Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thinking of Egypt

Recently I have read comments on other blogs shuddering at the possibility of a new danger. They fear that radical religious groups might take this opportunity and seize control of the Egyptian government. Personally I doubt that will happen, but if it did, it shouldn't surprise anybody.

It's a little too easy for Americans to say, "We are with you in your struggle." or "The world is watching." and all those shallow messages of support. All very well, but it really is a bit too easy. On the other side of the political spectrum, you have the opinion that can only wonder how all this could have happened to one of our allies and what will happen next and what on earth America can do about it. 

In our effort to maintain stability- mostly for the sake of American interests- the United States government has, for a long time, been quite willing to support this regime, financially and through the sale of weapons. This kind of no-strings support certainly allowed Mubarak to hold on to power for 30 years, allowed him to prepare his son to take over when he steps down and to surround himself with a shell of protection and a illusion of civil harmony. Like the Shah of Iran, he has lived in a dream world of his own making and, over time, found the people to carry all of the dirty business of maintaining order.

An Entire Nation Hostage

To pay to maintain this kind of imposition on its citizens, the Egyptian government relied on extreme measures. Through Wikileaks we can view the opinion of US State department officials on the ground and it makes a dismal reading indeed.

Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders…

NGo contacts estimate there are literally hundred of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone. Egyptians are bombarded with consistent news reports of police brutality, ranging from high profile incidents, such as accidental but lethal police shootings in Salamut and Aswan this past fall.. that sparked riots, to reports of police officers shooting civilians following disputes over traffic tickets. In November 2008 alone, there were  two incidents of off-duty police shooting and killing civilians over petty disputes. The cases against both officers are making their way through the judicial system.The Wikileaks cables on Egypt hold a lot of surprises but what is clear is the US government was well-aware of the situation, its seriousness and the possibility of collapse.

Obviously, holding an entire nation hostage is not inexpensive. According to a Christian Science Monitor article:

The US has provided Egypt with $1.3 billion a year in military aid since 1979, and an average of $815 million a year in economic assistance. All told, Egypt has received over $50 billion in US largesse since 1975.

The money is seen as bolstering Egypt's stability, support for US policies in the region, US access to the Suez Canal, and peace with Israel. But some critics question the aid's effectiveness in spurring economic and democratic development in the Arab world's most populous country - a higher US priority after Sept. 11, 2001.

This is supported by a Congressional Report named "U.S. Foreign Assistance to the Middle East":

Since 1979, Egypt has been the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, receiving an annual average of close to $2 billion in economic and military aid. In the past, Congress has earmarked aid to Egypt in annual foreign operations legislation with an accompanying statement calling on Egypt to undertake further economic reforms in addition to reforms taken in previous years.

In July 2007, as a part of a larger arms package to the region, the United States announced that it would provide Egypt with $13 billion in military aid over a ten-year period. Since Egypt has already been receiving approximately $1.3 billion a year in military assistance, the announcement represented no major change in U.S. assistance policy toward Egypt.

Meanwhile, corruption in a variety of forms was allowed to spread and society quickly developed two tiers, with the rich and well-connected living with its own set of laws, doing pretty much whatever it pleased and the rest of society under the mercy of their whims.

Fertile soil

While it is true that in the short term, this condition serves Western interests, the situation for the society as a whole is rather bleak. Corruption allows corporations to defy the law and, for this reason, the wrong people to stay in power, without oversight. This kind of corruption also creates wealth for what the Victorians called "scoundrels."

In other countries where this situation has been allowed to develop, under the tacit support of Western powers, religious groups begin to materialize. Whether this comes from the spread of radical doctrine from countries like Iran or other sources makes little difference. The climate of rejection of Western values creates a fertile soil for this kind of desperate solution. If a person has nothing and has no hope for betterment for himself and his children, why shouldn't he be more attach to a better world in the afterlife?

At some point, according to this model, religious groups, posing as charity for the poor, create a dependent and loyal class among the disenfranchised of that society. Private schools are set up for the poor children to indoctrinate them early with the radical ideals. The social needs of the poor are now met, not by the government, which has neglected its role, but by the religious order. The message, to those who have been neglected, a message reinforced by everything they see around them, is that this regime is a merely puppet of the West.

Extremes of Western liberalism, through their eyes, show them not a society with diversity and respect for the individual, but a decadent sex-mad society whose primary interest is profit and world domination. They do not see a society where the rule of law allows all members of society to be fairly represented, they instead see a nation where might makes right.

