When is a coup not a coup?

One of the more logic-defying aspects of the Egyptian crisis reaches new levels of absurdity.

Most sane people would agree that the deeply disturbing situation in Egypt amounts, in effect, to a military coup. On July 3 the nation’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted from office by the military, purportedly acting on behalf of millions of vociferous street protesters who had grown tired of his political and economic mismanagement. Predictably, this erosion of fundamental democratic values has led to violence and bloodshed, with secular Egyptians pitted against understandably alienated Islamist factions.

The military’s role in this chaos is suspicious to put it mildly. While army chiefs are adamant that they are acting under a popular mandate, and their intervention was celebrated wildly by many demonstrators – plenty of whom too young to remember several decades of repressive military rule in Egypt – there are lingering doubts as to the purity of their intentions. The interim authorities have hastily assembled a “roadmap” theoretically leading to fresh elections next year and a return to civilian rule, but recent developments have concerned many. Mursi continues to be held under house arrest; many other Muslim Brotherhood leaders are either under confinement or the subject of arrest warrants. Confusion and likely misinformation still shroud the events of July 8, when over 50 Mursi supporters were shot dead outside an army barracks in Cairo – both sides blame each other. Most recently, army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took the unusual step of openly calling for popular demonstrations, apparently to give him a mandate to confront “violence and potential terrorism”. The military has also threatened bloodshed against pro-Morsi activists resorting to violence. Whether Egypt is being returned to the dark days of authoritarian rule is arguable; whether the recent chain of events equates to a coup is surely beyond question.

Not, it would seem, if you are the US government. On Thursday the Obama administration told Congress that it does not plan to make a determination on whether a military coup has occurred in Egypt, following several weeks of high-level dithering. The problem is that under legislation dating back to the 1980s US aid must stop to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree” or toppled in “a coup d’etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role”. Annual Washington aid to Egypt totals around $1.55 billion, the vast majority of which goes to the military. This is not mere altruism – Egypt, with its Israeli peace treaty and control over the strategically important Suez Canal, is a vital US ally in a volatile region. When Mursi was deposed Obama faced a conundrum – acknowledge the coup and lose valuable influence in the Middle East, or deny its existence and face questions over American commitment to the democratic process.

By burying its head in the sand Washington obviously believes that it can occupy a happy medium straddling these two undesirable outcomes. In reality, however, its refusal to face up to the bleeding obvious weakens US credibility abroad. Notwithstanding the military overthrow of an elected president, government officials considered Mursi incompetent, increasingly authoritarian and are not sad to see the back of him. Above all, the episode serves as a timely reminder that Western administrations will extol the virtues of democracy where it is in their national interests to do so, and no further.

Alex Rickets

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