U.S.-Egypt: Dance of the co-dependents

The ruling circles in Washington and Cairo are now each in their own way (but also, jointly) engaged in a dance of resistance to the wave of massive political change unleashed by the democratic revolution in Egypt.
This evening I watched Pres. Mubarak’s latest, very disappointing and retrograde televised speech to the Egyptian people, then read the careful but ultimately mealy-mouthed response from Pres. Obama. My reading of the situation is that within the ruling circles of both countries there are powerful factions that are resisting the wave of democratic change in Egypt, but also other other factions that have seemed inclined– whether from a genuine adherence to the principles of democracy and equality, or from a desire to try to “ride this tiger of change” in order, sooner or later, to leash and constrain it– to give more, and more substantial, concessions to the democracy forces in order to try to work with them.
For now, the conservative, change-resistant forces in both capitals appear to have won their respective arguments. In Washington, the speech that Obama gave was very long on fine principles but completely devoid of announcing any actual policy consequences for Mubarak/Suleiman if they continue to thumb their noses at these principles in practice.
“Going forward,” Obama said,

    it will be essential that the universal rights of the Egyptian people be respected. There must be restraint by all parties. Violence must be forsaken. It is imperative that the government not respond to the aspirations of their people with repression or brutality. The voices of the Egyptian people must be heard.

