Good Coups, Bad Coups

By Joost Lagendijk

July 14, 2013 “Information Clearing House – “Zaman” — To be honest, when the Egyptian military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government on July 4, I did not expect a long debate on the question of whether or not this power grab should be labeled a coup. As many observers formulated it that day: It looks like a coup, it smells like a coup, it acts like a coup. So who would seriously want to challenge that observation?

It turned out that most governments in the region and beyond did. Turkey and Tunisia were the exceptions when they spoke out strongly against the takeover by the army. In Ankara it even led to a common declaration by all four parties in Parliament, a rare act of unison. The African Union reacted quickly by suspending Egypt’s membership. That was it.

The US administration expressed its concerns, but kept avoiding the term “coup,” fully aware of the fact that there is a legal requirement that forces the US to suspend aid to countries where the military has deposed a democratically elected government. Apparently, Washington does not want to lose the leverage on Cairo it believes the US has because of the billions it donates for military equipment and debt forgiveness.

The EU declaration was weak as well for reasons that I still fail to understand fully. It is probably a mix of diplomatic cautiousness pushed too far, worries that a powerful condemnation would put the EU funds for Egypt (already under attack for a lack of accountability) in danger and little love lost for Morsi and the MB.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan immediately jumped on the European failure to speak out against the coup and accused Brussels of hypocrisy. That condemnation went down well in Turkey, where broadly shared bad memories of coups d’état are combined with a deeply rooted indignation about perceived European double standards.

The problem with such outspoken self-righteousness is that it easily backfires: The current Sudanese ruler Omar Hassan al-Bashir, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court but a good friend of the AKP government, came to power 24 years ago after staging a military coup against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. So although Erdoğan definitely has a point on the EU’s feebleness in the case of Egypt’s coup and he gets away with his selective memory on Sudan’s recent history at home, these discrepancies are not lost on seasoned diplomats in Europe.

The Turkish government bashing the US and the EU also contrasted sharply with the deafening silence coming from Ankara on the explicit welcoming of the military coup by the rich Arab monarchies. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait promised no less than $12 billion support to the new regime in Cairo. As Marc Lynch, professor at George Washington University, put it in Foreign Policy: “It’s pretty clear what the counter-revolutionary Gulf monarchs expect for their generosity, and it’s not democracy. The conservative Gulf states would like to buy a new Mubarakism and a final end to all of this Arab uprising unpleasantness.” Curious to know what Erdoğan’s take is on that. Or will we not hear about this because the common interests in the fight against Bashar al-Assad in Syria are too big at the moment?

The good thing about a free press is that the debate on “Yes or No Coup” continues, especially in the US. The New York Times published a breaking story that seemed to show that powerful groups and individuals related to the old Mubarak regime had done their utmost for months to undermine Mr. Morsi’s administration, for instance by blocking energy supplies, causing power cuts and long lines at petrol stations. After the military started arresting dozens of MB leaders and cracking down on pro-Morsi media, the influential Associated Press news agency decided to change course and began calling the military overthrow a coup.

On the website The Monkey Cage, specialized American academics expressed clearly why this ongoing dispute is important: “Coups are bad for democracy, international responses to coups matter, and Egypt’s path towards (or away from) democracy will likely hinge upon strong international pressure to return to elections and respect the electoral outcome as soon as possible.”

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