeted and murdered by a soldier, i.e., recording his own death on film, is eerily reminiscent of a scene from The Battle of Chile, and it doesn’t get any nicer if we contemplate Morsi’s ham-handedness. The fact that soldiers killed 50 people at one go is terrifying even if they were provoked especially given that the Brotherhood’s rivals suddenly don’t care about soldiers firing live rounds into a political demonstration. Once again, this is short-sighted and foolish; sober democratic leaders would at least take some prudent distance from such actions instead of celebrating the destruction of their political rivals. Reminder: these security forces gleefully tortured people for decades under Mubarak—do the democrats really want to turn them into heroes?

-The sudden stabilizing of the economy suggests a right-wing boycott campaign against Morsi.

Yet another disturbing parallel with the campaign against Allende’s socialist experiment is the sudden disappearance of gas lines and the end of electricity outages just days after the coup. Forces hostile to the Brotherhood’s government, including remnants of the Mubarak regime, must have seen the deep anxiety about an Islamist state among the secular left and knew how to take advantage of the opportunity to sabotage Morsi economically. The democratic movement was supported with huge secret donations from a top oligarch who brags about it now.

-The United States wants security and stability—with or without democracy.

Obama’s announcement a few hours ago that the military would get shiny new fighter aircraft is a cynical reminder of Washington’s priorities. As long as pro-American generals remain firmly in charge, all rhetoric about democratic processes and the Egyptian people’s welfare will remain empty talk—just as it did during Mubarak’s dictatorship. If the U.S. had any real interest in the Arab Spring as a democratic movement, Obama would have held off until new elections had taken place and a new civilian was at least nominally in charge. Pushing the reward forward says that the U.S. would be perfectly comfortable with a puppet regime in which the military calls all the shots behind a democratic veneer.

In summary, Morsi and his band of brothers were idiots, and the opposition hasn’t been nearly as clever as it thinks. Islam is not the answer—neither is military tutelage.

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