US policy on the Egyptian uprising
SOURCE: Crescent Online
By Zainab Cheema
While it is the season for revolution, the Egyptian uprising is yet unfinished. The incandescent events that had arrested the world’s attention for a heady 18 days have, by now, moved into the twilight of negotiation between the Egyptian military, Egyptian civil society networks, and the anxious United States hovering over its unruly breakaway colony. In their public policy positions towards Egypt, the US suggests a flabbergasted mother goose whose golden egg has hatched feet to walk away with.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the Egyptian uprising is the US reaction to this “perfect storm”, as Hilary Clinton called it in the initial days of shock. As events unfolded rapidly in the first week, demonstrations swelling into a mass revolt against Hosni Mubarak, diplomats and politicians sitting stateside simply had no idea how to properly respond. Some took Ambassador Marc Ginsberg’s line, who thundered in a HuffPost op-ed along the lines of “Who Lost China?” Taking stock of the American nightmare, he queried who would assume power in a post-Mubarak Egypt. “In each case, check either ‘a relative unknown’ or ‘our worst nightmare.’” Translation: either some of the wildcard street-leaders who haven’t been groomed in the US stable, or the Muslim Brotherhood.
The latter practically amounts to the Doomsday scenario for US policymakers, even as some analysts characterized the Brotherhood as ineffective, “bumbling”, “moderate,” and far less popular than everyone thinks. This conclusion requires no superhuman feat of logic, considering Egypt’s geo-strategic significance at the doorways to the Arabian Peninsula and Africa; the country’s shared borders with Israel; and the fact that the Suez Canal remains the major artery of energy transportation from the Middle East to Europe and the United States. Thus the frantic imagery of the bearded brothers leveraging themselves into power, notwithstanding the latter’s timid assertions that all it wants is to run in elections like a normal party. (With nary a tart rejoinder about how the evangelical movement in the US has vaulted itself into mainstream politics through the Republican Party).
Thus for now, US power has decided to stick with the student leaders and secularists, championing the revolution with a determined gusto spread on thick. Cue here Nicholas Kristof’s “we are all Egyptians” sloganeering, or the rest of the hoity-toity op-ed club of The New York Times transforming themselves into cheerleaders for people power. And seeing is believing, otherwise no one would have guessed that Tom Friedman, who crows about lunching with business tycoons and Israeli generals on a regular basis, would be cheering on the fall of pet dinosaur Mubarak from Tahrir Square. (But to give the old dyed-in-wool imperialist his due, he was probably doing so from his hotel room in between Swedish massages and double martinis).
Cue the replay button here. After the first panic stricken week, the US gauged that the revolution was a popular uprising rather than an ideology-driven enterprise. Liberal newspapers variously labeled it as a “bread and butter riot” or “pro-democracy uprising,” pining it to soothing reflections of how Middle Eastern people simply “want to be like us”, and “to have what we have.” The comforting tonic of narcissism ignored on the one hand, the steady erasure of domestic civil liberties in the US, and on the other, the complex psychic landscape of the Arab world that was set aflame by Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation.
It was grave old Newton who once noted that every action has its counterpart in an opposing reaction. We can look for the chemistry of Egypt’s mass uprising in the psychological damages inflicted by the War on Terror, war on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2008–2009 masscare of Gaza. Arab attitudes towards their US imposed dictators can be described as a pendulum of scorn and fear — WikiLeaks revelations about US disdain for their Middle Eastern proxies tilted the pendulum towards scorn. Then there’s the Wall Street engineered global economic collapse, felt far more desperately on the Arab street thanks to neo-liberal policies that have transformed third world economies into one massive security net for the US financial sector. Bouazizi lit the match, and the explosions are still thundering.
It would have been infinitely more convenient to ignore it, to smother the Middle Eastern conflagrations and let the odd picture and human-interest story trickle out through Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch, crowned with a humanitarian concert led by Bono ten years later, a la Bosnia or Bangladesh. But with the round-the-clock coverage by al-Jazeera and Press TV, which globally transmitted a human face to the cries for change, this simply wasn’t an option.
CNN and NBC compensated themselves for their embarrassment at jumping on board stories broken by media outlets long held in disdain by broadcasting theatrics like Anderson Cooper getting mugged by Mubarak’s goons. After all, the average US viewer, acclimated to viewing Arabs and Muslims as the bogeyman since 9/11, could hardly be expected to sympathize with Arabs in a far off land. And of course CNN’s “Silver Fox” getting scratched is a far more serious affair than young Egyptians losing their lives to tear gas, Molotov cocktails, and bullets.
