Middle East in Flux

Anthony DiMaggio is a university professor, writer, political commentator and media expert. He is the author of numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008), When Media Goes to War (2010), and Crashing the Tea Party (2011). He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University, and published articles and commentaries in CounterPunch and a number of other publications.

Anthony DiMaggio has taken part in an elaborate, in-depth interview with me to discuss the recent developments in the Middle East, the popular uprising of the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and the impacts of these developments on the political future of the United States and Israel. We have also discussed the U.S. foreign policy with regards to the Middle East and the double standards of the Western superpowers on human rights, democracy and freedom.

Kourosh Ziabari: As you may admit, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 began and progressed quite unexpectedly and unpredictably. After decades of U.S.-backed dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak, the people of Egypt took to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria all of a sudden and called for the dismissal of the dictator and the installation of a democratically-elected president. They successfully overthrew the tyrannical government of Mubarak and his allies in less than 20 days. What were the motives behind this revolution? What have been the motivations that laid the groundwork for the victory of Egyptian nation’s revolution?

Anthony DiMaggio: I think it’s fair to say that the Egyptian revolution took most people in the U.S., including myself, by surprise. In hindsight, it’s not entirely clear why this should have been the case, considering the multitude of factors that came together to establish a critical mass against the status quo. I can’t speak authoritatively about the specific motivations of those who planned the Egyptian revolt since I haven’t had contact with them, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s not difficult to find the major reasons after a bit of critical investigation.

Any discussion of the rebellion in Egypt should concede that many forces came together at the same time to create the conditions needed for the successful overthrow of Mubarak. One important factor was the onset of the global economic crisis, which greatly contributed to growing poverty and desperation in Egypt and throughout the rest of the world. Other factors include the revolution in Tunisia. Reports on the ground in Egypt clearly showed that protestors were drawing inspiration from Tunisians’ success in overthrowing Ben Ali’s repressive government; a success that was readily broadcast through the immensely popular Arab news outlet Al Jazeera. Clearly, the success there has helped initiate a sort of contagion effect, as demands for democratization against U.S. and Western sponsored dictators have taken hold throughout much of the Arab-Muslim world. Furthermore, the technological revolution via developments such as the growth of Al Jazeera and growing public access to satellite communications, in addition to increased access to online networking groups like Facebook and Twitter have also played a key role in Egypt’s success and in challenging traditional communication systems dominated by repressive, centralized governments. Reliance on these networks greatly aided organizing efforts, and culminated in protests of the Egyptian regime that garnered more than one million people in the streets of Cairo in early 2011. These social networks clearly allowed activists to more easily coordinate demonstrations against the Mubarak regime.

Far more important in terms of long term grievances and causes of the rebellion, however, is the growing poverty and declining standard of living in Egypt, largely as a result of economic liberalization and government corruption, cronyism. Egypt is in a dire state with regard to unemployment. Dealing with a massive “youth bulge,” the country is unable to provide enough jobs for the young (60 percent of the population is under 25). Even the well educated are not immune, as the unemployment rate is ten times higher for college graduates as compared to those with an elementary school education. Each year in Egypt, 700,000 new college graduates seek employment in a country in which just 200,000 jobs are available.

Egypt’s revolt is not new; it has been ongoing for many years. The country experienced more than 3,000 labor protests from 2004 through the end of the decade, as a social movement emerged that was dedicated to challenging growing unemployment and poor working conditions, benefits that coincided with the rise of the privatization and neoliberalization of Egypt’s economy over the last twenty years.

Neoliberalism has had disastrous consequences for the masses. Mandated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and embraced by Mubarak, neoliberalization included the mass privatization of formerly public assets and services, in addition to mass layoffs in an effort to increase profitability in newly privatized companies, strong wage controls which amounted to pay cuts for workers in light of inflation, and a wholesale assault on basic food subsidies, cash transfers, and other government subsidies that were once the norm prior to the onset of “structural adjustment” (a.k.a. “free marketization”) under the IMF and World Bank in 1991.

