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Symbolic Wrist-Slaps and Expert Advice

America’s Discontent with Egypt

by GEOFFREY McDONALD

The USA is not ashamed to express its opinion about what’s gone wrong in Egypt, its longstanding client state. In a recent UN speech, Obama said that the US does not want to “choose sides” in the strife racking that country, but only to see it fulfill the promise of its first steps toward democracy. Unfortunately, Egypt, like so many states under American sponsorship, is seen as not ready for democracy, as confirmed by last summer’s coup and the ongoing mop-up operations against the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama says he will continue working with Egypt on America’s “core interests” while insisting on America’s democratic ideals. In the meantime, he advises inclusiveness and suspends some military aid until progress is made.

It’s absurd, really: because America never balks at using force, especially in the Middle East. But most of all, it ignores that the warring parties do not want to engage in a democratic dialog about the best course for Egypt because their conflict is precisely over what Egypt shall be. The Egyptian stae project has become increasingly untenable. Nevertheless, America interprets the turmoil unleashed in a state groaning from decades under its tutelage as nothing less than a cry for more American leadership.

What Does Egypt Do For the US?

Two things make Egypt an important ally of the US in its region: it keeps the Suez Canal open for world trade and for western warships. Secondly, it keeps the peace with Israel and thus acts to secure American interests in relation to Israel. This has been the basis for the relationship since the Camp David Accords when Egypt switched sponsors from the Soviet Union to the USA. This type of alliance, in which one state makes serving another state’s interests part of its reason of state, can work out if there is something reciprocal in it, as in the European states’ longstanding military-economic alliance with the US. But the 40 year US-Egypt alliance has not been a success story for Egypt, even if it has served the US quite well.

Rural and urban life in Egypt are a mess. The Egyptian state has not managed to build up a capitalism that enables its citizens to survive under capitalist conditions. Its economy remains outwardly oriented and the traditional means of life are gone. What large scale economic activity exists is oriented to foreign political or economic interests and does not lead to any reliable national growth. Everything has the form of capitalism – contracts, money, property – but the main players with money are the military and those connected with it. The basis for this is that the military is hooked up with foreign sponsors, mainly America, who pour in billions of dollars that do business, but the sum total is not enough to get a comprehensive capitalism in motion that can offer the population a chance to earn a living. Cairo has shops and factories, but it is surrounded by garbage dumps from which people survive by selling and eating what they can find. This dire poverty is dealt with partly by charities and NGOs in ways that everyone knows are pointless in comparison with its enormity; but mostly it is a problem of keeping the poor under control. This is increasingly the purpose of the Egyptian state.

The challenge of democracy for military rule

The Egyptian people’s disappointment in their living conditions was the motive for the popular uprising of 2011. They expected something because they had been promised something. Even under the Mubarak regime with its rigged elections, the people were promised a better future. Modern states work by convincing their population that they will get something from being ruled; the content of this promise is an economy that gives them a chance of making a living.

The protesters were united by one slogan: Mubarak must go! Their criteria and where they were coming from were quite different. Some were educated young people with i-Phones who couldn’t find jobs; others were people who couldn’t find food; many were Islamists; and other diverse interests with one common mistake: they distinguished between the Mubarak government and the military when the former was just the public face of the latter. But once the people had made this distinction in practice by refusing to obey the government, the usefulness of this cover was gone for the military.

The Egyptian military also had reasons for dissatisfaction. It wanted to be a regional power, not just an American puppet. A modern state does not want to have its sources of wealth determined by foreign interests, but to turn its own people into a basis for its wealth and power. The military saw their man in office just leading the people to rebellion. Mubarak was splitting the unity of the ruler and the ruled, so he was no longer functional for the state.

The US hesitated as long as it could. On the one hand, Mubarak was a good ally; on other hand, he obviously didn’t have the support of the people in his country. The question for America was: if this guy leaves, who will take over and will American interests be central for the new government? Part of the deal of being a state in America’s orbit is that it has to keep the population under control as a basis for supplying its services to America – it can’t be preoccupied with law and order or just establishing order.

It took a while to decide, but the whole uprising and statements by the opposition showed they were not against the military or anti-American or calling to give up the peace agreement with Israel. The Egyptian army guaranteed that a regime change wouldn’t effect American interests, so America didn’t insist on Mubarak; and anyway, the US was used to dealing directly with the military, not its political wing.

