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Egypt’s Illegitimate President

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By Stephen Gowans

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former head of the military that overthrew Egypt’s legitimately elected president Mohammed Morsi in a 2013 coup d’état, is almost certain to win a landslide victory in today’s presidential election. Sisi’s victory, however, won’t be due to a groundswell of popular support. In fact, a Pew Research poll conducted in April found that only a narrow majority of Egyptians support him. [1] Instead, Sisi will win because he has banned the main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which the legitimate president, Morsi, sprang. Just as importantly, Morsi supporters are boycotting the vote, reasoning that they already have a legitimate president, even if he has been illegally locked away in the regime’s prisons. [2] So, with the only substantial opposition viciously suppressed, and Morsi supporters staying away from the polls, a Sisi landslide victory is a virtual certainty. But it will confer no legitimacy on the Egyptian strongman.

Under Sisi’s leadership, the military government has massacred thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets in protest against the coup. It has also jailed tens of thousands of other Morsi supporters, banned demonstrations, and discouraged dissent by locking up journalists who oppose the military take-over.

If you’ve forgotten how closely Sisi cleaves to the model of the brutal authoritarian tyrant that Western governments and media profess to abominate, think back to last summer. Here are New York Times reporters Kareem Fahim and Mayy el Sheik describing one Sisi-led massacre:

The Egyptian authorities unleashed a ferocious attack on Islamist protesters early Saturday, killing at least 72 people in the second mass killing of demonstrators in three weeks and the deadliest attack by the security services since Egypt’s uprising in early 2011.

The tactics — many were killed with gunshot wounds to the head or the chest — suggested that Egypt’s security services felt no need to show any restraint.

In the attack on Saturday, civilians joined riot police officers in firing live ammunition at the protesters as they marched toward a bridge over the Nile. By early morning, the numbers of wounded people had overwhelmed doctors at a nearby field hospital. [3]

Carried out by Muamar Gadaffi, a brutal crackdown on this scale would have been enough to raise alarms of an impending genocide and calls for humanitarian intervention. When it happens in Egypt, it’s mentioned in the back pages of some (though not all or even most) newspapers and forgotten the next day.

In October, “Clashes between protesters and security forces…left at least 51 people dead and more than 246 injured…as supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi rallied to press for his reinstatement despite a months-long crackdown on their ranks. Activists from Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood said the police used live ammunition to subdue the pro-Morsi crowds.” [4] By the end of October, an estimated 1,000 Morsi supporters had been shot dead by security forces and 6,000 herded into prisons. [5] Today, it’s acknowledged that the regime has “killed more than a thousand of Mr. Morsi’s … supporters at street protests and jailed tens of thousands of others.” [6]

Sadly, the crackdown isn’t limited to pumping live ammunition into the skulls of the ousted president’s backers. In March, an Egyptian court sentenced hundreds of Morsi supporters to death, finding them all guilty of killing a single police officer at a demonstration. The judgment was so flagrantly political that it moved the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, to denounce it. “The mass imposition of the death penalty after a trial rife with procedural irregularities is in breach of international human rights law,” the commissioner concluded. [7] This evident repression of Morsi supporters was duly noted by some Western media, though never denounced as an outrage, and quickly forgotten. We needn’t wonder how the same event would have been treated had it occurred in Syria.

Egypt’s military government also launched an assault on journalists who failed to toe the regime’s line on the appropriate attitude to the Muslim Brotherhood—now banned as a “terrorist” organization. (Additionally, the April 6 movement, considered the most effective left-leaning protest group, has been outlawed on espionage charges. [8]) A reporter who steps over the line is liable to be tossed into jail and tried with crimes against the state, a fate that befell 20 Al-Jazeera employees. [9] The jailing of journalists for what they report by a state that isn’t an ally of Washington would be thoroughly denounced by Western officials and deplored by Western media. Carried out by Egypt’s military rulers, it’s quietly noted, then forgotten.

What, then, accounts for the blatant double-standard?

As the Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous explains, “Washington has long viewed its military ties with Cairo, backed by more than $40 billion in military aid since 1948 along with annual military exercises and extensive officer exchanges, as an anchor of one of its most important relationships in the Arab world.” [10] Which is to say that Egypt—or more specifically, its military—does Washington’s bidding. Notably, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, reject US domination and pursue independent paths. When the leaders of these countries use their state’s repressive apparatus to quell opposition (often encouraged by dollops of “pro-democracy” funding funnelled by Western governments to opposition forces through NGOs), they are demonized.