The conservatives are at least honest about the situation. As Jerusalem Post editor Caroline Glick wrote in her op-ed piece, “None of the scenarios under discussion are positive.” But after all, one must buck up and make the best of it, as the British used to say. The rheumatism of an aging empire and the time-pressures imposed by al-Jazeera and Press TV news coverage laid out the most pragmatic course of action. As David Africa writes in an al-Jazeera op-ed, “this means that Pontius Pilate washes his hands off the ancient regime and gets to work to shape a South Africa scenario.” That is, publicly champion a popular revolution and work behind the scenes to transfer power in the hands of the multinational lords who will keep the country in the US orbit. For even as a select class of South African blacks gain access to the presidential seat, the majority of the country’s black population has merely exchanged the bantustans for shantytowns and AIDS camps.
As Africa writes, “the Egyptian movement for change remains alert and continues to assert its political independence, this embrace will squeeze the life out of the revolution and turn it into a polished version of the recently departed Mubarak regime — a new democratic order that, again, prioritizes the interest of Washington, London, Berlin and Tel Aviv over that of the Egyptian people.”
Democracy merely refers to an electoral process. It doesn’t have any inherent content. And hence, when Egyptians and US politicians talk about democracy, they are really talking about different things. For Egyptians, it means political freedom and using the country’s resources for the public good. However, the democracy championed by US policy makers is like a missile carrier. The unnamed warhead in the case of US politicians is neoliberlism: the rule of corporations inhabiting countries and shaping political outcomes to best allow transfer of wealth from the global have-nots to the haves. From the US perspective, democracy means that the Egyptians must choose what we want them to choose. They must be forced to be “free” to give us no holds barred access to their natural wealth and geopolitical advantages. Democracy is death by economic asphyxiation.
Supporting foreign militaries on steroids is a relic of the past, a vestige of Cold War tactics to transform third world allies into potential bases against Soviet encroachment. The tools of the trade have now changed. The move to champion “democracy” thus came early in the cycle of the Egyptian revolution. From Davos 2011, where business elites and politicians paid entrance fees running to half a million dollars, Senator John Kerry broadcast his position via an al-Jazeera interview and New York Times op-ed. While he generously dubbed Mubarak “a great nationalist,” Kerry admitted the possibility of cutting loose the trusty but creaky dictator and holding free elections. “For three decades, the United States pursued a Mubarak policy,” he said. “Now we must look beyond the Mubarak era and devise an Egyptian policy.”
But “free” is always a relative term, especially when it comes to the US empire’s prime spots of real estate. Richard Haass, a senior neo-conservative and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, outlined the current US policy to determining Egypt’s political future. “The objective must be to slow the political clock,” he writes in an al-Jazeera op-ed where Egypt moves “at a measured pace” towards a government that Israel and the US can tolerate. The purpose for this slowing down of the political clock is to give the US sufficient time to identify new collaborators and marginalize undesirable groups from the electoral process. “Early elections should be avoided, lest those (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) who have been able to organise over the years enjoy an unfair advantage,” writes Haass. It requires an impressive degree of willful historical amnesia to term a group subjected to 60 plus years of state repression as enjoying “an unfair advantage.”
Slowing the political clock extends the seconds of empire. Time is after all not the friend of the revolutionaries. Time distances them from political freedom by complicating the field of agency, opening up inroads for US political interests to regain the tactical ground gained by the protesters in the speed and intensity of the revolt. (After all, losing the element of surprise is one of the reasons why Algeria’s popular revolts have not been able to achieve the critical mass that Egypt’s and Tunisia’s did). Time positions the people to react to empire, rather than forcing empire to react to the people. Requesting time is a tradeoff on Egypt’s most precious resource — its future. Empire should never be given time to see, to think, to plan, when the winds of change are against it.
Obama’s pleas in the early days of the revolution, for Egyptian protesters to demonstrate “peacefully” was a similar request to slow the political clock in the face of electric images of the Egyptians setting fire to NDP buildings and rocking police vans. “[T]hose protesting in the streets have a responsibility to express themselves peacefully,” he declared, “violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms that they seek.” The American Revolution certainly
didn’t involve “peaceful” demonstrations in face of British tyranny. George Washington would have taken a blunderbuss to anyone who suggested this as a viable tactic. If his aim proved faulty, the other American colonists would have dumped him in Boston Harbor with the cargoes of tea.
How does one derail a revolution? The answer: very patiently. But sometimes it takes the flicker of a match to expose the most ironclad imperial geographies as gossamer webs. The only consolation US policy makers ought to have is laying claim to who saw this coming first. A poor consolation indeed.
Ikhwan must take lead if Egyptians are to enjoy the fruits of their victory over Mubarak