egypt: past, present, and future

Now there’s altogether too many *facepalm* moments in watching mainstream U.S. media and public U.S. government officials talking about Egypt, particularly in “hoping for peaceful” transitions, in describing Mubarak as a “stable ally, not a dictator,” “a good friend of my family” — or even cautiously praising the protests (because they are for democracy and we’re the good guys who know all about that) while in the same breath calling out recommendations for the successor. And, oh my gosh, anyone but the Muslim Brotherhood! And certainly it’s easy to point fingers at us and say how patronizing or ignorant these comments are. But there’s much more to it than that, really (and trust me, the Egyptians know all this already; I am talking to you, fellow citizens of the U.S.) — go past the fatuous public figure heads and media talking heads and look at what the U.S. and Western governments have actually done and how they have reacted to other regime changes in the region and it’s much more ominous than a sense of entitlement among Western observers to engage in what amounts to a betting pool on what would be a “good” successor or a “good” outcome (because for God’s sake, the Egyptian people are the ones to make that determination, not the peanut gallery watching from outside).

How many of you remember how upset the U.S. and Israel were over the perfectly democratic elections of Hamas in Palestine? So upset in fact that Gaza still suffers under the boycott and near total border closure that resulted. Or hey, how about the intense worry over democratic elections in Lebanon where Hezbolla could easily have won — they softpedaled somewhat to avoid Hamas’ fate. Democratic processes. Purple thumbs. All of that. But not necessarily the outcome desired — which is to say, “friendly” to the West. No, no — someone like Mubarak who stays safely in power with rigged elections is what Western governments really want: they want someone to represent their interests in the region. Not the interests of the people, which is the basic definition of a democracy. So we already have an inherent conflict in the basic goals of Western observers and insurgents.

Let’s take a more detailed look at the relationship between Egypt and the United States, particularly over the last 35 years since Egypt signed the peace treaty with Israel. Egypt: Lessons for US Foreign Policy

Since 1975, the US has sent more than $40 billion in direct military aid to Egypt, out of a grand total of $60 billion in military and economic aid. That aid keeps the totalitarian regime in power.

The US has done this for clear reasons. Egypt was the first Arab country to recognize and make peace with Israel. For that, Egypt is rewarded with aid. In addition, Egypt is a key military partner. US and Egyptian forces conduct joint exercises in the area every year. And Egypt is the site of the Suez Canal, a vital shipping lane that connects Europe and the Mediterranean to the Gulf, India, China, Japan, and more. Along with the Panama Canal, it’s one of the most vital and vulnerable sea passages in the world. The US, along with rest of the industrialized world, has a vested interest in keeping the Suez Canal open and under stable management. Egypt provides that.

And more… much more.

And so we come up to the current uprisings and examine what is being said versus what is being done, and we can see the same undercurrents again: No ‘Berlin Moment’ in Egypt

Reading anodyne language from the US and Europe warning the power elite in Egypt not to use too much force against demonstrators while not mentioning Mubarak at all, we must assume that ousting Mubarak is “viewed with favour” by the West. This should be signal. The US, UK and the rest of Europe are not so much steering events as surfing a wave of popular mobilisation, which they have encouraged for some time, as the only way finally to dislodge Mubarak and his crony core. The happy (naive) interpretation is a confluence of Western and Egyptian interests and values regarding democracy and good governance, coupled with disgust in old dictators clinging to kleptocratic power. But since when has US foreign policy encouraged democracy for the benefit of ordinary people? In fact, this Western imprimatur signals some hard realist western interests—and some ominous undercurrents.

Western motives in ousting Mubarak are obvious. The old man has outworn his usefulness to the US in being unable to contain burning social dissatisfaction in Egypt, raising risks that Egypt might escape the grip of US foreign policy through the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood. The US and Israel don’t want Egypt—in older days the leader of the Arab world and now a vital Israeli ally—going the way of Lebanon, where genuine democracy has allowed Hizbullah to control a parliamentary majority. It would be a disaster for Israeli if two of its borders fell into political hands less sanguine about starving the population of Gaza, ensuring the continuing division of Palestinian politics, training the security forces of the Palestinian Authority to repress Hamas, confining the ‘peace process’ to empty formulas, and demonising Iran.

[Emphasis mine.]

Over the last thirty years of supporting these particular despots, we have seen a huge population of young, educated, unemployed and disaffected people come into play: The Arab World’s Youth Army

In Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen — everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa where I went the subject came up — people complained of the corruption that crushes even their last hopes. Getting a job takes wasta — connections — to a country’s ruling party, tribal leader, or a powerful businessman.

