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Egypt: A Coup Is What it Is

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On Wednesday, Egypt's military, long the country's most powerful political institution and an outfit with a massive economic empire, deposed Mohamed Morsi, the only Egyptian president ever to attain office by winning an election in which all political parties could compete on an equal footing.

Mr. Morsi's brief presidency (he was elected last summer) was tumultuous, and his popularity had been plummeting -- an outcome that owed in no small measure to his failings as a leader.

His political instincts and temperament alienated his opponents, a motley assortment that ranged from liberals and officials in the civil service, judiciary, and security services to Coptic Christians leery of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood party.

Morsi was no better as an administrator. Shortages of electricity, fuel, and water were rampant, and the economy, hardly in good shape when Morsi took office, did not improve.

So Morsi was undoubtedly a polarizing figure with bad political judgment and an inept economic manager to boot.

But the larger point is that he was democratically-elected and then summarily sacked by the military brass. The generals took it upon themselves to decide that he could no longer rule given the massive street demonstrations that the political opposition organized starting on June 30; never mind that protests, and the reliance on bargaining and compromise to fix the problems that produce them, are integral, though difficult and messy, parts of the democratic process.

If Egypt -- or any country for that matter -- hopes to consolidate its newly established democracy it's a terrible idea to permit the army to decide when and for what reasons the terms of presidents and other elected officials end. Democracy requires that the army stay out of politics and in its barracks.

Despite what's happened, Egypt's liberals and most Western governments have bent over backwards to avoid describing it as what it is: a coup.

One variant of verbal pyrotechnics in evidence is the contention that there hasn't been a coup because the Egyptian army, while it did unseat the president, isn't running the country.

This is nonsense.

First, the fact that the generals sacked a democratically-elected president is scarcely a technicality; it's a defining feature of a coup.

Second, the military brass handpicked the man who replaced Morsi as interim president, the recently appointed head of the High Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour.

Third, no serious person, Egyptian or not, could really believe that Mansour has the power to take any major decision without the generals' approval.

It has been particularly disheartening to watch the democratic opposition politician Mohammed El-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and of all things an international lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, engage in coup denial and word parsing.

To substantiate his point that there hasn't been a coup El Baradei says that the military high command has assured him that President Morsi is being treated with dignity.

That Morsi is under the military's custody despite having committed no crime and that many of the Muslim Brotherhood's top leaders have been arrested or are now wanted men seems irrelevant to El Baradei, who moreover admits to having had discussions with Western governments about removing Morsi.

It's one thing for Al-Nour, the radical Islamist party, to legitimize Morsi's eviction: its adherents incline to the view that democracy is apostasy because it replaces God's laws with those of men. But it's a sad day when Egypt's liberals engage in casuistry to deny, and worse, to make possible, what is plainly a wholesale subversion of democracy.

The major Western powers haven't done much better. Yes, there have been mealy-mouthed calls for consensus and stability and admonitions to avoid violence and to respect democratic norms. But coup-denial is rampant.

The Obama administration is a prime example. The statements emanating from the White House and the State Department amount to verbal subterfuge.

Egypt receives $1.5 billion a year in American aid, almost all of it military. Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act (which is not subject to presidential waiver) specifies that aid cannot be extended to "any country whose duly elected head of state is deposed by military coup or decree." Clearly, Egypt does not meet the requirements for continuing American aid.

But President Obama and those in Congress opposed to cutting off aid will not state the obvious, namely, that there has in fact been a coup in Egypt.

Granted, various rationalizations can be ginned up to keep aid flowing. One is that the United States will have more leverage over the Egyptian military if it continues to engage it.

But aid is not the only form of engagement; besides, the argument that terminating it will send a strong message to Egypt's military leadership is no less persuasive, and the United States has, on this basis, ceased giving aid to countries in which elected governments have been toppled by the military.

And of course there's the minor matter of complying with the requirements of the relevant U.S. legislation, in this instance the Foreign Assistance Act.

Furthermore, by ignoring the obvious in Egypt, American leaders will only strengthen the view, already common in the Arab world, that the United States talks a good democratic game but then routinely makes exceptions to its professed and oft-proclaimed principles when necessary and also castigates some countries for being undemocratic while looking the other way when others -- typically those with which it has military ties -- pay no heed to democratic values.

Morsi's sacking has been followed by greater unrest, which has spiraled into violence. His ouster is hardly going to convince Islamist parties that they can have a fair shot at governing by working within the democratic process.

Nor is it clear that Egypt, arguably the Arab country most strategically important to the United States, is now moving toward greater stability.

In sum, it's hard to see which American ideals or interests have been advanced by Washington's otiose reaction to the coup.

As for the Egyptian generals, they claim to have removed Morsi following massive street protests and his failure to then reach an accommodation with his opponents. But by giving him a short ultimatum (48 hours!) to reach a negotiated settlement, they removed any incentive that the opposition may have had to compromise and so essentially predetermined the outcome. Why cut a deal with your opponent when you can wait him out?

Since the coup, pro- and anti-Morsi supporters have clashed, as have the army and Muslim Brotherhood protesters. About 36 people have died (eight of them after troops opened fire) and many more have been injured. This is the path to consensus and compromise and to fresh elections that will be regarded by all Egyptians as legitimate?

Egyptian liberals are now celebrating Morsi's dismissal. But theirs is a tactical victory. They have, no matter their verbal contortions, blessed the proposition that the military can rightly oust an elected government whose policies generate mass protests.

Not only is that idea antithetical to the values they claim to embrace, they may one day fall victim to its pernicious logic.