Egypt
The army pulled the trigger, but the West loaded the gun

The army pulled the trigger, but the West loaded the gun

How Western liberals provided the moral ammo for the massacres in Egypt.

There is ‘world outcry’ over the behaviour of the Egyptian security forces yesterday, when at least 525 supporters of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi were massacred. The killings were ‘excessive’, says Amnesty, in a bid to bag the prize for understatement of the year; ‘brutal’, say various handwringing newspaper editorials; ‘too much’, complain Western politicians.

Such belated expressions of synthetic sorrow are not only too little, too late (hundreds of Egyptians have already been massacred by the military regime that swept Morsi from power); they are also extraordinarily blinkered. To focus on the actions of the security forces alone, on what they did with their trigger fingers yesterday, is to miss the bigger picture; it is to overlook the question of where the military regime got the moral authority to clamp down on its critics so violently in the name of preserving its undemocratic grip on power. It got it from the West, including from so-called Western liberals and human-rights activists. The moral ammunition for yesterday’s massacres was provided by the very politicians and campaigners now crying crocodile tears over the sight of hundreds of dead Egyptians.

The fact that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian armed forces who swept Morsi from power on 3 July, feels he has free rein to preserve his coup-won rule against all-comers isn’t surprising. After all, his undemocratic regime has received the blessing of various high-ranking Western officials, even after it carried out massacres of protesters campaigning for the reinstatement of Morsi, who was elected with 52 per cent of the vote in 2012.

Baroness Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s chief of foreign affairs, who, like al-Sisi, is unelected, visited Egypt at the end of July. She met with al-Sisi and his handpicked, unelected president, Adly Mansour. She called on this junta disguised as a transitional power to start a ‘journey [towards] a stable, prosperous and democratic Egypt’. This was after it had massacred hundreds of protesters, placed various politicians and activists in prison, and reinstated the Mubarak-era secret police to wage a ‘war on terror’ against MB supporters. For Ashton to visit al-Sisi and talk about democracy in the aftermath of such authoritarian clampdowns was implicitly to confer authority on the coup that brought him to power and on his brutal rule and actions.

Meanwhile, the US has refused to call the military’s sweeping aside of Morsi a coup. The Democratic secretary of state, John Kerry, has gone further and congratulated al-Sisi’s regime for ‘restoring democracy’. Kerry said the military’s assumption of power was an attempt to avoid ‘descendance into chaos and violence’ under Morsi, and its appointment of civilians in the top political jobs was a clear sign that it was devoted to ‘restoring democracy’. He said this on 2 August. After hundreds of Morsi supporters had already been massacred. If al-Sisi’s forces believe that killing protesters demanding the reinstatement of a democratically elected prime minister is itself a democratic act, a necessary and even good thing, it isn’t hard to see where they got the idea from.

Meanwhile, former British PM turned UN peace envoy Tony Blair has become a globetrotting spokesman for the legitimacy of the al-Sisi regime. The army will have to take ‘some very tough, even unpopular decisions’ in its ‘steering of the country back on to a path towards elections’, he says. Most strikingly, Blair said of al-Sisi’s regime that sometimes an efficient government is more important than an elected one. In executing ‘very unpopular’ massacres in the name of making Egypt run more ‘efficiently’ – the key justification al-Sisi and his forces have given for their clampdown on Morsi supporters – the military regime is reading from a moral narrative provided by Tony Blair.

As well has being provided with moral cover by leading Western politicians, the al-Sisi regime has benefited from the effective standing-down of the Western human-rights lobby. Certainly those well-connected commentators and activists who normally make a major fuss over foreign military regimes that repress their political opposition have been mild bordering on mute in their criticisms of the new Egyptian dictatorship.

Human-rights groups like Amnesty have played a key role in keeping international eyes off Egypt by trumpeting other, apparently more pressing rights issues, such as Russia’s continued imprisonment of Pussy Riot. Astonishingly, Amnesty has just launched a new campaign called ‘Back on Taksim’, which allows Westerners to ‘check in’ online to Taksim Square in Turkey in order to raise awareness about the heavy-handed policing of the demonstration there and the brutal dismantling of the protesters’ camps. And the massacre of camping protesters in Cairo? Doesn’t that deserve an app, too? Apparently not. It’s only secular, left-leaning protesters that Amnesty and its Hampstead-based patrons are interested in, not bearded, Koran-reading blokes demanding the reinstatement of a religious-leaning president.

In fact, Amnesty has gone further than helping to divert the human-rights brigade’s attentions away from blood-stained Cairo – it has also inadvertently provided part of the justification for the Egyptian security forces’ massacres. One of Amnesty’s chief contributions to the discussion about Egypt over the past two months has been the writing of a report alleging that the pro-Morsi protest camps are abducting and torturing their opponents – that is, supporters of al-Sisi’s military regime. And the regime has enthusiastically cited Amnesty’s claims in its justification of its violent destruction of the pro-Morsi camps. The regime’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, mentioned Amnesty reports in his explanation for why his forces have launched a ‘war on terror’ against Morsi supporters. Amnesty has not only implicitly played down the seriousness of the massacres in Egypt; it has also provided a moral excuse for their execution.

Alongside Western leaders and human-rights activists, the Egyptian left has also provided cover – literally – for the massacre of Morsi supporters. On every occasion when the regime’s forces have mown down its opponents, left-wing supporters of the regime have turned out in their thousands to give a democratic-seeming gloss to these killings of anyone who criticises the coup. The liberal National Salvation Front, much beloved of the Western human-rights lobby, says Morsi supporters bear ‘full responsibility’ for yesterday’s massacres.

Tamarod, the radical group that called for the removal of Morsi back in July, and which is hailed by the celebrated radical American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy as a brilliant and inspiring movement, has said it is ‘happy for [the security forces] to play their role in confronting the violence and terrorism practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood’. Both Ms Eltahawy and Tamarod have repeated regime propaganda about the Morsi camps being armed and dangerous, effectively terroristic, and thus apparently deserving of destruction. Tamarod’s provision of some pseudo-liberal, seemingly grassroots spit-and-polish to the regime’s massacres of its opponents isn’t surprising – there are now more and more claims that, in the words most recently of the London Review of Books, Tamarod is not as organic as it seems and has in fact received ‘advice, information and possibly weapons’ from the security forces.

To focus solely on what the security forces did yesterday is to imbibe only half of the story (if that) of what has occurred in Egypt over the past two months. For the security forces’ actions have been implicitly okayed by Western politicians, fuelled by the claims of human-rights groups, and supported on the streets by the Egyptian left. What we are witnessing is not simply a violent clampdown by men with guns, but effectively the Western-approved imposition of brute stability in Egypt and the bringing to an end of the Arab Spring and the idea that lay at the heart of it – namely, that Arab peoples are capable of determining their destinies free from external intervention or internal military control. That positive, spring-like belief might have been physically mown down by al-Sisi’s goons, but their guns were loaded by so-called Western liberals.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture by: Mohammed Asad/AP/Press Association Images

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