By Stephen Gowans
Samuel P. Jacobs’ Valentine’s Day article in The Daily Beast has a catchy title: “Gene Sharp, the 83 year old who toppled Egypt.” Sharp is a scholar who has spent much of his life developing ideas on how to overthrow authoritarian governments using nonviolence.
While Jacobs’ title is eye-catching, it’s also nonsense. Attributing the toppling of Mubarak to Sharp is like attributing the toppling of the Tsar to Karl Marx. Sure, their ideas may have inspired some of the people who sought the downfall of tyrants, but the connection stops there.
A more realistic description of the nonviolence advocate is provided in the headline of a September 13, 2008 Wall Street Journal article: “Quiet Boston Scholar Inspires Rebels Around the World.” But even this goes too far. Sharp’s techniques of nonviolent direct action may inspire rebels to choose nonviolence, but not to rebel.
The confusion around Sharp is a confusion of means and ends. Sharp and the scholars who work to develop and disseminate his ideas are concerned with means: How to challenge and seize state power. True, the Boston scholar and many other nonviolence advocates appear to embrace liberal democracy as their ideal system, but their work isn’t about singing the praises of regular multi-party elections, the rule of law, and civil and political liberties. Instead, it’s about how to move challenges to the state off a playing field the state has an enormous advantage on: the use of violence.
True, too, the advocates of Sharp’s ideas—and Sharp himself–are often involved in imparting the scholar’s techniques to rebels who are working to bring down governments Washington opposes. And the same rebels often receive generous aid from the US government to facilitate the application of Sharp’s techniques. Still, his ideas are as accessible to Marxists and anarchists looking to overthrow capitalist governments as they are to US-backed street rebels.
Whether Sharp’s ideas played a decisive role in the Tahrir Square uprising, however, is an open question. These days it’s practically impossible for anyone who is seriously interested in challenging the state not to have at least a passing acquaintance with Sharp’s work. It’s just out there. If some people who were active in trying to organize the uprising were Sharp-literate, we shouldn’t be greatly surprised. But what role did they play in shaping the uprising’s actions?
Protestors did not hew strictly to the nonviolent line (they battled violently with police and Mubarak’s thugs when attacked) and the otherwise peaceful nature of the uprising may have had little to do with any conscious commitment to model tactics on Sharp’s advice and more with self-survival. After all, who’s going to storm parliament or the president’s office with the army deployed nearby?
What about the US government? Did it play any role in the uprising?
The short answer is yes. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s almost axiomatic that the United States tries to influence events on the ground in key countries. But that doesn’t mean that it pulled a trigger that set the Egyptian uprising in motion.
States try to influence the affairs of other countries in all sorts of ways: through trade policy; foreign aid; military aid; espionage; media; and so on. If they can gain leverage over an opposition movement, they’ll do that too – either to strengthen it, if they want to destabilize the country in question, or to guide it away from unpalatable alternatives, if the country is an ally. Of course, there is never any guarantee that their investment will pay off.
You can adopt a purist democratic position that says interference in the affairs of other countries is always undemocratic and therefore deplorable, but that’s a moral, not an empirical, position, which involves questions about what type of influence is illegitimate. (Is it illegitimate to use trade policy to influence another country? What about media? Russia Today, the Russian government’s medium for influencing foreign opinion abroad, is every bit as much part of Moscow’s apparatus for influencing affairs in other countries as its diplomatic policy is.) Rather than asking these questions we might be better served by asking which class’s interests are predominant in the efforts of the state to exert its influence overseas.
The United States exerts enormous influence over Egypt in multiple ways, not least of which is through the training, aid, and equipment it provides the Egyptian military. It’s likely that any government in Cairo which pursued measures inimical to the investment and export interests of US corporations and investors would soon be toppled in a coup d’etat engineered by its own US-influenced military. US efforts to influence events abroad typically have the economic interests of US investors, banks and corporations in mind, if not directly, then indirectly.
A favored government that has allowed its rule to become destabilized might also be toppled by its own military to prevent a radical movement from taking advantage of instability to come to power. This may be a fair description of what has happened in Egypt in the last few days. True, the passing of power from Mubarak to the military hasn’t been widely described as a military coup d’etat, but it fits the bill.
