The United States doesn’t classify the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Morsi regime as a “coup” since that would suspend $1.3 billion in aid to country’s armed forces. Honduras in 2009 was a similar case, where President Obama’s initial description of the military coup was retracted so that aid could continue flowing to the newly installed rump government there. A similar Orwellian logic led our security hawks to scorn the several democratic elections of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela as “illegitimate” while obscuring the American role in the attempted coup of 2002. In Haiti, the 2000 election of Jean-Bertrande Aristide was denounced as “illegitimate,” while the 2004 coup, in which Aristide says he was “kidnapped” by the United States, was described as a necessary transition in official speak. Under the Helms-Burton law, normalization of relations with Cuba depends on the removal of the Castros and the Communist Party and guarantees of a market economy before there can be legitimate elections. Before this latest round, Washington instigated infamous coups against the democratically elected governments of Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s.
That’s why our US officials—and the voices of the mainstream media—are so tongue-twisted in describing Egypt. A coup is never a coup until the powerful name it so.
One must conclude either that Washington knew all about the planned coup in Cairo (unlikely), or that our “best and brightest” intelligence experts knew almost nothing in spite of that $1.3 billion arrangement with Egypt’s military.
So what? some are asking. Weren’t Morsi and the Brotherhood a clique of undemocratic thugs? And shouldn’t Americans join the celebrations we see on CNN? Doesn’t the fact that millions are seen rejoicing in Morsi’s fall mean that this was a popular uprising and not a coup?
Let’s untangle the web.
First, certainly the Muslim Brotherhood has authoritarian tendencies and an ambition to use power for itself. These arise from successfully surviving as an underground during many decades of torture, imprisonment, infiltration and banning by the US-supported Mubarak dictatorship. It is associated with religious fundamentalism as well. Such clandestine movements often fail in the attempted transition to more open and democratic settings, or fragment and split apart. Having been banned for years, they see their aspiration for recognition as all-important. But legitimacy is precisely what their defeated foes refuse to grant. For a parallel example, consider how many white right-wing Americans refuse to accept Barack Obama’s legitimacy as our elected president. The same is true in Egypt for foes of Morsi and the Brotherhood. The resulting standoff is toxic to systems which rely on mutual recognition and coexistence; in the analysis of the International Study Group it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy:
The more the opposition obstructs and calls for Morsi’s ouster, the more it validates the Islamists’ conviction [that] it will never recognize their right to govern; the more the Brotherhood charges ahead, the more it confirms the others’ belief of its monopolistic designs over power. Even if leaders back away from the brink, this could quickly get out of hand…” [February 4, 2013]
In this context, two sets of facts are of utmost importance. First, the Brotherhood won the democratic parliamentary elections of 2011–12; Morsi won the presidential election of June 2012 and the December 2012 referendum on the new constitution. These real victories might be qualified as being less than strong mandates but more than legitimate by accepted standards of democracy. Morsi, for example, won the presidency by only 51 percent. The turnout for approving the new constitution was only 32 percent, with 56 percent of Cairo residents voting against, though the measure passed 64 percent to 36 percent. Those are signs of a country impossibly divided, even broken, but they are legitimate electoral outcomes. There is really no basis for recognizing the new regime or the process by which the generals have seized power, except by a convoluted fudging of these facts. For example, the 2013 appropriations bill requires that, as a basis of military and economic funding, the United States “shall certify that the Government of Egypt 1) has completed the transition to civilian government, including holding free and fair elections; and 2) if is implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association or religion, and due process of law.” The conditions can be waived by the White House only “in the national security interests of the United States” and with a detailed justification to Congress. That may be why Senator Patrick Leahy is temporarily suspending action on the appropriations measure.