Note: Since this article was published, it has been announced that the Obama administration has suspended military aid to Egypt.
IN A BEAUTIFUL “We Are The World” type moment in April of this year, 154 members of the UN General Assembly vindicated decades of campaigning by human rights groups when they voted into existence the UN Arms Trade Treaty.
The process isn’t entirely complete, internal ratification within each state – especially where there is a culture of a gun in the house being seen as a positive thing – can be met with opposition. Nevertheless, it was a day when the people who sit through hour upon hour of dull speeches translated through their headsets could feel they had effected some positive change in the world.
Outside of the predictable party-poopers Iran, Syria and North Korea, eminent world statesmen were unanimously gushing at the brighter day for you and me that was just around the corner: US Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the treaty was “an important contribution to efforts to stem the illicit trade in conventional weapons, which fuels conflict, empowers violent extremists, and contributes to violations of human rights.”
The ‘illicit’ arms trade is just one part of the problem
It’s good to know that John is anti such things, though I couldn’t help but get a little jarred by the word ‘illicit’ in his statement. The thing with weapons is that its not so much whether the transfer of them from one party to another is within the law, but how they are put to work by the end user. The problems – well, bloodbaths – that we’ve been watching in Egypt lately aren’t a result of the illicit trade in weapons but rather of the the legitimate gifting of them to the violent extremists which so concern Mr Kerry. As I expect he knows, the wording of the treaty makes no such distinction:
“A State Party shall not authorize any transfer of conventional arms … if it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party”
Egypt’s use of American-supplied arms could be said to have ticked quite a few boxes on that list over the last week or so. Let’s allow that things have changed quite quickly there, and that the US was not to know that Egypt’s fledgling steps in democracy would have lurched into mass state-led killing of its electorate. Once this became the case however, you might think its time to sever the flow of weapons between the military wings of the Washington and Cairo administrations. But no, the ‘military aid’ will continue. Perhaps Washington believes that the Egyptian military which ousted its state’s only ever democratically elected leader is not killing the people who voted for the wrong guy quickly enough.
Condemning the killing while supplying the weapons
Yet this materiel support of the army-led interim government should apparently not be interpreted as any kind of endorsement of their trigger-happy mode of rule. President Obama has issued a formal condemnation of what has come to be labelled in the media as a ‘crackdown’ on the ousted President Morsi’s supporters various sit-ins across Cairo. Official condemnations are taking up a good chunk of leaders’ time on this matter. Stating that the situation is ‘unacceptable’ is another essential stepping stone of rhetoric to professionally navigate any troublesome press conference.
The situation has become so unacceptable that ‘Operation Bright Star’ – a biennial get together of American and Egyptian soldiers to share ideas on killing people – has been cancelled by the US.
Condemning the killing while supplying the weapons is an interesting way to win hearts and minds in the increasingly volatile powder keg of states, factions, and ideologies that can be grouped under the heading Middle East and North Africa.
The defence of the United States’ business-as-usual approach to ensuring the Egyptian army carries out its duties with only the finest of weapons is based on the premise that keeping the Egyptian army sweet facilitates US geopolitical leverage in the region. The Suez Canal remains a strategically vital artery for the US Navy to mobilise, while friendly skies into Israel are always an American and Israeli concern.
But you mustn’t call it a coup – not if you are speaking on behalf of the Obama administration. Under US law, the Foreign Assistance Act states:
“None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
To supply weapons in support of General Sisi’s coup would be unlawful in a rather unambiguous way, and this seems to be one of the US laws which the Obama administration wishes to adhere to. Therefore, when the elected President Morsi was ousted from power by the unelected – but very well armed – General Sisi, according to John Kerry speaking in Islamabad on 1st August “in effect, they were restoring democracy”.
Broken problems are nothing new in politics
Admittedly President Morsi was not particularly good at his job. The promised reforms never materialised. He attempted to grant himself powers above those of the office. That one doesn’t govern the way one has said one would govern is nothing new in politics – home or abroad. In a weathered democracy these things are understood.
The President’s failures in office were supposed to be the leverage for opposition leaders to oust him through the ballot box at the next election. How can the supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood ever put faith in the democratic system again? They may not have a strategic alliance with the most powerful military force the world has ever seen, but they have many to bury, much to lament, and many reasons to fight the military – at which point they will inevitably be cast as the latest villains in America’s War On Terror.
Neil Walsh has written for a number of newspapers and websites. He has a blog called Buttoned Coat Skies which can be viewed here.