Risky Business of Morsi’s Ouster

The military ouster of elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was cheered by some anti-Islamists as a repudiation of Morsi’s autocratic rule and his Muslim Brotherhood. But the coup could further radicalize the region’s Islamists with dangerous implications for the U.S. and the world, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Amid the fast-moving political drama in Egypt, we should think about larger messages the events there are sending, to those outside as well as inside Egypt, that may prove more important than who is in the presidential palace in Cairo next month or even next year.

Egyptian dissatisfaction with Mohamed Morsi was grounded primarily in the dismal state of the Egyptian economy. But national leaders in many other countries have presided over economic failure without getting overthrown by military coups. Morsi was freely and fairly elected, just as much as many of those other leaders were.

Egypt’s interim President Adli Mansour.

In this respect, the action the Egyptian military took this week is quite different from its ouster two years ago of Hosni Mubarak, whose entrenched position in power was the result of a rigged system in which no opposition leader ever had a fair chance to displace him.

Because Morsi bears the Islamist label, his election resurrected old phobias about whether democratically elected Islamists would respect democracy once in power. Some of the histories of fascist and communist parties may provide a good basis for asking such a question, although no one ever persuasively made the case as to why Islamists per se should be any more prone than those of other political stripes to put a nation into a “one man, one vote, one time” situation.

The fear nonetheless has been widespread. It underlay international (including U.S.) acquiescence when the Algerian military in 1992 aborted an electoral process in which, after the first round of what was supposed to be a two-round national election in Algeria, it was apparent that the Islamic Salvation Front was going to win an overwhelming victory.

Similar fears persist today, as reflected in Islamophobically-enhanced characterizations of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as “a secretive, ideological Islamist underground movement” that “methodically engineered a takeover of Egypt’s political system.” That is a grossly inaccurate description of what has happened in Egypt over the past year. Morsi and the Brotherhood never came close to “taking over” the Egyptian system, as demonstrated in recent days especially by the postures of the police and the military.

Jonathan Steele in The Guardian, while making no apologies for Morsi’s overall performance, goes into more detail about how his conduct during his one year in the presidency gives scant evidence for making an argument that he was knavishly taking Egypt in an undemocratic direction. Morsi quickly retreated, for example, when decrees expanding presidential power proved unpopular. The Brotherhood-heavy composition of the cabinet was a result largely of opposition parties’ refusal to participate in it.

The Muslim Brotherhood was necessarily an “underground” organization during the many years under Mubarak and before, when it was legally banned. When it was given the opportunity to play by democratic rules, it did so.

That leads to what ought to be our main concern about this week’s events in Egypt, which is nicely articulated by Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. Husain also is no apologist for Morsi, saying that he is “not a fan of the Muslim Brotherhood” and opposes “their politicization of my religion.”

But he observes that given the Brotherhood’s prominence among Islamist organizations in the Middle East, what has happened to the democratically elected Morsi will lead extremist Islamists in the Arab world to say, “We told you so. Democracy does not work. The only way to create an Islamist state is through armed struggle.”

Those who, out of their distaste for anything Islamist, are welcoming the Egyptian military coup, ought to be careful what they wish for. They may wind up with something that is not just distasteful but dangerous.

As for near-term U.S. policy, President Obama ought to ignore advice for the United States to try to stage-manage the next chapter in the Egyptian political story. The futility of doing so is reflected in the negative reactions from different sides to just about anything the able American ambassador, Anne Patterson, has said that can be interpreted as weighing in on internal Egyptian politics.

U.S. military aid to Egypt, however, provides some leverage over the generals. That leverage ought to be used to encourage a prompt return to a democratic process, which would not be telling Egyptians what sort of government they ought to have but instead would be help in enabling Egyptians to determine themselves what sort of government they should have. Existing U.S. law providing for suspension of military aid after a coup ought to make the exertion of such leverage easier.

After the military coup in Algeria two decades ago, militant Islamists took up arms and the country was plunged into civil war. Over the next several years as many as 200,000 Algerians were killed. The same demonstration to Algerian Islamists that they would not be allowed to participate successfully in democratic politics was not lost on Islamists elsewhere in the region.

It was in the early and mid-1990s that violent Egyptian Islamists conducted most of their ultimately unsuccessful terrorist campaign in Egypt. Back in Algeria, the civil war finally concluded around 2002, when the Armed Islamic Group was vanquished. An even more radical splinter of the AIG called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat survived. It continues to operate today across much of western Africa under the name it later adopted: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Risky Business of Morsi’s Ouster

  1. Bill Paris
    July 6, 2013 at 23:24

    With all due respect Mr Piller, when he states in the 1st sentence of the 1st paragraph of his article that “The military ouster of elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was cheered by some anti-Islamists as a repudiation of Morsi’s autocratic rule and his Muslim Brotherhood”, I need to honestly question his credentials considering that the reaction to Morsi’s ouster looked like this on Egyptian TV:


    Respectfully submitted.

