Egypt over the brink

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Everyone knew it was going to happen.  Why, then, were negotiations and diplomacy so secretive and so duplicitous?

According to conservative estimates, the latest death toll from street fighting in Egypt the past few days is over seven hundred dead with thousands more injured.  Many of the dead were murdered in cold blood.  Many of the injured were blocked by the police and military from receiving medical care.

The Twitter accounts of brutality and inhumanity are overwhelming.  Nonetheless, they tell only a portion of this horrific and still unfolding story.

Obviously crowd control and dispersal aren’t high on Egypt’s military’s to do list.  They didn’t try to disguise their actions.  In the aftermath of the onslaught and with new protests happening as I write, the government has upped its challenge.  It’s shoot to kill lest Egypt be overrun by “terrorists” and “traitors.”

Whatever Egypt’s progressives signed up for, the results are in.  With the recent appointment of governors and the massacres that led up to this latest series of assaults, the Mubarak era is back with a vengeance. If Egyptians thought it couldn’t be worse, it is.

On Martha’s Vineyard, President Obama took a few moments from his golf outings to display his disappointment with Egypt’s military. He even went so far as cancelling a previously scheduled American-Egyptian joint military exercise.  The Guardian has it right:  “Responding to the army’s brutal crackdown on protesters, Obama announced the cancellation of joint US military exercises with Egypt in a carefully calibrated rebuke that stopped short of a more significant suspension of aid.”

In political shorthand, Obama did something in order not to do anything.

Yet the President’s comment on the situation made his slap on the wrist look ominous in ways I hope he didn’t intend:  “We appreciate the complexity of the situation. We recognize that change takes time. There are going to be false starts and difficult days. We know that democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years, but sometimes in generations.”

Generations?  Charting change over generations is for historians to research and write about.  The political challenge is now.  Egypt is over the brink. 

Egypt cannot wait for a political situation to work itself out over generations.  What is necessary is a negotiated political compromise that moves Egypt from its self-imposed destructive path.  When President Obama dons his history professor’s hat, he throws in the political towel.  He greenlights more violence.   Is that what he and the American public want?

On his Latin American sojourn, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke out of both sides of his Egypt policy mouth.   It was the vintage Kerry – urging caution and asking all parties to step back for a moment and take a deep breath. Kerry then went onto other “caution” and “deep breath” issues. He tried to explain away NSA spying and, of course, Israel’s announcement(s) of massive new settlement housing at the start of peace negotiations.

If Kerry ever spoke the truth no one would believe him.  Would he believe himself?  Obama may have the same problem.  Dancing around the truth can become an addiction. 

Some Egyptian officials are exasperated even by America’s lukewarm condemnation and suggest that Egypt should ditch US aid and go it alone.  After all, various corrupt Middle East kingdoms are coughing up bundles of petrol dollars without human rights and democracy platitude strings attached.  They’re not talking about generations.  They want military repression right now and more of it.

Perhaps we ought to say, good riddance. Militarized Egypt should go it alone or, better, go with those who are on their page. 

Good riddance to Israel and the Palestinian Authority as well?  There is a season to negotiate, to fight, to surrender and a season to just say “no.”  How can we take Israeli and Palestinian political figures seriously when they sit at variously designed peace tables for decades knowing there isn’t anything being negotiated except the ever expanding dimensions of Israeli victory and Palestinian defeat?

Playing the political charade of generational change is one thing. When blood is flowing in the streets of Egypt and beyond, it’s time to speak and act on the truth.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and

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