The removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from power on July 3 and the consequent crackdown on his supporters and other members of the Muslim Brotherhood has caused political turmoil, chaos and left over 1,000 dead within Egypt. Outside of Egypt, the military’s bold course of action provoked a wide range of responses from regional and international actors. An analysis of the varied responses to the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood provides insight into the interests of major international and regional actors.
On July 3, the Egyptian armed forces removed President Mohamed Morsi from power following mass protests against the former president and the Muslim Brotherhood. The story had all of the makings of a political tragedy. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Minister of Defense who was appointed by Morsi, led the ousting of the former president a year after his appointment as defense minister. The military gave the president a 48 hour deadline to respond to protesters’ demands and negotiate with the opposition. Morsi responded with a defiant speech in which he asserted his electoral legitimacy as the first democratically elected president of Egypt. The speech was the last straw for the military generals who seized the opportunity to rid Egypt of what many considered to be a failed experiment with Islamist rule. They placed Morsi under house arrest in a secret location and set to work installing an interim government.
The anti-Morsi crowds in the street were jubilant after the military’s removal of Morsi. Yet many observers pointed out the fickleness of celebrating the return of Egypt’s invasive military institution to the center of political life. Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, wrote in the Washington Post, “Our support for the transitional road map to new elections was predicated on the military’s pledge that it would not interfere in Egypt’s political life. The expanding role of the military in the political process that we are nonetheless witnessing is disconcerting.” In either case, many Egyptians believed the military’s move was a necessary restart that would get the country back on track to a different and better style of democracy. But there was still one major, unresolved problem: not everyone wanted Morsi gone.
Removing the president was only the beginning of the military’s problems, and this became extremely clear in the days following Morsi’s removal. Pro-Morsi protesters demonstrated throughout the country; however, the majority of protesters in Cairo organized sit-ins in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Square in Nasr City and Nahda Square in Giza. These protesters claimed that they would not leave the sit-ins until Morsi was reinstated as the president of Egypt. While the armed forces had used former protests to legitimize their removal of both Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, it is clear that they did not agree with the messages being promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood in these sit-ins. Rather, the military believed that the protests were hindering the new political roadmap and consequently announced their intention to break up the sit-ins. The military justified their decision because they believed that pro-Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood supporters were inciting violence and destabilizing the state.
On August 14, the armed forces stormed the two squares hosting sit-ins in Cairo with bulldozers. When the smoke cleared on the following morning, as many as 525 people were estimated dead, the military declared a state of emergency and leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood were rounded up and arrested. Mohamed ElBaradei, vice president of the interim government and a leading human rights activist, resigned over the military’s crackdown on protesters and international and regional actors were quick to weigh in on the violence.
The military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood leaves the United States in a tricky diplomatic position. On the one hand, the United States does not want to outwardly support the former, Islamist regime and their proponents. American diplomacy tends to favor those in power, and while it may not always be fair, this phenomenon is nevertheless a result of pragmatic politics. Given the extreme unlikelihood that Morsi will be reinstated as president, the United States must focus its diplomatic efforts on the military generals and the interim government. Any unnecessary catering to the Morsi camp may hamper U.S. efforts to work with Egypt’s new government going forward. On the other hand, the United States cannot condone over 1,000 dead protesters and Egypt’s slow backslide into martial law. The civilian death toll, whether or not attacks were provoked, is simply too high for the United States to accept as a justified use of military force.
In response to the crackdown, Josh Earnest, principal deputy press secretary for the Obama administration, released this statement on the crackdown in Egypt:
“The United States strongly condemns the use of violence against protesters in Egypt…We have repeatedly called on the Egyptian military and security forces to show restraint, and for the government to respect the universal rights of its citizens, just as we have urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully….We also strongly oppose a return to a State of Emergency law, and call on the government to respect basic human rights such as freedom of peaceful assembly, and due process under the law.”
It is important to note that the statement only generally refers to “protesters” rather than mentioning the pro-Morsi camp which received the lion’s share of the violence. While the statement condemns the military’s actions, it also calls on protesters to demonstrate peacefully. This leaves open for interpretation the Egyptian military’s assertion that the protesters were not peaceful but rather actively engaged in terrorist operations against citizens and the state. Finally, the statement opposes the state of emergency imposed by the military because it is not indicative of the promised democratic transition.
