Challenging America’s Pharaoh

Anyone who has lived in Egypt for an extended period of time or has traveled there for extended stays over the past thirty years should not be surprised at the current uprising.  The only surprising thing is that this uprising didn’t happen years or decades sooner.

I first visited Egypt in the summer of 1982, just half a year after the assassination of Sadat. I was twenty-two years old and had little understanding of the Middle East, much less of America’s role in propping up Mubarak and supporting the Egyptian brutalities of martial law.  I later studied Arabic, returned for several visits, lived in rural Egypt in 1989-90 conducting anthropological research, and have been present during several bloody police riots over causes ranging from the poor payment of police and military conscripts, to forced economic adjustments mandated by the International Monetary Fund.

A post-9/11 return to Egypt found a world one of increasing hardships for the bulk of Egyptian society as Mubarak pushed neoliberal economic models that intensified poverty for the many while a shrinking elite grew richer (which led to this account of political unrest and police brutality that appeared in the print version of CounterPunch).  Neoliberal economic transformations require increased policing as states struggle to protect their own powerbase and elites from the spread of poverty that these projects leave in their wake; and the collapse of the authority of the Egyptian state must be understood as a major landmark in these international struggles.

The hatred and distrust of President Mubarak is widespread among Egyptians; Cairo cosmopolitans and the rural fellaheen alike long ago grew tired of Mubarak’s suppression of democratic movements, and his kowtowing to American administrations long ago undermined his domestic credibility.  Mubarak’s late night speech on Tuesday announcing he would not seek reelection and that he would remove laws corrupting the possibility of free and open elections will be used to placate Egyptians who are growing weary of the uprising, and the use of pro-Mubarak thugs brings new forms of violence and chaos to the protests that will be used by the regime to justify harsh oppression against the peaceful protestors.  The Obama administration’s disappointing response to the popular democratic Egyptian uprising demonstrates to the world that the United States is the nation that is not yet ready for democracy in the Middle East.

As the popular protests got under way, John Bolton and other apologists of past and present American administrations took to the airwaves, clarifying the hypocrisy of the American position: complaining that the Muslim Brotherhood was secretly behind the current protest movement, and arguing this demonstrated the need for Mubarak to stay in power. The early statements by Clinton, Biden and Obama were not much better as the US Administration held on to hopes that their man Mubarak might weather the popular uprising. They avoided any statements acknowledging the brutality of Mubarak’s inefficient police state or suggestions that the United States might be entering into an era of decreased hegemonic control of Egypt.

This is not an Islamic revolution, a la-Iran-1979. This is an economic and political revolution uniting Egyptians with secular, ethnic and religious differences, rising up against the US-backed, anti-democratic regime.  While the pro-democracy movement in Egypt is based on a strong coalition that transcends traditional political and ethnic categories (uniting mainstream Egyptian Muslims, Christians, Wafds, the Muslim Brotherhood, farmers, academics and governmental workers), there remains real reasons for concern over the possibility of new levels of sectarian violence in the post-Mubarak period and while the Brotherhood is not at the fore of these current rebellion, the pre-existence of a working political structure with party discipline may allow them organizational advantages should Mubarak fall.  The rise in attacks on Coptic Christians in Upper and Lower Egypt during the two moths preceding these latest dramatic events provide some glimpse into the ethnic tensions that may flare in the post-Mubarak era as a new Egypt searches for solutions to the economic inequities that lie at the base of the Egyptian crisis.

If real regime change comes to Egypt, concerns about the Suez Canal, and shifts in relations with Israel may be used by U.S. policy makers to assert US military might in the region. If any protest movement were to seize the gears and levers that open and close the gates of the Suez Canal, we could expect a rapid U.S. military response that would have serious international implications.  Images of U.S. Marines landing in Suez to seize control over such a key global chokepoint could set new levels of geopolitical instability.

All the anthropologists and other westerners I know from my years in Egypt share a sense that Mubarak’s fall is part of a deeply popular uprising that was a long time coming, and there is widespread agreement that the Egyptian people strongly favor his end of political control.  Yet, there is a push to find intellectuals who can add legitimacy to claims that the pro-democracy revolution in Egypt is actually a movement of a vocal minority.  Prominent Norwegian anthropologist Unni Wikan just published claims that most Egyptians do not see Mubarak as a tyrant, and that the pro-democracy demonstrations present a distorted view of the popular Egyptian consensus.  Wikan wrote in the Sunday edition of Norwegian daily, Aftenpostsen, that among the people she knows in Egypt (in a translation provided by a Norwegian friend):

“It is said further that the president himself is not particularly fond of power: it is the people around him, and his wife, who drives him.  Why mention it here? Because it is no small feat in Egypt, for a man who has ruled for 30 years, to get away with such a “pure” reputation.  Mubarak is no despot. He is not considered to be corrupt. Weak, weak, are the words used on Mubarak. Many feel a bit sorry for him. The sympathy he could have ridden on, he had not tried to introduce a dynasty.”

