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“Directly Complicit”: Shadi Hamid on How Obama Greenlighted 2013 Egypt Coup, Killing the Arab Spring

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On the 10th anniversary of the 2013 coup in Egypt when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed the country’s first democratically elected president from power, we speak with author Shadi Hamid about “Lessons for the Next Arab Spring,” in which he details how the Obama administration helped to kill the democratic uprising across the Middle East. “Washington, and Obama in particular, gave what amounted to a green light to the Egyptian military to proceed with the coup,” says Hamid. The U.S. then refused to call it a coup or to impose any consequences, while continuing to send billions in foreign aid to the military dictatorship, which continues to rule the country to this day.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we end today’s show looking at this 10th anniversary of the 2013 coup in Egypt, when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed Egypt’s first democratically elected president from power, then led a purge of Muslim Brotherhood government leaders and a crackdown on dissent.

“Lessons for the Next Arab Spring” is the headline of a new piece by Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, author of The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. If you can start off by laying out what we now know about the role of the U.S., particularly of President Obama, in response to the coup?

SHADI HAMID: Yeah. Hi, Amy. Thanks for having me.

So, Washington was directly complicit. And I think, up until relatively recently, and certainly right after the coup 10 years ago, there was a sense that the U.S. was caught off guard, that the Obama administration wanted to do the right thing but didn’t know how, and they didn’t really have leverage, and that sort of kind of innocent bystander theory where America acts like, you know, “Oh, what could we do? We’re only the superpower of the world.”

You know, in recent years, more and more information has come out that suggests that the U.S. played a quite negative role in the months and days leading up to the July 3rd, 2013, military coup. And, you know, in my piece and in the book from which it’s adapted, The Problem of Democracy, I interviewed around 30 former and current senior U.S. officials and was able to get some spicy information on certain key moments in those final days. And it’s not a positive picture.

And I do argue explicitly that Washington — and Obama, in particular — gave what amounted to a green light to the Egyptian military to proceed with the coup. We could have done quite a bit more to stop it. We could have threatened an immediate aid suspension before the coup happened. And even after the coup happened, there was a chance to declare it a coup and cut assistance, and that’s what U.S. law requires. In any coup d’état where the military plays a decisive role, it is a legal obligation to cut aid. Of course, President Obama got away from that or avoided that by not declaring it a coup.

So, there are a number of these different things that, you know, when you sort of piece them together, we can’t really say that the U.S. didn’t know what was going on. And, in fact, some senior officials — in particular, John Kerry was actually quite enthusiastic about the coup. And there was this very memorable phrase where he said that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was, quote-unquote, “restoring democracy.” He said this after two massacres of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, your piece is really interesting. And I just want to read from it, because it really tells people how, you know, the government works. You write, “A White House advisor who was there walked me through how the conversation unfolded:”

He said, “I came in all hot and bothered, and so did a few others, that there was a clear letter of the law that said, 'Declare the coup, cut off military assistance.' Actually, we weren’t even focused on the first thing, because only somebody who was purposefully obfuscating would say that it wasn’t a coup. …

“So, it was like, ’When do we announce this?” That’s when I came in, expecting the conversation was going to be about that. And then Obama for the only time that I can recall in the years I worked for him, the only time, he came in and … said, 'Well, so, we're not going to declare this a coup, so what should we do?’ I was totally taken aback by that, and so were many other people. And so it completely changed the tenor of the conversation.”

I mean, this is fascinating. I don’t know if you want to reveal now who it was who was talking to you. But explain what this means and why you think Obama took this stance and what now this has meant. I mean, we’re talking about thousands of people imprisoned, political prisoners.

SHADI HAMID: Yeah, and it’s really worth underscoring what kind of — how this is such a moral stain on the Obama administration’s legacy. I do consider the coup to be the day that the Arab Spring ended. After that, there was no hope of getting back. I mean, Egypt is the most populous country in the region. Egypt sets the tone. So this was not just a minor thing. This was decisive. And I hope it will be remembered in that way.

And that quote, just hearing you read it back to me, I still find it remarkable. I mean, I can’t share who it was, because that’s not the sort of thing this person would want to be known for. But it is really remarkable.

And as for the reasons behind it, I think there’s a couple things going on here. Obama also had this very pragmatic side to him, where he would say, “Well, you know, if a coup already happened, let me try to do business with the people who are in power. Let me try to get things done. I don’t want too much headache of some big pro-democracy agenda.” Let’s also keep in mind that Obama, when he assumed the presidency, wanted to distance himself from the Bush administration’s so-called freedom agenda, so there was always a kind of discomfort with a very strong emphasis on democracy promotion.

But I think there’s actually a darker undercurrent, where Obama, after some initial enthusiasm for the Arab Spring when it started in 2011, he gets very disillusioned very quickly. And one of the things I discuss at length in the book is the sorts of things that Obama would say privately, and even sometimes publicly, about Arabs and Muslims. And there was that famous Atlantic profile from 2016 that reported that Obama was known to privately joke, quote-unquote, “All I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats.” He also had, like — he also had another joke where he would say — he would wonder out loud why people in the Middle East can’t be “just like the Scandinavians.” So there was this sense of, like, “Why can’t the Muslims get their act together? Why are they always fighting?” And Obama almost felt betrayed, because he supported the Arab Spring, or at least he thought he did in the beginning, and then he kind of went and said, “Well, was I right to support it, if it led to all this civil conflict and all these clashes between different parties and ideological orientations?” And, of course, let’s remember, too, that Obama wanted to pivot away from the Middle East, so there was a sense that he was always being dragged back in. And I think at some point there was just a sense of, “Well, maybe if they were all autocrats, things would be a lot easier.”

And then, just the last thing is, we have a democratic dilemma in the Middle East. We like democracy in theory, but we don’t like democracy’s outcomes in practice. Why? Because it’s Islamist parties that tend to win elections, or at least do quite well in them, when elections are held in the Middle East. And the coup was committed against a Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Here’s an Islamist party that believes that Sharia, or Islamic law, should play a central role in public life. And then we, as Americans, are just instinctually uncomfortable with that. We think democracy should lead to good outcomes, but when it leads to Islamist outcomes, we struggle with that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Shadi Hamid, I want to thank you for being with us, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We’ll link to your new piece in Foreign Policy, “Lessons for the Next Arab Spring.” The book that he’s authored, The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman. This is democracynow.org.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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