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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.

Written by what's left

May 26, 2014 at 10:19 pm

Posted in Egypt

US Policy on Ukraine: Follow the Money

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Don’t underestimate the role played by Yanukovych’s foreign-investor-unfriendly economic policy in spurring the US intervention in Ukraine

By Stephen Gowans

A favored leftist explanation of the United States’s and European Union’s intervention in Ukraine revolves around the geopolitical imperative for Washington of containing a US military rival, Russia, and bringing NATO up to its borders by integrating Ukraine into the US-led military alliance. What’s rarely mentioned is that the role played by the United States and its European subalterns in supporting the Maidan uprising and the consequent rise to power of the pro-Western coup government has also been motivated by the goal of building a more congenial climate in Ukraine for the profit-making activities of Western corporations and investors.

While Ukraine’s economy is understood by leftists to be capitalist and therefore not to raise a red flag at the US State Department, it is far from true that Ukraine’s economic policies under the ousted former president Victor Yanukovych were warmly accepted, even tolerated, in Western foreign policy circles. Indeed, from the point of view of the West, Ukraine’s economy left much to be desired. It needed, IMF managers said, to be reorganized by “structural reforms” to “improve the business climate.” [1] What’s important here is not that Ukraine was viewed as infertile ground for capitalist profit-making—but that it was viewed as infertile ground for the profit-making activities of Western corporations specifically.

The Heritage Foundation-Wall Street Journal 2014 Index of Economic Freedom rates Ukraine’s economy as “repressed” along with those of such perennial US regime change targets as North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Iran—all unfriendly to the idea that economic policy should be formulated to pad bank accounts and bottom lines in New York, London, Frankfurt and Paris. [2] Ukraine’s economic freedom—that is, its adherence to the free enterprise, open markets, free trade agenda favored on Wall Street—is even ranked behind that of Belarus, a country reviled in Western foreign policy circles for its nostalgic attachment to Soviet economic forms. Of 43 countries in Europe, the US ruling class foundation and newspaper rank Ukraine’s friendliness to Western corporate interests dead last, and only a little better than that of communist North Korea and Cuba, socialist Venezuela and economically nationalist Zimbabwe and Iran. So where, in the view of the West’s corporate elite, has Ukraine gone wrong?

The Heritage Foundation and its Wall Street Journal partner have a number of complaints. “Contracts are not well enforced, and expropriation is always a possibility.” “The labor code” they grouse, “is outmoded and lacks flexibility,” meaning it offers too many protections to workers. Government procurement policies are denounced for sometimes favoring domestic firms, and hence, limiting the profit-making opportunities of North American and European corporations. Exception is taken to Ukraine’s state-owned firms, which crowd out private (mainly Western) enterprise, and Kiev’s restrictions on foreign investment, which give a leg up to domestic businesses but cut foreign corporations out of the action.

Some of these noxious-to-Wall-Street barriers to Western profit-making would have been dismantled had Yanukovych not backed away from an agreement with the European Union that would have seen Ukraine get preferential access to EU markets in return for turning over Ukraine’s labor, markets and resources to Western business interests. But, alas, Yanukovych balked and Washington took advantage of the ensuing protests to foment an uprising to bring a biddable pro-foreign-investment stooge to power, backed by fascists and militant Russophobes.

The coup government quickly signed on to an IMF economic reform program which promises to replace the set of economic policies Washington and Brussels have long derogated for being unfriendly to Western investors with one aimed at pushing Ukraine into Wall Street’s good books. Reza Moghadam, director of the IMF’s European Department, explained that “the program…is expected to…help restore confidence among private investors,” to which he might have added, investors of the sort who own mansions in and around New York City and other Western financial capitals. Moghadam adds that “Ukraine needs to undertake deep-reaching structural reforms” to improve Ukraine’s business climate. That roughly translates into holding the line on wages, laying off public sector workers, gutting protections for employees, hiking taxes on ordinary people while bringing them down for businesses, rolling back social services, and throwing open the doors of the economy to Western corporations.

Here are the details. Public sector wages will be held in check while increases in the minimum wage will be capped. At the same time, “expenditure restraint will be exercised through the suspension of” (what the IMF calls) “unaffordable wage and pension increases planned by the previous” (i.e., Yanukovych) “government, public employment reduction…and rationalization of social assistance spending.” So far this is shaping up to mean that “24,000 state workers and 80,000 police officers nationwide are set to be laid off,” [3] with more austerity to follow. And while public expenditures are being reined in in the interests of creating an improved business environment, tax revenues will be hiked, not through increases in corporate taxes and income tax, but on regressive consumption taxes, which fall most heavily on those with the lowest incomes. The wealthy will be spared the burden of contributing to state coffers by measures to “facilitate value-added tax refunds for businesses.” And while ordinary Ukrainians are being squeezed to give more to businesses and investors, a new procurement law will be adopted to deny domestic firms preferential treatment in the awarding of government contracts. North American and European firms will be the principal beneficiaries.

The coup government’s principals, explains Moghadam, “believe there is a window of opportunity for bold and ambitious reforms in order to transform Ukraine” into “a vibrant business environment”—yes, and one that pays dividends to foreigners on the backs of Ukrainians. The sole reason for the existence of Ukrainians (and most of humanity) under the logic of the US-superintended system of global capitalism is to be screwed over in order to make a thin upper layer of Western society fabulously wealthy.

If we accept that the United States’s wealthiest citizens as a class exercise inordinate influence over public policy—a point supported by research presented in an upcoming paper in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page [4]–it follows that the principal function of the US State Department and the Pentagon is to support the overseas profit-making activities of US corporations. Hence, what likely lies at the root of US interventions abroad is the defense and promotion of US investor and corporate interests contra the economic nationalist (Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Iran), socialist (Venezuela) or communist (Cuba and North Korea) economic policies of foreign states. Yanukovych’s government gave too many breaks to Ukrainian investors, businesses, and even ordinary citizens, and therefore committed the cardinal sin in the church of US global hegemony: interfering in the profit-maximization of US corporations. That, perhaps more than US geopolitical and military interests, explains why the United States backs the coup in Kiev and opposes the forces arrayed against it.

Russia’s repatriation of Crimea—backed by the peninsula’s largely Russophone population, as it had also been overwhelmingly backed in a 1991 plebiscite [5]—was simply a defensive reaction by Moscow against the danger that the coup government in Kiev would seek to eject it from its naval base on the Black Sea. It was not the aggressive act Western figures of state and their mass media echo-chambers have made it out to be. The true aggressor here is US foreign policy in pursuit of its principal function of promoting the overseas profit-making interests of corporate America.

Postscript

Yanukovych’s successor as president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that “We will do the absolutely unique transformation of our country…with a very good investment climate…with all the necessary things to attract business.” (David M. Herszenhorn, “Pro-European businessman claims victory in Ukraine presidential vote”, The New York Times, May 25, 2014)

1. Interview with Reza Moghadam: Ukraine Unveils Reform Program with IMF Support, IMF Survey, April 30, 2014
2. http://www.heritage.org/index/
3. Anthony Faiola, “In Ukraine, a crisis of bullets and economics,” The Washington Post, April 16, 2014
4. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” forthcoming Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics. http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf
5. Peter Hart, “Radioactive Putin is ‘Stalin’s Spawn’”, Extra!, May 1, 2014

Written by what's left

May 9, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Ukraine

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