In all my conversations with various Egyptians over the past thirty years, I can not think of anyone (even his rare supporters) who ever described him as “weak.”  Though Wikan has been working in Egypt since the late 1960s and is famous for her work studying Egypt’s urban poor, her analysis is unrecognizable to me as representing the mainstream views of the Egyptians.

Wikan goes so far as to claim that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, is beloved by most Egyptians and she assures her readers that “most people do not have a personal concern about his son.”  While there is a long literature of anthropologists finding varying views within a single society (or once famously in the same town), I have difficulty understanding how any anthropologist who could find enough people to represent such a rare Egyptian view.  It is strange that Wikan gives voice to that minority of Egyptians now attacking the peaceful anti-Mubarak demonstrators in Cairo and Alexandria, yet the majority of Egyptians of lower- and (shrinking) middle-class that I have spoken with over the years would categorically reject this slanted view of their leader.  We can expect Wikan’s incredible claims to be paraded out by Fox News and CNN as part of a distortion campaign to support Mubarak’s efforts to cling to power, all in the name of balance.

It is commonly believed by many Egyptians that their leaders have been tools of the CIA since the days of Nasser, when Kermit Roosevelt had mixed results in efforts to capture Nasser’s loyalties from Soviet control.  Many Egyptians understand (as was reported by the New Yorker this past week) that Mubarak’s Vice Presidential appointee, Omar Suleiman, was the CIA’s go-to man when running illegal extreme renditions in Egypt.  That President Obama would send Frank Wisner Jr., to Cairo this week to clumsily help Mubarak negotiate his exit is just the latest installment on a long history connecting generations of American and CIA interference in repressing democratic movements.  Many Americans might be surprised at how widespread such critiques are, not among the elites of Cairo and Alexandria, but among the rural peoples of Egypt.

The Fayoum Depression, where I lived in 1989-90, is a natural oasis fed by an ancient canal dug off the Nile millennia ago. It has been the home of some of the world’s oldest Christian monasteries (which still ring the Fayoum close to its desert edges).  The Fayoum has a strong Islamic fundamentalist presence; with local ties to the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and key members of the Islamic Brotherhood.  My friendships with farmers, students, and professional peoples of the Fayoum made clear to me that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood was directly related to the brutality of the US-backed Mubarak regime; a relationship with parallels to the rise of Martin Luther King’s use of the church as a unique space to use Christian dictates advocating for brotherly love and social justice.  In a country ruled by martial law and backed by the United States, where free speech rights are curtailed and political dissent was limited, it makes sense that critiques will emerge from within religious spaces which provide a unique opportunity for limited relatively autonomous critique.

The farmers and friends I met in Egypt taught me jokes about Mubarak, jokes in which he often had a recurring role as a slow gamoosa, the Egyptian water buffalo, ubiquitous in the countryside.  Out in the countryside, when in any public setting—a coffee shop, waiting at a bus stop, or walking in a public place—my Egyptian friends were careful about voicing their critiques of Mubarak or his political party, the NDP.  Through our friendship, they learned that my country’s international policies were not necessarily my own, and I learned just how deeply their own politics differed from the oppressive Egyptian state that Mubarak ruled, and my government propped up in place.

The events of this past week leave me thinking about how President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton’s bungling support of their Egyptian client Mubarak unites me with my Egyptian friends, as I find myself in a position in my own country  — with leaders whose support for Mubarak do not represent me or my interests in ways that parallel the distance my Egyptian friends have long felt from their President.  As Mubarak’s career is one where his choices were limited by his Western minders, so Obama is limited by corporate interests, and long-term geopolitical forces he dares not upset and the shrill limits of Middle East possibilities imposed by America’s “special relationship” with Israel.

