Washington and the Egyptian Tragedy

stephen-zunesAs in El Salvador, Nicaragua, East Timor, Angola, Lebanon, and Gaza in previous years, the massive killing of civilians in Egypt is being done with U.S.-provided weapons by a U.S.-backed government. As a result, the Obama administration and Congress are morally culpable for the unfolding tragedy. While the apparent decision to suspend some military aid to Egypt is certainly welcome, the role the United States has been playing has, on balance, made matters worse.

As with many of these other cases, elements of the Egyptian opposition have contributed to the bloodshed and bear some responsibility. Some members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters have attacked government buildings, anti-Brotherhood protesters, libraries, museums, and churches, and many of them have been armed. This comes in the wake of the Brotherhood squandering its year in power by trying to shape the politics of the post-Mubarak era solely on its own terms, imposing unpopular social and economic policies and ruling in a semi-autocratic manner.

Indeed, the Brotherhood isolated itself by refusing to do what the Tunisian Islamists did, which was to govern as part of a broad coalition of Islamists, progressives, and traditional oppositionists. In Egypt, the Islamists instead took advantage of their plurality of support to push through their agenda unilaterally—so alienating the majority of Egyptians that millions took to the streets in protest, prompting a coup that was initially quite popular. In the aftermath, rioting by many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters, combined with their refusal to consider becoming part of a civilian coalition to govern alongside the military, alienated people still further.

Yet the fact remains that the vast majority of Egyptians killed since the coup have been unarmed protesters who were struck down with American-made weapons by soldiers transported in American-made vehicles provided by the American taxpayer. Whatever one thinks of the Muslim Brotherhood’s politics or leadership style, nothing justifies the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters and bystanders.

Egyptian liberals were naïve to trust the military. They were grateful that the military belatedly allied with them to push Mubarak aside and allied with them again to oust Morsi. However, many forgot that the military is more interested in maintaining ultimate control than democratizing society, even if it has to unleash unprecedented waves of terror on the streets of Egypt’s cities.

Just two weeks before the August 14 massacres, the U.S. Senate defeated by an 86-13 margin a resolution to enforce U.S. law against providing military aid to regimes that seize power by military coups. The bill would have called for suspending arms transfers to Egypt and using the money for bridges and related infrastructure projects in the United States.

A Stacked Deck

The violent turn in Egypt is particularly tragic since the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Mubarak dictatorship was largely nonviolent. In many ways, the 2011 revolution’s victory was a continuation of the global, nonviolent pro-democracy struggle that has brought down scores of dictatorships from the Philippines to Poland and from Chile to Serbia. Unfortunately, the Egyptian military—through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed control after a mass civil insurrection drove Mubarak from power—refused to hand power over to the liberal democrats who led the revolution, choosing instead to maintain their corrupt hold on key sectors of the economy and to suppress dissent. Washington rarely complained and continued to supply massive amounts of military aid as the repression continued.

When elections did finally come, liberals and progressives barely stood a chance.

Thanks to decades of repression by the notoriously brutal and corrupt U.S.-backed Mubarak regime, Egyptian civil society—despite growing markedly over the past decade—was relatively weak and inexperienced. As the time for the country’s first free elections approached, the young idealistic activists who were so tactically brilliant in the 2011 revolution found that they had neither the organizational experience nor the financial resources of the seasoned leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been organizing—often clandestinely—for many decades. Nor did they have the anything approaching the resources of the military, which fielded a presidential candidate of its own in air force commander, and former Mubarak prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq .

Once the military allowed for elections, it was through a two-round electoral system where the top two vote-getters in the first round would face each other in a runoff. Despite the Brotherhood’s advantages in organizing and the military’s powerful institutional support for their candidate, the majority of first-round votes went to liberal, democratic, and secular candidates. Because liberal forces split their votes among several contenders, however, the second round came down to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and the military’s Ahmed Shafiq—the worst possible outcome for the pro-democracy forces that ousted Mubarak. Morsi narrowly won. As a result, though it eked out a slim majority of the vote in the runoff, the Muslim Brotherhood never had more than a plurality of support to begin with, and it lost much of that once Morsi came into office.

Still, the Brotherhood enjoys a sizeable following, albeit a minority. There are tens of millions of Egyptians who recognize that the Brotherhood won the freest election in Egyptian history and was forcibly removed from power. When Islamists have taken to the streets in protest—most, though not all, peacefully—they have been gunned down. Meanwhile, the United States refuses to even acknowledge there was a military coup and has continued to arm the thugs who are killing them. This is not likely to encourage moderation, compromise, or better relations with the West.

