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Coups can be democratic

Coups can be considered democratic if they are carried out in certain circumstances and by people approved by Washington. Otherwise, forget it. But let’s not forget the definition of the word ‘coup’ (as if any citizen of Pakistan could do that). It is “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.”  While Pakistan hasn’t had any violent coups, those that took place were, even if well-intentioned and popular, undeniably sudden and illegal.

On July 13, 2013 the Egyptian army carried out a coup against the elected government of its country and US President Obama said he was “deeply concerned” by the military’s overthrow of President Morsi and suspension of Egypt’s constitution. Quite right, too, because there was without doubt violent and illegal seizure of power.

Then Obama went further by saying “I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters.” This was a forthright declaration and was welcomed internationally because it signalled that America, that stronghold of democracy, would not approve of armed forces overthrowing elected governments.

But unfortunately it didn’t work out like that, because Egypt’s generals acted brutally in suppressing resistance and arrested President Morsi and his main supporters and clapped them in prison where, after a show trial, they will stay for a very long time. On August 14 the army and police killed over 600 people demonstrating against the military regime.

US law lays down that Washington must suspend foreign aid to a nation “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree,” so you would expect Obama to act immediately to ensure that the tap of largesse and hi-tech military goodies was turned off.

But no action was taken for three months, and even then, as the Washington Post reported in October, although “shipments of big-ticket military items – including F-16 fighter planes, Abrams tanks and Apache helicopters” were suspended there were no real problems because “spare parts have been provided and training has continued.”

And then, in order to confirm that Washington was robustly serious about telling Egypt’s generals that what they did was just a little bit naughty, US Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to Egypt and had a cosy chat with the coup’s leader and self-appointed defence minister, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, after which he declared that suspension of aid “is not a punishment” and that it was “a very small issue between us.”

My goodness me, that has really sent a warning to up-and-coming coup-leaders round the world that America won’t stand for any nonsense like the destruction of democratic values and the slaughter of hundreds of anti-coup demonstrators. The message went out that if any budding rebels dared overthrow an elected head of state then Washington would administer a really hard tap on the wrist. As it did last week when Defence Secretary Hagel announced that America would provide Egypt with 10 Apache attack helicopters because “We believe these new helicopters will help the Egyptian government counter extremists who threaten US, Egyptian, and Israeli security.”

What Egyptian government? Is it the “democratically elected civilian government” that Barack Obama called for in July last year? But of course it isn’t. Because Egypt is controlled by a military regime whose chief, General al-Sisi, the coup-master, is going to be elected president on May 27. It is of little international concern that there’s only one other candidate, and that every media outlet in the country has to support the general. And Washington didn’t wait for even a token few weeks before making it clear that no matter what sort of military government obtains in Egypt, so far as the White House is concerned there would be no fear that supply of ground attack helicopters and bags of cash would be curtailed.

The reason for Washington’s total support of the military’s coup in Egypt is that the former democratically elected government was that of the Muslim Brotherhood party. The very word ‘Muslim’ sends shudders down the spines of a depressingly large number of Americans who can’t imagine a Muslim being other than a supporter of doom, death and destruction.

Of course there are countless millions of Muslims who are nothing of the sort and who, although perfectly good Muslims in purely spiritual terms, actually like to be self-regulating in thought, word and deed, and one of them in Egypt is a highly intelligent and very funny political commentator, Bassem Youssef (a heart specialist, in fact, who swapped surgery for satire), who pokes fun at people who deserve to be made fun of.

The Muslim Brotherhood government tried to silence him, without success, but the US-endorsed al-Sisi military regime has succeeded in cutting off his access to the public, probably because the owner of the TV station is a rich businessman who knows which way the political wind is blowing. And he doesn’t want the al-Sisi gale to blow away his money, because General al-Sisi will be in power for at least the next 20 years.

The satirist Youssef wasn’t among the 683 people who were sentenced to death last week after an eight minute hearing by an Egyptian court, and can consider himself lucky to have escaped such treatment – although he had better watch his back.

But the fatuous mass trial did come to the attention of an intelligent American politician, Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on foreign aid, who said “We can’t stand here and say, golly, gee whiz, we’re disturbed by hundreds of people being sentenced to death after a few minutes in a mass trial. It shows a dictatorship run amok.” Sure it does. But it will continue to be supported by the United States.

The writer is a South Asian affairs analyst. Website: www.beecluff.com

Brian Cloughley, "Coups can be democratic," The News. 2014-05-05.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political process , International politics , Political aspects , Armed forces , Political leaders , Government-Egypt , Laws-United States , Violence , President Obama , President Morsi , John Kerry , Bassem Youssef , Patrick Leahy , United States , Washington , Pakistan , Egypt