Foreign Policy Blogs

Morsi Ouster: Is There a Backstory?



There usually is. The Egyptian military, mirroring, it says, the will of the Egyptian people, has thrown Morsi’s band of Islamists out of office and set in motion the kind of parliamentary and electoral process that millions of neighboring Syrians want to see materialize in their own country. Instead, the Syrian people remain trapped between the U.S. and our unreliable Sunni allies in the FSA, and an ongoing slaughter led by Assad and ignored by his Russian backers.

You might say, and now I’m talking specifically to John McCain, John Kerry, Marco Rubio, Senator Bob Corker and the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who voted to arm the Syrian rebels, that Egypt, in fact, constitutes a cautionary tale, a lesson to outsiders with muddled ideological and geopolitical goals, that throughout history and across the globe today, most people simply want to live in peace, in reasonable freedom, with a fair shot at making a living sufficient to support themselves and move their kids a rung or two up the ladder.

Muslims want this as much as anyone else — contrary to the beliefs of higher-ups at the U.S. Department of State who seem to believe that a concentrated “outreach” to “Islamist” factions and organizations — the “inclusion” of radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, jihadists, and al Qaeda affiliates within Syria’s FSA, for example — somehow constitutes a commitment to diversity. military ouster in EgyptThe fall of Mohamed Morsi, who is currently under house arrest, doesn’t speak to the failure of democracy in Egypt (there were claims, even on election day, that the Muslim Brotherhood had hijacked the election, creating obstacles for blocks of voters in urban areas and muscling voters in the countryside), but to the determination of the ordinary, average Egyptian to settle for nothing less than a genuinely democratic process in which there resides real choice and authentic opportunity for change. And I’m not talking about an amalgamation of democracy and sharia law, even though it’s probably true enough to say that the average Egyptian would favor making space for a variety of sects and religions within the state — freedom of religion, I think we call it.

Extremists believe in force, not freedom.

And the jihadists, the Salafists, the members of the Muslim Brotherhood (who are now threatening suicide attacks on the streets of Cairo unless Morsi is reinstated), the radical Syrian fighters known as al-Nusra and combatants for Ahrar al-Sham, all of these groups and others like them, openly admit their aim is to create an Islamic emirate, or at least, within the structure of a Syrian state, a society in thrall to a rigid theocracy ruled by Shura councils.

No negotiation.

But political theorists here in the U.S., people like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former CIA chief David Petraeus, Clinton’s replacement, John Kerry, Senator McCain (who still believes the Russians are a greater threat than a Middle East dominated by the same anti-American Islamists, willing martyrs all, who engineered 9/11 but who now have biological, chemical, and anti-aircraft/tank weaponry), and folks like Senator Corker and Marco Rubio, who naively cling to the notion that our “moderate friends” in the FSA and the handful of CIA operatives trying to help them sort it out can separate the wheat from the extremist chaff within the FSA, put together a U.S.-friendly “provisional government,” and step up to the challenge of “democracy” in Syria while preventing the bad boys in their ranks from killing every Christian, Alawite, Druze, Kurd, and other sundry “infidels” still left in the country — these folks believe, incredibly, that like the famous Coke commercial featuring a endless line of representative ethnic types all holding hands on top of a mountain, that with enough goodwill and negotiation, we can build a world capable of singing in perfect harmony.

The U.S. State Department and the German government, both driven for reasons of their own, have rushed to announce their commitment to “inclusion” and to call on the new interim government in Egypt to release Morsi, and, I assume, invite the Muslim Brotherhood back into the process. It brings to mind, at least to my mind, the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the animal rights groups in this country and their success in reintroducing, under federal protection, the gray wolf into the upper Midwest, in some places even paying ranchers $5000 to “protect” wolf dens on their property.

And how’s that going? If you’re someone who paces your condo late into the night worrying about protecting predator populations like grizzlies and gray wolves, not too bad. If you’re a rancher who’s lost a significant percentage of your livestock to wolves, you may not be too happy.

The ideological drive to protect predators doesn’t stop with wildlife, of course, and neither does the U.S. government’s predilection for funding such efforts. I want to hear what FSA supporters have to say — thinkers in the foreign policy community who argue that we have a “humanitarian mandate” to unseat Assad via U.S. involvement on the side of the opposition — when the post-victory bloodbath begins.

