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Ousting the Brotherhood: Take That America?

July 14, 2013

What happens when the US and Egyptians differ on the meaning of "democratically elected"? Photo by Malak Rouchdy

What happens when the US and Egyptians differ on the meaning of “democratically elected”? Photo by Malak Rouchdy

Last Spring I gave the keynote address at the regional Model Arab League, which Miami hosted. It was on continuing challenges in Egypt (of course).

After the Q&A, as I was gathering my coat and briefcase to leave, I was approached by a student from one of the other schools. He was a young Egyptian studying in the US,

He asked, “So why do you think the US put the Muslim Brotherhood in power, anyway?”

I can’t quite remember what I answered beyond a simple assertion that I did not accept the premise of the question.

There were several other students hanging about, some my own Middle East Capstone seminar students, some from other universities, waiting to reassure me that my talk was not an incoherent mess as I feared–I was a last minute replacement when a featured speaker canceled and my talk was a patchwork of posts from this blog–and they were surprised and perplexed by the question.

I was not surprised. I knew that there was widespread belief in Egypt that the only reason the Brotherhood was in power was that the US supported them. But I was not prepared for the question as I had not anticipated it in that venue. To have a US educated, politically astute Student asking me that question suggested that the assertion was given far more credence by a much wider swath of Egyptian society than I had (from my current distance) assumed.

I’m thinking about this right now because for the past several days the Arabic press in Egypt and elsewhere in the region has been reflecting on what the fall of the US-backed MB government means for US foreign policy–and the articles are predicated on the assumption that the US wants the MB in power.

On July 11, for example, an Al-Ahram editorial by Ame Abdel Samih declared the June 30 revolution to be “the end of the American project in the Middle East.” This project, they explain, involves “supporting the movement of political Islam or the Muslim Brothers” in Egypt (and, vaguely, elsewhere in the region) in order to lure in “radical and terrorist forces” so that they will be to busy in their own region to threaten the United States with terrorism.

Jamil Matar, writing in the Lebanese daily Al-Safir, writes that the current revolution is an opportunity to break free from then US and “the international forces of occupation.”

Mohammed Said Al-Idriss takes a slightly more plausible stance in an editorial in the UAE newspaper al-Khaleej, asking why the international community ignores thenfact that in the absence of an elected Parliament, taking to the streets and demanding early elections was the only democratic way to overturn the Unpopular president. So why this talk of a military “coup”.

The Americans supported [the revolution] in Libya and they used their military power to topple the rule of Colonel Gaddafi. In Syria, they are taking part in the same struggle in order to topple the rule of an elected president that the people no longer want. So how can they be supporting the calls to topple the Syrian regime and refusing the call to topple the Egyptian regime…? The question is why…? There are certainly reasons connecting the MBs and the Americans and a larger project that they have in common with the Zionist entity being a probably main party in this project…”

Abdullah al-Nibari, writing in  Kuwait’s Al-Qabas, argues the exact opposite, saying the point of putting the MB in power was in hopes of establishing a moderate Islamist party that would control thevradical elements and ally with the West the way the Turkish justice Party has. Unfortunately for the US, he writes:

the Brothers have returned to their old terrorist ways, which means that the Americans have lost their bet on the Brothers.

Promoting terrorism or promoting moderation, either way, it’s a conspiracy, right?

Most of my students, colleagues, and some US new reporters, ask me how Egyptians can believe this. They wonder, how is the US supposed to have put Morsi in power? Didn’t the Egyptians elect him?

Let’s take the first question. How does the supposed American control work? Jamil Matar offers us the insidious conspiratorial version. We know, he writes, that America (and other foreign menaces):

have now changed their mode of operation. They no longer occupy the countries directly… They rather besiege the individuals now. The individuals rather than the state have become the target. They pressure those individuals via new elaborate methods. They tap their phones to control their personal lives, their secrets, ideas, and aspirations…

Abdullah al-Nibari offers a version that is, for most Americans, at least, more plausible:

Following Dr. Mohammad Morsi’s access to power thanks to the votes of the citizens – who actually voted for him because he was running against Ahmad Shafiq and not because they liked him… – the Americans pressured the Military Council back then to transfer power fully to the elected civil president. …Then, the visits of the American officials followed starting with Hillary Clinton to her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry.

The second question involves questions of what is meant by democracy. Students ask, don’t Egyptians realize the US is only supporting the democratically elected leader of the country?

Well, no, actually. Americans have an almost absurd faith in the electoral process. It has, we feel, worked pretty well for us for 200 years or so.

Egyptians are just starting to experiment with the possibility of an electoral process whose results are not controlled a priori by the state. Most Egyptians recognize that Morsi won by less than 1 percent of the vote in the run-off election, against a rival candidate (Ahmed Shawfiq) who was seen as representing elements of the old regime. Many of those who voted him into office did so to vote against Shawfiq, not for Morsi. Hardly a mandate.

Moreover, why should the US support a democratically elected candidate who actively worked to undermine democracy by claiming he had the rights to act as both federal and legislative branch of government, and that he was above judicial review?

The Egyptians figure we can’t really be that naive, so there must be a real reason we supported Morsi.

And since we did not pressure Morsi to call for early elections when the petitions with tens of millions of names were presented, and Egyptians took to the streets, that must mean the US is not for democracy but for the Muslim Brotherhood.


One of the most interesting courses I teach at Miami is called Intercultural Relations. It’s about the relevance of cultural anthropology to contemporary issues in the global ecumene.  The basic assumptions of the class are that In most interactions between people from different social backgrounds,

  1. The parties do not usually share equally all the same information; and
  2. The parties do not necessarily interpret the information they do share in the same ways.


Most interactions at the interpersonal, institutional and international levels involve conflicts at the most basic level: their sense of what exactly is going on.

The US notion of their role(s) in Egypt and common Egyptian notions of what those roles are can vary so widely that we are not even asking the same questions, much less finding similar answers.

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