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This was a coup: we must support Egypt's people, not its generals

January 27, 2014 at 1:31 pm

The international response to the events in Egypt has been uncertain and hesitant. Governments and citizens alike seem to have been caught off-guard by the bloodshed that followed the enforced removal of Mohamed Morsi.

Initially, there was a dispute about acknowledging whether a coup had taken place. I understand the caution in western capitals in the days that followed Morsi’s exit: careful language was chosen to try to secure crucial influence with Egypt’s new rulers. Those first efforts by European Union and United States officials to try to secure commitments from the generals in their exercise of power and a return to democracy were certainly worth trying.

Yet a coup is what it was, and the subsequent bloodshed has demonstrated how little that western advice was listened to. While few doubt that Morsi made big mistakes in office, the scale of the violence now being witnessed confirms that the army is not the solution to Egypt’s continuing crisis.

Today’s decision by EU foreign ministers to review arms export licences and European aid to Egypt were necessary but overdue. There has been speculation that Egypt would react to the suspension of EU or US support by ditching its peace treaty with Israel or abandoning its fight against the Islamist terrorist threat in the Sinai peninsula. But those policies are clearly in the country’s interests, and the generals will not abandon them.

It’s true that Saudi Arabia has offered to make up the cash shortfall caused by any cuts to international support to Egypt. Yet that was not a reason to fail to act. Through its aid, Europe has a responsibility to advance our commitment to democracy and human rights. And European co-operation with Egypt could not continue as normal when civilians are being killed and basic rights are undermined.

The crisis demands the delivery of an unambiguous message from the international community. The US should now join the EU in reviewing civilian and military aid. The generals need to understand that attempting to install a new autocracy will have consequences for Egypt’s relationship with the west.

But in truth, the effectiveness of the west’s response to Egypt will have as much to do with politics as policy. The decisions and declarations made at this sensitive time matter to the credibility with which the west’s voice is heard not just in Egypt but across the Middle East. It is vital that people believe the west’s commitment to democracy is real.

Today the bigger risk for the west is not losing further influence with the generals, but further losing legitimacy with the people of the region. Some Egyptians fear that, with western backing, the army will freeze the Muslim Brotherhood out of democratic politics and power for generations. If that view takes hold, the consequences for democracy in Egypt and security in the region could be dangerous.

Attempts to exclude a party with the level of support recently secured by the Muslim Brotherhood will simply prolong Egypt’s agony. That is a tragic lesson from the history of Algeria in the 1990s. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood needs the opportunity, in the words of US senator Lindsey Graham, to “get out of the streets and into the voting booth”. Yet to do so, its supporters must believe there is a viable democratic path.

The wave of democratic revolutions across the region in 2011 pulverised al-Qaida’s claim that change was possible only through violence. That hate-filled narrative must not now be given credence. So for the west today to speak up for democracy and human rights isn’t just morally the right thing to do, it’s also the wise thing to do.

Source: The Guardian

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.