The United States also took other, more substantive measures in responding to the crackdown. First and foremost, the U.S. cancelled September’s Bright Star Exercise, a bi-annual military operation where thousands of U.S. troops train in various Egyptian locations. By canceling the exercise, the United States distanced itself from Egyptian security forces at a time when hundreds of protesters were being killed. On a related note, President Obama postponed the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, a decision which many believed was a precursor to a larger reconsideration of U.S. aid to Egypt.
Another major issue related to the July 3 removal of Mohamed Morsi and the consequent military crackdown concerns U.S. military aid to Egypt. Each year, the United States provides Egypt with $1.23 billion in U.S. Foreign Military Financing, and $585 million of that annual budget has yet to be dispersed. This aid, though, is not unconditional, but rather U.S. law dictates that aid must be cut off to any country that experiences a military coup. The Obama administration has not officially recognized the removal of Mohamed Morsi as a military coup nor have they announced a decision to cut off aid. That being said, it appears that the remainder of the annual aid to Egypt will remain in limbo until U.S. officials reassess the relationship with Egypt. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel summarized the administrations position by saying, “The Defense Department will continue to maintain a military relationship with Egypt, but I made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation [with the Muslim Brotherhood] are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk.”
For their part, the European Union has agreed to halt all sales of military equipment and weapons to Egypt. The 28 members of the union also agreed to review EU aid to Egypt. The European Union’s response to the crackdown was announced by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who said, “We strongly condemn all acts of violence and we do believe the recent actions of the military have been disproportionate.” This past November, the EU pledged $6.7 billion in aid and loans to Egypt; however, that European assistance has been jeopardized by the unrest in Egypt. That being said, the EU ministers did not go so far as to impose comprehensive economic sanctions on Egypt. “We will review assistance to Egypt but assistance to the most needy will remain,” Ashton explained.
The regional response was varied, with some actors criticizing and others supporting the military’s crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss a “very serious massacre”. The Turkish prime minister’s condemnation of the Egyptian military’s operation was unsurprising given that his country recently witnessed massive protests against what many Turks viewed as an increasing Islamization of Turkey. As the head of an Islamist government himself, Erdogan has an incentive to pay close attention to how Egypt’s military treats Islamists who were formerly in power. It is also in his interest to smear the crackdown so as to dissuade secular elements in Turkey from being inspired by the ouster of an Islamist president.
On the other side of the debate, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed that the Egyptian military’s need to restore order was justified. Given that both of these Arab countries highly value foreign investment and continued economic growth, they have an interest in maintaining political stability. In 2011 and 2012, Bahrain faced significant economic setbacks as a result of political unrest, and Bahraini authorities are uninterested in additional political turmoil. These statements in support of the Egyptian military can be viewed as a warning to potential protesters in the Gulf who threaten stability in their countries.
The recent crackdown is troublesome not only because of the hundreds of dead protesters but also because of the dangerous consequences it may have for Egypt. Over thirty years ago, an Egyptian Islamist named Ayman Al-Zawahiri was imprisoned and tortured for his alleged participation in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. When he was released from prison, an angry and radicalized Zawahiri made his way to Pakistan and was introduced to Osama bin Laden. Today, Zawahiri serves as the acting leader of al-Qaeda, and he is one of the most outspoken critics of the Muslim Brotherhood precisely because of the group’s insistence on participating in democratic processes. Zawahiri believes that Islamist groups must abandon political participation and seize power by force.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for the most part, have eschewed the terrorist tactics used by groups like al-Qaeda and has been actively engaged in Egyptian politics even when the group was ostensibly banned from the political scene. The height of the group’s political activity came in 2012 when a Muslim Brotherhood member became president in what many international observer organizations viewed as free and fair elections. There is no doubt that the removal of President Morsi and the consequent bloody crackdown on his supporters has angered, marginalized and radicalized a significant portion of Egyptians who feel betrayed for playing their part in Egypt’s democratic process. What is more worrisome is the potential for some of these marginalized Islamists to give up hope and start thinking that Zawahiri was on to something.
By Robert Mogielnicki