In Egypt, now, it’s a different story, the bungee jump back to center obviating the sort of magical thinking currently shaping U.S. foreign policy, especially in regard to the idea that we can turn any lemon into a pretty decent gin fizz as long as we never stop “talking to our enemies,” as President Obama once put it — a premise that turns on the notion that pretty much everyone, al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Pol Pots and Qaddafis of the world included, is susceptible to what we in the west call “reason.”

An aside: I don’t remember that kind of thinking having much impact on DOJ’s response to Waco or to the Weavers’ at Ruby Ridge. As I recall, the rationale in both those cases was the inability of the U.S. government to reason with “cults” or “gun-nuts.” Irrational ideologues. Not like the Muslim Brotherhood, though, or al-Nusra, or al Qaeda-on-a-short-leash held by our friend, General Salim Idris.

It’s All Good

Nope, what dominates our international perspective today is called “cultural relativism,” the antidote to the bad old imperialism of earlier times, when we assumed that Western notions about freedom and individual rights were inherently attractive to all right-thinking men and women everywhere.

Now, at least at State and among enlightened progressives, “right” is relative, and so we tell ourselves there are really citizenries out there who would willingly, even eagerly, embrace governments whose goal is to eschew “Western notions” of individual freedom and instead deny to citizens, by force and under law, their most basic choices and liberties.

Morsi Out

Morsi Out

I once had a student ask me if she could write a term paper predicated on the argument that, while female genital mutilation might seem a bad thing to Westerners, the U.S. and other like-minded cultures had no business tampering with the cultural beliefs of African societies in which mutilation of this kind was considered beneficial for society and a mark of purity for the young women involved.

Another young woman, with whom I worked at the United Nations, once told me I was wrong to condemn the horrific mutilations and amputations suffered by innocent villagers beset by Hutus during the Rwandan conflict. “How do you know,” she asked me, “that in their culture, their behavior — the amputating of limbs, etc. — is not perceived as a good and positive thing?”

I forgot to ask her whether the “they” to whom she referred were the Hutu militants or the soon-to-be-limbless villagers.

So this is the kind of sloppy thinking we’re up against, and in Egypt, the middle-class, the religious-enough, just-want-to-get-on-with-my-day kind of folks have announced that they have no time for crazies. Just like any average Joe on Main Street USA.

And this time, it isn’t because we’ve “imposed” western culture on a foreign population.

Let’s face it, there are herders in the Himalayan mountains who can hardly wait for the next episode of “Mad Men” — Western culture, the capitalist lifestyle, the upsides and downsides of secularism — the ideas, the images, the allure is everywhere, and if the world is in danger of addiction, it’s because we’re self-medicating.

It’s good, it’s bad, it’s everywhere, but the point is, people want the choice and the opportunity to sort it out themselves.

So, despite the U.S. government’s outstretched hand, overflowing with money and guns, to ideological groups whose only interest in Western democracy turns on how to destroy it (“How do you know amputating limbs may not be perceived as a GOOD thing in their culture?”), the Egyptian military, whose ties to the U.S. military, as we know, are extremely close, has pulled the plug on a U.S. State Department-supported production, “Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood Play President,” that should have closed in New Haven.

The interesting question, of course, is one nobody’s asking: Was the Egyptian military acting alone, representatives of the moderate majority and the voice of Tamarod, the grassroots youth movement that triggered Mubarek’s demise — or did General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s Defense Minister and head of the military, wait for a green light, some covert show of support from personal or professional allies whose agreement he viewed as important, and who, like the Egyptian military, believed the Muslim Brotherhood’s time had come?

Really Interesting Question

We know, of course, that the U.S. gives the Egyptian military 1.5 billion annually in direct aid. And we know that the leaders within the Egyptian military have trained, for the most part, in the U.S., and that they maintain close and often personal alliances with their counterparts in the U.S. military.

But we also know that there’s a serious rift between the U.S. Department of State, which holds on tight to the foreign policy crown and walks in tandem with the White House, and the U.S. Department of Defense, or DOD.

State, for example, is 100 percent behind support for the FSA in Syria, regardless of the risk — which State minimizes — of guns and money falling into the hands of jihadists, Salafists, and al Qaeda affiliates within the ranks. DOD, for all the reasons you might suspect, is strongly opposed to intervention in Syria.

America doesn’t fight religious wars, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the uber-realists within the U.S. military might see the Sunni-Shi’a struggle as a sectarian conflict in play across the entire Middle East. Ask any serviceman in Afghanistan or Iraq how invested he is in Muslim infighting, and stand back.

