Two Pillars of Cynicism

Ululations of joy broke out in Tel Aviv when it became clear that neither the United States nor the Egyptian ruling elite wanted to succumb to the pressures from below. It was all very well to allow managed democracy in Eastern Europe or in Central Asia, but such illusions were out of the question for the Middle East. A cobwebbed tradition of orientalist scholarship had proclaimed the Arab incapable of Enlightenment inventions such as democracy (a convenient example is Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, 1973). Their policy cousins, in the diplomatic warrens of Foggy Bottom and in Kiryat Ben Gurion, absorbed this twaddle. For them, the Arab World would only ascend to Democracy in the long-term. In the short term, where we all live, it would have to make do with Stability. When the masses gathered in Tahrir Square, they were not harbingers of Democracy for Washington and Tel Aviv: instead, they augured something worse than Mubarak – rule by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Visions of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas ran through their future plans. Israel would be encircled by cartoon character Ayatollahs who resembled Jafar, the Grand Vizier of Agrabah (from Disney’s 1992 Aladdin). It was all too much to bear.

Obama’s White House and State Department seemed unable to keep up with the pace of events in Egypt and in the Arab world in general. One revolutionary wave after another put various scenarios for diplomacy and intervention into the shredder. The popular uprisings did not keep to any timetable, and their phases seemed hard to predict. The intransigence of the people in Tahrir Square, in particular, dazzled the planners. Frank Wisner’s friendly chat with Mubarak got the old man to agree to leave by September. In his place came Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, an old friend of Israel and the United States. But the people in Tahrir Square seemed to know that if they went home and disbanded the force that they had created, in the dark night Suleiman’s agents would swoop into their homes, take them to Abu Zaabal to be hung upside down and beaten. Too much is known of the ways of the secret police to allow the dynamism of the Tahrir Square to be so easily broken up. Mubarak’s gambit was patently insufficient.

But this is all that the United States could offer. Too much is at stake. The two pillars of U. S. foreign policy must be allowed to remain intact. If they fall, then the U. S. will lose the Middle East in the same way as it has substantially lost South America. These defeats and retreats portend the collapse of U. S. hegemony.

Pillar 1.

The first pillar is to maintain Egypt as a firm ally in the U. S. led war on terror. Here the Mubarak regime is not following the United States. It has interests that parallel those of Washington. The secular regime set up by Gamal Abdul Nasser was already at war with political Islam within Egypt. Nasser’s popularity held the Muslim Brotherhood in check. Nasser’s aide, Anwar Sadat, had been the Egyptian military’s liaison with the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1930s. When he took over from Nasser, Sadat tried to outflank the Brotherhood from the right, calling himself the Believer President (al-rais al-mou’min), and bringing the shari’a into the constitution of 1971. Sadat could not do the job. The Islamists killed him in 1981.

Sadat’s successor, Mubarak, also tried to dance with the Islamists, but was not successful. In 1993, Mubarak picked a career military man, General Omar Suleiman, to run his internal security department, the Mukhabarat el-Aama. Two years later, Mubarak was to go to a meeting in Addis Ababa. Suleiman insisted that an armored car be flown to Ethiopia. Suleiman sat beside Mubarak when the Islamist gunmen opened fire on the car. The armor saved them. Mubarak signed legislation that made it a crime to even sympathize with Islamism, and his regime built five new prisons to fill with Brotherhood members. Some of these prisons became the torture chambers after 9/11 run by Suleiman on behalf of the CIA. Mubarak and Suleiman matched Bush and his clique in their hatred of the Brotherhood. [For more on this, see Lisa Hajjar’s essay Suleiman: the CIA’s Man in Cairo,” al-jazeera, February 7]. They were natural allies.

But Egypt’s willingness to be a partner had been strained by the Iraq War. In 2008, Ambassador Margaret Scobey worried that Egypt’s eagerness had flagged (08Cairo2543, Wikileaks). “The Egyptians have lost confidence in U. S. regional leadership. They believe that the U. S. invasion of Iraq was an unmitigated disaster that has unleashed Iranian regional ambitions and that the U. S. waited far too long to engage in Arab-Israeli peacemaking efforts.” Ambassador Scobey worried that “Egypt’s aging leadership” was averse to change. Defense Minister Field Marshall Tantawi had been in office since 1991, and he had “been the chief impediment to transforming the military’s mission to meet emerging security threats.” Mubarak “is in solid health,” she wrote, and would run and win in the 2011 election. “Despite incessant whispered discussions, no one in Egypt,” she noted, “”has any certainty about who will eventually succeed Mubarak.”