One other way in which the United States has tried to influence Egypt’s internal affairs is by providing funding to some sectors of the anti-Mubarak opposition (i.e., the secular, pro-capitalist, pro-foreign investment ones.) Indeed, the Obama administration has provided millions of dollars to pro-democracy groups in Egypt (while showering billions of dollars in military aid upon the Mubarak government, showing where its priorities lie.)
An answer to why Washington has funded the opposition to an autocrat it supported for three decades (and who in turn supported US trade and investment interests) can be found in US policy during the Cold War. It was CIA practice after World War II to covertly fund social democratic groups, parties, newspapers and journals, in order to draw people who were disgruntled with capitalism away from communism—which posed a serious threat to US corporate and banking interests–and to divert their energies into, or cement them in place within, a leftist movement pledged to work within the capitalist system. That’s not to say the US establishment had any particular fondness for social democracy. Quite the contrary is true. But social democracy was preferable to communism, and its role in weakening radical opposition was prized.
Indeed, the Kefaya, or Enough movement in Egypt, which appears to have emerged as a leading player in the anti-Mubarak opposition, embraces a program which is in no way uncongenial with the interests of US banks and corporations. It favors the kind of system Sharp, many nonviolence advocates, and, perhaps the majority of Egyptians, favor. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that if Mubarak’s stable rule was no longer tenable, that Washington would work toward having alternatives in place, one of them being Kafaya and what it appears to aspire to.
Where does that leave Gene Sharp? Well, he would truly be a man of exceptional talents were he able, in his dotage no less, to remotely mobilize a mass uprising to topple an autocrat on the other side of the globe. Equally superhuman must be the former Egyptian police officer who has pulled the strings of the uprising from his command center in a low-rent Virginia apartment using nothing but homemade YouTube videos, as another story goes. And what of Google executive Wael Ghonim? To hear The New York Times tell it, he’s the uprising’s Lenin. So who’s pulling the strings: Sharp, the ex-cop, or Ghonim?
To be sure, the practice of reducing complex social phenomena to the actions of a single individual is commonplace. Reagan brought down the Soviet Union, and Stalin singlehandedly built it and is responsible for all the bad things that ever happened in it. The extermination of six million Jews was authored by a single person, Adolph Hitler, and the Vietnam War is mostly due to Richard Nixon. Great man theories of history may have long been dismissed by scholars for sound reasons, but they continue to thrive in popular discourse in place of explanations based on anonymous social and economic forces.
Unquestionably, Sharp, the ex-cop, Ghonim, and the US government too, played a role in the Tahrir Square uprising, some remotely and indirectly, others more directly. But they alone weren’t the only ones who played a part. So too did Mubarak and his policies and the corruption of his son Gamal, as did Egypt’s military, the Muslim Brotherhood, food prices, the privatization of Egypt’s publically owned enterprises, bloggers, Israel, unemployment, Saudi Arabia, the police, millions of ordinary Egyptians, the media and a vast array of other events, people, relations and systems.
I have no fondness for Sharp. His politics skew far to the right of what I’m comfortable with, though he’s by no means what people in the United States would understand to be right-wing, or Republican. All the same, the depiction of him as a mastermind who mobilizes uprisings around the world is insupportable. He may inspire some rebels to embrace nonviolence, but he no more inspires rebellion than the manufacturers of Grecian Formula inspire the hair of it customers to turn grey.
It’s an old ploy to defuse an uprising that that could turn into a systemic challenge: Change the guy at the top and call it a revolution.
By Stephen Gowans
We shouldn’t diminish the significance of what the 18-day uprising in Tahrir Square accomplished, but at the same time we shouldn’t overstate its significance either. A US-backed autocrat was forced to step down. But Mubarak’s ouster, much as we would like to call it the beginning of a revolution, is far from that. A revolution, properly so called, goes beyond a mere change in political form and those who govern. It transforms institutions and transfers property from one class to another.
