The flurry of media, activist, and policy-maker attention about the use of the word ‘coup’ with regards to the groundbreaking events in Egypt over the past few days is, in part, linked to how its legal definition affects Egypt’s relationships with other countries. If the United States determines that the Armed Forces’ removal of former president Mohamed Morsi is a military coup, it would be required to suspend its aid to Egypt.
After reading about it, agonizing over it, and arguing about it, I finally came to this conclusion: I don’t care whether we call it a coup or not. I care about the relationship between Egypt and the United States, but not its aid relationship. If the United States halts financial aid to Egypt, it would help Egypt become less of a client state and push the country to truly capitalize on its assets: its fertile soil; its world-renowned cotton; its rich, ancient, and diverse history; its tourism industry; its art, writing, music, and culture; its potential for solar energy and alternative energy export; and most of all, its population of enterprising youth.
As an Egyptian-American, I want Egypt and the United States to have a relationship of mutual friendship. I want the United States not to give aid so that it can use Egypt as a means for its regional interests, but to share with Egypt its years of experience with democracy, the peaceful transfer of political power, the building of credible state institutions, the building of a more relevant education system; and the ability for its diverse ethnic, cultural, racial and religious populations to live in (relative) peace with one another.
I want Egypt to share with the United States its lively engagement in civil society; its fierce love of family, community, and faith; the enduring wisdom of its ancient civilization; its perspective on human dignity; its resilience in the face of adversity; and its enduring sense of humor.
I want Egypt and the United States to learn together as we both struggle through gender inequality, classism and racism; with the widening gaps between the rich and the poor, the rise of corporatism, the credibility of the press and journalism institutions … the list goes on. I want the United States and Egypt to be trade partners, to share ideas and resources, to learn from one another and with one another.
I believe that most Egyptian people want the same things I have mentioned above. I believe that although the people of Egypt in these past days have expressed a great anger towards the effect of American policy on their internal politics, they truly desire a mutual friendship with the American people, and want to be treated with dignity, not to be used as pawns in a real or imagined regional game of chess. This is why so many Egyptians take issue with the word “coup” as much of the media is portraying it – what they are really taking issue with is the way the world is being told their story. They have been fighting to be considered human beings vis-à-vis their own government; and when they gather together in some of the largest peaceful demonstrations the world has seen to topple two dictators in two years, they want to be treated with respect. Part of that respect is to be able to tell their own story, on their own terms.
The Egyptians that filled the streets on June 30th, 2013, went out to oust a dictator that some of them did indeed elect, in what looks from the outside as a democratic way. But as Wael Eskandar has wisely stated on his Twitter feed, “The question isn’t whether the next leader is democratically elected, it’s whether whoever is elected acts to establish a real democracy” (@weskandar). While analysts in the United States advised Egyptians to “wait for the next election,” Egyptians knew they did not have this luxury because their previously elected president did not act to establish a real democracy, and raised the very real possibility that not only would they not see a peaceful transfer of power three years from now, but that even more and more of their personal freedoms would be stolen while they waited.
There are many ways in which a nascent democracy like Egypt’s can learn from an established democracy like the United States, but there are also ways in which a nascent democracy in an ancient society might revive the way an established democracy in a newer nation practices freedom. The practice and process of democracy is not a textbook case – it about how the people find spaces of participation and feel a sense of ownership and belonging in the process itself. A mutual friendship between the United States and Egypt would help us learn these things from each other.
I know there is another side to this story, and a large group of constituents in Egypt who consider what happened a military coup and a defeat of the political program they worked hard to achieve. These Egyptians should be restored into the fabric of Egypt’s transition and should find a new, peaceful, and constructive way to engage in its path to democracy and freedom.
I want all these things because I spent my whole life in the United States of America and love this country. I’ve been schooled through its public education system. I’ve learned from my relationships with diverse communities. I’ve benefited from every opportunity to express myself freely, practice my religion freely, and see others around me do the same.
I want all these things because I was born in Egypt, my family raised me to love my roots and keep my language, my extended family lives in different parts of Egypt, and as an adult, doing community development work in Egypt connected me even more strongly to its land and its people.
And so it is in my personal interest that the United States reconsider its relationship with Egypt as Egypt goes through this critical phase in its transition. Egyptians want to build a democracy on their own terms, not on the basis of another country’s regional interests. In the end, a strong, peaceful, inclusive, democratic Egypt is in everyone’s best interests.
Phoebe Farag Mikhail is a writer, educator, development worker and activist. She worked in community development in Egypt for several years and continues to advocate for a better Egypt for all Egyptians. She blogs at listenlearnactandreflect.blogspot.com.