Protesters stand in front of grafitti calling on the US government to stay out of Egypt’s affairs, 2 February. (Matthew Cassel)
The greatest danger to the Egyptian revolution and the prospects for a free and independent Egypt emanates not from the “baltagiyya” — the mercenaries and thugsÂ the regime sent to beat, stone, stab, shoot and kill protestors in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities last week — but from Washington.
Ever since the Egyptian uprising began on 25 January, the United States government and the Washington establishment that rationalizes its policies have been scared to death of “losing Egypt.” What they fear losing is a regime that has consistently ignored the rights and well-being of its people in order to plunder the country and enrich the few who control it, and that has done America’s bidding, especially supporting Israel in its oppression and wars against the Palestinians and other Arabs.
The Obama Administration quickly dissociated itself from its envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, after the latter candidly told the BBC on 5 February that he thought President Hosni Mubarak “must stay in office in order to steer” any transition to a post-Mubarak order (“US special envoy: ‘Mubarak must stay for now’,” 5 February 2011).
But one suspects that Wisner was inadvertently speaking in his master’s voice. US President Barack Obama and his national security establishment may be willing to give up Mubarak the person, but they are not willing to give up Mubarak’s regime. It is notable that the US has never supported the Egyptian protestors’ demand that Mubarak must go now. Nor has the United States suspended its $1.5 billion annual aid package to Egypt, much of which goes to the state security forces that are oppressing protestors and beating up and arresting journalists.
As The New York Times — always a reliable barometer of official thinking — reported, “The United States and leading European nations on Saturday threw their weight behind Egypt’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, backing his attempt to defuse a popular uprising without immediately removing President Hosni Mubarak from power.” Obama administration officials, the newspaper added, “said Mr. Suleiman had promised them an ‘orderly transition’ that would include constitutional reform and outreach to opposition groups” (“West Backs Gradual Egyptian Transition,” 5 February 2011).
Moreoever, the Times reported, the United States has already managed to persuade two of its major European clients — the United Kingdom and Germany — to back continuing the existing regime with only a change of figurehead.
Suleiman, long the powerful chief of Egypt’s intelligence services, has served — perhaps even more so than Mubarak — as the guarantor of Egypt’s regional role in maintaining the American- and Israeli-dominated order. As author Jane Mayer has documented, Suleiman played a key role in the US “rendition” program, working closely with the CIA which kidnapped “terror suspects” from around the world and delivered them into Suleiman’s hands for interrogation, and almost certainly torture (“Who is Omar Suleiman?,” The New Yorker, 29 January 2011).
High praise for Suleiman’s work has also come from top Israeli military brass. “I always believed in the abilities of the Egyptian Intelligence service [GIS],” Israeli General Amos Gilad told American, Palestinian Authority and Egyptian officials during a secret April 2007 meeting whose leaked minutes were recently released by Al Jazeera as part of the Palestine Papers. “It keeps order and security among 70 millions — 20 millions in one city [a reference to the population of Egypt, actually closer to 83 million, and to Cairo] — this is a great achievement, for which you deserve a medal. It is the best asset for the Middle East,” Gilad said.
The notion that anyone, let alone US officials, could believe that Suleiman would lead an “orderly transition” to democracy would be laughable if it were not so sinister. Much more likely, the strategy is to try to ride out the protests and wear out and split the opposition, consolidate the regime under Suleiman’s ruthless grip with the backing of the Egyptian army, and then enact cosmetic “reforms” to keep the Egyptian people politically divided and busy while business carries on as usual. Under any Suleiman “transition” political activists, journalists and anyone suspected of being part of the current uprising would be in grave danger.
From the American perspective, the strategy can be likened to what happened in the summer of 2008 when the house-of-cards international financial system started to collapse. Think of the Tunisian regime of deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as the investment bank Lehman Brothers. When a run on the bank began, the United States government refused to provide it with financial guarantees to bail it out, and it quickly went bankrupt.
