BERLIN - After the fall of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, the West is still trying to figure out what words to use to describe what is happening.
In Berlin, no one wants to use the P-word, so instead of referring to a military putsch, Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke of a "stay in democratic order." The European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton was even more cautious: She spoke of "developments in Egypt" and urged all sides to make a “rapid return to the democratic process.”
Nor did U.S. President Barack Obama care to refer to a putsch or military coup. Officially classifying what happened that way would mean that America would have to stop the military aid to the tune of an annual $1.25 billion that it’s been providing. If that happened, Washington would lose one of the few means of pressure that it has left to influence events in Egypt.
The West in general is performing a difficult balancing act with regard to Egypt. According to well-placed EU sources, nobody would be particularly enthusiastic if the army were to assume power after the fall of a democratically elected President. On the other hand, the masses demonstrating in the streets against an increasingly autocratic Morsi reign could hardly be ignored.
From the beginning, Europe and the U.S. had a difficult relationship with Cairo’s Islamist leaders. After initial hesitation, the West had been behind the revolt against former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and the Americans in particular worked behind the scenes to prevent the army from using violence on anti-Mubarak demonstrators. The disillusionment came after the parliamentary and presidential elections.
The overwhelming victory of the Islamists surprised many in the West. And the victory placed both Europeans and Americans in a bind. On the one hand, an anti-West and anti-Semitic worldview is part and parcel of the Islamist identity. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood had gone along with the concept of democracy and had won free elections. So somehow a way of getting along with the Morsi government had to be figured out if the West didn’t want to be accused of only supporting democracies when their elections were won by movements it approved of.
From the start there was a hope in the West that the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological sides would soften when leaders were confronted with the real problems of governing. And it was a hope that looked like it might pan out when last November Morsi slid into the classic Egyptian role in the Middle East conflict when he brokered a ceasefire after an escalating conflict between Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood allies in Gaza, and Israel.
This positive foreign policy role was one of the reasons why Europe and the United States held back criticism of Egyptian domestic policies even though Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies could hardly be overlooked. Until recently the Obama administration didn’t know what approach to take to the mass protests against Morsi. The superpower got itself into the position that both Morsi supporters and opponents believed the Americans were on the other side. That's called a lose-lose situation.
Agents of change
In his one year as president, Morsi appeared to have adopted a typically Middle Eastern "winner-takes-all" approach. In June 2012, if he won the run-offs against Ahmed Shafik, who was seen as the candidate of the old regime and the armed forces, it was only because many left-wing, moderate and liberal Egyptians – who wanted nothing to do with Islamists -- gave him their votes, to prevent Shafik from winning.
Morsi didn’t change much in his approach when he went from president of the Muslim Brotherhood to president of all Egyptians. He tried to shut down the power of other arms of government and give himself complete authority.
The Americans and the Europeans warned Morsi repeatedly that democracy didn’t mean that the winner of elections could do anything they wanted while forcing all other parts of the state into line. But Morsi wasn’t listening.
Then there was the astonishing inability of the Muslim Brotherhood to govern the country. They seemed to have no plans -- beyond securing power – for reforming a country that grew increasingly chaotic and was just a few months from bankruptcy.
So it’s no wonder that the West is not being particularly hard on the Egyptian armed forces. What’s also conspicuously obvious is that the key players in Europe and the United States both have criticized Morsi’s overthrow, but have never expressed the idea that the democratically elected president should be reinstated.
Hopes now seem to be pinned on a second chance for democracy in Egypt.
Hence Ashton’s statement urging "all sides to rapidly return to the democratic process, including the holding of free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections and the approval of a constitution.” But equally important is that the Muslim Brotherhood, even if they have been chased out of power, have a hand in creating the Egypt of the future.
It would be a catastrophe for all Egyptians if the Brotherhood were forced underground again -- and eventually turned to arms. That’s why Obama is insisting that all political powers be involved in the transition, and asked for Morsi and his supporters not be arrested.
That said, Washington's ability to influence domestic events in Egypt right now is as low as its been in 30 years.
During the Arab Spring of 2011, the Egyptian armed forces reacted clumsily, and the attempted transformation of the country took place without a constitutional framework – which made Morsi’s authoritarian appropriation of power easier. So it’s particularly important that the military decides on a firm schedule for a new Constitution and new parliamentary and presidential elections this time round.
In history, there have been a few examples of military putsches paving the way for democracy. In an article in the Harvard International Law Journal, law professor Ozan Varol gives three examples of military coups that either rescued or fostered democracy: 1960 in Turkey, 1974 in Portugal and – interestingly – 2011 in Egypt.
It is the hope of the West and many Egyptians that this time the military will be more decisive as an agent of democratic transition. Otherwise the current sympathy in the streets towards Egypt's generals could evaporate very quickly indeed.