Perhaps a revolution will come to Egypt in time, but so far all that has happened is that power has been transferred from Mubarak to Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, a long-standing Mubarak loyalist who is a strident opponent of political change, has consistently resisted social reforms and is derided in Wikileaks cables as a “poodle” to Mubarak. (1) Mubarakism hasn’t ended. Mubarak loyalists and Egypt’s military and business establishment remain firmly in charge. (2)
Firmly in charge behind Egypt’s new military rulers is the United States. The Egyptian military is largely an extension of the Pentagon. The Pentagon provides much of its funding and equipment and trains its top officer corps. For the last 30 years, Washington has injected $35 billion in military aid into Egypt, allowed the country to build 1,000 US M1A1 Abrams tanks on its soil, trained Egypt’s officers at US defense colleges, and carried out major military operations from Egyptian bases. (3)
Will Mubarakism—the repressive rule of a US-backed autocrat–be replaced by a multi-party democracy, in which the engineering of consent, rather than the emergency law and secret police, keep the rabble in line? Perhaps. The White House and the State Department are “already discussing setting aside new funds to bolster the rise of secular political parties,” (4) seeking to hem in the outcome of whatever free elections follow.
The opening of political space that a liberal democracy affords is indeed preferable to the Mubarak dictatorship, but if that’s all that comes from the Tahrir Square uprising, the yardsticks will hardly have moved significantly forward.
1. Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, “Egypt’s military leaders face power sharing test”, The New York Times, February 11, 2011.
2. Thomas Walkom, “Cairo coup welcomed (sort of) by the West”, The Toronto Star, February 12, 2011.
3. Elisabeth Bumiller, “Calling for restraint, Pentagon faces test of influence with ally”, The New York Times, January 29, 2011.
4. David E. Sanger, “Obama presses Egypt’s military on democracy”, The New York Times, February 11, 2011.
By Stephen Gowans
It started off promisingly enough. Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Scott Shane wondered why “the drama unfolding in Cairo” seems “so familiar” if “the United States, as so many presidents have said in so many speeches [is] the world’s pre-eminent champion of democracy.”
Shane never arrived at the obvious explanation: that the United States isn’t the world’s pre-eminent champion of democracy. But he came close.
He touched on some of the more egregious examples of Washington’s dictator-backing: Batista in Cuba; Mahammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran; Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines (whose “adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process” then US vice president George H. W. Bush conjured out of a vacuum and then shamelessly praised.)
“The list could be extended,” Shane admitted, to “at least a couple of dozen despots” since World War II alone.
Rarely does the New York Times acknowledge that the United States has a long record of backing dictators, all right-wing and not a few fascist (though the Times brushed over the political character of the dictatorships the US favors.) On the contrary, the newspaper’s accustomed practice is to reinforce what “so many presidents have said in so many speeches”: that the country’s foreign policy is guided by the core US value of spreading democracy.
The reason may be that there is no way the United States can plausibly continue to back its three-decade-long paladin in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak – and the continuation of Mubarak’s regime by his heir apparent Omar Suleiman – and still invoke pro-democracy rhetoric to justify its support (though secretary of state Hilary Clinton, who talks of Suleiman overseeing a transition to democracy, is game to try.)
With US hypocrisy laid bare, the follow-the-flag New York Times has had to make a concession – to truth, at least a partial one.
What Shane concedes is that the United States has values and interests, and that circumstances often conspire to keep the two from intersecting. But that’s as far as he’ll go. Admitting that the United States has “interests” which don’t always align with its “values” comes dangerously close to the truth. But if you follow what Shane has acknowledged to its limit, and ask a key question, dangerously close becomes dangerously there.
Go where Shane fears to tread. US values and interests sometimes conflict. Okay, fine. But when they do – and here are the dots Shane fails to connect — US values take a back seat. In other words, what’s important in US foreign policy are not the country’s values, but its interests.
Okay, but what are its interests? R. Palme Dutt once observed that the idea that countries have interests in other countries was an abomination of geography and democracy. How could the United States have interests in Egypt? Do Egyptians have interests in the United States, to be enforced by shipping billions of dollars to a dictator to hold the interests of US citizens in check, subordinate to their own? If so Americans would surely call this imperialism, rather than failure of values and interests to align. If Egyptians said that they really valued democracy, but that other considerations were senior, Americans would say that Egypt’s commitment to democracy was rhetorical. It’s the other considerations that really matter.