This privatization is widely associated with the emergence of a small, super-wealthy group of political elites tied to the former Mubarak regime. Mubarak and his sons alone were said to be worth between $15 to 30 billion, with the vast majority of that wealth thought to be tied to the corrupt siphoning off of public funds in relation to privatization schemes in recent decades. Egypt’s masses continued to suffer as Mubarak and his cronies got rich, with the poor unable to pay even for food in light of the 17 percent increase in food prices from 2010 to 2011 alone. Average incomes declined for years, while Mubarak implemented deep cuts in the social welfare safety valve.

Basic food and fertilizer subsidies, cash transfers, and other government aid to the poor fell dramatically in the last two decades in Egypt. Available World Bank data verified this trend, with subsidies as a percent of GDP falling by 11 percent from 1982 to 1995. By 1995, food subsidies specifically had declined to one-third of the level allocated during the 1980s. As a percent of total government spending, food subsidies fell from 19.5 percent in the early 1980s to less than seven percent by 1997. The effects of these cuts were not hard to foresee, considering that Egypt also burst into riots in the late 1970s following major cuts to bread subsidies for the masses. Such riots are common throughout the third world, where the poor rely on these subsidies to survive.

Supporters of “free markets” have made much of Egypt’s seven percent annual economic growth. What they consistently ignore is that the masses have not shared in the material benefits of this growth under neoliberalization. The minimum wage has been frozen at four pounds since the early 2000s. By the end of 2010, more than 40 percent of Egyptians, 80 million people, were living in poverty, on less than $2 a day (compared to twenty percent who earned as much in 1991). At the same time, the wealthy have seen their incomes increase dramatically. In 2004, Mubarak instituted a new tax cut that dropped the top tax rate from 42 to 20 percent of personal income essentially instituting a flat tax in which the country’s poorest paid the same proportion of their incomes as that paid by millionaires. In short, “free market” reforms in Egypt have produced fabulous wealth for the opulent few, at the direct expense of the masses.

Much of the anger at Mubarak was also understandably based on his government’s suppression of anyone who tried to do anything about these developments. Attacks on labor were routine. The Egyptian government closed the offices of numerous trade union services dedicated to advising workers over their rights to organize and protest in support of increased wages and benefits. Protests were regularly met by government violence. Such attacks against labor have been labeled “a serious blow to Egyptian civil society and workers’ rights” by human rights advocates.

Of course, the violation of human rights hardly stops with labor. Mubarak’s repression included many other infringements on basic civil and human rights. The country has suffered under a martial law “state of emergency” for decades, with the government free to make arbitrary arrests and hold citizens without charge. An estimated 10,000 people, as of the late 2000s, remained in prolonged detention without charge. Police regularly relied on false confessions, gained through torture against suspected “enemies” of the state. Egypt itself served as one of a number of sites for secret torture interrogations of U.S. and allied detainees in the “War on Terror.” National press have been censored by a government law that allowed for the detainment of any reporters who criticized Mubarak or friendly foreign leaders, while the government had essentially declared war on the homeless and street children.

These children have typically committed no crimes, yet they are regularly and arbitrarily detained under the charge of “being vulnerable to delinquency,” and faced, according to human rights reporting, “beatings, sexual abuse, and extortion by police and adult suspects, and police [who] at times deny them access to food, bedding, and medical care.” Torture had been growing worse in recent years.As Gasser Abdel Razek of Human Rights Watch explained about the country’s problem with police-sponsored torture: “fifteen years ago, we used to say that this or that police station is bad, or if that you were an Islamist and you got picked up after a bombing, you could count on being tortured. Today, I can’t name a single police station that’s good. And the victims are middle-class, they’re educated, they’re homeless. It doesn’t make any difference.”

KZ: After Tunisia and Egypt, in which the revolutionary forces and people on the ground succeeded in ousting the U.S.-backed puppets, several other Arab nations joined them and staged massive street demonstrations to call for civil liberties, improved living conditions, freedom and democratic governments. Now the whole Arab world is in a state of turmoil and unrest and the U.S.-backed dictators are facing the bitter reality that their autocracies are about to fail and collapse. What factors led to the extension of anti-government protests to the whole Arab world? Can we interpret this collective uprising a result of the explosion of strong pan-Arabist sentiments?