Under the Military’s Boot

The struggle in Egypt is not about religion. The vast majority of Morsi’s pro-democracy opponents who took to the streets in largely nonviolent protests during the year the Muslim Brotherhood was in power were observant Muslims. It’s always been about the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative policies and autocratic tendencies. Furthermore, despite power struggles between Morsi and military leaders while he was in office, they were quite willing to cooperate in suppressing the Egyptian left.

In many respects, ever since Mubarak’s ouster, it has been a three-way struggle among liberal democratic forces, Islamists, and the military, with the military playing one side against the other. It’s important to remember that Mubarak himself was an Egyptian military general who headed the air force prior to Anwar Sadat naming him as vice-president just before his assassination. Sadat also came from the military, as did his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser. In effect, the military has ruled Egypt for more than 60 years. It controls as much as one-third of the economy and has proven its willingness to do whatever it takes to stay in power, from switching sides in the Cold War to massacring its own people.

As a result, while the United States was clearly unhappy with Morsi’s victory in last year’s election, the sense was that the military had enough leverage to keep the Brotherhood from doing much to hurt U.S. interests. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, despite its extreme antipathy toward Israel, was pragmatic enough not to threaten the Jewish state, given its vast military superiority. And, as a movement dominated by wealthy businessmen, the Brotherhood was quite willing to cooperate with U.S. economic interests and international financial institutions.

There is no evidence to suggest the United States was behind last month’s coup. It came as a result of the massive and largely nonviolent uprising in late June and early July demanding Morsi’s ouster. Unfortunately, as with the ouster of Mubarak two years earlier in a similar popular uprising, the military has hijacked the popular struggle.

In short, both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are wrong. Neither is concerned about democracy and both are willing to use violence. The last thing the United States should be doing is continuing to pour arms into this tragic and chaotic situation and rationalize for brutal repression.

Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.

  • Leyla Maker

    the ignorant elite. they have access to media but no facts, take it from an Egyptian that probably not one sentence you wrote is worth the paper.

    • peter

      so that footage of snipers firing at unarmed activists trying to flee a sit-in encampment being raided and burned by security forces…photoshopped?

      • Leyla Maker

        I watched the whole dispersion of Muslim Brotherhood on TV you should have learnt that the first few people who were butchered by the terrorist Muslim brotherhood are close to five policemen, two of them were high ranking officers. But they want you to get the impression that the police attacked first. In fact the first Camp was dispersed without any deaths or injuries. But the second camp, officers were attacked first and that is when police has to use force. Egyptians were attacked during Morsi rule and Christians are attacked on daily basis and scum media like this one did not utter one word. Very biased and either they have bad sources of information or they are biased. In both cases, it is bad journalism.

        • Günther Rückl

          Leyla, I don’t blame you to succumb to bias. The whole situation is emotionally enormously charged. But to burn to death people who sought shelter in a mosque or shooting people at wanton, as one youtube video proves (a woman taking pictures in the street shot to death) clearly proves that things got badly out of hand. Though very difficult the military failed to keep its cool – and you, too.

          • лидия

            Egypt generals (USA/Zionist puppets) NOT “failed to keep its cool” – they are cold-bloodied murderers, just like their NATO masters.

  • Leyla Maker

    Roots of Political Islam : The beginning of Political Islam was at the hands of the Mongol. Did anyone ever tell you how ruthless the Mongols were? Beginning of Political Islam
    “many of the attitudes toward the relationship between religion and state date from the time of Timur (1336-1405; ruled 1370-1405). Timur sought to use religion as a critical part of the ideological glue that held his disparate empire together. He also took definitive steps to begin institutionalizing Islam, and in so doing, he subjugated it to the control of what was effectively temporal power.”

  • Leyla Maker

    What is the alternative? How long should these “protests”– filled with weapons, aspiring martyrs, satellite broadcast installations, pharmacies, semi-permanent structures, and women and children used as human shields by the Brotherhood- continued? Where would such “protests” have been permitted, in what country, city, or state? Not here. Remember Occupy? Remember WACO? Not in France, where ghettoized Arabs and African immigrants are put down swiftly, with force, and under curfew when they protest. What about in London? Remember the recent riots?