Apart from underpinning Egypt’s role as an agent of US influence in the Arab world, Washington’s military aid program to the country—surpassed only by aid to Israel—is a source of handsome profits to US military contractors. Every year US taxpayers fork over $1.3 billion to the Egyptian military to submit large orders for weaponry and equipment to US arms manufacturers. [11] In concrete terms, the bullets Egyptian soldiers used to mow down Morsi supporters were purchased by US taxpayers.

Adding to Cairo’s value as a US ally is that fact that it grants the Pentagon virtual carte-blanche access to its territory.

Most nations, including many close allies of the United States, require up to a week’s notice before American warplanes are allowed to cross their territory. Not Egypt, which offers near-automatic approval for military overflights…American warships are also allowed to cut to the front of the line through the Suez Canal in times of crisis, even when oil tankers are stacked up like cars on an interstate highway at rush hour. [12]

Accordingly, Sisi’s brutal rise to power is tolerated by Western governments and his undemocratic and illiberal methods passed over in near silence by the Western media, because he can be counted on to maintain Egypt as a reliable agent of US influence in the Arab world, provide valuable services to the US military, and fatten the bottom lines of US arms manufacturers with weapons orders. None of this is to say that Morsi wouldn’t have performed the same valuable services. The reality of US domination would have structured the decision-making environment to hem Morsi in and limit his room for manoeuvre. But it’s doubtful he could have been counted on to be as reliable a servant as Sisi, who trained at the US Army War College, and has extensive connections to the US military. Hence, rather than denouncing Sisi, Western politicians and media mobilize the energies of social justice-advocates against countries whose leaders reject the international dictatorship of the United States and refuse to provide valuable services to the Pentagon, not against those that do.

Caught up in mass media-manipulated campaigns of indignation against targets of US imperialist designs, the beautiful souls of the left ignore the deplorable activities of the West’s faithful local agents in the Arab world, from the hereditary tyrannies of the Gulf states to the blood-stained US-backed strongman in Cairo, while at the same time protesting the resistance of the Syrian government and its Hezbollah ally against Western efforts to crush an independent Arab political project. Immersed in a fantasy world structured by the mass media’s promotion of Western foreign policy agendas, they line up with the US-aligned Arab royal dictatorships against the only organized Arab forces prepared to resist domination by the United States and its Zionist client.

While dispassionately documenting Sisi’s affronts against liberal democratic ideals, the Western media have not demonized him, as they invariably do leaders of governments who refuse to act as ductile agents of US power. Even so, Sisi’s actions would certainly warrant the same media treatment meted out to the West’s favorite international villains were he standing on his feet against US domination, rather than kneeling before it as a loyal servant. If Western conceptions of democracy and human rights mean anything, Sisi would long ago have occupied center stage in the West’s pantheon of demons. That he is allowed to fly under the radar—despite cancelling democracy, murdering protesters, executing political opponents, and jailing journalists—reveals much about US foreign policy, the Western media that support it, and social-justice advocates who are deceived by it.

1. “One Year after Morsi’s Ouster, Divides Persist on El-Sisi, Muslim Brotherhood,” Pew Research Global Attitude Project, May 22, 2014. http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/05/22/one-year-after-morsis-ouster-divides-persist-on-el-sisi-muslim-brotherhood/
2. David D. Kirkpatrick, “In Egyptian Town, Cheers for Sisi but Murmurs of Discontent,” The New York Times, May 25, 2014.
3. Kareem Fahim and Mayy el Sheik, “Crackdown in Egypt kills Islamists as they protest”, The New York Times, July 27, 2013/
4. Matt Bradley, “Egyptian clashes leave at least 51 dead”, The Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2013.
5. Tamer El-Ghobashy and Matt Bradely, “Egypt arrests Brotherhood official ahead of Morsi trial”, The Wall Street Journal, Oct 30, 2013.
6. David. D. Kirkpatrick, “Egypt’s new strongman, Sisi knows best”, The New York Times, May 24, 2014.
7. Nick Cumming-Bruce, “U.N. expresses alarm over Egyptian death sentences”, The New York Times, March 25, 2014.
8. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Uproar in Egypt after judge sentences more than 680 to death”, The New York Times, April 28, 2014.
9. Tamer El-Ghobashy, “Egypt to charge Al Jazeera journalists”, The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2013.
10. Adam Entous, “U.S. defense chief mans hot line to Cairo”, The Wall Street Journal, The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2013.
11. Eric Schmitt, “Cairo military firmly hooked to U.S. lifeline”, The New York Times, August 20, 2013.
12. Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, “Ties with Egypt army constrain Washington”, The New York Times, August 16, 2013.