McCain, champion of the U.S. defense contractor, sees Syria as a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia, and he’s out to finish what the Communists started, as least for him, in Vietnam. McCain’s request for lethal aid to the FSA was barely out of his mouth before he began additional lobbying for a no-fly zone and aerial bombing of government forces by U.S./NATO forces.

DOD has slipped down this slope before (Iraq/Aghanistan) and given the cuts in the defense budget, the responsibility for mission-success once the commitment is there, and the lose-lose potential in a situation where your own side is as likely to fire on you (with U.S.-supplied weapons) as the enemy, intervention in Syria is not an easy sell.

Friending the Muslim Brotherhood, I’m thinking, isn’t high on DOD’s to-do list.

So, let’s assume key players in DOD have not been rooting for Mohamed Morsi et al, and that any feelers about military intervention by the Egyptian military may have elicited a subtle, but important wink-and-nod. A mano-a-mano understanding, maybe, guaranteed to remain private and stored only in the memories of men used to imperfect solutions and decisive action.

Focus, friends, on the importance of the Suez Canal and U.S. access to Egyptian air and ground space for defense purposes.

Here, clearly, we risk sliding between the pages of a John Grisham novel, because if DOD principals did assume an advisory role, sub rosa, with their counterparts in Egypt, we might also assume that their advice was offered outside the sanctions of State or the White House — risky for an organization already gutted by Obama’s budget.

Of course, the White House may have decided to team up with DOD on this one occasion (an end-run around State?), appreciative of a heads-up and a chance to weigh in with the Saudis to see who might be, or might not be, keen on the idea.

Call It an Ounce of Prevention

When the Egyptian military threw Morsi out, let’s recall, there were the requisite demurs from 1600 Pennsylvania, some talk about respecting democratic processes, and just a little bit of bluster about maybe cutting the 1.5 billion in aid to Egypt’s military in the event their actions were determined to constitute a military coup d’etat.

“Show business,” as my dad used to portray much of government’s goings-on.

The risk-aversive Obama Administration was instantly reassured by the response of the Saudis and King Abdullah of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the first pledging five billion in aid to the new “moderate” regime in Egypt, and King Abdullah (UAE), who claims the Muslim Brotherhood has been conducting an assiduous campaign to unseat him, pledging another three billion to Egypt’s new interim government.

I’m just guessing, of course.

But could there have been — dare I say it — a deal? Perhaps U.S. support (weapons) for Idris’ “moderate brigades” in Syria greased the Saudi wheel in regard to Morsi’s ouster and paved the way for a joint U.S.-Saudi effort, in the future, to eliminate Islamists from the bigger picture, preserving the geopolitical status quo as well as the lucrative commercial partnership between the two allies.

This would make sense: For some time, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been jousting for control of the FSA, with the Saudis coming down on the side of Idris’ “moderate,” more secular fighting units (with their pro-Western vision of victory), and Qatar supporting the smaller (10-15 percent) coalition of extremist Sunni factions, including Jabhat al Nusra and even further out on the fringe, the Salafi/jihadist unit Ahrar al-Sham.

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, says Elizabeth O’Bagy, McCain’s Advisor on the FSA, is aptly illustrated by the internal problems attending the 2012 DOHA meeting which aimed at increasing unity within the FSA and selling organizational coherence to western supporters. In her “Middle East Security Report 9 (p. 32, March 2013), O’Bagy describes the DOHA meeting as,

…a stark example of how diverse funding streams exacerbate the problem of fragmentation among rebels. On the one hand, rebel commanders were paid by Qatari sponsors to attend the meeting. On the other hand, Saudi sponsors paid rebel commanders not to attend the meeting. Thus, in order to receive funds from both sponsors, rebel organizations nominally split, sending one commander to Doha with the other staying in Syria . . . .

Face It

Shoring up a new, moderate administration in Egypt with five billion dollars is great PR, a paid advertisement for Saudi Arabia’s shift away from conservative Islam to the kind of zero-tolerance for extremism nationhood the U.S., Congress and the public, is willing to support.

It also gives Saudi Arabia a leg over Qatar, its rival and continuing patron of Salafi/jihadist brigades, within the foreign policy community and the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army.

