Small World: Riddles of the Sphinx

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Egypt’s recent “coup” or, if you prefer, Second Revolution, raises important questions, first, about its authenticity and, second, the implications for the United States in the Middle East.

In brief, the Moslem Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi was brought down by the army which arrested him and many of his close supporters, appointed a temporary successor regime complete with a “road map,” which is to lead to a revised constitution and new elections for parliament and president. At which point, the army will return to its barracks (wherein to remain vigilant against further disruptions.)

These coup-like moves were prompted by massive numbers (many millions, it is said) of Egyptians in the street protesting the autocratic and incompetent Morsi government. (In some measure correct charges.) Major grievances were a refusal to share power, the long lines of cars at gas pumps seeking fuel, electricity outages and the absence of police to maintain law and order on the streets. All this while the economy continued to sink, tourism disappeared, unemployment rose and the country’s foreign exchange reserves dwindled. From those with breath left to shout on the streets came denunciations of American ambassador Anne Patterson for having overtly supported Morsi’s Moslem Brotherhood.

But hold on. How true, how valid are these crowd-exciting conditions? Rather questionable, I would say. Within days of Morsi’s fall, gas lines disappeared as fuel was delivered and [fairly] normal electric power resumed. Police reappeared on the streets. Could it have been that these vital services had been cut by remnants of the Mubarak regime in order to undermine Morsi? And bear in mind, his liberal, secular opposition refused to cooperate with the president.

Last week, happily for the army, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait announced their support for the coup and offered the new regime some $12 billion in aid. Timely, no? Why? Well, the Moslem Brotherhood is a moderate (in Middle East terms) and democratic (ditto) party. The oil-rich autocratic monarchies which adhere to a more extreme brand of Islam don’t care for the competition. Their buddies in Egypt, the extremist Salafis (who ranked second in the polls to the MB), applauded the army coup.

As to Ambassador Patterson, she was only doing her job in maintaining contact with Morsi and Co. — albeit perhaps with excessive attendant publicity. She’s one of our top diplomats, having represented us in hot spots Columbia and Pakistan. For too long and in too many places, U.S. policy has suffered because we refused to talk to people we didn’t like or agree with. America should be in touch with all currents, like them or not. She did that.

So what’s all this trouble mean for us? Two big things: First, peace — even a chilly one — between Egypt and Israel is fundamental to our position in the region. A resumption of the pre-Camp David hostility would be disastrous. It is essential that we maintain friendly influence with Egypt for the sake of that peace.

The other consequences of the coup – real, fabricated or both – are more complicated but equally threatening. Whom do we support in deed and word: the democratically elected Moslem Brotherhood or the militarily imposed new regime? U.S. law prohibits aid to governments created by a coup. That’s why we haven’t heard President Obama utter the “C” word; blocking delivery of the next batch of F-16s would seriously offend the army leadership and weaken our position.

On the other hand, if we support the toppling of Morsi, we teach Moslem Brotherhood groups around the region that democracy won’t be allowed to work for them. Only armed resistance and power held by force of arms, they may conclude, can stand up to the West and its secular surrogates who seem their natural enemies.

In these conditions, President Obama is right to move cautiously, quietly trying to bridge the enormous gap between coup leaders and coup victims. Prisoners should be released; firing on demonstrators stopped; freedoms should be respected and, most importantly, a respected and honest mediator should be found to talk to both sides in the interest of all Egyptians. Only if a sense of national unity and purpose can be found again, can Egypt — “Mother of the World” — be preserved from terrible civil strife.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.  

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