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May 26, 2014 at 10:19 pm

Posted in Egypt

Ukraine and How the West Treats Comparable Events in Satellite and Non-Satellite Countries Differently

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By Stephen Gowans

The uprising in Ukraine represents a struggle between the West and Russia to integrate Ukraine economically, and, ultimately, militarily, into their respective orbits. I take no side in the struggle. All the same, each side wants me, and you, to take sides. Since I live in the West, and have greater exposure to the pronouncements of people of state in the West, and to the Western mass media than I do to their Russian counterparts, I’ll concentrate herein on analyzing Western efforts to shape public opinion to support the Western side of the struggle.

First, a few points by way of background.

• Ukraine is divided nationally between ethnic Ukrainians, who are concentrated in the West, and Russians, who are concentrated in the East, and especially in Crimea. Russians in Crimea and the East lean toward integration with Russia, while ethnic Ukrainians in the West tend to resent Russia’s historical domination of Ukraine.
• Crimea, a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, is the home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. The current president, Yanukovych, extended the Russian lease on the naval base.
• Russian gas bound for Europe transits Ukraine.
• Russia does not want Ukraine to be integrated into NATO, which it views, for sound reasons, as an anti-Russian military alliance.

For the West, integration of Ukraine into its orbit means:

• Expansion of Western business opportunities.
• Growing isolation of Russia, one of the few countries strong enough to challenge US hegemony.
• Influence over transit of Russian gas exports to Europe.
• Military strategic advantage.

It’s instructive to contrast the treatment by Western states and mass media of the uprising in Ukraine with the concurrent uprisings in Egypt (which the West opposes) and Syria (which it supports.)

The Syrian uprising, contrary to its depiction by Western forces as a battle for democracy, is the latest, and most violent, eruption of an ongoing Islamist insurgency dating back to the 1960s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to oust the “infidel” non-sectarian Arab nationalist government. The insurgency has since mutated into one dominated by salafist, takfiri, and al-Qaeda-aligned fighters backed by hereditary Muslim tyrannies, the Qatari and Saudi royal dictatorships, and former colonial powers, Turkey, France and Britain. The Western narrative makes obligatory references to the Syrian government as a “regime”, complains about its authoritarian nature, insists the insurgency springs from the peaceful protests of pro-democracy activists, and celebrates the “moderate” rebels. The moderate rebels are, in the main, Muslim Brothers. To be sure, they’re moderate compared to the Nusra Front and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but they’re not the secular liberal- or social-democrats so many in the West would like to believe they are.

In contrast, the uprising in Egypt against a military dictatorship that ousted an elected Muslim Brother as president is treated very differently. The dictatorship is not called a “dictatorship”, nor even a “regime”, but neutrally, a “military government.” The Muslim Brothers, who have taken to the streets in protest at the coup, and have been gunned down and locked up for their troubles, are not called “pro-democracy activists”, as the Muslim Brothers in Syria are, or even moderate rebels, but an “emerging Islamist insurgency.” Nor is the dictatorship which shot them down and locked them up called a “brutal” dictatorship. The Egyptian dictatorship calls the insurgents “terrorists”, which is dispassionately noted in Western news reports, while the Assad government’s depictions of Syrian insurgents who set off car bombs in crowded downtown streets as terrorists is dismissed as patent propaganda. Egypt’s military dictatorship has banned political parties, tossed political opponents in jail on trumped up charges, and arrested journalists. Over the weekend the Egyptian military killed somewhere between 50 and 60 demonstrators. This is mechanically documented in major Western newspapers. There are no calls for Western intervention.

