Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guest Editorial: The Egyptian Coup, the United States, and the Threat of Terrorism

Tom McDonnell, Professor at Pace University School of Law and author of United States, International Law, and the Struggle against Terrorism (Routledge 2010), wrote the following editorial on the anniversary of September 11, 2001:

"The Obama Administration’s calling on Congress to approve an attack on the Assad regime in Syria for using chemical weapons has captured the attention of the media, the American public, and much of the world.  An apparent off the cuff remark by Secretary of State John Kerry for the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons has been seized upon by Russia and may result in a diplomatic settlement avoiding an almost certain congressional defeat for President Obama’s proposal to use military force (which lacked the support of the international community or a willing coalition of states).

The debate over Syria has pushed aside the Egyptian crisis, which, on the twelfth anniversary of 9/11, has far more lasting consequences for the United States and the struggle against international terrorism. By making, at best, a half-hearted attempt to stop Egypt’s military’s overthrow of its first democratically-elected president and by refusing to cut off $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt’s military government, the Obama Administration undermined fundamental American principles and considerably increased the risk that the United States will suffer additional terrorist attacks. Admittedly an abysmal leader, President Mohamed Morsi, and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, won in what foreign observers agree was a fair election. Granted that secularists, not the Muslim Brotherhood, led the Arab Spring, that the Brotherhood’s years of organization rather than the
quality of their ideas carried them to victory, and that Morsi was crudely attempting to consolidate the Brotherhood’s power by, among other things, having the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament dictate an Islamist-oriented constitution.

Morsi’s power-grab, however, did not justify his overthrow. Neither did the fact several million people protested Morsi’s rule in a country of 85 million (and even if a majority then opposed him). We know too often from our own long experience with democracy that elected leaders, including
presidents, often see their popularity dip below 50 percent during their term of office. For example, Gallup indicates that Presidents George W. Bush and Harry S. Truman both had a 36.5 percent average approval rating in their second terms.  (Recall too that the Egyptian military refused to let Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s first choice, run for the presidency.)

In implicitly approving the coup, United States has applied a double standard to Muslim fundamentalists, requiring them to resort to democratic means unless they win, sending the unmistakable message that the Muslim Brotherhood’s only option is to resort to violence. By arresting not only the democratically-elected President, but also the Brotherhood’s 70-year old spiritual leader Mohamed Badie and the other Brotherhood leaders, and by closing Parliament, killing several detained Brotherhood members, and killing and wounding over a thousand (mainly peaceful) protesters, the Egyptian military has pushed aside Brotherhood moderates and  empowered their violent extremists. Despite protests to the contrary, the United States is almost certainly perceived as being complicit with the Egyptian military.

History is not on our side. Under the Camp David Accords, United States gave hated Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak about $2 billion annually, helping him to stay in power for nearly 30 years. During his reign, Mubarak brutally repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, with barely a protest from the US. The Muslim Brotherhood began as a response to British colonization of Egypt, Western
secularization after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the aggressively secularist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s abolition of the Caliphate—then the ostensible political and religious leader of all Muslims. Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s describing the military’s attacks on the mainly peaceful protesters as “deplorable,” and President’s Obama’s rebuke of the Egyptian military, the United States’ continued support of the coup (in part because Egyptian secularists and some of our allies likewise supported it) falls into the narrative that, in great part, led to 9/11. Since the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb, one of the Brotherhood’s former leaders, inspired al Qaeda and most other jihadist movements, retaliatory terrorist attacks against the “far enemy”—the United States—are more than merely hypothetical.

Given the history and linkage between Islamic terrorist organizations and the Muslim Brotherhood and given that Egypt is the most important Arab country, if not the most important Muslim country in the world, the Obama Administration should have been much more sensitive both to American values and American interests. The Administration should have rejected the arguments of allies and secular, liberal Egyptians in support of the coup, both because democratic rule generally advances fundamental freedoms and more peaceful settlement of disputes and because overthrowing the fairly and lawfully elected Muslim Brotherhood President and Parliament is likely to inflame not only Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, but also fundamentalists throughout the Muslim world.

The Obama Administration’s diplomatic failure now makes our task far more difficult, but at a minimum the Administration should immediately suspend military aid to the Egyptian government, seek a UN Security Council Resolution condemning the Egyptian government’s use of excessive force against those protesting the takeover, and threaten both a travel ban on the coup’s leaders and a world boycott of the sale to Egypt of military equipment and supplies.

Our best counter-terrorism policy is to foster democratic institutions, the rule of law, and equal application of law. Supporting the coup tramples on this policy. We now have to play a much
tougher game of catch up, and it may not be enough."


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