The U.S.-backed military coup that ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi reconfirms two historical lessons that Americans repeatedly refuse to accept.
The first is for American activists, the idealistic progressives working to make the world a fairer and more decent place. Once again in Egypt, we are seeing how you can't make a revolution without revolutionizing society -- which requires the complete, violent overthrow of the ruling class. The second lesson is for elite policymakers in Washington and other Western capitals, but they won't learn it until the inevitable blowback from their incessant manipulation and backroom schemes prompts another September 11 -- or worse.
First, the takeaway for leftists.
Western critics, most of them unabashedly pro-coup, blame the Muslim Brotherhood for its own overthrow. They weren't inclusive enough; they presided over a lousy economy, after decades of exile they just weren't ready to govern. For the sake of argument, let's concede all that.
No matter where you stand on Morsi, it is undeniable that his nascent presidency never stood a chance. The 2011 "revolution" that began and ended in Tahrir Square, which defined the Arab Spring and inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement, toppled an aging U.S.-backed dictator, Hosni Mubarak. But Mubarak's regime mostly remained in place. Mubarak's old judiciary blocked Morsi and his party, a political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, at every turn. The other major holdover, the military and security forces, orchestrated his political demise, culminating in last week's coup. Now there is a strong chance that Egypt is about to disintegrate into a civil conflict whose scale of violence might eclipse the mayhem in Syria.
Western analysts, liberals, and even leftists who ought to know better have so cheapened the word "revolution," attaching it to developments that, though notable, are nothing of the kind: independence struggles, civil rights movements, and most recently events like the Arab Spring, which enjoyed support by Western media and governments precisely because they were not violent, or at least not very violent, and thus not revolutionary -- and therefore not a threat to the power of elites in charge of the current system.
Although there may be strains of continuity in government and culture before and after a true revolution, such as the maintenance of some ministries and place names and so on, real revolution is characterized first and foremost by the replacement of one set of ruling elites -- economic, cultural and political -- over another. Revolution is also indicated by a vast set of radical transformations in the way that ordinary people live, such as the legalization of divorce, the abolition of the Catholic Church, and the establishment of the metric system after the French Revolution.
Though important and meaningful, what happened at Tahrir Square in 2011 didn't come close to qualifying as a bona fide revolution. The rich remained rich, the poor remained poor, and though a few officials here and there lost their jobs, the ruling class as a whole retained their prerogatives. Meanwhile, life on the street remained miserable -- and in exactly the same way as before.
Similarly, the 2013 coup d'état -- weasel words to the contrary, if language has any meaning whatsoever, it is always a military coup when the military deposes a democratically elected ruler -- isn't a revolution, either. Even if it was demonstrably true that, as General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claimed and many protesters agree, that "it is not the army who took over, it is the army who acted on behalf of the people," what we have here is nothing more than a personnel change. The system remains intact.
At the height of the Occupy movement during the fall of 2011, many knee-jerk pacifists, besotted with the post-1960s religion of militant nonviolence (in spite of its repeatedly proven ineffectiveness), agreed that radical transformation -- revolution -- was necessary in the United States. Yet these liberals also argued that (even though there was no historical precedent) the triumph of the mass of ordinary American workers over the corrupt bankers and their pet politicians could result from purely nonviolent protest.
They have only to look at Egypt to see why they are wrong. The Arab Spring was a huge experiment in the efficacy of nonviolence to affect political change. No country has seen a true revolution since the events of 2011. There were, however, changes -- and these were most dramatic in the nations that saw the most violence, such as Libya.
Unless you dislodge the ruling elites, who have everything to gain from continuity and everything to lose from reform, your revolution doesn't stand a chance. The privileged classes won't relinquish privileges, power, or wealth. They will use their control over the police and the military (and, as we have recently learned, their access to the intimate details of our daily lives) in order to crush any meaningful opposition. They are violent. Their system is violence. Defeating them requires greater violence. Nothing less results in revolution.
Egypt is about to teach America's political class yet another lesson about blowback.
After 9/11, you'd think that the U.S. would tread lightly in the Muslim world. This would go double in Egypt, where America's pet dictator Hosni Mubarak ruled for 29 years, only to go down in flames despite being propped up by billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid. In the end, like a bored and easily distracted infant, the State Department green-lit Mubarak's removal. Now, two years later, they're at it again, brazenly orchestrating and signing off on an old-fashioned military coup to remove the first democratically elected leader of the spiritual center of the Arab world.
The behind-the-scenes machinations of the White House are sordidly reminiscent of CIA-backed coups in Latin America in the 1960s.
"As President Mohamed Morsi huddled in his guard's quarters during his last hours as Egypt's first elected leader, he received a call from an Arab foreign minister with a final offer to end a standoff with the country's top generals, senior advisers with the president said," reported The New York Times over the weekend. "The foreign minister said he was acting as an emissary of Washington, the advisers said, and he asked if Mr. Morsi would accept the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet, one that would take over all legislative powers and replace his chosen provincial governors."
Over my dead body, Morsi replied.
This was conveyed to Anne Patterson, Obama's ambassador to Egypt, and Susan Rice, his national security advisor. Rice told Morsi's advisor she had green-lit a coup. "'Mother just told us that we will stop playing in one hour,' an aide texted an associate, playing on a sarcastic Egyptian expression for the country's Western patron, 'Mother America,'" the Times reported.
What could go wrong?
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