Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had proclaimed some time ago that “a week is a long time in politics”. How true his observation was has been borne out by what is happening in Egypt, the most populous and most important Arab country in the Middle East. It was only on June 30 that a huge crowd of Egyptians had vociferously demanded the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi for failing them economically, politically, and socially. The huge turnout gave an opening to the powerful Egyptian army to give Morsi a 48 hour ultimatum to “meet the crowd’s demands” i.e. to step down. When Morsi, the first elected President in Egypt’s history, predictably refused, he was removed and has been sequestered in some unknown destination. Thus has ended on an ignominious note the brief flirtation of Egypt with democratic rule. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Army Chief and his senior colleagues, probably thought that removing Morsi in the wake of the voluble protests mounted by his opponents, would give them a handle to control the fallout of their action against the Muslim Brotherhood, the 85-year-old party with strong roots among conservative Egyptians. If that indeed was their calculation, then it has not materialized so far.
Instead, Egypt is facing rioting and turmoil on a scale reminiscent of what preceded the downfall of the sclerotic Mubarak regime. There too, the Army had eased out the octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak, who had lost control over influential elements in Egypt’s army and security services. More ominously, after Mubarak’s departure, designating themselves as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) the army had warmed to its role as rulers. They were eventually persuaded to return Egypt to civilian rule in the wake of public protests.
Yesterday, over 50 Morsi supporters were apparently gunned down and hundreds injured through army action. The newly anointed interim President Adli Mansour (who was formerly chief justice of the constitutional court) appears largely to be a bystander. It took him a week, because of reported bickering among the various contenders, before he could appoint a prime minister and a vice president. Hazem el-Beblawi, a former Finance Minister, has been named Prime Minister, while the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel-laureate, Mohamed el-Baradei was named Vice President for foreign relations.
The major question is whether Egypt is moving toward some variant of an Algeria-type civil war (which lasted a decade from the early 1990’s, and cost 150,000 lives) or whether the Army will succeed in assuaging the extreme anger of the Brotherhood rank and file, and persuade them to acquiesce to the changed political environment in Egypt.
The US has been quiescent on the Egyptian crisis. It has conspicuously not condemned Morsi’s ouster. Obama has reportedly counseled restraint on the Army, which does not seem to have had much impact so far. Apart from diplomatic persuasion, the only effective tool in Obama’s tool bag is the $1.5 billion aid which the US disburses annually to Egypt. Interestingly, out of this amount $1.2 billion goes to the Army as a reward for the latter’s support for keeping the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty intact. US foreign aid to Egypt is the second largest after Israel but only the small sum of $300,000 goes toward civilian improvement in a country of 85 million, which represents a drop in the bucket. This imbalance needs to be rectified.
The US Foreign Assistance Act states that no aid…can go to “any country whose duly elected government is deposed by military coup d’état” or where “the military plays a decisive role” in such an action. While the US has still to make up its mind on whether Morsi was removed through a coup or not, this appears to be mere dissembling.
Most observers believe that the Army, in concert with the Morsi opposition, ousted him through a coup. For raison d’état, the US seems to be bending its own legal provisions in the hope of not antagonizing Sisi and his fellow generals. This is a controversial approach, smacking of double standards, as it would be quite easy for the US to suspend further aid to concentrate the minds of the Army to restore civilian government in Egypt quickly. If the US continues to prevaricate in utilizing the aid lever, the Egyptian Army could be in for a long innings in Cairo.