It’s a silly question, obviously, but it still has to be asked. What, if anything, should the rest of the world do about the tragedy in Egypt? The same question has been hanging in the air about the even greater Syrian tragedy for well over a year now, and it is starting to come up again in Iraq as well.
All three of the biggest countries in the heart of the Arab world are now in a state of actual or incipient civil war. The death toll in the Syria civil war last month was 4,400 people. More than 1,000 people were killed by bombs and bullets last month in Iraq, the bloodiest month in the past five years. And at least 1,000 people have been killed in Egypt in the past week, the vast majority of them unarmed civilians murdered by the army.
You will note that I did not write "killed in clashes." That’s the sort of weasel-word formula that the media use when they do not want to offend powerful friends. Let’s be plain: the Egyptian army is deliberately massacring supporters of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government that it overthrew last June and which it now brands as "terrorists" in order to terrorize them into submission.
The "deep state" is coming back in Egypt, and the useful idiots who now believe that the army is on their side, the secular democrats of the left and the opportunistic Noor Party on the religious right, will in due course find themselves back in the same old police stations, being tortured by the same old goons. So should outsiders just stand by and watch it all happen?
What are the alternatives? Well, U.S. President Barack Obama told the generals off in no uncertain terms after the biggest massacre on Aug. 14. "We appreciate the complexity of the situation," he said sternly. "We recognize that change takes time," he added, his anger mounting steadily. "There are going to be false starts and difficult days," he said, almost shaking with rage.
"We know that democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years but sometimes in generations," he concluded, "but our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back."
And with that, he cancelled the Bright Star joint US-Egyptian military exercise that was scheduled for September. The Egyptian generals must have been trembling in their boots.
Just in case they weren’t, Obama added that "I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the (Egyptian) interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship." Curiously, the Egyptian generals did not stop killing people upon hearing all this.
The inaction of the United States is due to two causes. First, the only major leverage at Obama’s disposal, cancelling the annual $1.3 billion in aid that Washington gives to the Egyptian army, is no threat at all. It would instantly be replaced, and probably increased, by the rich and conservative Arab monarchies of the Gulf that heartily approve of the Egyptian army’s coup.
Secondly, Washington remains transfixed by the notion that its alliance with Egypt is important for American security. This hoary myth dates back to the long-gone days when the U.S. depended heavily on importing oil from the Gulf, and almost all of it had to pass through Egypt’s Suez Canal. Today less than 10 per cent of the oil burned in America comes from the Middle East, and new domestic production from fracking is shrinking that share even further.
Even if Obama understood that Egypt is not a vital American strategic interest and ended U.S. military aid to the country, it would only be a gesture (although a desirable one). The International Monetary Fund has already broken off talks on a large new loan to Egypt, and the European Union is talking about cutting aid to the country, but there are no decisive measures available to anybody outside the Arab world, and no willingness to act within it.
There will be no major military intervention in Syria either, although outside countries both within the Arab world and beyond it will continue to drip-feed supplies to their preferred side. And the Iraqi government’s request last Friday for renewed U.S. military aid to stave off renewed civil war there has no hope of success. Getting involved again militarily in Iraq would be political suicide for Obama.
So what’s left of the Arab spring? On the face of it, not much. Tunisia, where the first democratic revolution started three years ago, still totters forward, and there is more democracy in Morocco than there used to be, but that’s about it. The non-violent democratic revolutions that have worked so well in many other parts of the world are not doing very well in the Arab world.
There may be many reasons for this, but one stands out above all the others. In the Arab world, unlike most other places, two rival solutions to the existing autocracy, poverty and oppression compete for popular support: democracy and Islamism. The result, in one country after another, is that the autocrats exploit that division to retain or regain power. Democracy may win in the end, but it is going to be a very long struggle.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.