A Coup by Any Other Name

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The ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi by the military is the fate the Muslim Brotherhood always dreaded.

The Brothers (the Ikhwan in Arabic) knew the constellation of forces in their country. From the inception of their movement in the late 1920s, their leaders have had their gaze fixed on the army. Alternately, the officer corps was seen as redeemers of the Brotherhood’s vision, or as the only credible threat to their power.

In the indoctrination work of the Brotherhood, military officers were the targets of choice. When the armed forces toppled the monarchy in 1952, the Brothers thought their own rule had dawned. They dubbed the coup a “blessed movement,” and saw the young officers who pulled it off as the culmination of their political work.

That happy illusion would be shattered before long. The army and its strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser were bent on monopolizing power. “Religion is for God and the nation is for all,” became the motto of the new military rulers. A clash came in 1954, and the Brotherhood was crushed. In the years to come, it was proscribed, driven underground. Many of its militants were sent to the gallows, and thousands were dispatched to prison, Mursi himself being taken into “protective custody.” His presidency abolished by a decree read by the commander of the armed forces is thus history repeating itself.

Military Commander

More poignant is that it was Mursi himself who had promoted the new commander, Abdelfatah al-Seesi, chose him over more senior colleagues, after sacking Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. At the time, there was endless speculation that the new head of the military was a Brotherhood sympathizer sure to accept the primacy of the presidency and the political rules set by the Brotherhood.

What the Egyptians called Ikhwanization was contested by a broad coalition of secular liberals, remnants of the old regime with a base in the judiciary and the Interior Ministry, but the Brotherhood had the upper hand. Its adherents, grant them their due, had prevailed in parliamentary elections, and in the presidential contest.

A constitution they had rushed through a stacked assembly was overwhelmingly approved by 64 percent of the voters last December. The sophisticated salons in Cairo may have scoffed at Mursi. The uninspiring president may not have moved trendy young men and women eager to partake of a modern life, but there was a big country out there, in the villages of Upper Egypt and in urban alleyways who saw themselves in this son of peasantry preaching faith and rectitude.

The Brotherhood had not been brilliant at ruling. It had a bad year: The economy was in a spiral, and the streets had grown lawless.

But Mursi and the Brotherhood could point to three decades of decline and police rule under Hosni Mubarak. Mursi gave it his best in the final days of his stewardship. He owned up to big mistakes he had made; he singled out the disastrous constitutional declaration he had issued last November that put his decisions beyond judicial review.

A country ruled by infallible pharaohs heard him proclaim that errors are human, but their correction is a duty. It was to no avail. The armed forces had had enough of the tumult in the streets. Mursi could only watch his handpicked military commander announce the end of the reign of the Brotherhood.

General Seesi had come prepared. He read his declaration in the presence of the Coptic pope, and of the highest religious functionary of the Islamic establishment, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar. This was orderly, quiescent religion, with the sheikh conveying the essential message that the Brotherhood had no monopoly on Islam. Seesi made sure that Mohamed ElBaradei, the noted liberal figure and celebrity abroad, was there for the event, as were representatives of the Tamarod (Rebel) movement, the young activists who had issued the call to the general strike of June 30.

Cheering Apaches

It was boilerplate, the read by the general. Egyptians and other Arabs know such texts by heart: the abnegation by the officer corps, the indulgence they had given incompetent civilian authorities, the promise that this was a temporary measure. The spectacle of the crowds in Tahrir Square cheering the Apache helicopters overhead was but a measure of this rebellion’s incoherence. Military rule had been anathema to the opponents of the Brotherhood, now it was their deliverance.

Egypt is a big recipient of U.S. aid. There has always been facile talk of an “American raj” in Cairo. The Pentagon has privileged ties to the Egyptian military. But this isn’t America’s struggle. The U.S. ought to rein in the search for its role in that upheaval.

No, President Barack Obama didn’t bring this rebellion about, nor could American officials have ordered the Egyptian military to hold back. We should be honest about what has come to pass in Egypt. We may abhor the Brotherhood, but this is a coup d’etat.

On the books, the U.S. has regulations that ban the provision of aid to military regimes that overthrow elected civilian governments. Obama acknowledged this in a statement he made on the change in Cairo. Relevant departments and agencies will be reviewing the “implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the government of Egypt,” he said.

What we do will unfold under the watchful eyes of a judgmental Arab and Muslim street. If we find a loophole around the law, we should spare one and all any sanctimony about the matter.

(Fouad Ajami, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is the author of “The Syrian Rebellion,” published by Hoover Press.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net