    • Dar
      July 8, 2013 at 20:24

      As someone who watches Egyptian tv and is familiar with these hosts, I can tell you that these are people who have always been anti-Morsi.

      No surprise that they’d be happy, so what’s the point? Doesn’t negate Mr.Pillar’s point.

  2. Morton Kurzweil
    July 6, 2013 at 14:56

    I am not certain if Mr. Pillar is a knee jerker or a tear jerker when it comes to the defense of Muslins.
    A professor of security studies and an analyst for the CIA during twenty-eight years of incompetence,
    misinformation and abuse of power should be able to offer some degree of objectivity when expressing
    his opinions to the public.
    The facts are that Morsi was the first democratically elected president of Egypt. Adolph Hitler was also
    democratically elected as chancellor of Germany. Both followed the same path with a coup d’Etat,
    overthrowing the constitution they were sworn to protect, and institution a government based on
    a religion, an organized belief system of population control
    The military acted within the authority of the constitution which was approved by Morsi when elected.

    “It is the mania of believers to deny what is and explain what is not.”
    —Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    I can expect some ignorant fanatic to shout; “Kill Rousseau.”

    • Ricki Ricardo
      July 8, 2013 at 19:56

      Ok Morton

      Can you look into that crystal ball and tell us whether Mr. Mansour will become a despot or perhaps maybe his successor will? That’s the problem with arguments like yours, it’s the equivalent of a political bill of attainder. Morsi is bad, Hitler was bad, ergo Morsi is Hitler! Perhaps persons should be deposed for what they actually did, not what you think they might do. Egypt, with its scant history of democracy, has suffered a coup and a setback. I only hope that the blowback is not a percolating civil war. . . I think deposing Morsi would not have been worth that.

  3. Frances in California
    July 5, 2013 at 16:26

    If this was a “coup”, so was Honduras.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    July 5, 2013 at 14:33

    Funny. Some blogger elsewhere commented, “I’m sick of the Obama administration calling this a coup”. Oddly enough, that’s the one thing they haven’t called it. Calling it that might necessitate coming to the aid of the democratically elected government. We saw the same lack of resolve to swiftly support the ouster of Mubarak. One article states that the Egyptian military controls 21% of the economy. Another says 40%. That the Egyptian army is on good terms with the U.S. would seem to be confirmed by the five hundred or so of them attend U.S. military training programs annually. And that $1.8 billion in aid goes a long way to sweetening the alliance. With a thousand American tanks and hundreds of American fighter jets, they have plenty of toys to protect their legitimacy. That unemployment, quality of life and economic despair have contributed to this is a given. The army, with its economic clout, hasn’t done anything to ameliorate that. Morsi, meanwhile, bought into the Western economic bankster bailout strategy promulgated by the IMF (Imposition of Misery through Fraudulent loans?) guaranteed to undermine his own legitimacy. Too bad Morsi attended a rally in which the Islamists he supports called for Jihad against Syria’s Assad. That may have tipped off the Army, as their senior leadership have recently called the Islamists “fools and terrorists”. Coincidentally, that’s the same thing Assad calls them. Now that the Army controls the situation, it remains to be seen how far they’ll be willing to go to subsidize food, fuel, freedom and financial solvency. Unemployment can be addressed by creating jobs…or eliminating 200,000 from the job market, a la Algeria. Simple, right? At any rate, some seem to have forgotten that between 1958 and 1961, Egypt was called “The United Arab Republic”, when it was amalgamated with Syria as a combined political entity.

    If the goal in the U.S. is to undermine Assad, this doesn’t look good. If the goal is to promote Democracy, who’s to say the Islamists won’t win again? Granted, some of them have probably been herded off to Mubarak’s old torture chambers, but probably not enough to significantly dampen their political clout. Kerry is busy with shuttle diplomacy chasing a fanciful delusion that Israel will participate in a peace process. King Playstation in Jordan is polishing his role as the landlord of an ammo dump. Meanwhile, back in Taksim Square, folks are still pissed that cannibals, terrorists and arms smugglers have been recipients of Erdogan’s hospitality. Even the Chinese have claimed that the Free Syrian Army (which is neither free nor Syrian) have been exporting terrorists to their soil. But, the Army sides with the people, right?. True, just like the people, they’re about 50% secular and 50% “other”.

    Is there a foreign policy term for total chaos? I’m waiting to hear Jay Carney say, “The situation is very fluid. We’re following developments closely”.

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