The recent events in Ukraine are treated very differently. The deaths of a few rioters in Ukraine sparks fevered media coverage and denunciation in Western capitals, while the president’s attempts to quell the disorder by invoking laws restricting civil liberties is treated as a major assault on human rights. Compare that to the relative silence over the deaths of many more demonstrators in Egypt and the suspension of all political liberties in that country. If we should be exercised by the state of affairs in Ukraine, surely we should be incensed on a far grander scale by the state of affairs in Egypt.

Foreign governments stand in relation to the West as satellites, in which case they’re called allies, or non-satellites, in which case they’re “enemies”, or, if they’re large enough, “rivals.” Comparable events in any two countries will be treated in Western mass media differently and using different language depending on whether the country is a satellite (ally) or non-satellite (enemy or rival). Hence, in Syria (a non-satellite) an elected government (elected, to be sure, under restrictive conditions) is called a “regime” headed by a “dictator”, while in Egypt (a satellite) a military-appointed government is not called a “regime” but a “government” and the de facto head of state (a dictator) is simply called “the head of the military.” In Egypt, an emerging insurgency led by Muslim Brothers and Islamist fanatics is called “an emerging Islamist insurgency”, but in Syria, an insurgency reignited by Muslim Brothers and now dominated by Islamist fanatics is called a “rebellion against dictatorship.” In Ukraine (a non-satellite so far as the government goes ahead with plans to align itself with Russia and not the EU) a crackdown on dissent which is mild compared to the crackdown in Egypt (or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf monarchy satellite of the United States) is treated as a major transgression on human rights, one warranting some form of Western intervention. However, no intervention is called for to stay the hand of Egypt’s military. Through the deft use of language and selective emphasis and silence, Western states concoct and spread through the mass media an understanding of events in far off places that comport with the pursuit of their own interests (which, more narrowly, once you parse them out, are the interests of their wealthiest citizens as a class.)

Efforts to integrate Ukraine into the EU are motivated by the desire of Western states to secure advantages for their economic elite, while efforts to integrate Ukraine into Russia are aimed at garnering benefits for Russian enterprises and investors. The interests of the bulk of Ukrainians do not, however, enter into the equation. Their role is simply to produce wealth for investors—Russian or Western or both—while doing so for as little compensation in wages, salary, benefits and government services as possible to allow the investors to make off with as much as possible. The interests of the bulk of Ukraine’s citizens lie, neither with the EU nor Russian elites, but with themselves.

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January 27, 2014 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Egypt, Syria, Ukraine

In Egypt, a New Guard

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“There was a revolution, and then we discovered that those in charge of the revolution are not in the least bit revolutionary”–Egyptian newspaper editor, Ibrahim Issa.*

By Stephen Gowans

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, known to Egyptians as “Mubarak’s poodle,” may be calling the shots in Cairo as head of the country’s military-led government, but the man who sits at his right hand side is the Pentagon’s poodle, and he’s likely to continue to play a key role in Egypt even after a civilian government succeeds the current military one.

Lt. General Sami Hafez Enan, “a favorite of the American military,” according to Elisabeth Bumiller’s piece in today’s New York Times, is second-in-command to Tantawi, the man reviled in Egypt for being a toady to the deposed president Hosni Mubarak.

The Pentagon’s poodle in Egypt, Lt. General Sami Hafez Enan (left) with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff

Bumiller says Enan—who “remains in close contact with Pentagon officials by phone” and is “a crucial link for the United States”–is considered Tantawi’s likely successor as head of Egypt’s armed forces.

And since the military plays a dominant role in Egypt, Enan is likely to continue to exercise considerable influence, a point Bumiller agrees with. “No one disputes,” she observes, “that General Enan will play a central role in Egypt’s future government, more likely behind the scenes, where the country’s powerful and traditionally secretive armed forces are more comfortable.”

Washington showers $1.3 billion in military aid upon Egypt annually, which the Egyptian military uses to buy “American-made arms and equipment – typically F-16 fighter jets and M1A1 Abrams tanks.” None of the money ever leaves the United States. Instead, Enan and other senior Egyptian military officials present their wish list to the Pentagon, which then transfers US taxpayer dollars into the accounts of US arms merchants, who then deliver the goods.

It’s like an annual gift to General Dynamics. And Egypt. Courtesy of the US taxpayer.