AD: I think it’d be na?ve to deny the role of pan-Arabist sentiment in fueling rebellions throughout the Middle East at a time when Egyptians’ solidarity extends as far as Madison, Wisconsin. I was proud to have participated in those protests, which were directed at a similar, although relatively less extreme, type of repression of labor as led by the Republican Party and business interests in the U.S. and aided greatly by Democrats.

In the case of Egypt, there is of course the now famous statement of Kamal Abbas, general coordinator for Egypt’s Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services, in which he indicated about Wisconsin’s protests: “We want you to know that we stand on your side. Stand firm and don’t waiver. Don’t’ give up on your rights. Victory always belongs to the people who stand firm and demand their rights.”

With regard to the issue of a regional Arab-Muslim rebellion, the cause appears to be driven by the obvious culprit: U.S. supported repression on the part of regional dictatorships. Public animosity against these governments has been in the making for decades. Much of my work in the area of U.S. foreign policy has been dedicated to elaborating upon the long-standing grievances of those living in the Middle East, expressed against the United States and its preferred dictators. A number of recent and important books have also explored this point in detail, including James Zogby’s Arab Voices, Juan Cole’s Engaging the Muslim World, and Steven Kull’s Feeling Betrayed. As should now be apparent to all, the primary anger throughout the Arab-Muslim world is with the U.S. and its client dictators’ complete contempt for democracy.

Support for renewed democratization appears in surveys done across the region. A 2010 poll by the Global Pew Research Center found that majorities throughout every Muslim country surveyed with the exception of Pakistan find democracy to be preferable to competing types of government. Of course most throughout the region think that a primary hindrance to freedom is the United States. A 2007 poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 79 percent of those in Muslim countries surveyed felt that “the U.S. goal is to divide and weaken the Muslim world.” The most common reasons given by survey respondents were: the positioning of U.S. bases in holy lands such as Saudi Arabia, support for Israeli Zionism, which excludes Palestinian Israelis from full citizenship rights, and consistent U.S. and allied attacks on Muslim majority countries/nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Palestine. Polling from the Gallup organization has similarly found that most surveyed throughout the Arab-Muslim world “simply don’t think that the U.S. and the nations of the West have respect for Arabs or for Islamic culture of religion. The people of these Islamic cultures say that the West pays little attention to their situation, does not attempt to help these countries, and makes few attempts to communicate or to create cross-cultural bridges.” U.S. support for brutal dictators is also a common source of frustration, as found in a 2004 Pentagon Defense Science Board study of Arab-Muslim opinion concluded that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies?when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy” in light of the U.S. record of blocking democracy in the region.

KZ: Many Iranians believe that the uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt have been inspired by Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. They compare the overthrowing of U.S.-backed Mubarak and Ben Ali to the dissolution of Mohammad Reza Shah’s government which was unconditionally supported by the United States and its European allies. Do you find such a relationship between these revolutions which took place during an interval of 32 years?

AD: As someone who is not an expert on Iran and recent developments there, including the 2009 uprising and mass protests against the government of Khamenei, I can’t do much but speculate on this question. My initial thoughts were that the uprisings in Iran in 2009 and this year can be viewed very much as fitting comfortably within the other protests throughout the Arab-Muslim world, in terms of resisting repressive governments seen as widely unresponsive to the public. Iran’s government retains a detestable human rights record, as documented in great detail by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Recent developments in Iran have seen a resurgence of demonstrations against the government, with thousands taking to the streets this year in protest of President Ahmadinejad and the established order. Reports of police brutality as directed against the protestors in the form of beatings, use of tear gas, and other attacks have no doubt increased public animosity, although I can’t speak with any authority about the extent to which this year’s protests are supported by the larger Iranian public.