The U. S. had long considered Omar Suleiman to be the best bet. In 2006, the Cairo Embassy wrote (06Cairo2933, Wikileaks), “Our intelligence collaboration with Omar Soliman is now probably the most successful element of the relationship.”

Suleiman saw Iran under the hood of every Brotherhood car. In 2009, he met General David Petraeus in Cairo. Ambassador Scobey wrote a note back to the State Department on July 14 (09Cairo1349, Wikileaks). “Soliman stressed that Egypt suffers from Iranian interference, through its Hezbollah and Hamas proxies, and its support for Egyptian groups like Jamaatt al-Islamiyya and the Muslim Brotherhood,” she wrote. “Egypt will confront the Iranian threat, he continued, by closely monitoring Iranian agents in Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and any Egyptian cells.” This was music to the ears of the Washington Hawks. Suleiman was a reliable upholder of Pillar no. 1.

Pillar no. 2.

The second pillar of U. S. foreign policy in the region is to protect Israel. Israel has faced no major threat since the 1973 war, when Egypt’s powerful army took it on. The Egypt-Israel peace treat of 1979 allowed Israel to pivot its entire security strategy to face off against much weaker actors, such as Lebanon and the Palestinians. Egypt’s withdrawal has allowed Israel to exert itself with overwhelming force against the Palestinians, in particular. As well, Egypt’s volte-face in 1979 allowed Israel to reduce its defense spending from 30 per cent of its Gross National Product to 7 per cent of its GNP.

As part of this deal, the United States provides each country with a large bursary each year: Israel receives about $3 billion and Egypt receives $1.5 billion. Most of this money goes toward the military and security services of these two allies. The U. S. subvention and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty create an exaggerated asymmetry between the Israeli armed forces and the Palestinian fighters.

Protests in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of the action, sent a tremor through Tel Aviv’s establishment. If a new government comes to power with the Brotherhood in alliance, this might lead to the abrogation of the 1979 treaty. If this were to occur, Israel would once again be faced with the prospect of a hostile Egypt, and its Goliath stance against the Palestinians would be challenged.

In 2008, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited the Egyptian leadership in Cairo. When his team returned to Tel Aviv, his adviser David Hacham debriefed the U. S. embassy’s Luis G. Moreno (08TelAviv1984, Wikileaks). Hacham said that the team was “shocked by Mubarak’s appearance and slurred speech.” They talked about Iran and Mubarak and Barak agreed that “Israel and Egypt have a common strategic interest in stopping the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, as well as a common view of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.” Then, strikingly, Moreno wrote a parenthetical note, “We defer to Embassy Cairo for analysis of Egyptian succession scenarios, but there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.”

If Suleiman takes the reins, in other words, the second pillar of U. S. interests will remain stable.

The actions of U. S. foreign policy have not progressed much from the inclinations of Teddy Roosevelt. In 1907, he wondered if “it is impossible to expect moral, intellectual and material well-being where Mohammedanism is supreme.” The Egyptians were “a people of Moslem fellahin who have never in all time exercised any self-government whatever.” This was disingenuous. Roosevelt knew of course that the British ruled over Egypt. The Egyptians rose in revolt in 1881 under Ahmed Arabi against the Khedive (the British puppet Twefik Pasha), and once more in Alexandria in 1882. These rebellions, or the urge for self-government, was interpreted cynically by the British as its opposite: a reason to stay, to tame the passions of the population. The British would withdraw, the Foreign Office wrote, “as soon as the state of the country and the organization of the proper means for the maintenance of the khedivial authority will admit it.” This promise was repeated almost verbatim sixty-six times between the early 1880s and 1922. It was Nasser who tossed them out in the 1950s. Roosevelt threw in his lot with the British consul, Lord Cromer. Cromer, he said, “is one of the greatest modern colonial administrators, and he has handled Egypt just according to Egypt’s needs.” This is what Omar Suleiman said recently, that Egypt is too immature for democracy in the Enlightenment sense. Wisner whispered just this nonsense in his ear when he was in Cairo.

Tahrir Square burst with enthusiasm and resilience on February 8. The U. S. hastily told the Egyptian authority to make a few more concessions. Anything will do as long as the two pillars remain intact. Joe Biden called Suleiman and told him to make “immediate, irreversible progress.” The U.S. and Israel wanted Suleiman to take the reins at least four years ago. The protests have simply hastened the script. The people of Egypt want to write a new play.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu


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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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