In all those countries, frustrated job-seekers I’ve talked to say, it takes money, too.

“I would bribe, but I don’t know anyone high up enough to bribe,” Dhouibi said.

“I don’t have money, but if we just got the chance, I would get the money, to get him a job,” Dhouibi’s kerchiefed mother said, serving me fruit juice in her home of stucco-covered concrete blocks, with a weathered red geranium pushing out of the packed-dirt courtyard outside.

Corruption at the top — inevitably filters down. And the large number of younger people mean that there’s a huge surge to the workforce — hence a strong need for jobs — which have failed to materialize. Whether that is directly due to having a corrupt government and a U.S. backed dictator in place is debatable (inasmuch as we’re not doing so well on the job creation front ourselves) but it lends further fuel to a strong desire for change (that many in the West would label dangerous). This same generation, however, is also heir to the online culture. They have organized through facebook, through twitter: some as themselves, some anonymously: The Mysterious “Anonymous” Behind Egypt’s Revolt

The anonymous Facebook page administrator who goes by the handle El Shaheed, meaning martyr, has played a crucial role in organizing the demonstrations, the largest Egypt has seen since the 1970s, that now threaten the country’s authoritarian regime.

Yet even Egypt’s most active activists have no idea who the anonymous organizer is.

Esraa Abdel Fatah, who earned the nickname “Facebook Girl” when she organized a nation-wide strike through her page in 2008, said she and her activist colleagues were in constant communication with El Shaheed as they worked to coordinate the protest push, but still didn’t know his or her identity. “No one knows” who it is, she said.

“This is very important,” said veteran activist Basem Fathy, of the anonymity. “People find this credible.”

“El Shaheed is a dead man who everyone is rallying around,” said a U.S.-based activist in close contact with Egypt’s protesters. “But who’s doing this? There is no gender. There is no name. There is no leader. It is purely about the thought.”

And now we come to January 25th.

Mubarak fires his cabinet in response to the strong and widespread uprisings in his country (Tahrir Square means Liberty Square) and appoints a new VP. This man is Omar Suleiman. This appointment seems to have been a move praised by everyone except the protesters themselves — because we wouldn’t want the mess and the uncertainty of not knowing what the people of Egypt would do and whether or not they would work with us to further our interests. No, true revolutionaries look at ways in setting up their own country, for the benefit of at least the movers and shakers in their own revolution. Without interference, this sort of process can turn out pretty well for that country. It happened 235 years ago. It has happened other places. It should happen here as well. Whether it will or not only time will tell.

Back to Suleiman. One of the things that Egypt cooperated with us in the past was in the rendition to torture programs. Because, of course torture was, until relatively recently, technically illegal in the U.S. (though mental torture has never counted, but that’s another story, another hashtag another thread). And Suleiman’s role in all that? In The Torture Career of Egypt’s New Vice President: Omar Suleiman and the Rendition to Torture Program, it’s all laid out

Katherine Hawkins, an expert on the US’s rendition to torture program, in an email, has sent some critical texts where Suleiman pops up. Thus, Jane Mayer, in The Dark Side, pointed to Suleiman’s role in the rendition program:

Each rendition was authorized at the very top levels of
both governments….The long-serving chief of the Egyptian central
intelligence agency, Omar Suleiman,     negotiated directly with top Agency officials.  [Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt] Walker described the Egyptian counterpart, Suleiman, as “very bright, very realistic,” adding that he was cognizant that there was a downside to “some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way” (pp. 113).

Stephen Grey, in Ghost Plane, his investigative work on the rendition program also points to Suleiman as central in the rendition program:

To negotiate these assurances [that the Egyptians wouldn’t “torture” the prisoner delivered for torture] the CIA dealt principally in Egypt through Omar Suleiman, the chief of the Egyptian general intelligence service (EGIS) since 1993. It was he who arranged the meetings with the Egyptian interior ministry…. Suleiman, who understood English well, was an urbane and sophisticated man. Others told me that for years Suleiman was America’s chief interlocutor with
the Egyptian regime — the main channel to President Hosni Mubarak himself, even on matters far removed from intelligence and security.

Suleiman’s role in the rendition program was also highlighted in a Wikileaks cable:

the context of the close and sustained cooperation between the USG and GOE on counterterrorism, Post believes that the written GOE assurances regarding the return of three Egyptians detained at Guantanamo (reftel) represent the firm commitment of the GOE to adhere to the requested principles. These assurances were passed directly from Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS) Chief Soliman through liaison channels — the most effective communication path on this issue. General Soliman’s word is the GOE’s guarantee, and the GOE’s track record of cooperation on CT issues lends further support to this assessment. End summary.