But when the panic spread and even larger “too big to fail” financial firms including massive insurance company AIG began to see their positions suddenly deteriorate, the United States government stepped in to bail them out with hundreds of billions of dollars.
The Egyptian regime is the AIG of the region and what we are seeing now is an American attempt to bail it out. If Egypt goes under, the United States fears that the contagion would spread as Arab publics realize that the US-backed despots who rule them can be replaced, and that the toppling of these regimes whose only promise to their people has been “security” is not the end of the world but the start of renewal.
Of course, no analogy is exact. Whereas, allowing Lehman Brothers to collapse was a calculated decision, the United States did not see the revolution in Tunisia, or the uprising in Egypt coming. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton infamously declared on 25 January, the day the anti-regime protests broke out (“US urges restraint in Egypt, says government stable,” Reuters, 25 January 2011).
Clinton’s cluelessness is reminiscent of her predecessor Condoleezza Rice’s famous words (“didn’t see it coming”) in relation to Hamas’ victory in Palestinian legislative council elections in 2006.
According to The New York Times, Obama himself is unhappy with US intelligence failures in the Arab world (“Obama Faults Spy Agencies’ Performance in Gauging Mideast Unrest, Officials Say,” 4 February 2011). For close watchers of the United States, this obliviousness is no mystery.
As Helena Cobban has observed, the Israel Lobby, “AIPAC and its attack dogs,” have conducted such a thorough “witch-hunt” over the past quarter century “against anyone with real Middle East expertise that the US government now contains no-one at the higher (or even mid-career) levels of policymaking who has any in-depth understanding of the region or of the aspirations of its people” (“Obama’s know-nothings discuss Egypt,” 28 January 2011).
But it is even worse than that. The US “policy” establishment seems only capable of viewing the region through Israeli eyes. This is why for so many officials and commentators the concerns of Israel to maintain a brutal hegemony trump the aspirations of 83 million Egyptians to determine their own future free from the shackles of the regime that has oppressed them for so long.
And different futures are possible. On the minds of many observers is the “Turkish model” of constitutional democracy, economic resurgence and foreign policy independence, all under the rule of a “moderate” Islamist party. Turkey, once closely in the orbit of the United States, started to break out with its refusal to allow the US to use the country’s bases for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In recent years, Turkey has developed a deliberate “360 degree” foreign policy doctrine which includes maintaining relations with Europe and the United States, while restoring close ties with all its neighbors among them Iran and Arab countries, and assuming a greater regional mediating role. Since 2009, Turkey’s once close alliance with Israel has deteriorated sharply, even though ties have not been cut. These shifts, along with its ubiquitous consumer and cultural products have given Turkey enormous regional influence and appeal.
Turkey has its own specific history and is no more perfect than any other country. But the bigger point is that subservience to the United States and Israel is not Egypt’s only option. The worst case scenario from the American viewpoint is to have three major regional powers, Iran, Turkey and Egypt, that are not under Washington’s control.
Of course Turkey is carving out its own path and Egyptians are struggling to go their own way which may be very different. There’s no reason either to believe that Egypt would become “another Iran” as ceaseless Israeli propaganda suggests. But given a free choice, Egypt is not likely serve the “interests” of the United States and Israel the way the Mubarak regime has.
One example is that Egypt might dispense with US aid and still come out ahead by simply selling its natural gas on international markets rather than to Israel at what is reported to be a deep discount. Another is that a truly independent Egypt would eschew serving as Israel’s proxy in enforcing the criminal siege of Gaza and stoking intra-Palestinian divisions.
By coming to the streets in their millions, by sacrifing the lives of some of their very finest, the Egyptian people have said that they and they alone want to decide their nation’s future. Mubarak as a person is already irrelevant. The confrontation is now between the Egyptian people’s desire for democracy and self-determination on the one hand, and, on the other, US insistence (along with its clients in Egypt and the region) on continuing the old regime. Let us offer whatever solidarity we can from wherever we are to help the Egyptian people to win.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and is a contributor to The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict (Nation Books).