There has been an understandable rush, by those on the left, to interpret the dramatic events in Egypt. However, even with limited information, many left-western commentators seem to feel a need to present the definitive answer, explanation or denunciation.
Yet a potentially revolutionary process is still underway, with uncertain outcomes. There is nothing wrong, in my view, in having provisional views.
In that spirit, and reflecting on some of the left-western commentaries, I would disagree with the assertions that (i) the military coup has been completely orchestrated by Washington (e.g. Chossudovsky), or that (ii) outsiders must condemn the military coup against Mohammed Morsi, as a matter of democratic principle (many others).
Let me give some reasons for this view.
In the first case, while it is certainly true that Washington has purchased the collaboration of the Egyptian military for the past few decades, the empire also came to a very rapid set of agreements with Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader. Morsi immediately submitted to IMF loan discipline, as well as Saudi patronage, while making very limited changes to the concentration camp-like isolation of Gaza. This was despite the fact that the political leadership of Hamas, the dominant political party in Gaza, is also now closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Qatari sponsors. In short, there was no immediate reason for external, big power dissatisfaction with Morsi.
In fact, both Washington and Israel have been working with the Brotherhood for decades, fairly happy with its broad political agenda of attacking their nationalist competitors before Israel. As Mohamed Shadid pointed out of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine: ‘the Israeli authorities … perceive positively the Brotherhood’s decision [a] not to confront them at this phase as well as [b] the Brotherhood’s challenge to the nationalists … [the Israelis believe] any success by the Brotherhood will be at the expense of the nationalists, consequently, the latter will be weakened’ (Shadid 1988: 674-675). Similar considerations are behind Washington’s support for the Brotherhood’s role in the entire region. They will attack others, mostly other Muslims, divide the region and make it easier to dominate.
Washington’s relationship with the Brotherhood in Egypt – which the British began to exploit for its sectarian and divisive character, back in the 1940s – was and is a ‘marriage of convenience’: not based on principle but rather interests. There is a disposition to cooperate, on both sides, but no real loyalty.
What then accounts for the coup? Clearly enough, the mass, relentless mobilizations brought enormous pressure to bear on the internal tensions of the state. These were not simply reactions to economic circumstances, but rather followed Morsi’s unpopular attempts to move sectarian politics into the constitution. The ex-President’s hosting a group of Salafi sheiks who declared a holy war on Syria added to this tension.
The army, for all its compromises with Washington and Israel, has a strong secular tradition (reinforced, like the Syrian Arab Army, by the inclusion of all communities in its ranks), and would have resented both the creeping sectarian laws and Morsi effectively ceding decisions about war (or rather, hosting terrorism) to the Salafi sheikhs. That resentment would have applied whether army officers were Sunni or not. Polls have consistently shown that most Sunnis (let alone Christians, Shiia and others) do not support either Salafism or the sectarian political strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood. Shadid reports on polls in Palestine in 1984 and 1986 ‘indicate that less than 10% of the [Palestinian] population would support the Brotherhood’s political position’ (Shadid 1988: 681-682).
The army thus had its own reasons for moving against Morsi, who was effectively and unilaterally reconstituting the state. However, the fact that the immediate beneficiaries of this coup may be neo-liberal factions, ideologically closer to Washington, does not mean that the deposing of the Brotherhood was a bad thing, in terms of a revolutionary process. The sectarianism of the Brotherhood is a poison in the social fabric of the region, a force which would prevent any national let alone regional union, thus leaving all Arab countries open to domination by the US and its principal agent, Israel. By the same token, no revolutionary process ever follows the norms of liberal democracy. I thought this was expressed rather well by the Arab scholar, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb:
‘Many have decried the millions-strong uprising in Egypt, and the military coup which rode on this popular anti-MB wave, as being antithetical to the basic precepts of democracy. Underlying this argument is a distinctly western liberal conception of democracy which preoccupies itself with such procedural matters as elections and constitutional legitimacy. The problem with this view isn’t merely that it lacks a substantive understanding of democracy, but that it also overlooks the fact that the Western/GCC-penetrated, post-Spring Arab world is hardly one conducive to procedural democracy, let alone substantive democracy. … So long as the imperialists and their Arab lackeys are active participants in the “democratic” process in the region, there can be no civil peace, internal stability or national security, which are the preconditions for that democratic process.’ – Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
What matters are the values embedded in insurrectionary or revolutionary processes. Remember the February 1992 attempted coup against a neoliberal regime in Venezuela, by a military group led by Hugo Chavez? It was enormously popular and embodied progressive values. The counter-coup attempted against Chavez in April 2002, on the other hand, was entirely reactionary and backed by Washington. There are coups and coups, and they are distinguished by their embodied values.
The Egyptian’s military’s almost bloodless coup against Morsi represented a blow by secularism and an inclusive national state against attempts to impose a sectarian constitution which would have ripped Egypt apart. Political Islam can never be a uniting force in the Middle East, not through any fault in Islam, but because historically Political Islam has been a creature of sectarian Wahhabism and Salafism. However, recounting that history is beyond the scope of this little article.
The fact that another puppet administration comes to fill the gap in Egypt does not negate the value in ousting Morsi. No doubt Washington is moving rapidly to re-establish control, but it seems to me the impulse did not come from them. At least the military and their appointed president do not intend to hold the reins for long. A new constitutional referendum and a new set of elections will soon follow.
There are a lot of uncertainties ahead for Egypt, but I would shed no tears for Morsi or the supposed rules of Egypt’s democratic process. A bigger and more substantial democracy is in play.
Tim Anderson is an academic, writer and activist based in Sydney.