Ironically, When corruption in the US government is exposed, instead of illustrating how a system can be reformed by bringing misdeeds to light, for the average citizen of a proxy state, this exposure is merely evidence of the internal corruption and only supports their ideas that the US is a evil nation.

Where some degree of fair elections are possible, the radical fundamentalists are able to use these tools to rise into power. After all, the numbers of the disenfranchised far exceeds the numbers of the super wealthy power-holder in that society. In nations where fair elections are impossible, the revolution is the only means of reform.

A case in point. Last November Egypt held its Parliamentary elections. Given the record, human right groups and political analysts predicted that elections would be anything but free and fair, despite assurances from Egyptian President Mubarak.

"You'll see through these elections whether this is a government that is interested in reforms or is backsliding,' says Amr Hamzawy, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It came, therefore, as no surprise when the ruling party crushed the opposition in a contest marred by allegations of widespread voter intimidation and fraud. The Obama administration made the appropriate noises and objections about how the elections were conducted, citing "restrictions on basic freedoms" and "numerous reported irregularities." In fact, it was the last straw for a seething population. Mubarak and his cronies discarded their last chance for reform for the sake of holding onto power, just a little longer.

"Our men" in power

Let's take a step back. This power structure implemented by the West, a kind of neo-imperialism, has been in place long before Obama was sworn in. Previous presidential doctrine reflect the mood of the people in relation to world events . Following the Vietnam war, when the mood of the American people rejected any further direct involvement in the other nation's civil wars, whether in the name of fighting communism or not, Nixon drafted The Nixon Doctrine which stated that the the United State "shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense."

This doctrine buttressed the concept of proxy nations around the world. "Our men" in power, running the country. It seemed like a perfect solution. The Roman Empire ruled the known world under such a system. Everybody could be happy. American loss of life could be held to a minimum and at the same time, the military-industrial complex could prosper by arranging the sale of military hardware. The one problem that policy makers in the West overlooked was that the Roman Empire was an empire and by its nature, punished dissent and rewarded compliance. Hardly a good model for a nation that values human rights.

But this is how power- real power is applied in the real world, we were told. So, If these tanks- which were supposedly intended to protect the sovereignty of our partner nations- could serve the dual purpose of intimidating the citizen of the proxy state, how could America be blamed?

The Price to Pay

A quick montage of images: Carter and Iran, Reagan and Grenada, George Bush and the Iraq War. Clinton and Somalia and finally George Bush's doctrine of preemptive strike. And suddenly America found itself with two dubious doctrines. One, in which, in order to avoid any direct involvement, financial and military support is given to our partners, and the second doctrine in which America takes the right to invade any nation if there is a imminent threat.

Apart from the ethical implications of trying to align these two ideas into a workable long term policy, there is, as we have witnessed, a heavy economic burden when both policies are applied. By casting off those principles that made the nation great in the name of "our interests abroad," we are, quite literally, having to pay a price we cannot afford.

Obama chose Cairo to make his famous speech to the people of the Middle East, calling for a new dialogue and a new approach. I recall thinking at the time that the choice of this location was a stumble, a poor decision. After all, Egypt could hardly serve as a model of successful Western policy by any stretch of the imagination.

So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other. That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.

Fine words. If there were skeptics to these fine words, who could blame them? Even if we believe that those ideas were meant to be taken seriously, one only needed to look how Egypt, recipient of so much economic support, values those ideals.

Ignored Warnings

And on the other side of the world, there were similar skeptics. Taking those words and making policy, in the face of growing corporate influence over the United States government, seems, at times, a impossible challenge.

In any case, that message was ignored by the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and probably by many nations with similar regimes. And now they are paying the price at the hands of their own people. The question boils down to these essential questions:

Are the leaders of the remaining regimes listening now? Will they make the reforms that are necessary to reflect the needs of all their citizens or will they shrug and return to the ways of the past which, as we have in recent days, are doomed to failure?

And for the West, more difficult questions emerge:

For the sake of our corporate interests and political power, are we willing to continue to accept and support nations which do not care in the slightest for the civil and human rights of its citizens, who are unwilling to institute meaningful reform or allow fair and free elections?

And more fundamentally, would we be wish to live in a system based on this kind of subjugation? Although citizens of Western nations might presently enjoy the benefits derived from such a system, how long can it be before these conditions are imposed universally?



  1. crystalwolfakacaligrlJanuary 30, 2011 at 6:35 PM

    Great commentary! Lots of food for thought here. Thank you :)

  2. Just came over from Politicalgates and very glad I did. This is a GREAT article; it's really helped me to get an idea of the big picture. I hope it gets lots of attention. Bookmarking this blog.

  3. Thanks to you both for your support.


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