Wednesday’s events in Rabaa, Egypt, have shocked the world. An estimated 464 people are dead – with the death toll growing – in the greatest loss of life on a single day since Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military on 3 July.
The bloodshed started when security forces stormed two camps in Cairo set up last month by supporters of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement. A state of emergency was declared and curfews imposed in Egypt’s major cities.
The international response has been somewhat muted. The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon have both criticised the use of force. For their part, the White House said that “the world is watching”, while US secretary of state John Kerry said that the “deplorable” events were “a real blow to reconciliation efforts”.
The latest bout of bloodshed points to an uncertain future for Egypt. The liberal politician Mohammed El-Baradei resigned as vice-president of the military backed interim government yesterday. “It has become difficult for me to hold responsibility for decisions that I do not agree with, whose consequences I fear,” he said in a statement, as the curfew was imposed.
It also puts America under growing pressure. The US is one of the biggest givers of aid to developing countries; much of this is military aid. If a leader is ousted by a military coup, an automatic congressional ban on US military aid is triggered. Why, then, has the annual $1.3 billion that America doles out to the Egyptian army not been cancelled? The US clearly does not want to suspend its aid to Egypt: because of the congressional ban, it has consistently avoided characterising events in Egypt as a coup.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch attributes this resistance to “efforts to maintain its lines of communication with the Egyptian military, quietly mediate the crisis and help lay the groundwork for some new, democratic political process” – efforts which Lynch feels have “utterly failed”.
In the aftermath of the coup, the uncertainty of western governments was clear. They support democracy, but do not support Islamism. How, then, to respond, when democracy produces an Islamist leader, or when liberal leaders are inserted through non-democratic means? The issue was further complicated by substantial support for the coup from a segment of the public and by the appointment of west-friendly secularists to the interim government.
The double standard can be seen in clear numeric terms when it comes to the issue of US military aid. When Burma’s military junta seized power in 1988, it embarked on a programme of repression of pro-democracy activists. The US not only suspended aid, but ended diplomatic relations and later imposed sanctions. It was only in 2012 – two decades later – that an ambassador was appointed and sanctions began to be relaxed.
Why, then, has there been such a weak response to the ousting of Morsi, who for all his flaws (which were many and various), was the legitimate winner of a free and fair election? The Egyptian military has now not only ousted a democratically elected president, but engaged in violent crackdowns on his supporters: the most obvious difference to Burma is that the ousted leader’s agenda differs drastically to that of the west.
The question of the weak response is becoming more pressing as violence continues. Many analysts fear that events will ultimately increase support for violent extremism in Egypt, as Islamists feel shut out of the democratic process. The situation in Egypt shows no signs of improving soon, but it remains to be seen whether the US will alter its response.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.