British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
We finish a tragic, fateful week in Egypt. There seems no turning back from its flows of blood and its political reversals, and in the short run this is almost certainly so. There is more to come, as every hour’s news proves.
But either one accepts the triumph of lawlessness and cruelty over justice and humanity — or one expects another turning. It will require more blood, more arrests and jail terms and point-blank shootings and destroyed families, but Egyptians will get there — get beyond the long reigns of dictators, even their new one. Aspiration never quite dies. And America will once again have stood on the wrong side of history, complicit in subverting the very advances it incessantly claims to desire.
Over just a few days we have watched the deliberate sabotaging of the first elected government in Egyptian history. There is now no chance of restoring the government of President Mohamed Morsi: The savagery of the army and police as they act against Morsi’s supporters is intended to destroy any such prospect, and it has. It is likely we have also witnessed the end of the Arab Spring, the two-year-old movement that brought the promise of representative government to the Middle East. Egypt’s next story will be a new story, and the events of 2011 will take their place as a prelude, a shard of history.
Even as Egypt’s death toll since Wednesday climbs toward a thousand, a larger moment passed this week, it seems to me. America has reached the limit of its capacity to accommodate a new era, one requiring new thinking and new perspectives and lively imaginations. It simply cannot manage it. Washington’s business through all the Cold War decades was to destroy democracies (democracies that were supposedly not democracies) in favor of dictators (dictators who were supposedly not dictators). The only difference between that time and ours is that one is confident now that the American project will fail if America fails to alter course.
Looking back over the six weeks since the army deposed Morsi, it is stunning to note how transparently Washington acted to support the Egyptian generals. Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, serves as point person on Egypt’s subversion of democracy, and she does her work in broad daylight, more or less. It was Rice who called the generals just before the July 3 coup to advise that they could move against Morsi without consequence. It was Rice who then called Morsi’s people to tell them, “You’re over. The generals are coming.”
Now there is a skilled diplomat, “an outspoken defender of human rights and advocate of American intervention to prevent abuses,” as the New York Times ridiculously put it. Got that?
It is possible now to understand the Obama White House’s policy in its fullness. Despite large servings of happy talk, this administration was never keen on the Arab Spring because it was not (and is not) capable of accepting democratic government in nations with Islamic majorities. It is philosophically and ideologically unprepared for non-Western forms of legitimate representation. Egyptians have just become the latest witnesses to this. The public squares of Cairo this past week are a frightening portent.
More pressing has been Israel’s intolerance of an Islamic party — Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood — in power next door. It is apparent, if not quite evident, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted Morsi’s head before he agreed to any talks with the Palestinians. He assented to new talks within days of the Egyptian coup, it is worth noting. The dreaded question here is whether U.S. support for Israel effectively precludes political advances in the Arab world. One fears the answer, but it is vital now to pose the problem.
How could a policy as cynical as this (and as troubling in its implications) be set in motion before the eyes of right-thinking Americans? We come to the performance of our media. “Supine” is too kind a term for their eager participation in official Washington’s misrepresentations. Maybe it was different during all those Cold War coups the U.S. sponsored, but I do not think so. Administrations depend on the decay of distinctions between government and the press, preferring a cooperation that sometimes seems almost Soviet. In the Egypt case, we are faced with a formidable wall of untruths. The media’s complicity in erecting it is a contemptible dereliction.
One saw this coming in early days when Obama refused to call the Egyptian coup a coup because he all along wanted to continue sending the Egyptian army nearly $1.5 billion in aid each year even when the game got rough, and that is against U.S. law if there has been a coup. No U.S. medium, to my knowledge, has since called Morsi’s demise a coup. My favorite of the idiotic euphemisms was on television news the other night: “… the takedown of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt…” If that presenter were one of my journalism students I would flunk him — “F” for style, “F” for ethics.
It has been collusion ever since. We have no acceptable explanation of the Egyptian coup because none exists. Morsi was not “inclusive”—the way the Egyptian army is, of course—and he made political mistakes. This is what readers and viewers are told. Look closely and you will find that nothing in his record warranted a coup and that the U.S. media has uniformly avoided reporting this reality.
The latest from the Times is that Morsi was “more feckless by the month,” a grave and uncommon offense in any nation’s political class. Since the army’s massacres this week it has begun asserting—hourly on television, one reads—that it is “fighting terrorism.” Washington loves this word as much as it once loved “communism,” so our correspondents and editors acquiesce. No explanations for us of the Brotherhood’s commitment to peaceful political work over the course of nearly a century. No search for evidence of any terrorist activity whatsoever on the part of a single Morsi supporter. But the victims must be the perpetrators now.
Did you read or hear Obama’s remarks this week as the massacres in Cairo proceeded? He condemned them in the most vigorous and honorable terms. “Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” he said in part.
The president thus leaves us with two things to think about. First, our traditional cooperation is indeed continuing as usual for all I can make out. Obama canceled a scheduled military exercise, but the post and beam of U.S. policy—that $1.5 billion for the military—is unaltered. Second, note what Obama condemned: not the coup—he has never condemned that—but the level of violence that has followed. The televised imagery was handled more clumsily than Washington would have liked.
I have saved an essential point for last. The big word in Washington these past days, as many readers have surely noted, has been “leverage.” The administration wants it known that it has little leverage over the Egyptian army, that events are out of its control, and that it is deeply frustrated on these accounts. Here is a typical remark from an administration official, referring to Obama and Susan Rice, his security advisor: “You know that what’s happening is extremely important, but you are a bystander to the big decisions. It’s a really, really tough call because your leverage is minimal.”
This and similar thoughts have been heavily larded through the American media. No part of it is credible. Washington’s involvement in Egypt has been intimate and decisive for decades. It gave Egyptians the Sadat dictatorship and subsequently the Mubarak dictatorship. The army does what you would expect any recipient of large checks to do for the benefactor, the finer points of performance notwithstanding.
My deep disappointments are three, my surprises only one. It is pathetic that Americans can do nothing more innovative in the face of momentous change than back another dictator in Cold War fashion. But we have yet to do better since 1989, so no surprise. The media in America have a corrupt relationship to power, and we have just witnessed a textbook study of the consequences. Easy to disappoint a hack such as I on this score, but hard to surprise.
Finally, Obama has sunk very low, in this case leaving 80-odd million Egyptians hanging out to dry. This is the surprise. I did not think he had this kind of betrayal and deception in him. Egyptians and all Arabs have been betrayed. They had a dream, and what did Obama do about it? As to deception, that is what he has on offer for Americans.
Patrick Smith is the author of “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” was the International Herald Tribune’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and then Tokyo from 1985 to 1992. During this time he also wrote “Letter from Tokyo” for the New Yorker. He is the author of four previous books and has contributed frequently to the New York Times, the Nation, the Washington Quarterly, and other publications. More Patrick L. Smith.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
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