Ever since Egypt agreed to become a prop of US imperialism in North Africa and West Asia—and to allow Israel to run roughshod over Arabs in Palestine and Lebanon–Washington has transferred $35 billion of US taxpayer money to the accounts of US arms manufacturers, on behalf of Egypt’s armed forces.

Bumiller reports that the reforms of General Enan and the military government “have so far been mostly cosmetic.”

Cosmetic is an apt description. Egypt’s revolution has amounted to little more that changing the faces of the state. Mubarak is out, because the people demanded it, and now so too is Mubarak’s old prime minister, also at the behest of the people. But Mubarakism—US domination of Egypt through a local military elite – remains.

This won’t change even if and when the current military government is succeeded by an elected, civilian, one.

What would happen if a future government decided to pursue policies at odds with US foreign policy preferences, especially in connection with Israel? Since a break with Washington on key foreign policy positions would likely disrupt the flow of equipment and training to the Egyptian armed forces, the probable outcome is that the government would lose the confidence of the military, and the military would take over to set Egypt back on the prescribed US foreign policy path. Knowing this, a civilian government is unlikely to step outside the boundaries its military’s benefactor is prepared to tolerate.**

And just how independent of the White House and State Department will a future civilian government be? Already, officials in Washington are “discussing setting aside new funds to bolster the rise of secular political parties.” Sure, Egyptians are free to elect anyone they want, but modern elections are major marketing campaigns. Without strong financial backing, you haven’t a chance. How fitting, then, for the continuation of Mubarakism that Washington’s democracy promoters will be furnishing “acceptable” politicians and political parties with money, strategic advice, polling, and whatever other support they need to prevail over alternatives judged to be incompatible with “US interests”, but which, may, on the other hand, represent the interests of the mass of Egyptians.

Westerners would never tolerate foreign powers backing the West’s political parties, even if it was done in the name of promoting democracy. Strange that so many Westerners think it fine for their own governments to meddle in other countries’ elections –and fall for the deception that the imperialist practice of exerting influence abroad by buying foreign politicians is really a laudable exercise in democracy promotion. If foreign governments meddling in our elections means an outside power is trying to gain advantage at our expense, doesn’t Washington’s setting aside new funds to meddle in Egypt’s elections mean Washington is trying to gain advantage at Egyptians’ expense?

Or are Washington’s and the EU’s motives somehow purer? Given their records of backing Mubarak, other dictatorships, and absolute monarchies, to protect Western “interests,” this can hardly be true.

How then–with Egypt’s armed forces being a virtual extension of the Pentagon and Washington’s democracy promoters preparing to boost funding to pro-US political parties–are we to believe that the Egyptian rebellion will bring about anything more than a cosmetic face-lift of Mubarakism?

A real revolution requires more than replacing Mubarak with Tantawi, Tantawi with Enan, and Enan with a civilian government that needs to keep Enan–and the Pentagon officials he’s in close contact with–happy. A revolution is not a changing of the guard.

* Neil MacFarquhar, “Milestone referendum in Egypt just days away”, The New York Times, March 13, 2011.
**”To wild cheers, Ashraf Huweidar of the Union of Popular Socialism told a crowd of several thousand that his new party would cancel the peace agreement (with Israel) if it came to power — something the military leadership has indicated it won’t allow.” (My emphasis). “Egyptian calls for trials of former leaders”, The Associated Press, April 1, 2011.

Postscript
Below is part of an exchange between The Washington Post and three unnamed members of Egypt’s Supreme Military Council, the body that is currently governing the country. The full interview was carried by the newspaper on May 18, 2011 (“Egyptian generals speak about revolution’).

Q. Do you think that Egypt’s strategic orientation toward Israel will change? Polls show a majority of Egyptians favor abrogating the [1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel]. How does the military view this?

A. Egypt fully respects its commitments. This has to be very clear. The peace treaty is part of our commitments and undertakings. It is not possible that 30 years of good relations with the United States will be easily obliterated or canceled.

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March 11, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Posted in Egypt

Is Gene Sharp Superman?

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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.

Did an octagenarian nonviolence scholar remotely mobilize millions of Egyptians to bring down Mubarak? If he did we've been misled about Clark Kent. He isn't Superman. Gene Sharp is.

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.

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February 16, 2011 at 11:44 pm

The Poodle Revolution

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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.

