Only a few days after the bloody and treacherous military coup in Egypt on July 3rd, Western governments released timid statements on the issue with a sense of concern and anticipation; they were unsure about the consequences and if they would be favourable for the coup leaders.
The rapid popular rejection of the military coup and the isolation of the first elected civil president, suspension of the constitution, dissolution of the Shura Council and other non-democratic acts prompted Western delegations to flock to Cairo in an attempt to examine the situation on the ground and explore options for a political solution. This was done by holding meetings with the political parties as well as the coup leaders.
Such efforts faded very quickly and have now virtually stopped altogether. The question is, why?
Before answering this we must ask ourselves what Europe and America want from Egypt. In a nutshell, they want to protect their political, economic and security interests, one of which is the protection of Israel. Stability in Egypt is important for that and can best be achieved with secular groups in power, it is believed, rather than Islamists.
The West is fully aware that the Islamists in Egypt, in particular, and in the Arab world in general, cannot be ignored or excluded from political participation. However, if the secularists are dressed in civilian clothes and in power, it would undoubtedly be best for the West. This can only happen by cancelling or hindering the democratic process and suppressing the Islamists who are a political force to be reckoned with, all of which goes against the West’s liberal thought and culture. As such, the statements made by Western politicians stressed the need to return to civilian rule as a matter of urgency and not to exclude anyone, meaning the Islamists, from participation.
It looks, though, as if the military leaders of the coup and Egypt’s secular elite have made it clear to the West that such an approach would return the situation back to zero; the Islamists are still influential at the grassroots level and could still win a majority in any election. Their solution has been to suppress the Islamists by arresting and prosecuting them to keep them out of the public domain and, therefore, politics.
Western doubts about the process are not out of concern for the well-being of the Islamists but for how it will look to domestic audiences in Europe and America. More importantly, perhaps, such moves do not eradicate Islamic political trends altogether but opens the door to violent extremism, with unpredictable results.
I believe that the Western position now boils down to one of two things: first, they might have realised that the military coup is now failing politically by its suppression of the Islamist opposition and bloody massacres of peaceful protesters calling for democracy in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya and Al-Nahda Squares. This bloodshed fuelled the rejection of the coup and boosted popular demands for the restoration of democracy, not just amongst Islamists. Moreover, the massacres will not be excused by Europe in the event that the perpetrators are not held to account for them by the international community. The coup has failed to sell itself internationally as a popular revolt against a non-democratic situation.
The coup is also sinking in an economic sense; Egypt’s already bad economic situation is now on the verge of collapsing altogether despite large injections of aid from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. Desperate economic conditions are linked by the people to the repercussions of the military coup.
The West could feel that it is probably better to leave the coup to fight for its life alone. If it collapses and dies then Western governments can tell their own electorates that they advised the coup authorities but they didn’t listen.
The second possibility is that the West has received commitments from the coup leaders regarding relations with Israel. Of special concern is the need to get rid of Hamas by re-imposing the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip; hence the destruction of the tunnels and closure of the Rafah Border Crossing as well as a military strike. The protection of all Western interests in Egypt will also have been promised by the coup government.
It is easy to imagine that the coup authorities in Egypt have assured the West that they are determined to stay in power because stepping aside would lead the way for a return of the Islamists even stronger than before. If the coup can achieve stability it would be best for Western governments. Failure, would affect everyone, the West included.
Politicians in Western capitals may have determined for themselves, therefore, to remain tacitly supportive of the coup, which explains the current absence of political delegations; the issue has gone beyond that stage. This may also explain Western silence, as well as that of international organisations, particularly the UN, regarding the violations of civil liberties in Egypt; is it acceptable because the repression, arbitrary arrests and brutality are being directed against, and suffered by, Islamists?
In conclusion, I would say that the West is heading along the first approach which will see it allowing the coup to wither on the vine and watch from the sidelines as it does. The growing pressure to restore democracy from all sectors of Egyptian society will have sent a clear message that the coup is not only anti-Islamist in nature. Western governments could well be planning for the post-coup stage already and an Egypt in which all political trends will have a full role to play, including the Islamists.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.