Egypt is full of contradictions.  Modernity and traditional society clash and coalesce throughout its cities and countryside.  A few years ago, I spent part of an afternoon talking to a longtime member of the flourishing Cairo art and literature scene who spoke of the local hipster rebel student scene at Cairo University during the 1960s. He recounted  a recent chance encounter he’d recently had with a heavily veiled woman, who revealed to him she had known him as a radical liberationist during the days of campus rebellions.

Governmental censors limit what appears on radio, newspapers and television news; but lively political debates in private homes are a core cultural trait.  Simple acts of kindness and courtesies are part of the fabric of daily life even while the nation has been under martial law since Sadat’s assassination, with corrupt police ruling the streets.  It is not surprising that there are reports that un-uniformed police roaming as thugs wreaking havoc in Cairo’s neighborhoods, and that police IDs were taken from pro-Mubarak thugs attacking peaceful demonstrators on Wednesday.  A fundamental dynamic supporting the military’s current decision to not fire upon anti-Mubarak protestors is that while elite forces and officers may come from educated middle-class backgrounds: the military’s rank and file are villagers (who could not afford the fee to avoid mandatory conscription) whose hatred of Mubarak is often on par with the pro-democracy protestors.

While the outcome of the current struggle is unclear, deep problems will face whoever emerges to rule Egypt in the aftermath of this revolutionary moment.  Democratic reforms will help, but the economic problems facing Egypt — problems exacerbated by Mubarak’s economic policies — are severe and there are real dangers for the populace if there is a governmental collapse, or if foreign aid is withdrawn over disapproval of the results of free and fair elections.  The importance of foreign aid for Egypt is a double edged sword: one that could be used to pressure Mubarak into a rapid resignation, but also one that can be used to manipulate whatever new government emerges.

The rural Egyptian farmers I came to know had little formal education, yet there was a remarkably widespread understanding that the United States exerted direct control over their government, and that their national debt and American aid was used to extort domestic and foreign policies unpopular with the Egyptian people.  I had more than one farmer explain to me that if Egypt ever got to the point of revolution, then the new government (which was most often assumed to be an Islamic regime) would not be bound by the debts of the previous administration and would be free to start over with a clean economic slate.  This view always seemed to ignore the basic problem that Egypt’s rapid population growth had exceeded the nation’s capacity to grow sufficient food to meet its needs, and when I pointed out that declaring bankruptcy through revolution could lead to food shortages, I was always answered with the response that God would provide.

Rapid population growth contributes to the many fiscal problems facing Egypt: with a population over 80-million people, all living along the narrow strip of arable land along the thin Nile basin and the Delta, Egypt has the highest habitable population density of any country on earth.  The almost Dadaist 1950s Egyptian screwball comedies that play on Egyptian TV record un-crowded streets and sidewalks, with grassy medians and rooftops of a Cairo with less than two million people, scenes that are today crammed with squatters, bumper to bumper traffic, and overflowing with twenty-million people.  This population growth achieved under a growing dependence on foreign aid and imported wheat and other foodstuffs leaves Egypt today only able to produce enough food to feed itself for only seven or eight months out of the year.  If the transition of leadership after Mubarak undermines Egypt’s strategic relations with the United States and other nations providing this food aid, the nation of Egypt could stand a severe risk of famine.

But rapid population growth isn’t Egypt’s only problem: Mubarak’s neo-liberal trickle-down economic policies, enacted in consultation with the International Monetary Fund and the United States, have led to increasing gaps between rich and poor and ideepening  poverty.  While Egypt may well break free from Mubarak, independence from the United States might be far more difficult to achieve.  Egypt’s dependence on foreign aid from the US, which expanded as a result of Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Peace Agreement, will keep the United States as a key partner with whatever leadership emerges in post-Mubarak Egypt.  Aid dependence is a powerful force, and as former economic hitman John Perkins made abundantly clear, while recipient nations come to have growing dependence on this aid, vast amounts of the aid remains in US corporate and private hands.

While the brave spirit of the Egyptian people rising up against an oppressive regime is a hopeful moment for all working for democratic reforms and justice, serious problems await whatever leadership emerges.  If Mubarak is removed from power, there will be serious domestic problems ahead for whatever ruling coalition establishes itself.  While a new regime will likely distance itself from Mubarak’s past subservient relationship with the United States, the economic problems facing Egypt will still require it to forge economic alliances with some foreign patron state(s), and Washington (and other nations) will be eager to establish ongoing relations, and obligations, with the new regime.

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of the forthcoming, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State to be published by CounterPunch Books, and a contributor to the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ book Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual published by Prickly Paradigm Press. He can be reached at


David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.