As ever, Shakespeare puts it perfectly:
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
What has happened in Egypt is, frankly, a coup d’état. The army has overthrown the elected government and arrested the president and the leaders of what was the governing party, the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the US administration has so far studiously avoided designating recent events as a military coup, and the UK has been equally bashful.
This “American paralysis” as Peter Oborne, chief political correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph puts it, results from an obscure piece of US legislation, the Foreign Assistance Act, which stipulates that US aid shall not be awarded “to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by a military coup or decree”.
If Mohammed Morsi was not the “duly elected head of government”, and if he was not “deposed by a military coup or decree”, then words have ceased to have their meaning, and black is white. However, since Washington has no desire – regardless of which entity has its hands on the levers of power – to sever its military support for Egypt, and with it Egypt’s continued maintenance of its peace treaty with Israel, it is important that the words “military coup” are not uttered in Washington, or it seems in London, intent as it is on not causing embarrassment to its US ally.
The US Foreign Assistance Act does not specify that subsequent actions by the instigators of a military coup can mitigate the effect of the legislation. If such a loophole existed it could be argued that, on engineering the overthrow of the administration, army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi did not assume power himself – as his predecessor, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, had done back in the 1950s – but quickly installed the president of the supreme constitutional court, Adli Mansour, as interim head of state, assisted by an interim council and a technocratic government.
A day later Mansour named 76-year-old economist and former finance minister Hazem el Beblawi as transitional prime minister, and former United Nations nuclear agency chief, Mohamed El Baradei, as deputy to the president. The interim administration announced that it would set to work to devise a new constitution leading to parliamentary and presidential elections.
Do these semi-democratic moves – semi-democratic because all are taken under the aegis, and with the approval, of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – justify Washington’s hesitation to designate the events as a military coup? The US would be happier, perhaps, to dub them “Egypt’s military adventure”. After all, an adventure trail can lead you to all manner of unexpected places – and a truly democratic outcome is perhaps one possibility.
Not if the Muslim Brotherhood has its way, however. Riding high as it was only a month ago, its president. Mohammed Morsi, was systematically using his mandate to seize authoritarian powers, including legislative and executive powers that were beyond judicial oversight, and was well on his way to entrenching the profoundly undemocratic rule of the Muslim Brotherhood on Egypt. The patience of a goodly proportion of the secular-minded Egyptian public finally snapped. On July 4, Tahrir, an independent Egyptian daily, ran an English-language headline at the top of its front page, addressing US President Obama directly: "It's a Revolution ... Not a Coup, Mr Obama!"
Further justification, perhaps, for Washington’s reluctance to call a spade a spade – a stance certainly not shared by the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. They have no difficulty with the word.
"We will continue our peaceful resistance to the bloody military coup against constitutional legitimacy," they announced, vowing to defy the military's removal of President Morsi, and to continue to resist until he is reinstated. They insist they will never work with the interim rulers.
The explanation of what has occurred might lie deeper than is generally assumed, for there have been rumours of collusion by the US in the overthrow of the Morsi administration. If true, this might explain Washington’s subsequent espousal of Egypt’s interim administration and its clear intention to continue its military and financial support.
A Reuters report on July 3, citing unnamed Egyptian military sources, stated: "Army concern about the way President Mohamed Morsi was governing Egypt reached the tipping point when the head of state attended a rally packed with hardline fellow Islamists calling for holy war in Syria."
According to Washington sources, the Egyptian Army kept its American counterparts fully informed about the plans to remove Morsi by no later than July 1, the day that the top Egyptian commanders made their decision to move. After an estimated 8-10 million Egyptians turned out in mass peaceful rallies on June 30, demanding Morsi's removal, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces determined that it was its "civic duty" to deliver on the popular demands.
It is also alleged that the subsequent semi-democratic moves by army chief el-Sissi followed discussions between Egyptian military leaders and their American counterparts, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, JCS Chairman Dempsey, and Central Command head General Lloyd Austin. During these deliberations the US made it clear that the Army could not take power directly, but needed to create a civilian interim government and move to the drafting of a new constitution and popular elections immediately.
Nor do the rumours stop there. The well-informed Israeli website DEBKA noted: “The Egyptian military high command was not working alone when its operations headquarters put together the July 3 takeover of power from the Muslim Brotherhood: it was coordinated closely down to the last detail with the palaces of the Saudi and UAE rulers, and the operations rooms of their intelligence services.”
Egypt’s latest military adventure has only just got under way. The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood president and administration seems to have won the support of the US, the UK and a number of Arab regimes fearful of Islamist extremists. Egypt is likely to move forward from this point, rather than back as the Muslim Brotherhood would wish, for de facto administrations usually triumph over de jure ones. In politics, as we have surely learned over the past century, “might makes right”.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 July 2013:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 July 2013: