Egypt and the C-Word

The danger of calling Morsy's ouster a coup.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Analysts are currently poring over the language of U.S. law to see whether the United States is now obligated to cut back aid to Egypt because what has just taken place there can hardly be defined as anything other than a military coup. Given that America's $1.25 billion-a-year aid to Egypt is key to the economically fragile country, few issues could be more important for Washington to resolve swiftly. Not only is it important to Egypt, but how this is resolved will play a huge role in influencing how the United States is perceived in Egypt during the fraught months ahead.

The importance of the semantics associated with just what kind of a military-assisted transition took place in Egypt is clear to the central players in Egypt too. On CNN, spokespeople close to the military, including former generals such as Gen. Sameh Seif el-Yazal, went to great pains to say that what had happened was "definitely not a coup" and "not a military coup whatsoever," but rather an expression of the interests of the people and the beginning of a more democratic chapter in Egyptian history. Meanwhile, overthrown President Mohamed Morsy, forced to resort to Twitter to address his former constituents, was emphatic in using the c-word to define events.

Naturally, the language of U.S. law does leave a little room for discretion based on circumstances. Further, of course, the U.S. administration and Congress have the ability to adjust the law quickly should circumstances dictate. The United States should use the opportunity to add a little more nuance to how it handles the ebb and flow of democracy worldwide.

Analysts are currently poring over the language of U.S. law to see whether the United States is now obligated to cut back aid to Egypt because what has just taken place there can hardly be defined as anything other than a military coup. Given that America’s $1.25 billion-a-year aid to Egypt is key to the economically fragile country, few issues could be more important for Washington to resolve swiftly. Not only is it important to Egypt, but how this is resolved will play a huge role in influencing how the United States is perceived in Egypt during the fraught months ahead.

The importance of the semantics associated with just what kind of a military-assisted transition took place in Egypt is clear to the central players in Egypt too. On CNN, spokespeople close to the military, including former generals such as Gen. Sameh Seif el-Yazal, went to great pains to say that what had happened was "definitely not a coup" and "not a military coup whatsoever," but rather an expression of the interests of the people and the beginning of a more democratic chapter in Egyptian history. Meanwhile, overthrown President Mohamed Morsy, forced to resort to Twitter to address his former constituents, was emphatic in using the c-word to define events.

Naturally, the language of U.S. law does leave a little room for discretion based on circumstances. Further, of course, the U.S. administration and Congress have the ability to adjust the law quickly should circumstances dictate. The United States should use the opportunity to add a little more nuance to how it handles the ebb and flow of democracy worldwide.

We have seen too often — in Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia to name a few obvious examples — democratic processes used to bring leaders to power who wear their perceived legitimacy as a shield but who then go on to abuse the power that has been conferred upon them. Illiberal democracy is not the exception. It is a recurrent theme, and U.S. support for democratically elected governments should not, therefore, be reflexive.

That is not to say the United States should not support the spread of democracies worldwide. America should and must. Instead, it is suggesting that rather than looking at the mechanics of democracy, we should look at the spirit and the trends involved. It is much more important that a country is democratizing, as opposed to using the tools of democracy to promote something very different, autocratic, even anti-democratic.

That is why if, after careful analysis and the presentation of sufficient evidence, it is clear that what the military has just done in Egypt has ended the career of an anti-democratic leader and the military is materially supporting democratizing moves — including, importantly, the stepping aside of the military and genuine transfer of power to a legitimately elected civilian leadership by a certain date — then the United States should support those moves in the most concrete way possible by not interrupting aid.

According to Egyptian sources, more people revolted against the current regime than voted for it. That is a form of democratic expression, too. It only underscores the blurriness of the concepts involved. This is one of those instances in which a more nuanced approach — one that is not too literal or mesmerized by technical requirements — can better help advance genuine democracy and, at the same time, give the United States more latitude to advance its national interests in situations in which gray areas abound.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.