World News

08.20.13

The Criminal Folly of the Egyptian Armed Forces

No matter how you look at it, no matter if you call it a coup or not, the generals running Egypt are acting like butchers, plain and simple.

What any of us thinks of the Muslim Brotherhood, of their dark genealogy, or of their deathly ideology, matters little at the moment.

Identifying the responsibility of this group or that in the abominably vicious circle of violence that is disfiguring Egypt and ruining the achievements of its democratic spring—that, too, matters little at the moment.

The one thing that matters today is to do everything possible to stop the bloodbath that Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his acolytes have made of the protests that followed the removal of President Mohamed Morsi and, at the same time, to unplug the propaganda machine that, as usual, has been covering up the crime (a machine in which, regrettably, some of the representatives of Cairo’s rebellious youth have allowed themselves to become caught).

Is this disaster what Morsi’s backers wanted? Were they playing the politics of the worst? With their cult of martyrdom, did they deliberately seek this outpouring of blood that is their preferred fuel? Perhaps. But stating that is not how politics is done. If one claims to be the steward of a democratic transition, never does one respond to madness with more madness. And to respond to fanaticism in kind, to give in to its death urges, is to be complicit with it—deeply complicit.

Were the members of the Muslim Brotherhood “terrorists”? Were they all hiding weapons under their djellabas? And were the elite police sharpshooters stationed on the rooftops overlooking Nahda and Rabaa squares acting in self-defense? That argument is shameful; it is obviously meant as a hollow talking point meant to be repeated until it is no longer challenged. And while there may well have been weapons at some of the protest camps, their presence in no way justified the massive tank assault, backed by helicopters and snipers and carried out blindly, with no attempt to distinguish between families and militants, between peaceful demonstrators and jihadists.

Had the people had enough of Morsi? Did they, in effect, withdraw the mandate they had given to leaders who proved incapable and corrupt? And did they bequeath to the military the task of rescuing the democratic impulse stifled by a pharaoh with an Islamist face? That much is true. But slaughter is not what the millions of demonstrators were demanding when, in early July, they marched in the streets of Cairo and Aswan. Nor was the premeditated massacre of 38 people asphyxiated in the back of a police van. Democratic Egyptians did not carry out the 2011 Tahrir Square revolution, or the second one in the spring of 2013, in order to see Mubarak’s generals come back, having learned nothing, forgotten nothing, and killing in a few days more civilians than in the terrible weeks of January and February 2011.

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Khalil Hamra/AP
Slaughter is not what the millions of demonstrators were demanding when, in early July, they marched in the streets of Cairo.

Was it necessary to smother fascism in its crib? To oppose a nascent totalitarianism before it was too late? To prevent another Iran? This comparison, unlike the previous assertion, lacks even a shred of sense. Morsi, who eked out his electoral win, was on a financial IV drip from the United States and under close watch by the rest of the world—hardly comparable to the Khomeini of 1979, who was borne along by a popular fervor that seemed no less irrepressible than the mighty wind of history. It was enough to remove the failed and increasingly unpopular president, to allow the demonstrations of support to run their course and die. There was no need—this bears repeating—to use tanks to demolish the encampments of the diehard partisans of the fallen rais and, careening from escalation to escalation, to plunge the country into inevitable civil war.

And, finally, what about the Copts? What about the side of themselves shown by the pro-Morsi forces when they took vengeance on the most humble, the most vulnerable of Egypt’s communities? That, too, was shameful, of course. But one does not respond to a disgrace with another disgrace. More precisely, it is irresponsible to respond with a preemptive disgrace. And the truth is that, on this score, the Army had—and still has, more than ever—but one duty: to protect the freedom of worship of these latter-day Christians of the catacombs by deploying around the perimeters of their churches at least some part of the force now being employed to butt heads with the Muslim Brotherhood.

No.

No matter how you look at this, no matter what semantic contortions you use to describe this coup that is not a coup, this slaughter that dare not speak its name, the atrocious, unacceptable reality is this: Egypt’s generals, pulling on the boots of Saddam Hussein, of the Assads (father and son), and of Gaddafi (who threatened to unleash in Benghazi the same rivers of blood that are now flowing Cairo and other cities of Egypt), are acting like butchers, plain and simple.

And, for an international community that has piled up bloopers (Tony Blair, July 6: “intervention or chaos”), errors of analysis (John Kerry, August 1: “restoring democracy” by removing Morsi), and half-measures (Obama canceling obscure military maneuvers while giving no hint of cutting off the financial manna on which the Egyptian military lives), there is only one option: to use the little political authority it still has, as well as the considerable means of economic pressure at its disposal, to force the junta to organize the elections that it promised to hold, and, in so doing, to strengthen the prospects of the partisans of the third way (liberal and democratic) that is more and more clearly favored by Egyptians.

No to Morsi’s return. No to the ghost of Mubarak. Yes to the spirit of Tahrir.

This article first appeared in French on August 19. It was translated by Steven Kennedy.