But these principles have already been very seriously violated over the past two weeks. And where was there any attempt by Obama to hold the Egyptian regime to account by, for example, withholding some portion (or all) of the aid that Washington so generously gives to Egypt’s military and “security” forces– or even, by mentioning the possibility of establishing such conditionality?
The flow of military aid apparently– in this case as in the case of Israel, despite its repeated violations of Washington’s declared “wishes” regarding settlement construction or other matters– continues to gush unimpeded.
Americans, and everyone else, should worry about this situation a lot.
Some useful details about the conservative, pro-Mubarak faction within the White House were in this LA Times article today. The authors identified the pro-Mubarak faction in the White House as including the powerful trifecta of Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, and national security adviser Thomas Donilon, along with both Dennis Ross (!) and Dan Shapiro. Identified with the pro-reform faction are named only a speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, and the veteran human-rights activist Samantha Power.
(Interestingly, the article notes that Dan Shapiro, who is the NSC official in charge of all Arab-Israeli matters, had previously worked as Obama’s outreach guy to the U.S. Jewish community during the presidential campaign. Oh yes, can’t we just all “take it on trust” that he is a guy who knows a lot about the Middle East and can understand the intricacies of the politics, society, and needs of each Arab country as well as he understands Israel’s…)
As for Ross, the former head of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People’s Policy Planning Institute, no further comment on his ability to be “fair and balanced” is needed here.
The reason we Americans should worry about this situation is that the interests that members of this powerful faction have in propping up the Mubarak-Suleiman duo are now, with every day that passes, dragging the ability that our country might have to have decent relations with the future democratic Egypt ever lower and lower. They also seem quite happy to have our taxpayer dollars continue to flow unimpeded into propping up Egypt’s corrupt and repressive “security” apparatus– in the same way that they do into Israel’s.
The anti-reform factions in Cairo and Washington still wield considerable financial, military, and organizational power. What they are losing more and more of every day is the power to persuade— especially, the power to persuade that large portion of Egypt’s 85 million fairly well educated and right now highly mobilized people who care very deeply indeed about the situation in their own country and who now, urgently, need to see some serious reform there.
And you know what? The current situation in Egypt is one in which military power– the power of the Egyptian military, the Israeli military, or even the U.S. military– counts for almost nothing.
This is one of the really exciting aspects of the present situation! All that long-sustained “investment” that these three countries have made in building up hi-tech, capable military formations in the region? In the present situation, it is worth nothing! Nothing. What would the Israeli military do to respond to Egypt’s cries for democracy? What would any of them do? What can any of them do that would not, almost instantaneously, make America’s situation in the region 100 times worse than it currently is?
Oh sure, the Egyptian military could roll their tanks into the square and kill a huge number of people… Or use their helicopter gunships, or whatever. But then what? The geopolitical consequences of any actual, significant use of force would be devastating– for the frightened denizens of the White House and of Abdin Palace, alike.
* * *
Change is coming in Egypt. The stubbornness that Mubarak exhibited today– that he exhibited last week, the week before, and back in November when he brazenly stole the country’s parliamentary elections– just makes the arrival of this change harder for everyone concerned. The desire for change has been bottled up for two decades now. Mubarak is trying to keep it bottled up for a further seven months. And almost inevitably, the more he tries to do this, and the more his allies in Washington and Tel Aviv encourage and enable him to do so, the bigger will be the explosion when it occurs. He and his enablers are acting in an extremely reckless fashion.
* * *
So many aspects of his speech, as I listened to it today, enraged and disappointed me. One that angered me a lot was the patronizing, paternalistic way he referred to those courageous men and women of all ages who have take their stand for democracy in the public square: Referring to them repeatedly as “youth”, he claimed to be like their “father”– and in true paternalistic fashion therefore to know what was best for them.
I think this discourse of the Egyptian revolution as having been “spearheaded by the youth” has been a misleading one from the outset. Okay, maybe people under 35 like Asmaa Mahfouz or Wael Ghonim initiated it in the first instance. But I wouldn’t exactly refer to either of them as “youth.” Asmaa is, I believe 26, and Wael 30 years old. Wael has two children. When I was Asmaa’s age, I had two children, too. Only under a particular (gerontocratic) view of the world would people in this age-range still be described as “youth”… And then, once the demonstrations in Tahrir Square started becoming large and serious, from January 25 on, the faces of the people there included many who looked to be in their 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s.
So enough with being patronizing, already!
(I think many western commentators have bought too much into this discourse of the revolution being a “youth” phenomenon, too. Perhaps this was because of the association of “youth” with the tools of Web 2.0 organizing, and a fond illusion on the part of some Americans that it was really only these made-in-America tools of social organizing like Facebook and Twitter that allowed this upheaval to get off the ground at all. Guess what. The very solid, real-world logistics of organizing food deliveries, toilet facilities, news-runners, and first-aid stations have been even more important. Remember that even when Mubarak’s minsters cut off all the country’s internet connections for that couple of days, the organizing and the protests went right ahead.)
* * *
One of the notable things about this revolution is the degree to which it has already– even before it has attained the success that it seems so clearly headed for– reduced Israel’s importance in the region to something much closer to its appropriate size.
Israel, remember, has a population of about 7.5 million people (only 6 million of them Jewish), which is less than 10% of Egypt’s population. So the idea that the claimed security or other “needs” of Israel’s citizens should necessarily and in all cases trump the security and other needs of Egyptians is a crazy and racist one from the outset. Deal with it, Israelis: What is happening in Egypt today is far, far bigger than any of your paltry concerns. And if a new Egyptian government decides it wants to take up the issue of the protection of Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem; or that it wants to take seriously the need to combat and reverse Israel’s many illegal settlement projects in East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories; or Israel’s continuing punitive siege of Gaza; or Israel’s continuing violations of Lebanese airspace– then why should anyone in the world feel they need to try to protect Israel from a determined Egyptian diplomatic campaign to end these continuing violations of international law?
The now-inevitable collapse of the Mubarak-Suleiman regime in Egypt will have other, more far-reaching consequences for U.S. power in the region, and in the world, too. I am not talking about an Egypt that is hostile to Washington: Indeed, I sincerely hope that that does not come about. What I am talking about is an Egyptian government that will serve its own people’s interests first, and therefore will not feel any “need” to keep itself in power by allying itself closely with the U.S. military-industrial project in the region and the world… An Egypt in which the armed forces are returned to a reasonable size, both numerically and politically; in which the generals and retired generals no longer control huge swathes of the economy; and in which there is no longer a whole, powerful class of people like this whose power rests almost wholly on retaining their access to the teat of American military aid and therefore their integration into American military planning.
The Middle East (“Centcom”) has been the major overseas project for the U.S. military-industrial complex since the end of the Cold War; and within the Centcom area, for various reasons Egypt– or rather, the Egyptian military and “security” forces– have played a pivotal role. It is this relationship that Frank Wisner, Bob Gates, and other key members of the U.S. political elite are so eager to protect.
But the whole of Washington’s Middle Eastern power-projection project has become a deep financial sinkhole over the past 10 years. It is financially unsustainable over the three- or seven-year term, under any circumstances. There is no ‘victory” in Iraq, no “victory” in Afghanistan, and not even any longterm U.S. ability to maintain its present military domination of the Gulf region… Thus, as the Pentagon’s ability to continue projecting its power into the region will be retracting over the years ahead, so too will its need to rely on Egypt as a launching pad, and therefore the U.S. taxpayer’s willingness (let alone her ability) to continue shoveling money into Egypt’s military-security complex.
* * *
As we saw all too painfully tonight, the forces of Egypt’s democratic revolution cannot yet expect an easy or straight path to victory. The casualty list has already grown achingly high. (200 dead over the past three weeks? 300? The memorials are proliferating… And nearly every one of these men and women was struck down by U.S.-supplied bullets, or beaten to death by members of the U.S.-supported “security forces.”) But the Egyptian revolutionaries are steadfast. They have shown an impressive ability to organize, and to refine and develop their organization to meet changing needs. They are gaining momentum among previously undecided segments of the public. And many of their leaders seem to have reached the (very realistic) judgment that there is no simple turning back for them now. The fear they express is that if they bow down now, then the forces of counter-revolution will come after them all, and their children and grandchildren after them.
Ah, I wish I were in Cairo tonight. But there is important work to do here in the United States, too. Long live the equality of all human persons. Long live the rule of law– domestically and in the international arena. Long live an end to hypocrisy. Long live this wonderful Egyptian revolution.