Suleiman wasn’t just the go-to bureaucrat for when the Americans wanted to arrange a little torture. This “urbane and sophisticated man” apparently enjoyed a little rough stuff himself.

No wonder the Egyptians don’t want Suleiman either. The West thinks Suleiman sounds like a nice orderly transition either because — like the vast majority of the public — they don’t know about Suleiman or because — like key crucial government officials — they do know that he’ll represent the West’s interests. See also Mubarak’s new vice-president: the Habib connection‘; and Who Is Omar Suleiman?. Unfortunately, unless Fox News puts out an accurate piece on Suleiman, I’m not sure how many in the U.S. will become aware of this, any more than they are aware of the details of US/Egypt history. This is a two year old screen grab from Fox News:

Shows map of middle east in a Fox News broadcast, with Iraq mislabelled as Egypt...

…Yeah. Maybe they’ve found the country by now. So I wouldn’t hold my breath on seeing Fox issue credible or accurate broadcasts about the uprisings and thus a large number of Americans unfortunately will remain ignorant or misinformed of key issues regarding Egypt’s uprising.

Besides the images of “stability,” “orderly transfer,” and so on (most of which is code for “in the West’s interests”) there are other elements that are often used to sway popular opinion, particularly of muslim countries: the treatment of women. Egyptians know this — and are pushing back at this by highlighting the high rate of women participating in these uprisings: Women on the front lines in Egypt

Why is it important to draw attention to this phenomenon [of the high participation of women in the Egyptian uprisings]? Because we know it’s in the The West’s playbook to exploit concern for women’s rights to justify its imperial ambitions. That’s one of the many ways that the war in Afghanistan was sold to the public, from the CIA’s Wikileaked cable on manipulating public opinion in Europe to the propagandistic cover of Time magazine depicting a woman disfigured by the Taliban.

It’s a particularly cynical move I’ve seen over and over again, and the same folks that shed crocodile tears over the plight of the oppressed muslim women turn right around and redefine rape at home to score political points.

Back to Egypt: Lessons for US Foreign Policy (if you haven’t read the whole thing yet, you really should — it’s a fabulous article):

The reality is that if a new Egyptian government is hostile to the US, that will be in part a natural response to US behavior. For multiple decades, the United States has put dollars into the hands of a dictator who suffers no dissent. The tear gas Egyptian security forces are hurling into crowds was made in the United States. When Egyptian security forces open fire and kill protesters, there’s a case to be made that they’re doing so on American dollars.

The US has a long history of supporting convenient dictators. America did so with the Shah of Iran, who rewarded American patronage with sites for US military bases useful for force projection. America did so with Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, reversing the US stance on the coup that brought him to power and even on his country’s flagrant violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, because Pakistan was a potential ally help in tracking down Al Qaeda. And the US has done so with Hosni Mubarak, helping him suppress democracy in exchange for his support of Israel and of US military and foreign policy aims in the region.

These policies are extremely shortsighted. They belie a lack of faith in one of the founding principles of the United States: that governments are created by the people, for the people. Americans generally believe democracy to be the best form of government ever created, and yet in US foreign policy America often turns its back on freedom and democracy in order to achieve short term goals.

And so yes, because of us, because of our governments, because of our greed and ignorance, the Egyptian people will have every right to hold the U.S. government, and indeed the West, at arms length to stop the further exploitation of their people and their country. It is long past time for them to do so.

And you know, we didn’t learn from the past either. Thirty two years ago, the people of Iran toppled the U.S.-backed Shah. And in reaction to our having held a dictator in position over them, the revolutionaries installed an anti-U.S. government that continues to this day. We failed to learn the lesson 20 years before that when Castro and his followers threw out the — yes — U.S. backed despot Batista.

I hope we learn this time — I really do.

In the end, we’re probably still making this too much about ourselves. In Egypt Protests One Week In

Eltahawy says that despite what some Egyptians say about the United States’ responsibility, make no mistake: their revolution is all about Egypt.

I would also demolish this idea that this uprising in Egypt has anything to do with the US or Israel. This is Egypt focusing on Egypt. Yes, Mubarak has been one of the major allies of US administrations for decades now, and they knew very well that he was a dictator and ran a police state, but this revolution is about getting rid of his tyranny and his dictatorship of 30 years. It has nothing to do with the US and Israel. It has everything to do with Egypt saying this it the time for our freedom and dignity.

As for what is going to happen? I don’t know. No one does, really. But like the last article above, this also offers hope: Protest’s Old Guard Falls In Behind the Young.

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