How the House of Saud sees itself squaring a secular and pluralist platform with a brace of virulently anti-American clerics (unwilling to take their collective foot off the neck of the masses), I don’t know, but Saudi Arabia’s speedy and tangible embrace of something closer to a golden mean in Egypt signals a willingness on the part of our most powerful Muslim ally to put its money where its mouth is — a go-along, get-along downpayment on U.S. support for its “moderates” in the FSA.

And that’s not all. Given John Kerry’s investment in arming the FSA, a double-header for the U.S. defense industry and Cold War strategists intent on chasing Soviet shadows and/or determined to preserve their State Department portfolios, a trade of this sort might even have prompted State’s (secret) acquiescence. All this wailing from Foggy Bottom about catch and release — throwing Morsi back into the stream — and its initial grumbling that the 1.5 billion to Egypt’s military might be threatened by the ouster, all of this could be a cover.

But what do I know? Where’s the mainstream press, the investigative reporters who should be asking the same questions?

All Wrong

A friend, actually a source, tells me I’m way off base. He’s convinced the Obama administration and the U.S. State Department are so wedded to idea of Sunni/Islamist hegemony across the Middle East that nothing could persuade the White House to abandon Morsi, particularly in light of his “democratic” election.

It is this unswerving allegiance to the Brotherhood in Egypt, he tells me, that would render the U.S. administration blind to the advantages triggered by the installation of a new interim government in Egypt — the only reason the White House has backed off, issuing a vague statement about not interfering in another country’s sovereignty, is because Obama’s tendency to avoid risk, especially during his last term in office, outweighs the instinct to defend a deposed Islamist to whom he remains sympathetic.

My friend says that if there was any other power offering the Egyptian military reassurances, it would have to be the Russians, always alert to opportunity and ready to move in with offers of support should the U.S. reject the new Egyptian administration and cut off aid to its military. Again, Suez Canal.

The Russians — if they believe the U.S. administration has a blind spot when it comes to radical Islam — might use that insight to bolster their position in Syria (Assad the only alternative to a terrorist takeover), and to maneuver behind the scenes in Egypt. Now, wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants?

Democracy Triumphs?

The Egyptian military, of course, tells us the simplest answer is the right one — Occam’s razor. It is not them, says a spokesman for the military, but “the youth,” the same force that triggered the original, untainted Arab Spring, and “the people who first occupied Tahrir Square” prior to Morsi’s ascendancy who designated the Egyptian military to act as their voice as well as their muscle when the Islamist President betrayed them “by placing himself above the law.”

In other words, executive overreach, a term that we see emerging more and more often in our own political dialogue. In addition to ramming a pro-Islamist constitution through, Morsi claimed his executive “decrees” were beyond the scope of judicial review. A big hat, as they say in Texas, for a guy with so few cattle.

If it’s true — or even partially true — that Morsi’s ouster is a victory-to-the-people ending to a story of dreams ground into dust by a leader ready to bend Egypt’s laws to serve his own ends, then this is something we rarely see on the modern political landscape, a populace awake and aware of what democracy is supposed to deliver — power that flows from the bottom up, not the top down.

The United States might do well to consider Egypt’s example, and to note how change occurs when people are willing to risk translating discontent into action.

Insular, disengaged, and seemingly overwhelmed by the daily struggle to make ends meet, the American people remain unresponsive to reports about the recalcitrance of our own leaders to respond to the queries and challenges to Executive authority issuing from the U.S. Congress and other investigatory bodies.

The exercise of Executive privilege to protect documents relevant to the investigation of the ATF operation tagged Fast and Furious, the deflection of civil contempt litigation against Eric Holder by DOJ and the White House, the secret domestic surveillance operation (the broadest in history) launched by NSA with scant oversight but with Executive support, the challenge to the Fourth Amendment via the wiretapping of Associated Press telephone and internet lines, also with Executive approval, the covert surveillance of Fox News Bureau Chief James Rosen, who is now charged, along with his mother and father, with violations of the Espionage Act, and the targeting by the IRS of conservative groups seeking to support political candidates of their choice — all of it suggests a belief, contrary to our democratic tradition and the laws of the land, that power to defy tradition and rewrite the U.S. legal system flows not from the bottom to the top, but from the top down.

According to the Egyptian military, Morsi was ousted because he committed crimes, setting himself above the law. This, they tell us, is not democracy. I don’t usually put much faith in appeals to conscience.

But in this case, maybe we should listen.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.