According to Shane, Mubarak has served US interests as “a staunch ally against Soviet expansionism,” by maintaining “a critical peace with Israel,” as “a bulwark against Islamic radicalism” and in promoting “a trade- and tourist-friendly Egypt.” Shane’s New York Times colleague Mark Landler sums it up this way: Mubarak’s regime protects US strategic and commercial interests.
Commercial interests are, of course, business interests, and more specifically, big business interests. They aren’t directly the interests of the bulk of US citizens, nor in many cases do they represent their indirect interests either. An investment by US investors in an existing Egyptian business profits the investors, not other US citizens. A call center set up by a US firm in Egypt to take advantage of low-wage labor benefits the US firm’s wealthy shareholders – many of whom are not even US citizens — while putting downward pressure on US wages and exporting jobs abroad.
In other words, the business interests that Mubarak and other US-backed autocrats protect on behalf of the United States are not the interests of most US citizens, but of an upper stratum of investors, bankers and wealthy shareholders whose sole loyalty is to their bottom lines. The interests of average Americans hardly matter. Indeed, in many cases, their interests are diametrically opposed to those of the investors and shareholders US foreign policy represents (as in the export of jobs).
And who’s footing the bill for the billions of dollars in military aid Mubarak’s regime receives? Given the low corporate tax policies the US government pursues, and the corporations’ skill at minimizing the taxes they pay, the answer is average Americans, not the direct beneficiaries of US foreign policy.
It’s worse. While it might seem that big business interests aren’t the only interests guiding US foreign policy – after all, there are strategic interests too — strategic interests really boil down to the interests of big business. US foreign policy makers weren’t opposed to what they called “Soviet expansionism” because they valued “democracy” but because they valued nearly limitless exploitation of labor, which expanding Soviet influence would have pared back. The problem with Islamic radicalism isn’t that it offends Western values (even if it does), but that it inspires regimes that place national interests above those of US oil companies. Arab peace with Israel is desirable because Israel is beholden to Washington to act on its behalf to prevent an Arab pan-nationalism that might see oil-rich countries balk at domination by US oil interests.
So what of US values? We’re supposed to believe that US policy-makers value liberal democracy, even if they’re willing to place profit-making interests first. But if big business interests win out over liberal democracy when the two collide, what Washington really values – if value is to have any meaning at all – is profit.
It’s like this: I say I value literature, but I always toss my books aside whenever someone turns on the TV. And I never miss an episode of Cribs. So, where do my values really lie?
The significance of this might seem all the greater if it is realized that none of this is bounded by foreign policy. Embracing liberal democracy where it doesn’t conflict with the naked pursuit of profit applies equally in the domestic sphere as well. The readiness of US policy-makers to trash civil liberties in the Red Scare years following the Bolshevik Revolution — when capitalists cowered at the thought of socialist revolution spreading around the world (with little justification it turned out) — attests to this. Civil and political liberties also took a beating later on when fears of spreading Soviet influence also seemed to threaten the capitalist system and the wealth and position of those at the top of it.
As for the democracy Washington is prepared to embrace, it looks good on paper, but comes up short in practice. Washington-friendly democracy is not democracy in its original sense as the rule of a previously oppressed class (the rabble), but democracy of the currently dominant class, the capitalist rich. True, democracy of the kind cabinet secretaries and editorial writers rhapsodize about appears to provide equal opportunity to all to influence the political process, but the reality is that the wealthy use their money to dominate the process through lobbying, funding of political parties and candidates, ownership of the media and placement of their representatives in key positions in the state.
How many cabinet secretaries in Obama’s administration held top corporate jobs and will return to them when their sojourn in Washington ends, replaced by other corporate luminaries who travel in the same circles, sit on the same boards of directors, and whose children go to the same schools and intermarry? The art of politics in capitalist democracy, to paraphrase a key Labour politician of the past, is to enable the wealthy to persuade the rest of us to use our votes to keep the wealthy in power.
Democracy, then, is not a core US value – and it is not, on two counts. First, the democracy Washington embraces isn’t democracy in any substantial sense, but is more aptly termed a plutocracy with democratic trappings. Second, the real core US value is profits. Even Washington’s preferred democracy of the rich gets pushed aside when, for whatever reasons, big business interests cannot be accommodated adequately — that is, whenever real expressions of democracy threaten to break through the restraints the system provides to hold it in check.