Perspective — July 30, 2013, 1:02 pm

On the Selling of the Egyptian Coup to Liberals

How the mass killing of Islamists is being justified in America

Immediately after the Egyptian military ousted Mohamed Morsi on July 3, supporters of the army’s actions began circulating a YouTube video of twelve-year-old Ali Ahmed, a well-dressed and articulate young man whose comments they cited as evidence that the overthrow of an elected president wasn’t a coup but a shining example of democracy. The video, which went out under titles like “12 Year Old Egyptian Explains Revolution in Minutes,” “Egypt: The Next President,” and “Brilliant Egyptian Boy Explains What’s Happening in His Country,” had been filmed six months earlier in Cairo by a news outlet called El Wady.

 

Who can resist adorable little Ali Ahmed? He comes across as an ardent champion of democracy and gender equality; indeed, it’s striking how deeply he seems to care about these issues. “We didn’t get rid of a military regime to replace it with a fascist theocracy,” he says. “The social objectives of the revolution are yet to be achieved — economic empowerment, freedom and social justice.”

Let’s pretend that these are genuinely Ali’s spontaneous thoughts, and that he wasn’t coached by adults or merely parroting their sentiments. It’s obvious from the video that he comes from Egypt’s tiny upper class, which under normal circumstances interacts with poor Egyptians only rarely. As a commentator on Egyptian social life, he has all the credibility of Richie Rich being interviewed on CNN about the plight of the American working class. Worse, though, is the way people in Egypt and America are using him to try to justify what was clearly a military coup as part of a democratic “revolution,” in turn legitimizing the subsequent mass killings of Islamists by the Egyptian army. This is especially pathetic when the supporters are Western liberals, who have deluded themselves into believing — as some once believed that military intervention was a route to democracy in Iraq and Libya — that American-style secularists have significant popular appeal in Egypt.

The truth is that the secularists beloved of the American political class have little support among Egyptians. Mohammed ElBaradei, who settled for the post of vice president after the military initially chose him to lead the “interim” regime, had returned to the country after the mass demonstrations that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. “If [people] want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down,” he said at the time. But the people didn’t want him to lead. Though he declared his intention to run for the presidency, he withdrew when it became clear he didn’t have anywhere near the support he would need to be elected, and Morsi ultimately won the race in 2012.[1]

[1] In a post-coup interview with the New York Times in which he defended the arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members and the shutdown of Islamist television, ElBaradei said, “We just lost two and a half years. As Yogi Berra said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again,’ but hopefully this time we will get it right.”

In Egypt, only two forces genuinely possess the ability to rule at the moment: the army, by virtue of the bayonet; or the Muslim Brotherhood, by virtue of the ballot. Morsi angered many (including his own supporters) with his actions, but he was also facing down the impossible expectations of a populace desperate for change after decades of military rule, and he had not lost his legitimacy. Parliamentary elections had been scheduled for later this year; those elections were the proper vehicle for a change of government, not a coup.

Whether the Muslim Brotherhood would have been defeated in elections is unknown. Western media accounts have said that as many as 33 million people had protested against Morsi before the coup, but as Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center, told the Washington Post, that number “defies what we know of physical spaces.” Certainly huge numbers of people took to the streets to demonstrate against Morsi, but his supporters have also been out in huge numbers, before and after the coup, and unlike his enemies they are risking their lives to do so.

This isn’t an endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whose policies and ideas I find abhorrent, especially regarding civil liberties. But I am quite certain that General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the man who appears to be in charge now and who provoked last weekend’s bloodbath, is also not a fan of gays and feminists (who didn’t thrive under Mubarak, either).[2]

[2] On a past reporting trip to Egypt, I met with female members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and while they might not have classified themselves as feminists as we define the term in the West, they were certainly feminist in their aims. They believed they could work through the Brotherhood to achieve political change, and to improve the status of women in Egypt.

We may not like the Muslim Brotherhood, but we can’t have democracy in Egypt without it, and the same holds true for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. As I wrote for Harper’s in 2007 after interviewing senior officials in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, the U.S. government needs to deal with “radical” Islamists because they are widely supported actors in their countries. The alternative to giving them a fair share of power is mass arrests and executions.

Of course, some coup supporters seem to be perfectly comfortable with such tactics. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times, “Radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. Many have absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets. They have a strange fascination with a culture of death.” And as the Washington Post noted yesterday, the response in Egypt and abroad, including from the Obama Administration “has been fairly muted,” despite the fact that a Human Rights Watch investigation found that many of the demonstrators killed over the weekend “had been shot in the chest or head by live ammunition.” The Post article went on to lay bare the dynamic at work: “The brutality of Egypt’s once-feared security state helped spark Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Now those security forces are swinging back into action, and this time they are being hailed as heroes by many of the secular activists and liberals who once campaigned against them.”

You cannot preach about democracy then accept the outcome only if your side triumphs. In 2006, Hamas won a devastating victory in legislative elections in the Palestinian Authority. The following year, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas dissolved a Hamas-led unity government and swore in an emergency cabinet, leading the Obama Administration to reinstate aid that had been suspended under Hamas’ rule. This type of hypocrisy heightens anti-Americanism, sends the message that elections are meaningless, and encourages terrorism.[3]

[3] For instance, radical Islamic terrorism in the Sinai appears to have surged since Morsi was deposed.

On Sunday, I came across this line from Voltaire in the documentary The Act of Killing: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” Though the film is about events in Indonesia in 1965, it brought to mind the intellectual contortions of Egyptian-coup supporters who have justified the mass killings of Islamists in the name of democracy. Back in 1965 it was Islamic militias killing Communists in the name of democracy. The common denominator is that the killers were seen as pro-Western — and so, the trumpets are sounding once again in America.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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