Written by what's left

February 15, 2011 at 1:15 am

Posted in Egypt

Getting Perilously Close to Truth about US Foreign Policy

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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.

Written by what's left

February 7, 2011 at 11:52 pm

New York Times: Democracy is Bad for US Foreign Policy

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By Stephen Gowans

Here’s New York Times reporter Mark Landler on Washington’s reaction to the popular uprising in Egypt against the anti-liberal democratic, human rights-abusing Hosni Mubarak, a “staunch ally.”

Washington is “proceeding gingerly, balancing the democratic aspirations of young Arabs with cold-eyed strategic and commercial interests.”

In other words, democracy and human rights are fine, but not when strategic and commercial interests are at stake.

Landler goes on to say that Washington’s cold-eyed commitment to realpolitik and profits “sometimes involves supporting autocratic and unpopular governments — which has turned many of those young people against the United States.”

Well, there’s nothing amiss in Landler’s observation except his downplaying of the frequency with which Washington supports autocratic and unpopular governments – often rather than sometimes.

In Landler’s account of strategic thinking in Washington, it’s all right to support an “upheaval in Tunisia, a peripheral player in the region,” but a “wave of upheaval could uproot valuable allies.” And profits and strategic position demand the possibility be blocked.

After all, the “Egyptian government is a crucial ally to Washington.” And so arrests without charge, including of nearly 500 bloggers, will continue, with Washington maintaining a principled non-interference in Egyptian affairs.

Washington will also continue to tolerate the repressive national emergency law, as it has done since 1981. The law provides the legal cover Washington’s “staunch ally” needs to “arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, limit freedom of expression and assembly, and maintain a special security court.” Because this is done in the service of safeguarding US strategic and commercial interests, Mubarak gets US military aid, diplomatic support, and an easy ride in the US media.

Compare that to US treatment of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe. Even if all the allegations against him were true – and they’re not — the government in Harare wouldn’t come close to matching Mubarak’s disdain for the democratic and human rights values Washington claims to hold dear.

And yet Zimbabwe is deemed by the US president to be a grave threat to US foreign policy, its president denounced as a strongman and dictator, and its people subjected to economic warfare in the form of financial sanctions, while Mubarak is hailed as a staunch ally who must be supported against the democratic aspirations of the Arab street.

The key to this duplicity is that Mubarak has sold out Egypt to US profit and strategic interests, while Mugabe has sought to rectify the historical iniquities of colonialism. Clearly, from Washington’s perspective, Mugabe is serving the wrong interests. Indigenous farmers don’t count. Western investors do.

One wonders where overthrow specialist Peter Ackerman and his stable of nonviolent warrior academic advisors come down on this — on the side of the democratic aspirations of young Arabs or reconciled to the cold-eyed strategic and commercial interests of US corporations and wealthy individuals?

The question, however, may be beside the point. What matters is not whether Ackerman’s janissary Lester Kurtz wants to spout Gandhian bromides to angry Egyptian youths, but whether there’s money to organize and boost the revolutionary energy of the street and how much is being poured into a repressive apparatus to shut it down.
Andrew Albertson and Stephen McInerney (Don’t give up on Egypt,” Foreignpolicy.com, June 2009) have the answer.

The Obama administration has drastically scaled back its financial support for Egyptian activists fighting for political reform. US democracy and governance funding was slashed by 60 percent. From 2004 to 2009, the US spent less than $250M on democracy programs, but $7.8 billion on aid to the Egyptian military.

But even this imbalance overstates the meager support Washington has offered pro-democracy forces. Given Mubarak’s status as a paladin of US commercial and strategic interests, much of Washington’s democracy program spending has probably been allocated to programs that act as a safety valve to divert anger and frustration into safe, non-threatening avenues. Money available to facilitate a real challenge to Mubarak is likely either meager or nonexistent.

With the US establishment vexed by cold-eyed concerns about the need to safeguard imperialist interests against pro-democratic uprisings, champion of nonviolent democracy activism Stephen Zunes can give up whatever dreams he may have had about helping to organize an Egyptian color revolution. When it comes to real democracy, and freedom that counts, the funding cupboard is bare. Color revolutions are for cold-eyed promoters of US strategic and commercial interests, not upheavals against US-backed compradors.

Written by what's left

January 26, 2011 at 11:52 pm

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