The Obama administration has veered all over the map when it comes to the Egyptian uprising, beginning with Vice President Joe Biden declaring his fulsome support for his dear friend Hosni Mubarak, and refusing to characterize him as a dictator. That Obama’s crew were asleep at the wheel – delegating their response to a figure whom no one in Washington takes very seriously – was painfully apparent as the Cairo revolt showed every sign of becoming a full-scale nationwide revolution.
They are being chastised, however gently, for this, but the reality is that their blinkered vision comes with the territory. The Obama-ites, after all, are the inheritors of a global empire, the structure of which was determined long before any of them were born. The idea that they could separate themselves from this context, and see the world objectively, is a hopeful delusion many liberal critics of interventionism continue to entertain. The administration’s awkward stumbling in the face of the Egyptian protests should permanently disabuse them of this notion.
Mubarak supporter Chris Matthews complained about our “experts” working in the State Department who are supposed to have been able to see all this coming, and demanded to know “What are they doing over there?” But these platoons of analysts couldn’t have seen the revolution coming down the road, because it passed them in the night, shrouded in the fog of Washington’s astigmatism. They couldn’t have seen or heard it, because they were too busy rationalizing and profiting off their own role as the enablers and patrons of Mubarak’s dictatorship.
From disdain to delaying tactics: that has been the course of the US government’s response to the challenge of the Egyptian masses. We are a long way from Biden’s endorsement of Mubarak, but if we peel away the rhetorical flourishes about “democracy” and “the will of the Egyptian people,” the underlying reality is that we have merely transferred our loyalty to former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman – the key link in the chain of repression that has kept Egypt a police state for 30 years.
Although we may never know whether the order to crack down was actually given to the army, or whether Mubarak knew better than to issue it, the failure of the separate security forces to drive the protesters out of Tahrir Square – and other sites of unrest all around the country – forced Mubarak loyalists to resort to subtler means of maintaining control. The “negotiations” now being held with some elements of the opposition are the latest tactic in the regime’s battle to hang on to power, but these are no more likely to arrive at a settlement than the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations which are supposed to end in the creation of a secular and democratic Palestinian state. The goal is for nothing to happen at all.
When you look at the opposition’s response to this strategy, it’s interesting to note how the divisions are playing themselves out. The Muslim Brotherhood and some secular parties are agreeing to participate, while Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency, is standing with the youth and secular nationalists who want Mubarak out as a precondition for talks. So much for the alleged radicalism of the Brotherhood: the bogeyman held up by the Israelis, the neocons, and Glenn Beck’s fan club as the central hub of the “axis of evil” turns out to be one of the more moderate factions in the movement.
The fear-mongering around the Brotherhood depends on ignorance of the history of the group’s on-again, off-again collaboration with the regime, extending over many years. During the cold war the regime found the Brotherhood to be a convenient counterweight to secular democratic, socialist, and Nasserite opponents. In more recent years there has been a crackdown, punctuated by periods of relatively peaceful coexistence: as in Lebanon, under the auspices of Hezbollah, the Brotherhood has built an extensive network of social, economic, and charitable institutions that carry out many of the functions of a state-within-a-state. This could not have happened unless the regime allowed it. While they were prevented from fully participating in the last parliamentary elections, widely described as brazenly fraudulent, the elections prior to that gave Brotherhood candidates (running as “independents”) 88 seats in an Assembly with 454 members.
The point is that the Brotherhood has a stake in maintaining some semblance of the status quo. The secular opposition, including ElBaradei and the youth, are much less invested in the established order. While the Brotherhood raises the superficially scary prospect of Egypt as an Islamic state organized along the lines of Iran, this is an ideological construct rather than one rooted in reality, i.e., it is belied by the actions of the Brotherhood’s leadership in the present crisis. Let Glenn Beck hyperventilate all he wants about the coming of the Islamic “Caliphate,” which the Brotherhood upholds in theory: in practice, however – like virtually all political movements – they are willing to indefinitely postpone the achievement of their ostensible goals in order to get in on the political action. Indeed, their pragmatism and moderation has aroused the ire of the real radicals, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s chief theoretician, who has written a book-length polemic against the Brotherhood’s sellout of the movement. Their entry into an alliance with a Suleiman-led “transitional” government would just be another chapter in that book.
Indeed, it is not hard to see the Brotherhood going along with an Egypt still largely dominated, politically, by a government staunchly placing itself in the American camp, in much the same way as the Palestinian Authority – the heirs of Yasser Arafat’s PLO/Fatah – has become a satrap of the United States. It was little noticed, amid all the drama, that the “official” Palestinian leadership immediately backed Mubarak against the protesters.
While we’re getting contradictory stories about the outcome of the government’s negotiations with some of the opposition – they agreed, they disagreed, they split over some issues – the statement issued by the authorities underscores the paucity of the alleged “concessions” made.
