Until last week, most of us thought we knew what a military coup d’etat was. If the army removes the civilian head of state from office, that is a coup. Still, the United States so far has not called the July 3 armed services overthrow of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi a coup.
One reason is likely that doing so would trigger a congressionally mandated suspension of military aid to Egypt, an outcome that does not appear to be in America’s interest. It would also not help push the Arab world’s largest and most powerful country back on the path to democracy.
The $1.3 billion a year military aid to Egypt (second only to Israel) is partly a reward for its adherence to its peace treaty with the Jewish state. U.S. aid also locks the strategically important Arab state into the pro-U.S. camp. And while the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi government was more politically hostile than its predecessors, Egypt’s security relations with Israel and the U.S. remained strong, constructive and crucial to responding to violence in the Sinai and Gaza.
Those solid ties seem assured this week, but Egypt’s democratic future remains in doubt. In the wake of Morsi’s ouster, the military government closed several media outlets and rounded up dozens of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi himself. Curtailing speech and locking up political opponents are not ingredients of open, inclusive government.
To be sure, Morsi’s government repeatedly flouted democratic norms. It worked to marginalize, even terrorize, women and religious minorities. One could argue that a more convincing repudiation of the Brotherhood and Morsi’s inept leadership might have come in upcoming elections, in an exercise of “throw the bums out.” Instead, the coup transformed the bums into victims and martyrs who turn to violence.
But that was last week’s argument, back when we knew what a coup was.
Throughout it all, the U.S. has been remarkably quiet. Perhaps that is reflective of the diminished influence Washington has in the region. Or maybe the administration has opted for more quiet diplomacy. Either way, we urge the U.S. to use whatever clout it has with the generals to make sure Egypt is headed toward an inclusive, representative government that assures equality and fair treatment for all, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In making that pitch, it wouldn’t hurt to remind the players that we all still know what a coup really is.