Is the West getting policy on Egypt wrong?

Addendum: This brilliant article by Waleed Aly sums up many issues post the writing of my blog below: Jailing of Peter Greste in Egypt reveals principles are the first casualty in the war on terror.

Images of protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have flashed across TV screens in Australia, UK, US and all around the world. Images of a deposed dictator in court, a new democratically elected Islamic president subsequently overthrown by street protests and armoured vehicles, also ends up in court.

Video: Egypt Today

A military leader now says he may run for president in new elections due by mid-April, but only after he banned the last president’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘They are terrorists’ cried the head of the military General (now Field Marshal) el-Sisi.

The US and UK disagree.

Yes Egypt is in a mess. But does it matter anyway? And if it does, has the West got the policy settings right or are Western governments fanning flames on a fire it does not understand?

Less than four years ago an Arab Spring arose toppling dictators and heralding a new hope in North Africa.  Tunisia, Libya and Egypt all saw long-term dictators fall. Elections brought new leaders to power.

‘All hail the great elections’ cried the US as a secular dictator in Egypt was replaced by an Islamic party that many feared would steer Egypt away from secularism towards fanaticism.

The West’s citizenry often lament the short term thinking of Western politicians. Driven by electoral cycles western politicians look for trends measured in sound bites, months or years. Long-term historical perspective is not something the West is well known for.

No wonder the West is all confused about Egypt. Egypt can only be viewed through a complicated and long-term historical prism. It is too complex for headlines. To difficult for Western politicians perhaps?

I spoke to many people on a recent visit to Egypt. The average Egyptian will tell you that theirs is a history of both religious tolerance and religious change. Normal people in the street would explain current events within a long-term historical narrative missing in the west. Their narrative runs as follows:

Isis feeding Horace.
Isis feeding Horace.

Over 4,000 years ago the pharaohs built the pyramids and temples in honour of their gods. On these temple walls are carved great depictions, including the god Isis breast-feeding her son, the god Horace.

When Alexander the Great invaded around 300 BC adopted the local religion rather than imposing one. In his temples there are carvings of Isis breast-feeding not Horace, but Alexander – a self styled king-god who adapted to Egyptian ways.

Isis feeding Alexander
Isis feeding Alexander

When the Romans persecuted Jewish families around the time of Christ, Jewish families fled for Cairo. Mary, Joseph and Jesus himself sought refuge. Their hiding place is still preserved in Cairo.

When Constantine the Great adopted Christianity for all the empire including Egypt in around 300 AD, the Coptic Christian Church would, like the temples of earlier years, paint  depictions of Mary breast-feeding Christ in almost exactly the same manner as Isis feeding Horace, and Isis feeding Alexander.

Mary and Jesus
Mary and Jesus

Emperor Julian in the early 300’s broke with tradition and imposed Christianity with no tolerance to other religions. It was break with tradition that did not last long.

When Islam came to dominate Egypt in the mid 600’s the Coptic Christian Church and Islamic rulers agreed on a cohabitation that included the Jews. Indeed Egyptians will tell you that until the foundation of Israel, there were no issues between Jews and Egyptians.

While the above is an historical over-simplification and may well gloss over many atrocities, it does represent a self-belief that many Egyptians hold. There is a self image that they are a religiously tolerant society.

And then came President Morsi.

In barely more than a year of Morsi’s rule over 70 churches were said to be destroyed. Increased Islamification was disrupting society. Secularist Egyptians became restless. Rumours spread within Egyptian society that Morsi himself had approved the foundation of new Al-Quaida training bases in the Sainai.

The Germans found evidence of Morsi’s collusion with Al Quaida but could not blow the whistle too loudly. The Germans were objecting to the American tapping of the German Chancellor’s phone, just as the Germans were tapping the Egyptian President’s one.

Under Morsi the government was threatening the Egyptian self-image of religious tolerance. Approximately 23 million, nearly a third of the country’s population, came out in protest and were supported by the military.

Was this a protest a popular uprising, or was it a coup? Does it matter?

The US declared the action a coup and suspended military aid– including the support the Egyptian Army needed to fight the Al-Quaida bases in the Sanai.

But was the US right? When is a coup a ‘coup’ and when is it a legitimate expression of democratic will?
To US, UK and Australian eyes, the only legitimate democratic process is through the ballot box. If you get a government you don’t like, you just have to wait for the next election.

But what of a new democracy where a newly elected government does not do as it promised? Should the population sit back and wait for the next election as the fundamental nature and tenant of their society is threatened, or is it democratic to rise up – even with the support of the Army?

Backing the Arab Spring was important, however cementing the gains will be much harder and much more difficult. Getting the next step right is more important for long-term international stability. The West in danger of insisting that democracy can only be exercised through the ballot box and perhaps is missing the point that some democracies have a rocky start.

After all, didn’t the US have both a revolutionary war and a civil war?

Your view is welcome so please put a comment in the comments box!

Video: Egypt Today

2 Replies to “Is the West getting policy on Egypt wrong?”

  1. Egyptians as i saw are carefree and careless.Stuck in history,they called Morsi MAD MAN forgetting they elected him 1 year ago. As far as coup of Gen Sissi is concerned there is a battle of egos between him and Morsi.Morsi stuck to constitution to the end,but was dethroned.Not a good outcome for any future setup.This nation can get fed up very soon,so to settle down they require a couple of parliamentary elections.


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