The Upside-down Theater of the Absurd in Morsi's Ouster and the Cairo Coup

Like Bush before him, President Obama is a victim of the combustible mix between Western democracy and the Arab world, in which elections are a great idea until the votes are counted and the results are in.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi under cover of military tanks in central Cairo is the dramatic climax, for now, of what can only be described as an upside-down theater of the absurd, in which Orwellian newspeak is the spoken language: the democratically elected leader is illegitimate, the rule of the mob is sacrosanct, a military coup is a Jeffersonian instrument and the U.S. Administration is the last citadel of the Muslim Brotherhood.

These dramatic events mark yet another link in a decade-long chain of volatile reactions between the Arab World and Western democracy, which have yielded strategic dangers, diplomatic setbacks, and political fallout for the United States and its presidents. In their meeting in Tanzania a few days ago, U.S. President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, could have exchanged notes on their miserable experiences with the governments of the people, by the people and for the people that they both tried to establish.

It was Bush, after all, who forced Israel to include Hamas in the 2006 elections in Gaza in the name of pure democracy and on the basis of his assessment, he later confessed, that Hamas could not win. In a press conference in the White House a few hours after the ballots were counted, Bush exhibited the kind of schizophrenic internal contradiction that is inherent in Washington’s “Freedom Drive”: after commending the spirit of democracy in Gaza and lauding the liberty that is now flowing throughout the Middle East, Bush announced that the United States would have nothing to do with the duly-elected Hamas until such time that the organization recognizes Israel and abandons its armed struggle.

The triumph of Islamists in Gaza, Iraq and Egypt may have dampened neo-conservative enthusiasm for importing Madison to the Maghreb and the Middle East, but democratization underwent a revival of sorts in Obama’s May 2009 “New Beginning” speech in and then in the “January 25th Revolution”, both in Cairo. The throngs demanding the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were portrayed in the Western media at the time as the avant-garde of enlightenment and freedom and Tahrir Square as Concord, Bastille and Tiananmen all rolled into one. But the bottom line, unfortunately, remained the disappointing same: a victory for Muslim fundamentalists who speak of democracy but implement tyranny.

Unlike Bush, Obama did not reject the new Islamic regime. On the contrary, he believed that Morsi could shine as a paragon of a devout Islamic regime that nonetheless exercises pragmatism and moderation in power. The proof in Morsi’s pudding was supposed to be his attitude towards Israel. Though he and the Hamas might be of one mind regarding Zionists as "descendants of apes and pigs," Egypt, unlike the Hamas, needs American aid for its very survival. So Morsi adhered to the peace treaty and enhanced security cooperation with Israel and even earned America’s sincere gratitude for his constructive role in securing a cease fire between Israel and Hamas in the wake of Operation Cast Lead.

It behooves right-wing critics of Obama to remember, therefore, that it was Morsi’s benign attitude towards Israel that helped to neutralize American criticism of his increasingly anti-democratic measures at home. And while the Obama Administration may have felt increasingly uncomfortable with Morsi, its primary goal of working with his regime remained intact, which explains why U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson then proceeded to pour high-octane fuel on the already simmering fire of anti-American resentment among the anti-Morsi brigades.

Patterson’s unfortunate support for the “legitimate” Morsi regime and her ill-timed rejection of “street demonstrations that will only add new names to the lists of martyrs” prove, in a negative way, that personal diplomacy is still important in the era of the Internet and Twitter, but also showcase the complete ignorance of U.S. intelligence about the history about to be made by millions of angry Egyptians. Though that same cluelessness was shared by Egypt experts throughout the world, in Patterson’s case it made her into public enemy number 2 in Cairo, weakened the stature of her president in the Middle East and exposed him to withering attacks back home.

Nonetheless, and even though events are still unfolding, two developments are almost certain: 1. Despite their criticism, Morsi’s heirs, whoever they are, will also have to play by the fiddle of American purse strings and 2. The United States is certain to once again press for new elections and open democracy, even though more and more people are questioning whether there really are no exceptions to Winston Churchill’s famous diagnosis that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.”

Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on TV in July 2013.Credit: AFP

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