By coincidence, even as the coup in Egypt has been unfolding, I have been reading about the coup which occurred in Saigon on November 1-2, 1963. The generals who ousted Ngo Dinh Diem were also widely cheered by the people of South Vietnam–and by the United States government which played a much more active role in encouraging that change of regime than (at least as far as we know) the one currently unfolding. But the South Vietnamese generals found it much easier to topple the old government than to create a new government in its place.
The coup was led by General Duong Van Minh–known to Americans as “Big Minh”–but he lasted only three months as president before being pushed aside by another general. South Vietnam was to be in for constant turmoil and instability that lasted right up to the North Vietnamese invasion in 1975 which ended the state’s existence. Indeed the political uncertainty which followed Diem’s demise–and that of his influential brother Ngo Dinh Nhu–made the Communists’ job of destabilizing the state much easier.
Is this an augury of what Egypt–which is under the threat not of a Communist but rather of a Salafist takeover–faces? It’s impossible to say, but the early signs are not promising. The generals won widespread backing for ousting the incompetent and unloved Mohamed Morsi. But their initial choice for prime minister, Mohamed ElBaradei, was withdrawn after objections from the Salafist Al Nour party. Al Nour, which was the second-largest vote getter after the Muslim Brotherhood, had initially backed the coup but now seems to have developed cold feet. Its leaders cited as the reason for withdrawing from the governing process the massacre carried out by troops who have killed more than 50 protesters backing a restoration of the Morsi regime.
This shocking violence–the worst such incident since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011–could be an anomaly or it could signal the start of more widespread fighting, even perhaps a civil war. The Muslim Brotherhood still retains mass support and it has an organizational structure that could easily go underground to wage its battle for power with bombs rather than ballots. The Salafists also have many armed extremists in their midst. This is, to put it mildly, a dangerous situation. The generals will have to show hitherto-unsuspected political wisdom in steering Egypt through the current crisis which occurs as the economy continues to tank and law and order continue to break down. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions–Ataturk comes to mind–few generals have proven very successful dictators: the skill sets needed to command troops are far different from those needed to play the political game.
That is why, however happy most Americans (including me) are to see Morsi ousted from power, the U.S. government needs to make clear it will not tolerate indefinite unconstitutional rule by the Egyptian military. The U.S. has limited leverage but the $1.5 billion in aid we provide annually does give us some influence, and we need to use it to press for return to civilian rule, the promulgation of a new constitution, and the holding of elections. Egypt is far too important a country to drift along as South Vietnam did in the 1960s after its own military coup.