The optics weren’t ideal for Secretary of State John Kerry. The day after he visited Egypt to try and mend fences with the country’s military government, deposed President Mohamed Morsi went on trial in Cairo during which he challenged that regime’s legitimacy and defied the court’s right to try him. The juxtaposition of these events was enough to earn Kerry a rhetorical spanking from the New York Times editorial page that chided him for backtracking on the administration’s effort to distance itself from the military after it deposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in July. Kerry’s effort was late and clumsy, especially coming only a week after National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the Times that Egypt was just not a priority for Washington in the wake of its decision to cut military aid to Cairo. But however inept this administration’s Egypt policy has been, there should be no doubt about one thing: no one should be buying Morsi’s martyr act.
There’s little doubt that, as the Times indicated, the generals are hypocrites for trying Morsi for inciting the killing of protesters when they have been guilty of treating the Brotherhood in the same manner. The military is determined to crush the Brotherhood and Morsi has no chance of being acquitted of the charges. But even those like the Times and the people inside the administration that were happy to embrace the Brotherhood during its year of power need to admit that the deposed leader is almost certainly guilty. Moreover, though his deposition was the result of a coup, Morsi’s defiance of the court told us all we need to know about why the military decided to act after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for his ouster.
While denouncing his captors, Morsi declared that he was still the president of Egypt in the courtroom. Though his claim of a democratic mandate was undermined by his distinctly undemocratic behavior, he probably can make some claim to still hold office until a successor is elected. But the conceit of his stand is not so much that the coup is wrong, as it is that no one had a right to judge him: not the court, the military, nor the millions of protesters who sought his ouster.
Although the Brotherhood attained power via an election, their ouster should in no way be considered a blow to democracy. The Islamist leader seems to be taking the line that he is above the law. The Islamists have always refused to play by anyone’s rules but their own, so while it is true that his treatment may seem harsh, it is in keeping with the methods he sought to employ against his rivals. He is simply a tyrant who failed in his attempt to impose a totalitarian system on Egypt, not a martyr.
This is the core issue behind the debate about whether to punish the military for its efforts to crush the Brotherhood. Once in power, Morsi and his party had one goal: the imposition of its Islamist beliefs on the entire country and ensuring that no opposition would ever be allowed to make them accountable or to evict them from office. If the military has been able in the four months since the coup to decapitate the once popular Islamist party and to ensure that it has not been able to mount a serious terrorist threat against the new government, it is because many Egyptians who supported the Brotherhood as the only alternative to the Mubarak dictatorship now see that the cure was worse than the disease.
The conflict in Egypt is a zero-sum game in which the only choices available to the West are the Brotherhood and the military. That’s why Kerry is right to start and retreat from the president’s foolish decisions on Egypt. As Eric Trager writes in The Atlantic, the Brotherhood is far from dead, and it will require vigilance in order to ensure that it will not again become a serious threat to Egypt or the region. But it should gain no traction or sympathy from Westerners who are moved by Morsi’s pleas and crocodile tears about the democratic process.