Friday, 9 August 2013

The US Against the People of Egypt

“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population… In this situation, we cannot help but be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity”.
George Kennan, 1948[1]

I’ve just finished reading The Road to Tahrir Square by historian Lloyd Gardner, a decent account of US-Egyptian relations from around 1945 to the overthrow of Mubarak. It has helped me understand more clearly the current situation in Egypt, and has the odd fascinating piece of information about Middle Eastern relations in general. For Gardner, ‘there is a strong historical thread stretching from the agreements reached between the CIA and Nasser on Iraq in 1963 to the final days of Mubarak’s regime in early 2011’ (p.95).

To many, it is hard to contextualise the events of 2011 and see them relative to the historical ties between the US and Egypt. The US has invested around $50 billion in military and economic aid in Egypt over the past few decades, and this has given it no small say in Egyptian politics. During the 2011 crisis, ‘Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen had made phone calls to their counterparts almost every day’ (p.195). The Pentagon spokesman claimed that this was ‘just an example of how engaged we are with the Egyptians’. Gardner notes how the Guardian reported days before Mubarak’s downfall that the Obama administration ‘had refused to cut military aid to Egypt “and is instead working behind the scenes with the commanders of the armed forces on how to oust President Mubarak”’ (p.189). Indeed, as Kees Van der Pijl pointed out, the takeover of the Supreme Military Council was an outcome ‘announced to Congress by Leon Panetta, then head of the CIA, on February 10, the day before it happened’ (‘Arab Revolts and Nation-State Crisis’, New Left Review (70), p.27), something also commented on by Gardner. Earlier both Obama and Biden had refused to call Mubarak a dictator, or even authoritarian; despite, as an interviewer pointed out, the fact that 1000’s of people were tortured and imprisoned under Mubarak and his feared intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. Obama even managed to duck the question with the astonishing claim that he tends ‘not to use labels for folks’. Indeed, for Obama, Mubarak was a ‘stalwart ally ... a force for stability and good’, a sentiment echoed by the laughably pathetic Tony Blair.

As Tariq Ali pointed out, Washington tried desperately to maintain their influence in Egypt, clinging on to Mubarak until it was clear the pressure was too great and that the whole edifice upon which US influence had been devised in Egypt was being threatened. When they finally abandoned Mubarak, Obama was largely  lauded by liberal commentators as having been on the side of the people all along; another example of the standard ‘liberal’ contempt for facts. The brutal Omar Suleiman was even ‘at one stage touted as Mubarak’s successor’ (‘Between Past and Future’ New Left Review (80), p.63), before the decision was made that all the hated figureheads needed to be changed, and the army was considered reliable enough by Washington and popular enough with the people to be the ones to take over. 

David Wearing, a SOAS researcher and up-and-coming writer, wrote an excellent summary and review of Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance by Jason Brownlee in February; Brownlee generally argues the same thing. Wearing quotes a passage to sum it up perfectly: ‘Official US-Egyptian relations have been at odds with domestic public opinion in Egypt. Rather than fostering democracy in an incremental fashion, US and Egyptian officials have promoted an autocratic security state that supports a US-led regional order built around Israeli security and US influence over the Persian Gulf. By contrast, public opinion in Egypt favours a regional security order less dominated by the United States and Israel, and a government that respects political competition and civil liberties’. Gardner compares the way the US provided for Sadat’s own personal security with the way they helped train and create the brutal secret police in Iran under the Shah. This is of course unremarkable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of US foreign policy, but it may seem odd to those accustomed to the standard line in the media and academia- that the US, whilst it may make the odd mistake, is fundamentally committed to democracy promotion around the world. This is no more true than the idea that the Soviet Union was fighting for the poor and oppressed around the world, or that the Roman Empire had any interest in the wellbeing of its conquered subjects (or the British Empire for that matter). Every power in history has been concerned with its own interests, whilst claiming to follow a higher moral cause, and the US is unremarkable in this respect. Its rhetoric about promoting democracy in Egypt should be disregarded; the quote from George Kennan at the start of the article is a far more honest and accurate portrayal of US policy, from the pen of a man who did so much to shape its direction after World War 2.

As Brownlee points out, US policy is heavily at odds with Egyptian public opinion. Gardner cites a Gallup poll which revealed an ‘“overwhelming tsunami of negative opinions” about the United States’; more than half opposed any US aid to Egypt, and three-quarters ‘opposed any aid to specific political groups’ (p.201). He quotes Gallup’s chief analyst of the poll, who believed that the reason was simply because US aid was perceived as only serving to ‘perpetuate the condition of the Mubarak years’ (p.202). The recent uprisings had far more of an anti-US government flavour to them than the 2011 uprisings- it seems the Egyptian people offered the US a chance to redeem themselves and have now tired of extending the olive branch. Perhaps there is a recognition that the US isn’t, and never will be, on their side.

Anti-US government feeling across the region is quite easily explained for those who are genuinely interested, and don’t just want to have an idiotic rant about why the Muslims ‘hate us because they hate us’. A review article in Foreign Affairs a couple of months ago detailed a study by Amaney Jamal who found that so-called ‘anti-Americanism’ was the result of a ‘deeper rejection of undemocratic political systems in Arab countries, which for decades have been underwritten and supported by the United States’; not to mention more immediate grievances like the CIA and Pentagon’s global assassination, torture and kidnapping campaigns, and the mass crime which was the Iraq War (‘The Persistence of Arab Anti-Americanism’, Mark Lynch, Foreign Affairs, 92(3), p.147).

Most interesting is Gardner’s claim that the crisis in Egypt has ‘portended far greater long-term dangers’ for the US government than the debacles in Iraq or Afghanistan, something he quotes Henry Kissinger (the most powerful National Security Advisor in US history and former Secretary of State for Gerald Ford) as agreeing with (p.204). Egypt has been described by US officials as a ‘cornerstone’ of US policy in the Middle East, and that certainly has a lot of truth to it; today it is second possibly only to Saudi Arabia as a US Arab ally in the region.  The latest upheavals could turn out to favour or harm the US; it’s too early to tell.

 I will continue to write about Egypt in the weeks to come.

[1] Quoted in The Road to Tahrir Square by Lloyd Gardner. George Kennan was one of the major US government planners in the Post-War period. 

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