  • Leyla Maker

    Muslim Brotherhood “peaceful behavior

    Burning of Warraq police station

    Burning of Zawiiyya Hamra police station

    killing 11 people in Kerdasa police station

    Burning of the Municipal Building in Giza

    Burning of the journalist Mohammad Hussein Haikel villa in Barqash Giza

    Attack and invasion of the Sohag governate building

    Burning of St. Michael Church in Sohag

    Burning of Teen Police Station in Helwan

    Attack and invasion of court complex in Matrouh

    Burning of the East side and Ibrahimia Police Stations in Alexandria

    Burning of the Parliament

    Burning of more than 45 churches including a 4th century church.

    Looting of the Egyptian museum in Beni Sweif and breaking artifacts.

  • Leyla Maker

    So we can define democracy as envisioned by the Muslim Brotherhood (causing a lot of pain and agony to democracy supporters)

    1. Trample on the constitution and the separation of powers.

    2. Prepare a constitution that does not uphold the rights of all people.

    3. Ignore all political factions if they do not belong to your group.

    4. Incite violence against opposition and minorities.

    5. Rig the election and voting process with deception (refer to the editorial of the time)

    6. Harass and put in jail all who oppose you

    7. Destroy all institutions of the state including the judiciary.

    8. Do whatever you like you are above the law.

    • peter

      nothing in the article defends the brotherhood’s tactics or period in power. the point is that no one should be murdered for protesting.

  • Leyla Maker

    Now you can tell how the article is balanced, insightful and trustworthy?

    • лидия

      I see that Leyla hates MB so much she is willing to back not only Mubaraq foolool but Saudi king, USA and Zionists – all of them support foolool and all of them are VERY democratic and human right defenders, esp. regarding Arabs.
      Foolool STARTED with MB. “First they came for communists..”

  • лидия

    “There is no evidence to suggest the United States was behind last month’s coup”

    Sure, how USA puppets could be ordered by their masters? No way…

    And the coup was organized beforehead by so-called Tamarod, with full knowledge of generals. Masses were used, but not only by generals, liberals and leftists took their parts as well.

    It is funny how the defender and promoter of Western-made “color revolutions” (he denied their true origin as well) now tries to whitewash USA imperialism.

  • Kathy Kamp

    I agree with much of this, Stephen. I want to add that the Egyptian military is playing Washington’s terrorism card. After all, their secret police are the ones who tortured suspects for the USA, under the practice of extraordinary rendition. They are using the “War on Terrorism” to justify the killings of the Muslim Brotherhood. They make every effort to say that the MB is connected to al-Qaeda, to Hizballah, to Hamas, and to those in the Sinai who are attacking the police and army (although the Bedouin’s civil rights struggle has been a very bitter one with the Egyptian government). Therefore, the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Information are doing a propaganda war to try to convince the world that ALL the MB are terrorists and part of an international Islamist and violent conspiracy.

    It is therefore not so clear that the MB and its supporters set the churches and other sites on fire. The terrible church bombing in Alexandria last year was later exposed to be a Ministry of Interior/ National Security [secret police] operation. These “deep state” forces are not above torching churches to justify their killing of MB supporters and their “War on Terrorism.” Who has set these many fires bears more investigation.

    Secondly, to characterizing the revolutionaries as liberal democrats is not really a good fit. It was a popular revolution, involving a broad cross section of the entire population. Liberals, progressives, secularists, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists and the common people participated, although the MB came to the party late. The labels “liberal” and “democrat” are borrowed from US political descriptions, but in Egypt, people who would described themselves that way are a small handful.

    Before the presidential elections, the only two organized parties were Mubarak’s NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been organizing itself for 85 years. Other groups who ran candidates were again, from the very wide spectrum of participants in the revolution. So to portray this is Old Regime vs. Muslim Brotherhood vs. Liberal Democrats is not accurate. It is more like Old Regime vs. MB vs. other groups. Current events are a power struggle between the Deep state (Military/ Secret Police, Old Regime) and the MB.

    There is a “Third Square,” which has been holding demonstrations in Midan Sphinx, to say no to both the military and the MB, and not to the violence. They are the others, who participated in the Revolution. They remain small, but are really an important development, and we hope they can organize more extensively, as they are the hope for Egypt’s future.

    Finally this power struggle is primarily a political one, but it is also a serious struggle over religion, a moderate Islam versus and conservative/repressive Islam put forward by the MB. Egyptian’s prefer a more tolerant Islam.

    Kathy Kamphoefner
    (Communication/ Middle East Studies PhD, who has been studying Egypt since 1984 and living and working there since 2007).