For example, the negotiators purportedly agreed that articles 76 and 77 of the Egyptian constitution will be “reformed,” but these two provisions – lifting term limits on the presidency and setting the conditions by which parties are qualified for the election ballot – were going to be reformed anyway, according to the government. Indeed, they have been promising to do so for years. There is another alleged point of agreement over allowing freedom of the media, but insofar as the newspapers are concerned, there is already freedom of the press: for years, it has been possible to read scathing critiques of Mubarak and his cronies in the Egyptian mass media, as long as one didn’t discuss what one read in the cafes where one could be overheard by the all-pervasive secret police. Then, one risked imprisonment or worse.
The supporters of the regime – and, standing behind them, the US government – are waiting out the protesters, hoping they’ll get bored, frustrated, and be forced to return to “normalcy” – which, in Egypt, means a return to repression. The regimists hope to create the illusion of change without implementing any fundamental reform, keeping the apparatus of the state – the political police, the state-controlled economy, and the office of the President – intact and under the control of the usual suspects. In short, they hope to pull off in Cairo what the Obama-ites pulled off in Washington, D.C. – phony “change” in the service of Power.
It won’t work. The factors that led to the Egyptian explosion are not going to go away any time soon. These are, first of all, largely economic: the worldwide inflation sparked by the US Federal Reserve has affected food prices and sent the cost of living shooting skyward. If you’re an ordinary Egyptian, or a Tunisian, subsisting on little more than $2 a day, this is not a negotiable issue. The beneficiaries of what growth the Egyptian economy has managed to achieve have been the politically-connected elite, with the great majority of people left out of the party: in Egypt, a rising tide has not lifted all boats, but only those tethered to the regime.
This was the symbolic meaning of the event that sparked what has become a regional upsurge: the martyrdom of Mohamed Bouazizi, the vegetable-and-fruit vendor who immolated himself in protest when the Tunisian authorities prevented him from getting a license to sell his wares in the marketplace. His death created a protest movement that soon swept the country – and spread to neighboring Egypt, where similar conditions prevail.
The Egyptian revolution could never have taken off without the active participation of the rising middle classes – or those aspiring to middle class status – who are losing ground economically and have been cut out of the system politically for the whole of Mubarak’s reign. The children of that middle class are the young tech-savvy activists who started the movement to begin with, and they are the most radical – and the most secularized – wing of the anti-regime coalition.
This is the element to which the future belongs, and it is these people who are being turned into determined opponents of the United States by the actions of our government. The unbending stupidity of that policy was underscored by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when – amidst a veritable tsunami of rhetoric ostensibly upholding the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people – she reiterated the longstanding US position:
“Do we do business with, do we have relations with, do we support governments over the past 50 years that we do not always see eye-to-eye with? Of course. That’s the world in which we live.”
“The world in which we live” is the world as we made it, and are making it. It is, in short, the world in which Hillary Clinton and her fellows in the West would like to live, and much prefer over one in which the bothersome antics of the Egyptian people get in the way of our “national security” goals, and those of our allies. This is why the Egyptian people, and peoples all over the world, have come to hate us, and blame us for their daily humiliation. And it is a hatred well earned.
We care so much about Egypt because the Mubarak regime has been a key link in the infrastructure of our Middle Eastern sphere of influence: the linchpin of the arrangements that keep the Israeli Sparta secure, and a major player in the Sunni-US alliance against the rise of Shi’ite power in Iran. As the WikiLeaks cables show, Mubarak has been one of the loudest advocates, among our Arab vassals, of a US strike against the mullahs. The loss of Egypt will mean an indefinite delay in the campaign to effect “regime change” in Tehran. This is a major setback for the War Party, and the cause of the Americans’ stubborn resistance to the protesters key demands.
The protesters and the regime seem to have reached an impasse, where neither side is willing to give and the latter are waiting for the former to lose steam and give up the fight. Whatever happens in the short term, this merely postpones the ultimate decision as to which road Egypt will take. Even if the pro-democracy movement is temporarily stalled, it wouldn’t take much to stir things up again: the whole region is a tinderbox just waiting to go off, due as much to economic as well as political conditions prevalent across the Middle East and much of Central Asia. Southern Europe, by the way, isn’t much better off economically: this is just the beginning of the insurrections that are bound to germinate as the international economy continues to shrink and the consequences of worldwide inflation takes hold.
What will come out of that global turmoil is anybody’s guess, but one factor the Obama administration ignores at its peril: the soft underbelly of the empire they seek to defend is the very thing that made and makes the rule of their Egyptian counterparts so uncertain – the worldwide economic contraction that is squeezing people’s hopes to the breaking point. Europe has already seen massive protests, as in what happened in Greece, and it’s not impossible that the wave of discontent could leap the Atlantic and set a prairie fire burning on our very own shores.
The Obama administration pretends to sympathize with the Egyptian people and the protesters in the streets, but in reality they are appalled – and frightened. The sight of masses of people upending a government friendly to the US has them shaking in their boots. What scares them the most is that they never saw it coming – just as they won’t see it approaching if and when it happens closer to home. They think the repressive apparatus of the State is invincible, and imagine their fortress of power to be impregnable – but so did Mubarak.