If it looks like a military coup and has the effect of a coup – then it probably is a military coup. President Obama’s inability to use the “c” word, in relation to Egypt, is not because he has difficulty grasping what has happened. It is because, as soon as the United States declares that the Egyptian government has been overthrown by a coup, it is legally bound to cut off aid to Egypt.
Lying behind the question of whether to call this a coup lies a deeper western confusion. Western governments like to deal in clear moral categories: freedom-fighters versus dictators, democrats versus autocrats, goodies versus baddies. It makes foreign policy easier to understand, and easier to explain to the folks back home.
In this simple moral universe, a military coup is obviously “bad” – and an elected president is obviously “good”. And yet, many in the US and Europe preferred the look of the anti-Mohamed Morsi demonstrators in Tahrir Square to the look of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is the secular liberals in Egypt, prominent in Tahrir, who espouse western-sounding values like minority rights and freedom-of-speech. It is the Brotherhood that wants a constitution inspired by Sharia law. However, the awkward fact is that it is also the Brotherhood that won the presidential election and that is the largest party in the Egyptian parliament. Even more awkwardly, the second largest group in the parliament are not liberals but Salafists – who espouse an even more fundamentalist approach to Islam.
The West’s moral confusion over Egypt is replicated elsewhere in the Middle East. Syria initially looked like a clear-cut case: a vicious dictatorship versus a popular uprising – so the West responded by getting behind the Syrian rebels, and calling for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad. That is still the policy. And yet, there is growing uneasiness about the character of the opposition. Surely democratic freedom-fighters should not be seen eating their opponents’ hearts on YouTube? It is all very baffling.
Some western commentators are beginning to discuss the idea that maybe democracy is not such a good idea for Egypt. Maybe the country is not ready for it? Maybe it will lead to economic chaos and civil strife? But no western government could express this thought in public. From Afghanistan to Egypt, the West will continue to press for elections and democratic governments. We cannot think of a better option.
Yet, with the events in Egypt, there is an uneasy sense that the West is heading back to the moral chaos of the cold war. Back then – during the long struggle with the Soviet Union – the US and its allies routinely got into bed with military regimes, because they seemed better than the alternative. They were “our bastards”. We thought that the fall of the Soviet Union had liberated us from these kinds of nasty choices. Henceforth we could be for democracy, all over the world – without hesitation. We could go to bed with a clear conscience. After all, history had ended. Events in Egypt are teaching us that complexity, confusion and moral compromise cannot, unfortunately, be avoided in international affairs.