Morsi’s Last, Lonely Days in Power
Bessma Momani on why the West didn’t stand up for Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow
“It’s not a coup, but a continued revolution!” cried Egyptians celebrating the military’s removal of President Mohamed Morsi from power after the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The semantic debate over Morsi’s ouster continues. What is not receiving the same attention is why world leaders and Egypt’s traditional allies let it happen.
The Associated Press and the New York Times have reconstructed Morsi’s last week in office, when the coup was being planned in Cairo with the full knowledge of Morsi and perhaps other world leaders as well. According to these reports, Morsi reached out to Western governments for support in advance of the coup. So why did the West ignore the impending overthrow of a democratically elected leader? Why, when the coup was clearly underway, did they voice only half-hearted concerns about a possible “military intervention”? Why did they not condemn the military’s intention to remove Morsi outright, an intention which was clear from the moment they delivered their 48-hour ultimatum?
Morsi supporters, alongside millions of supporters of Islamist political parties elsewhere in the Arab world, would probably tell you that if Egypt had elected a secular liberal in 2012, it would have been different. That if it had been Islamists that had filled Tahrir Square last week to drive an elected leader out of office, world capitals would have been up in arms. That if a secular leader had been in danger, the West would have been busy declaring loudly and behind the scenes that circumventing democratic political processes was unacceptable. And that and brutal handling of protestors by the military would have been condemned without hesitation.
Conspiracy theories built on such sentiments are now rampant. They claim that Morsi’s government, the largest pilot project of political Islam in the Arab world, was set up for failure by internal and external forces that included the military, the judiciary, and foreign financiers.
But if we look to Morsi’s final week in office, this could hardly be further from the truth. Morsi’s unceremonious departure was implicitly sanctioned by the West not because of a conspiracy. Quite the opposite, in fact. The interest in and commitment to shaping Egypt’s future that American involvement in such a plot would have required belongs to a past era of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. An appetite for puppet mastering the politics of Middle East states has waned, if not disappeared entirely.
What we see if we look hard at Mori’s last days and hours is a leader almost entirely isolated internationally. Why? Where were his benefactors? Why did Egypt’s traditional allies, notably the United States, not stand behind him?
Morsi’s isolation was the result of a perfect storm. Western government introversion due to global economic uncertainty combined with Arab Spring fatigue – something that has been growing steadily worse on account of certain tendencies of the mainstream media’s foreign affairs coverage – to leave him hopelessly exposed.
On the first point: Egypt’s traditional allies in the West have become desensitized to the trials and tribulations of Middle Eastern states as their own economic and fiscal health has deteriorated.
The EU, Egypt’s largest trading partner, once had strong cultural ties to the North African region. But Europe is not what it once was – the crumbling eurozone has turned the major European powers inward. As Egypt was sliding into chaos, their minds were on Portugal, the new governor of the Bank of England, and Mario Draghi’s announcements at the European Central Bank.
The U.S. is similarly distracted by the slow economic recovery and worsening political gridlock in Washington. When Richard Haass, director of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the U.S. needs to put its own house in order before turning its attention to managing the world, one can be fairly sure the U.S. is growing steadily less invested in micromanaging the Middle East.
Secondly, overall ‘Arab Spring fatigue’ is now felt by many Westerners. The prevailing Western attitude can be summed up as, ‘Why can’t the Middle East just get its act together?’ After the revolutions, things went, in their eyes, terribly, terribly wrong: Islamist political parties took power in numerous countries; in Libya, despite the overthrow of Ghadaffi, a U.S. Consulate was attacked and an ambassador killed; and in Syria, despite the uprising against Assad, rebel ranks are now rife with al-Qaeda inspired militia. Having initially celebrated the falling dominos of Arab dictatorships in 2011, they are tired of watching new governments struggle and fail to find their footing and conscious of the West’s limited ability to do much to speed up the process.
The media is feeding this fatigue, unable to present complexity in a way that doesn’t leave people too confused and dispirited to engage with the issues. The humanitarian crisis in Syria, where a secular regime faces an increasingly religiously inspired rebel movement that is fighting on while millions languish in refugee camps and a hundred thousand have been killed, epitomizes the complex narrative of the Arab Spring, and the media’s struggle to capture it.
But a willingness by the media to delve into complexity that is Egyptian politics today was badly needed as June 30th approached if there was going to be any chance that Western populations would understand what was at stake in Tahrir Square and pressure their governments to do everything they could to safeguard the country’s nascent democracy. But the fact that a democratically elected leader had become an increasingly autocratic representative of the Muslim Brotherhood and millions of Egyptians once again poured again into Tahrir made this a tall order. The bad guys and good guys seemed to be swapping places.
There was only ever a small chance that the mainstream media could wade through this mess to provide the information that could have helped push Western governments to strongly condemn an imminent military coup, while making clear the people’s demands had to be addressed. But Egypt’s coup-cum-revolution won’t be the last post-Arab Spring state to challenge our preference for a clear underdog to cheer for and a tyrant to rail against, so we need to learn from this case, and fast.
We need to face the fact that the Arab Spring revolutions were never going to come to easily digestible conclusions for either Western governments or the media, and that the more insular our foreign policy turns, the less we will be ready for those moments when we really can and should stand up for the democratic ideals we claim to hold so dear.
However complex the social movements in the Middle East become, we must work hard to overcome the tendency to look away, or to see only what we want to see. Morsi and the country he led have been left to their fate because of both.