Mobs make fickle friends. Egypt is not Les Misérables
When is a coup not a coup? Apparently when it is , a "good cause" coup, a goodies' coup against baddies. Yesterday, diplomats in London and Washington were frantic to depict events in Cairo as not a coup but "an accepted fact", a hiccup on the "road map to democracy". Western governments meddling in the Middle East have found it useful to distinguish coups from "military interventions with good intent".
My dictionary calls a coup d'etat "the sudden, violent overthrow of a government … especially by an army". In Egypt soldiers have occupied the airport and radio station, arrested an elected president and begun rounding up 300 of his party leaders. The army command, fat on $1.3bn (£860m) of , has installed its own nominees in office "pending" new elections. These, we assume, will have to find a different winner from last year's Mohamed Morsi, now in jail.
Morsi , but he won. His popularity lay in offering electors security and order amid the turbulence of the . He was drifting towards authoritarianism, promoting a one-party state, curbing the courts and rewriting the constitution. Whether or not this was a "constitutional coup" that justified a military counter-coup is moot. Either way, Morsi went too far. His coming to power may have been democratic and his exercise of it less so, but his fall was certainly not.
I know and like but am no expert on the place. Only Egyptians are that. Yet I am familiar with the west's running commentary on each of the crises that now afflict the aftermath of the Arab spring. This takes the form of lectures, judgments and meddlesome suggestions. Egyptians, now locked into a period of desperate uncertainty, surely deserve to be left in peace. Instead, they are treated to the sort of language normally confined to a Victorian nursery.
Thus Barack Obama expresses his "deep concern" at what is happening in Cairo. He cannot bring himself to call it a coup, since he unwittingly financed it. delivered his customary finger-wagging: "I call on all sides to show restraint and avoid violence," he vacuously rambled. The UN's Ban Ki-moon warned the generals to "address the needs and concerns of all Egyptians". The EU's Lady Ashton went out on a limb to "condemn all violent acts". We are not told what the rest of the world thinks, but perhaps it thinks Egypt is none of its business.
American and British politicians revelled in the Arab spring. They fell for the magnetism of the mob, rushing to Cairo and Tripoli as local regimes tottered, eulogising the sunlit uplands of western democracy. From the suburbs of Baghdad to the souks of Tunis, a refreshing breeze would bring the Arabs freedom, capitalism and female liberation. Oil would flow, Israel would be secure. "A new beginning was dawning," said Obama in Cairo. David Cameron told the people of Benghazi they were "an inspiration to the world". The lions of neoconservatism were lying down with the lambs of liberal intervention.
Cairo proved no beginning and Benghazi no inspiration. Even where western arms have not sent a pall of death and destruction over the Muslim world, western rhetoric has raised absurd expectations among its urban young. As a result, in almost all the countries supposedly "made safe for democracy", voters have opted for the order of conservative Islam, rather than for liberal secularism. The first call democracy makes on power is not freedom but security.
In almost every case, British public opinion has backed the insurgent mob against the regime, as if sated on Les Misérables. By the time of the , it assumed that Arab mobs were always in the right and always win. This applied even when, as in Bahrain, this proved not to be the case, or as in Egypt, it required some ethical gymnastics. But then mobs make fickle friends. As Kipling warned, every mob "whose head has grown too large /Ends by destroying its own job /And earns its own discharge".
The global humanitarian impulse is best honoured through distributing charity. This is very different from the impulse to criticise and intervene in another nation's politics. Apart from offending sovereignty, such intervention is often counter-productive to humanitarianism, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is no comfort to hundreds of thousands of Muslim dead that they might possibly have enjoyed a vote, thanks to Britain and America.
The British craving to set the Muslim world to rights is as old as history. It lurks in the genes of British politicians and diplomats, as if the ghost of Lawrence of Arabia still stalked Whitehall. Lord Carrington was trying to sort out the Middle East when Argentina invaded the Falklands. Tony Blair cannot stop himself doing so, long after losing office and relevance.
I remember visiting the multinational force in Lebanon during the civil war in 1982. I asked what a large encampment in a park was for, and was told it was Italy's modest contribution, a large field hospital. When I asked what Britain had offered I was told it was "their good offices in seeking to bring both sides together". No prize for guessing which did more good. Britain's habit of mind is born of a century of imperialism, followed by 50 years of military intervention from Suez to Libya.
If the leaders of foreign states treated Britain this way we would be outraged. If they passed judgment on Northern Ireland, race relations or tax evasion, Britain would regard it as impertinent. If the Sri Lankan or Indonesian or Burmese governments pronounced "concern" over the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust, or found bought peerages or corrupt planning decisions "unacceptable", they would be summoned to the Foreign Office for a flea in the ear. Yet British ministers shower bromides on Egypt in a torrent of patronising hypocrisy.
It may be ironic that Cairo protesters should demand their army save them from the same politician who so recently saved them from the army. But it is an Egyptian irony, for Egyptians to resolve. All revolutions manufacture their own realpolitik. As for implying that democracy sometimes needs soldiers to act as safeguard against elected politicians who break their promises, we should remember that Horse Guards Parade is just over the wall from Downing Street.
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