Although the situation in Egypt is nothing to laugh about, and could become very serious indeed quite soon, it’s impossible not to find a certain mordant humour in the contortions of the Western commentariat, as they try not simply to explain to their readers what is going on in Egypt’s, but more importantly what they should think about it.
It’s an exquisitely embarrassing situation for Western policy. Even experienced and knowledgeable commentators, like Juan Cole, have been forced to engage in all kinds of undignified intellectual acrobatics to disguise the fact that an elected government, implementing a constitution that was approved by popular vote, has been overthrown by the military.
It is said, quite correctly, that the government is very unpopular, and has handled its toxic political and economic inheritance badly. It is also said, quite correctly, that there had been large demonstrations against the government. And it is also true that the current government has behaved in a highhanded and often authoritarian manner. But if all unpopular governments in the world could be overthrown by a military coup, they would be an endless procession of tanks on the way to invest government buildings all over the world. As I write, the current Socialist government in France is the most unpopular in living memory, and hundreds of thousands of people have recently taken to the streets demanding that they should resign. Is that the French army I see before me?
What this demonstrates is not so much hypocrisy, though there is always that, but rather the cognitive dissonance that results from not being able to accept that the only two alternatives are both things you dislike. In other words, we dislike military regimes and we dislike is Islamic regimes. When obliged to choose between the two, we panic, and, because we want to get rid of the Islamic regime, we pretend that what has happened is not a coup.
It was not supposed to be like this. The sequence of events, as seen by the West, went something like the following
· We used to support Mubarak, but we were happy to see him go.
· We were glad there were elections, but we expected that Our People would win them.
· Unfortunately, the Egyptian people voted the wrong way, and Our People did not win.
· Worse, the resulting government did not invite Our People to join a coalition.
· Although we do not like military coups, we are prepared to pretend that this one never happened, so that new elections can be held, and Our People can win.
Obviously, behind all of this is the nightmare possibility that the Muslim Bros, with their national organisation and their substantial support among the poor, may win the next election as well. This poses the obvious question, how many times can the voters of any country be allowed to get it wrong?