For the US, confronted by an unforeseen popular uprising that it hadn’t ordered, the problem became how to get the same security and stability for its interests that the strong man had provided by means of democracy. For the Egyptian military, the problem was how to not let itself be exposed to the people’s discontent by direct rule; it held elections and guaranteed a new government.

The Two Military Coups

The elections did not bring food, shelter and clothing to the Egyptian masses, but the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in office. The Muslim Brotherhood held that the right customs and habits in power would create a community that would live together in peace and prosperity. They saw the poverty in their country as a result of a lack of Islamic morality: the masses do not take religious standards and norms seriously because they are too materialistic; the Egyptian elites do not serve the interests of the Islamic community because they are too westernized.

The Muslim Brotherhood raised their moral critique to a state program. As such, it was opposed to Egypt’s reasons of state. Their policies were an attack on the previously existing structures, including the military, which they saw as part of the Mubarak regime. They tried to change the system by replacing state functionaries with their own people. They were revolutionary in that they attacked the traditional interests and power structure of Egypt. They challenged how the state should be organized and the issues that should create a real community identity between the state and the people.

The Muslim Brotherhood began to change not only Egypt’s internal course, but its external purposes. Their criticism that the state was dominated by foreigners had an objective basis in the military’s subcontractor status with the US. The Muslim Brotherhood started forming new relations with other Islamic groups like Hamas, so they were no longer reliably policing Gaza and the Sinai in the interests of the US and Israel. Morsi tried to convince the Americans that he would be a good ally, but he also criticized them on Syria. This was not just another party ruling, but a change in Egypt’s reason of state. The existing judicial and military apparatus was not willing to go along with this. It was just a matter of time before they were kicked out.

The rebellion against Morsi was not an uprising of the whole population like the earlier one. This time around, Morsi’s supporters were defending the government and the various groups attacked each other while the police and military looked on. Morsi experienced the same fate as Mubarak, but in a slightly different way. There was plenty of disapproval, but there was no party to take his place, so the people revolted against the rulership as such. Discontent in a one-party state quickly becomes radical, so again the military stepped in as “savior of the nation.”

Unlike a developed democracy where an unpopular leader steps down and a new one brings back popular support for a state, this doesn’t work in Egypt. In the developed countries, this type of protest is functional; the different parties play a game of musical chairs. In a state like Egypt, where most people don’t eat regular meals and a tiny elite owns eerything, the idea of having the people chose its rulers doesn’t go smoothly. Protests against a ruler lead straight to the destruction of even the meager basis for rule that existed.

The Stability of a Regime Which Pursues America’s Interests

The US was once again taken off guard by events as they unfolded. It never came out against the second coup or said that it wanted the Muslim Brotherhood back in power; it always viewed them as the wrong guys who had won the election. On the other hand, the US felt that the military was acting outside of consultation with the US. On the face of it, it seems strange to acquiesce in a coup and then criticize the means employed. But in criticizing, the US wants to reassert itself with the Egyptian military by asking: are you still listening to us or going your own way? The US is concerned that it no longer has the reliability of rule it once had there. The US is sending a message to the Egyptian military of displeasure: there’s too much opposition that is not channelled in a functional way like it is in the ideal western democracies.

There’s another side to it: when the US criticized Mubarak, it was that he had not insured Egypt’s reason of state, which is being an ally of the US. The US saw its influence in Egypt undermined. If the military takes over and does not manage to gain control and support of the people, the US criticizes this from the point of view of its interests in the region. America’s ideal would be a government that submits to its functionality for America and gets democratically elected. It wants the entire population to get behind its policies. If the society only fulfills its functions by military dictatorship, that is acceptable but not best. The current situation is that the military does not overcome these forces; a civil war goes on.

The US doesn’t want Egypt to fall apart. It also doesn’t want to give up its demand that Egypt and the military represent its interests. This is not ensured by the rule of the the Muslim Brotherhood or the military. Everyone knows the military is just running the show now, and it is losing its respected status. Democracy seems out of the question. While the US doesn’t see any necessity for Egypt to be a “true democracy,” it wants at least the pretense that Egypt’s state force is a service to its people. From the American point of view, the Egyptian state has been a failure in that it could never convince its population about its mission to serve its American sponsors.

And meanwhile, the material condition of the people in Egypt continues to worsen.

Geoffrey McDonald edits Ruthless Criticism.