There is no denying the fact that Mohammad Mursi was democratically voted into office, however narrow his margin of victory was, and that the Egyptian military organised a coup against an elected leader, however deeply flawed that leader’s rule was.
Any cause for alarm in the American capital? No. Instead of alarm, Washington evinced nonchalance. The nonchalance evinced by Washington in its reaction to the dramatic events that culminated in the ouster of Mohammad Mursi was eerie.
Last Friday, the day the Egyptian leader was toppled by the country’s all-powerful military, President Barack Obama worked on his golf score at Camp David and Secretary of State John Kerry worked on his suntan in Nantucket. And following last Monday’s bloodbath, when soldiers fired on protesters massed outside a military building, where it was believed Mursi was held, killing 51 people and injuring 435, the State Department confined itself to issuing that tired, one-fits-all statement about how all parties should “exercise restraint”, except this time, given the fact that the incident marked the deadliest confrontation between security forces and demonstrators since the popular revolt erupted in early 2011, there was an added caveat: The military was urged to “exercise maximum restraint”.
And on Capitol Hill, legislators wrestled with semantics, trying to determine whether — as if they had wiggle room — there was in fact a coup mounted here and thus enough reason to cut aid to Egypt.
The issue is not obviously the paltry $1.5 billion (Dh5.51 billion) disbursed to Egypt annually. In relative terms, that amounts to chump change when you consider that over the last decade, the US has spent well over $93 billion on reconstruction alone in Afghanistan — with little to show for it.
The issue rather is how the debate has descended into hair-splitting and nit-picking, since American law in this case is clear: It states that no aid will be given to a nation whose elected head of state was removed by arbitrary military intervention. Call it disingenious if you wish, but between them, the White House, the State Department and the Congress are telling us, with a straight face, that a “legal review is under way” to determine whether or not what happened in Egypt meets the definition of a coup.
Let us face it: Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood have few friends in Washington. But why this seeming indifference to Egypt’s fate by American officialdom?
There was a time when Egypt was seen, and saw itself, as the major strategic player in the region. The country of 85 million, however, has long since lost its status and stature. Today, other countries in the Arab world, with lesser demographic and territorial significance, play a larger role.
For roughly two decades after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952, Egypt was the quarterback, as it were, in Arab Middle East. It wielded immense influence through the effusions of its popular culture, established media, academic institutions, publishing houses and the like, that other newly-emerged states in the region had lacked. By the early 1970s, however, oil-producing countries in the Arabian Peninsula were able to convert their oil wealth into political power and countries in the Mashrek were able to supersede whatever Cairo had to offer — and move on. Meanwhile, Egypt effectively remained immobilised, as you would have expected to happen in an impoverished country where the military ruled supreme and citizens were socialised to accept, or acquiesce under duress to, the curtailment of their freedoms.
Today, nations like Qatar and Lebanon, let alone Saudi Arabia, play more significant global roles and figure more prominently in the power profile of Middle Eastern politics than Cairo could aspire for.
To be sure, for the US, Egypt has not totally receded in importance, despite Washington’s demonstrated ambivalence. After all, the country’s three-decade peace treaty with Israel is seen in the American capital as a principal concern, the cornerstone of security for the Zionist entity, whose welfare America will go to lunatic extremes to ensure. But gone are the days when Egypt had dominated Arab political and popular culture and positioned itself as a colossus in the heartland of our part of the world.
Today Egypt is a disfigured polity, long brutalised by dictatorship and the caprice of a military elite that had put its privileges ahead of national interest, who insist, as their coup against Mursi would attest, that it is their way or the highway. For whatever anodyne phrase you hide it behind, what they mounted last Friday was a coup against an elected government. No two ways about it.
Last Tuesday, Abigail Hauslohner, the Washington Post’s correspondent in Cairo, quoted a young Egyptian as saying: “Now we’re moving in a direction where it feels like we’re back where we were under Mubarak. If not worse”. He may be right.
Meanwhile, Egypt, once a mighty exemplar to the Arab masses, may as well put up a sign saying that it is closed for repairs.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.