Egypt, the West and the Arab Spring

America’s refusal to condemn the military coup in Egypt has revealed the West’s true hopes for the ‘Arab Spring’


By Gulshan Roy, 11th September, 2013

 “If there is a God, he will have a lot to answer for. If not… well, he had a successful life,” Pope Urban VIII once said of a man who would irreversibly frame the study of diplomatic strategy. The Cardinal of Richelieu became France’s First Minister in 1624 at the time of the bloody war of Counter-reformation in Europe. In spite of France’s Catholic faith, Richelieu refrained from joining his religious allies in the war on Protestant Europe. But far retired from the moral obligations towards peace, his calculus rested instead within the strategic reasoning that a protracted and prolonged bloodbath would inflict damage upon both his allies and enemies, and ultimately serve France’s national objective of acquiring more power in Central Europe. Upon his advice, France simply stood back and watched the bloodshed, waiting for the most opportune moment to enter the fray. As the Obama administration silently watches the unfolding tragedy in Egypt, one can hardly eschew the conclusion that the robed religious tactician has found a host of studious followers in Washington.

Indeed, for all the sanctity of Democracy it boasts in the shrines of Capitol Hill and in its litany of texts advocating civil liberties, the United States will forever also shelter its fair share of cynical uniformed hawks. One of them is Chuck Hagel, the current Secretary of Defense. When asked last weekend why his administration was not taking swift and direct action to stop the Egyptian Army’s current persecution of pro-Morsi supporters as the death-toll reached alarming figures, Mr Hagel (albeit after a long reflective pause) straight-facedly replied “we have very serious interests in Egypt and in that part of the world.” Perhaps he would have appeared less cryptic had he completed his sentence thus: “(…) and the current mess does not exactly harm these interests.”

The only readers who ought to be surprised by Mr. Hagel’s stance are those young enough to be forgiven for not remembering America’s unyielding support for the dictatorship regime under General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the 1970s. While the US did cancel its annual joint military display with Egypt this week, it stopped short of pulling the plug on the US$1.55 billion of annual aid it directs to the rapidly crippling state (of which US$1.3 billion goes to the military). To be fair to Washington, Egypt desperately needs a financial lifeline if it is to have any hope of surviving the current crisis. Its balance of payments registered a deficit of US$18.3 billion in 2011 and it has been increasing since. Its government debt has averaged 85.5% of GDP in the last decade and its foreign currency reserves have more than halved in the last two years.

Yet, what should worry Egyptians (as well as Mr. Obama) most is interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi’s bullish declaration on Wednesday that the country would ‘survive’ without US aid. The reasons for this regime’s latest flourish of bravado are twofold. The first is that it is possible that Egypt’s military-men are looking at the Pentagon hawks in the eyes and calling their bluff- for all of Obama’s democratic ideals, his Defence Secretary’s comments reveal to what extent his administration is prepared to cajole Egypt’s current men in power. The second comes from the Gulf’s profound antagonism for the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have been equally vocal in their support of the army as in their disdain for the Muslim Brothers. The army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in particular has close connections with the Saudis, having served as Defence attaché in Riyadh. As a result, the Gulf-States have pledged a total of US $12 billion in aid to Egypt’s commanders. From both the West’s refusal to sternly condemn Egypt’s military crackdown and the Gulf’s eagerness to back it, the glaring conclusion is that the uniformed men in Cairo know that they hold more than one Joker in hand.

In its latest appraisal of the situation, The Economist argued that the coup was a ‘tactical mistake’ by the military as “the Brothers would probably have lost any election handily; and if they had refused to hold a vote, then the people would have risen up.” Perhaps, but this analysis precludes the very real possibility that the army could have its own agenda in relation to power…

On 26th October 1954, Mahmoud Abdel Latif, a Muslim Brother, surreptitiously hustled his way through a crowd of ecstatic supporters before once in range, he took out his gun and fired eight bullets at Gamal Abdel Nasser, then Egypt’s leader. He somehow managed to miss each time. It is possible that Latif was a rather pathetic marksman but the more plausible theory is that the assassination attempt had been staged: after the incident, President Nasser ordered a crackdown on the organisation by his comrades in the army. Around 1100 Muslim Brothers were subsequently jailed and the organisation went underground. In the last weeks, when questioned about their confidence in being vocally opposed to the actions of the army, Egyptians have begun to admit to their fears of being detained under the accusation of supporting the Brotherhood.

When the Thirty-Year war ended in 1648 through the Treaty of Westphalia, Richelieu’s strategy could be said to have paid off as France had gained relatively more hegemony in Europe than it did in 1618. But we shall never know whether the man regretted the war’s exceptionally bloody nature (one of the most tragic in the history of mankind, bleeding Germany dry of a third of its population).

If the people of Egypt are further repressed, it will not be long before the files of dormant small assault weapons in Libya, Sudan and the Sinai Desert begin to clandestinely cross Egyptian borders to arm civilians. The result will then almost certainly be a prolonged civil war. This might well be the end of the Arab Spring. The irony is that it comes as a fact of little relevance to the strategic interests of the West.


Gulshan Roy has pursued economics and international studies in university, most recently at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He regularly writes for publications in Mauritius, which is his country of origin. He can be followed on twitter here.

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