“Tens of thousands of Islamists streamed across a Nile River bridge toward Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday, threatening a showdown moments after the top leader of the Muslim Brotherhood defiantly spoke before a cheering crowd of supporters, vowing to reinstate ousted President Mohammed Morsi and end military rule,” AP reports:
The dramatic appearance by the Brotherhood’s General Guide Mohammed Badie (above) on stage before tens of thousands of supporters in Cairo was his first in public since the president’s ouster. It injected a further vehemence into the campaign by Morsi’s largely Islamist supporters, who have denounced the military’s removal of Egypt’s first freely elected president as a coup that they will not allow to stand.
“God make Morsi victorious and bring him back to the palace,” he said in the speech, which was partially aired on state TV. “We are his soldiers we defend him with our lives.”
The military’s intervention has created a policy dilemma for the Obama administration, as U.S. law requires aid to be cut off in the event of a military coup.
“The law is there for a reason,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department official under Mr. Obama. “It’s there to incentivize governments that came in place through military coup to go back to democratic rule as soon as possible,” she told the New York Times:
In Cairo, opponents of Mr. Morsi argued that his ouster did not qualify as a military coup because it came only after millions of protesters took to the streets, an argument quickly adopted by the government. “It’s not a coup because the military did not take power,” Mohamed Tawfik, the Egyptian ambassador in Washington, told Foreign Policy magazine. “The military did not initiate it. It was a popular uprising. The military stepped in in order to avoid violence.”
The Foreign Assistance Act says no aid other than that for democracy promotion can go to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état,” or where “the military plays a decisive role” in a coup. The law allows no presidential waiver, and it says that aid cannot be restored until “a democratically elected government has taken office.”
“The law by its terms dictates one thing, and sensible policy dictates that we don’t do that,” said Howard Berman, a Democrat who is a former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “That’s why the executive branch gets to decide whether it’s a coup or not. Under the plain meaning rule, there was a coup.” But with regard to aid, he added, “I wouldn’t cut it off,” and he urged the administration to “be more assertive” in using it to press Egyptian officials to protect or restore freedoms.
Washington cut off aid in the past after military officers overthrew civilian governments in Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic, Fiji and, at one point, Pakistan. More recently, and more relevantly, the Obama administration declined to see a coup when the Egyptian military helped push out the longtime president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, a move that likewise had broad popular support.
“Military coups are often driven by popular mobilization and received by popular acclaim, but this does not change what they are,” said Marc Lynch, a Middle East scholar at George Washington University. “It is possible, of course, that this will be the sort of coup which ‘resets’ the political arena and quickly restores civilian rule. The military can’t help but to have learned the lessons of 2011 when their direct rule went so badly. But it’s still a coup.”
Obama should neither label Morsi’s ouster a coup, nor cut off U.S. aid, said Eric Trager, an expert on Egyptian politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The Obama administration should recognize that as undemocratic as a coup is, it was the result of the basic fact that President Mursi had completely lost control of the Egyptian state,” Trager said by telephone from Egypt.
“Democracy was not the primary thing at stake in Egypt these last few months,” but rather Mursi’s mismanagement and fears of collapse of the Egyptian state, he said.
Egyptian military leaders “need to be allied with this superpower because the economy isn’t strong enough for Egypt to be fully independent in its foreign policy,” said Firas Abi Ali, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at IHS in London. “They find themselves reliant on the Gulf, aid from the American allies, and the support of the U.S. and the IMF.”
The U.S. needs a thorough reassessment of its relations with Cairo, says a leading commentator.
Adopting a flawed “minimalist approach has led the US government to make one wrong call after another,” says Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, namely:
…..to wait and see rather than marshaling international economic support early after Mubarak’s removal; ignoring the military-led government’s ugly xenophobic campaign against US nongovernmental organizations when it began in mid-2011; belittling the seriousness of the secular opposition movements over the past year; and failing to press Morsi to compromise until it was already too late.
“Because of all this, the secularists see the United States as having stuck with Mubarak and then Morsi until the end, and the Brotherhood views Washington as having once more decided that Islamists do not get to win elections,” she writes for the Washington Post. “As Morsi’s foreign affairs adviser Essam al-Haddad said in a Facebook post on Wednesday, ‘the message will resonate throughout the Muslim World loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims.’”
“The United States should reinvigorate its engagement with key players in Egypt’s secular, Islamist and state institutions and encourage the launch of a much more inclusive, consensus-based transition process than the country has had since 2011,” says Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:
If Egyptian generals and civilian officials want to prove that they are not steering Egypt off a path to democracy, there is much they can do differently to support freedom of expression and human rights. The legal case in which 43 Americans, Egyptians and others were convicted of felonies for carrying out democracy-promotion activities — a case initiated under military rule — should be resolved, and Egyptian and foreign civil society organizations should be allowed to work in peace. The rights of the Brotherhood and other Islamists should be respected, and they should be invited into the political process going forward (though getting their cooperation is likely to be difficult). The military and police should respect human rights amid their efforts to restore calm.