I think there is room to argue that there is a role for the Iranian 1979 revolution with regard to the recent uprising in the broader context of U.S. responsibility. The Shah of Iran and his repressive secret service (SAVAK) were widely detested by the Iranian people, considering the role both played in the torture and murder of thousands. U.S. installation of, and longstanding support for this dictator contributed greatly to Arab and Muslim ill-will against the United States. That ill-will is now being manifested again in the uprisings across the region, which is intimately driven by a distrust of the U.S. and its favored dictators. In this sense, then, I think you can definitely make a connection between the events of 1979 and current protests.

KZ: Prof. Rashid Khalidi believes that the recent uprisings in the Arab countries have transformed and changed the mainstream media’s portrayal of the Muslim world. The people that were once introduced as fanatic terrorists and extremists are now being called freemen who sacrifice their lives for the sake of achieving freedom and liberty. Do agree with this viewpoint? Has the communal uprising of the Arab world changed the public’s viewpoint regarding the Arabs and Muslims?

AD: There is a long-known axiom in the study of U.S. media that goes as such: the spectrum of views observed in the mass media is directly dependent upon the spectrum of views expressed in Washington. I’ve documented this connection for years, highlighting the many ways in which critical points of view are only embraced in the mass media after they are first accepted by elites holding political and economic power.

My impression of coverage of the Egyptian uprising is that the U.S. media has generally framed the people as rising up against a corrupt dictator. In this sense, I would agree with Khalidi that there has been a change in coverage. In the past, this type of reporting and framing of Egyptian politics would not have been embraced in the U.S. media. But it’s important to consider the reason for why this message has been sustained today. The repression and corruption emanating from Mubarak’s regime had become so extreme that it could no longer be denied in light of the massive protests throughout Egypt. Recognizing this basic fact, American officials realized their support for this butcher was no longer sustainable or logical. At the point in which the regime’s downfall appeared imminent, Obama and company then switched from their long-standing policy of supporting this dictator to calling for major reforms and for his ouster. The mass media has simply responded to this change in the official line by echoing the switch-over in official policy.

Notice there hasn’t been any corresponding transformation in U.S. reporting on rebellions in other friendly states which haven’t reached the critical mass and success of Egypt yet, as seen in examples such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain but not in an “enemy” state like Syria, in which critical coverage of government repression is to be expected, and in fact, is commonplace in reporting. U.S. reporters have remained largely silent on the dramatic disparity between U.S. “support for democracy” in Egypt and active U.S. military and logistical support for repression against democratic change in other corrupt oil monarchies in the Middle East. I don’t hear any reporters or pundits calling for a change in policy in terms of opposing or replacing these regimes. Scarcely anything critical has been said about the Obama administration’s cynical new policy of “regime alteration,” rather than regime change, as intended to apply to favored U.S. dictators who remain in firm power. Of course, the “alteration” has proven to be little more than cosmetic, as the U.S. continues to rhetorically call for greater moderation of human rights violations as practiced by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, while concurrently supporting that repression behind the scenes. As one administration official describes Obama’s “new” “regime alteration” policy, the U.S. will continue on a path “toward emphasizing stability [a euphemism for support for corrupt dictators] over majority rule.”

With regard to the American public, I don’t know that public opinion about the uprisings changed opinion dramatically, although more people certainly seem to be paying attention today. Most Americans appeared to genuinely hope that something like democracy would eventually emerge in the case of Iraq during the time when the U.S. was escalating its occupation, although when surveyed they also explained that they felt that “democracy promotion” in and of itself was an insufficient justification for going to war. More recently, the Program on International Policy Attitudes found in their 2011 survey that 65 percent of Americans feel it would be “mostly positive” for the U.S. “if the countries of the Middle East become more democratic.”

Importantly, 57 percent felt that they “would want to see a country [in the region] become more democratic even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose U.S. policies,” which (at least theoretically) bodes well for the idea of regional independence from the U.S.

Kourosh Ziabari is a young Iranian journalist, media correspondent and literary author.




Kourosh Ziabari is an independent journalist from Iran.