Egypt: the end of the Arab Spring
The coup is a disaster. The Arab peoples must now go back to square one.
What has happened in Egypt is an unmitigated disaster. On two levels. It’s disastrous that an elected government, voted for by 52 per cent of Egyptians last year, has been ousted by a military voted for by no one, ever. And it’s disastrous that this violent sweeping aside of a democratic government by armed men, which was swiftly followed by massacres of those who dared to express support for the ousted government, has been hailed as a positive development by many Western observers. From the right to the left, from war-lovin’ Tony Blair to self-styled radicals, the coup has been embraced as not a coup at all, but as a glorious people’s sweep to power.
Many in the West are tying themselves in linguistic knots to try to avoid calling a coup a coup. The White House is refusing to use the c-word to describe the removal of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian president up to 3 July, when he was deposed by his defence minister. Using that word has ‘significant consequences’, it said. ‘A coup, or something else?’, asked a headline in the New York Times. I know that paper is facing financial travails, but I didn’t know things were so bad it couldn’t afford a dictionary. The ridiculousness of some observers’ allergy to using the c-word was summed up in the opening para of that NYT piece: ‘[T]he generals removed the democratically elected president, put him in detention, arrested his allies and suspended the constitution… But was it a military coup d’etat?’ Ladies and gentleman, the world’s most prestigious newspaper.
The shamelessness of the coup cheerers disguised as devotees of democracy is extraordinary. So Mona Eltahawy, the American-Egyptian journalist who was turned by fawning Westerners into the poster girl of Egyptians’ uprising against dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, says baldly of recent events: ‘This is not a coup.’ It seems unaccountable military power is only a problem when it runs counter to Ms Eltahawy’s own interests, not when it’s wielded in the name of her and other Egyptians’ desire to force aside elected Morsi. Laurie Penny, darling of Britain’s collapsed middle-class Occupy movement, said on the day of the coup: ‘The Egyptian people have brought down Morsi.’ This is a commentator who thinks students being kettled by cops in Trafalgar Square for half an hour is a crime against humanity, yet apparently military men using fighter jets and tanks to yank the reins of power from an elected president and his supporters is perfectly okay.
Then there are those who for the past 10 years have trumpeted their mission of ‘bringing democracy’ to the Middle East, who now claim that, actually, the Middle East isn’t ready for democracy and thus the Egyptian coup is justified. If there was a Nobel prize for gobsmacking hypocrisy, these people would get it. Idiot imperialist Tony Blair is currently doing the media rounds to defend the military coup in Egypt with the same rictus, toothy fervour with which he once denounced unaccountable militarism in the Middle East and declared his determination to defeat it. All you need to know about Blair’s attitude to foreign countries is contained in the fact that he wrote a pro-Egyptian coup article that had these words in it: ‘I am a strong supporter of democracy. But…’ Pro-coup NYT columnist David Brooks, another supporter of the Western wars to ‘deliver democracy’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, now says people with Islamist sentiment, by which he presumably means both the Muslim Brotherhood and the millions who vote for it, ‘lack the mental equipment to govern’. If only the destroyers of Iraq and Afghanistan and their media cheerleaders had discovered the political deficiencies of the inhabitants of Muslim countries a bit earlier, perhaps we could have avoided the past 10 years of bloody ‘wars for democracy’.
Various Westerners’ excuse-making for the Egyptian coup explodes their early praise for the Arab Spring, and confirms that all they’re really interested in for the mentally malformed Arab peoples is stability, enforced by whoever is best equipped for the task. More than that, their c-word-avoiding cheering of the events in Egypt represents an underhand attempt to redefine what democracy means. ‘Democracy is a way of deciding the decision-makers, but it is not a substitute for making the decision’, says Blair, cryptically. What he means, echoing the motley mix of Western leaders and radicals who have cheered the army’s seizing of power, is that if voters make the ‘wrong’ decision in polling booths then it can fall to others, those who ‘operate outside the convention of democracy’, as Blair puts it, to rectify things. This is an open invitation to the violent overthrowing of any elected government that fails to meet Blair’s or Mona Eltahawy’s or Cairo-based radicals’ expectations. And the millions of people who voted for Morsi? Screw them. They are mentally unequipped.
Yet however much these democracy warpers might try to deny it, a coup did take place in Egypt. The question of why it took place, and how, is an uncomfortable one, including for us at spiked who were early and loud supporters of the Arab rebellions. For the Egyptian coup is not simply, or even primarily, a case of a power-hungry military asserting itself. Rather, it springs from and was energised by the incoherence of the Egyptian uprising of the past three years, and from the fact that this radical movement so lacked a strategy, and a vision, and the means for achieving its goals, whatever they were, that it continually looked for external actors to do its work for it, be they Western activists or Western leaders or, more disastrously, the Egyptian military.
Even as spiked hailed the Egyptian uprising as an opportunity for the people of that country to move ‘into the heart of power itself’, we also recognised the inherent dangers of the various Arab protesters’ refusal to take themselves seriously in political and ideological terms. ‘It is a sad fact that one of the most notable things about the Arab uprisings is their incoherence, their dearth of strategy and ideology’, we argued in August 2011. Indeed, in early 2011, when Mubarak was ousted, one Egyptian writer noted ‘a complete absence of ideological rhetoric [in Tahrir Square]’. Sadly, many of the Arab protesters seemed to have imbibed the very po-mo Western idea, then being globally promoted by the ubiquitous Occupy, that not having a structured movement and clear demands is a benefit because it allows for flexibility. One described the absence of ‘a formal, organised, political opposition’ as ‘quite liberating’. Thus was a virtue made of the fact that what the Arab protesters had in terms of muscle and tenacity they lacked in terms of coherence and vision. As a consequence, the Egyptian and other Arab protesters have been unanchored, unclear, with a tendency to lash out unpredictably, and they have developed a habit of looking to others to represent their desires organisationally and ideologically. Some have called on the West to intervene, as they did in Libya, and finish off hated dictators. Others seem to have devoted as much energy to winning the flattery of influential Western radicals as they have to forging a radical roadmap for their own nations. The Egyptian military, exploiting this vacuum at the heart of the uprising, has depicted itself as doing what the Egyptian masses were incapable of doing, and, bizarrely, it has been cheered for doing so.
The coup, sadly, might represent the official end of the Arab Spring, its tragic subsuming, through its own self-conscious eschewing of plans and ideals, into the broader game of the Arab militaries and their friends in the West. The lessons of the events in Egypt are these: Western politicians don’t care about democracy in the Middle East; Western leftists don’t understand what democracy is; protesters can have all the physical presence and staying power in the world but they will still get nowhere without ideas.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.