January 28, 2011, Day of Rage.
I’m watching live coverage of the Egyptian revolution on Al-Jazeera TV. Cairo is swarming with hundreds of thousands, defying the curfew, hurling stones at the police. The images recall the Palestinian youth waging their Intifadas. The National Democratic Party headquarters is in flames. Downtown Suez has been taken over by the people, two police stations torched. The security forces are out in strength and shooting into crowds. But the people have lost their fear.
Reporters and commentators on Al-Jazeera and other channels have no choice but to note that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is widely hated, and that those in the street are seeking freedom from a dictatorship. But they also keep saying “The situation is getting worse.”
I think of Mao Zedong’s response to critics of peasant rebellion in China in 1927. He noted that “even progressive people” saw uprisings as “terrible.” “But it’s not terrible,” he declared. “It is anything but ‘terrible.’ It’s fine!”
Watching the live coverage, I see the people of Egypt, fed up with their oppression, and inspired by the revolution in Tunisia, doing something very, very fine. It is inspiring. It is profoundly hopeful.
The Obama administration line (as summarized by Joe Biden, interviewed by Jim Lehrer on PBS), can be summarized as follows: Egyptians have the right to protest. Many are middle class folks, with legitimate concerns. But we should not refer to Mubarak as a dictator. It’s not time for him to go. He has been a key ally of the U.S. and Israel, in the “Middle East peace process” and the War on Terror. Egypt is dissimilar to Tunisia, and it would be “a stretch” to suggest that a trend is underway. The U.S. should encourage those protesting and Mubarak to talk. Everyone should avoid violence.
The mainstream infotainment media spin can be summarized like this: The “unrest” in Egypt puts the U.S. in a difficult position. On the one hand Mubarak has abetted U.S. “national interests” and been Israel’s only Arab ally. (These two are always assumed to be closely linked; the notion that an Arab leader is a friend of the U.S. to the extend that he kisses Israel’s ass is never questioned.) On the other hand, U.S. officials have been saying for years that the Middle East needs “democratic reform.”
This puts in the U.S. in bind, we are told. The U.S. confronts a “dilemma.” The talking heads depict the U.S. as somehow a victim in this situation. (Isn’t it terrible, they’re implying, that the Egyptian people by their militancy in favor of supposed U.S. ideals are trying to topple the USA’s best friend in the Arab world? What a headache to have to deal with!)
Seems to me however that this is another of those instances of chickens coming home to roost.
The U.S. has supported Mubarak primarily in appreciation for his stance towards Israel. (The mainstream media is referring to him as an “ally” of Israel.) It’s not really because he’s been a “partner in the peace process”—because there is no real peace process. Relentless Israeli settlement activity on Palestinian land supported by the Lobby in the U.S. has insured that.
Wikileaks documents indicate that Mubarak has been content for the “process” to lag indefinitely so that he could represent himself as the vital Arab middleman while enjoying two billion in U.S. military aid per year. But Palestinians hate him for cooperating with the demonization of democratically elected Hamas and the embargo imposed on Gaza. And Egyptians hate him for, among many other things, betraying their Palestinian brothers and sisters.
Rather, the U.S. has supported Mubarak because he’s provided an Arab fig leaf for the unequivocal support for Israel that the U.S. has provided for decades. U.S. diplomats have, as Wikileaks reveal, at times expressed concern that the dictator might be causing some problems by his “heavy-handed” treatment of dissidents. But this is not a matter of moral indignation, or concern about the lives of Egyptians. It’s nothing more than an expression of concern that his fascistic rule might jeopardize his ability to help U.S.-Israeli policy in the region and keep the Suez Canal open.
And now that brutal rule has caused an explosion. The reaction from U.S. officials and political commentators is, “We never expected this.”
Well surprise, surprise! (These folks were dumbfounded by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as well. Don’t they understand that people eventually fight back?)
I think of that old Langston Hughes poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Egypt is exploding. The deferred dreams of the Arab world are exploding. And even the corporate media acknowledges that the people are jubilant (while warning that none of this might be in “our interest”). But for people with some basic morals, concerned about the happiness of humanity in general, is this not totally fine?
Al-Jazeera shows viewers how U.S. officials are changing the tone of their comments, backing off more and more each day from support of Mubarak. They’re reiterating with increasing emphasis that the demonstrators indeed have legitimacy. (Did these people they just figure this out?) What sheer opportunism!
Obama, always the centrist opportunist wanting to be everybody’s friend, wants to be the Egyptian people’s friend. He showed that in Cairo in 2009. In his celebrated speech to the Muslim world he on the one hand spouted platitudes about U.S. acceptance of Islam and on the other insulted everyone’s intelligence by calling the invasion of Afghanistan a “war of necessity.” He (accurately) described the vicious assault on Iraq as a “war of choice,” but said anything about how those responsible for such a crime ought to be punished. He does not support any investigation that would show how neocon Zionists in his predecessor’s administration faked a case for war that has killed hundreds of thousands of Arabs.
His real message is: the U.S. can lie and kill, and then posture as the moral exemplar (maybe even apologizing slightly when crimes are embarrassingly exposed). Even so, the people of the world are supposed to understand that alignment with the U.S. is the best hope of their best hope.
And now Obama wants the best of both worlds: an ongoing engagement with Mubarak (if he survives), and a hand outstretched to the people of Egypt, tainted by so many other handshakes with so many dictators so far.
Demonstrators in Cairo note that tear gas canisters on the street are marked “Made in USA.” What should they to make of that? Who’s really encouraging their dreams? Who’s caused them to defer them, decade upon decade? It’s the same foe that has caused the deferment of dreams here in this country and around the world.
I learned to say shukran in Cairo. To my friends there now, engaged in this fine, fine battle, I say that now.
Shukran, shukran for inspiring the world, showing that another world might be possible.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org