Egypt and the C-Word

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Op-Ed Foreign Policy
Analysts are currently poring over the language of U.S. law to see whether the United States is now obligated to cut back aid to Egypt because what has just taken place there can hardly be defined as anything other than a military coup.
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Analysts are currently poring over the language of U.S. law to see whether the United States is now obligated to cut back aid to Egypt because what has just taken place there can hardly be defined as anything other than a military coup. Given that America's $1.25 billion-a-year aid to Egypt is key to the economically fragile country, few issues could be more important for Washington to resolve swiftly. Not only is it important to Egypt, but how this is resolved will play a huge role in influencing how the United States is perceived in Egypt during the fraught months ahead.

The importance of the semantics associated with just what kind of a military-assisted transition took place in Egypt is clear to the central players in Egypt too. On CNN, spokespeople close to the military, including former generals such as Gen. Sameh Seif el-Yazal, went to great pains to say that what had happened was "definitely not a coup" and "not a military coup whatsoever," but rather an expression of the interests of the people and the beginning of a more democratic chapter in Egyptian history. Meanwhile, overthrown President Mohamed Morsy, forced to resort to Twitter to address his former constituents, was emphatic in using the c-word to define events.

Naturally, the language of U.S. law does leave a little room for discretion based on circumstances. Further, of course, the U.S. administration and Congress have the ability to adjust the law quickly should circumstances dictate. The United States should use the opportunity to add a little more nuance to how it handles the ebb and flow of democracy worldwide.

We have seen too often -- in Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia to name a few obvious examples -- democratic processes used to bring leaders to power who wear their perceived legitimacy as a shield but who then go on to abuse the power that has been conferred upon them. Illiberal democracy is not the exception. It is a recurrent theme, and U.S. support for democratically elected governments should not, therefore, be reflexive.

That is not to say the United States should not support the spread of democracies worldwide. America should and must. Instead, it is suggesting that rather than looking at the mechanics of democracy, we should look at the spirit and the trends involved. It is much more important that a country is democratizing, as opposed to using the tools of democracy to promote something very different, autocratic, even anti-democratic.

That is why if, after careful analysis and the presentation of sufficient evidence, it is clear that what the military has just done in Egypt has ended the career of an anti-democratic leader and the military is materially supporting democratizing moves -- including, importantly, the stepping aside of the military and genuine transfer of power to a legitimately elected civilian leadership by a certain date -- then the United States should support those moves in the most concrete way possible by not interrupting aid.

According to Egyptian sources, more people revolted against the current regime than voted for it. That is a form of democratic expression, too. It only underscores the blurriness of the concepts involved. This is one of those instances in which a more nuanced approach -- one that is not too literal or mesmerized by technical requirements -- can better help advance genuine democracy and, at the same time, give the United States more latitude to advance its national interests in situations in which gray areas abound.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.

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Comments (4)

  • Neutral
    So you're saying that supporting a military coup could be justified if we see evidence that a democratically elected leader has behaved in an anti-democratic manner? By that logic we should also justify vigilantism when a justice system fails to convict criminals. Your proposed 'nuanced approach' can easily be interpreted as US double standards. Isn't that just giving the fundamentalists another reason to blame the US for their problems? Like them or not, the Muslim Brotherhood didn't break any Egyptian laws as the ruling party. So on what legal grounds have they been removed from elected office? What exactly is the US standing for? The US should withdraw aid unless the Egyptian military brings the Muslim Brotherhood and opposing parties together to form a coalition government.      
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  • May
    I agree that the US government should move forward with continuing aid to Egypt. It dragged its feet during the early days of the Syrian crisis, adding to the mess that we now see in the Syrian civil war. It did not support the secular elements with conviction and strength and through possible sanctions/diplomacy, it should have stood done more to discourage its extremist Sunni allies (Saudis, Qataris and Erdogan's movement) from participating because now the conflict has become overwhelmingly sectarian.

    The US must now step up as a rational partner towards ensuring that the Egyptians on the street move towards a purely technocratic government with a constitution that is liberal and secular. Rebuilding trust in the region won't be easy but it will be a heck of a lot better than not supporting the moderate/liberal elements through "soft" influence when the Egyptians have just accomplished what the Syrians could not. I firmly disagree with the US ambassador to Egypt who started preaching that the Egyptians should back their elected leader and just needed to roll up their sleeves and work hard! I think for the average Egyptian this would have been quite insulting, especially because an election does not guarantee democracy...but being in the State Dept one would think that our own government officials would understand that!

    Religion and over-population are the twin banes of progression and free will throughout the world, not just in Egypt. Just imagine what we could all achieve if not hampered by dogmatic thought and action - but simply a will to provide equality, justice and true freedom of expression, regardless of belief systems. Egypt's social and environmental problems are vast but not insurmountable. They just need freedom of expression to become more creative with their solutions, as well as cultural and social aid which filters to the poorer levels of society to ensure education and secularism is achievable for all.
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  • Ahmed Khalifa in defense of Democracy
    1 Recommend
    Well I would have to say that the whole logic of the article is based on sn unaccounted for theory I mesn How could you tell that people who opposed the Morsi Regime are more than those who voted for him unless you have a hidden calculation method that is not made available to us humans, on the other hand you have not considered the impact of the media which is owned primsrily and soley by bussiness men who are related directly to corruption cases that are currently being trialed whereas the Morsi Regime supporter all over the country are being surrounded and kept in the dark by the media and in some places are being slaughtere by thugs under the suppervision of the police and the army I have videos of that if you don't want to browse you tube.
    The whole article makes me wonder about the objectivity of the author and how much he is eilling to stretch the term democracy to fit this inobjective analysis taking into consideration the call for the US to change its laws yo fit in his analysis and for this article to be highlighted on Carnegie's site would definetly throe doubt on both the objectivity and credibility of the whole association
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  • Justice Seeker
    This author is nonobjective as he refers to what so called anti-Morsi protests , whereas he doesn't say a word about what so called pro-legitimacy protests.

    Furthermore, what happens in Egypt is a coup; the military deposes the first democratically elected president in Egypt, suspends the constitution, and dissolves the Shura Council. Thus, Whatever the interpretation is, it's a coup.

    The writer in his coverage agrees with the American policy that has been adopted since the 1970s. That is to say America supports democracies as long as they are consistent with the American dominance, directly or indirectly, over the world. So, whenever a democratically elected government opposes the American decisions or just tries to reflect the interests of its people, America intervenes to remove that leader or administration. We see that in Latin America, the Middle East, etc.

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