Monday, April 23

On The Record

What do the recent uprisings in Egypt mean for U.S. relations in the Middle East, and for the Middle East itself?

Postdoctoral Student in the Department of Political Science

Postdoctoral Student in the Department of Political Science

/ Daily Bruin

Professor in the Department of History

Professor of Arabic

Chairman of the Department of History and Professor of Jewish History

The ongoing protest in Egypt, like the lightening transition in Tunisia, reveals the depth of frustration and anger over decades of oppression by corrupt U.S.-supported regimes. At the same time, it reveals serious new limits on American power in the Middle East.

The American Empire is clearly and quickly nearing the end of its long reign of domination in the region. While the U.S. may eventually succeed in forcing Hosni Mubarak out of the presidency, its capacity to shape events in its own image is severely diminished, a far cry from the days of the CIA-led coup against the Mosaddegh government in Iran in 1953.

In fact, what we are witnessing is the latest and perhaps final stages of decolonization in the Middle East, a process that began with the struggle against French colonial role more than 50 years ago and is culminating with the demise of America’s “soft” colonialism today.

The new regimes that take raise may well be democratically elected, but it is unlikely that they will readily fall back into the American orbit. Rather, the Egypt of tomorrow may well resemble the Turkey of today ““ a democratically elected, moderately Islamist regime that seeks to forge its own path, at times allying with the U.S. and at times not.

In this new world, uncertainty is the dizzying, unnerving, and necessary price to pay for democracy.

An assessment of the possible American attitude toward the Egyptian intifada must start from history’s sobering effect. In 1953, at the initial prodding of the British MI6, the CIA concocted a coup d’état in Iran against the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. This ushered in nearly three decades of the Shah’s dictatorship. From the vantage point of Anglo-American imperialism, Mosaddegh had committed two cardinal sins: He introduced progressive socio-economic reforms, and he nationalized Iran’s chief natural resource ““ oil.

In 1973, in collusion with the extreme right and military high echelon in Chile, the CIA plotted another coup d’état, this time against the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. This was followed by a decade and a half of General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship. From the perspective of the American empire, Allende in his turn had committed three unpardonable offenses: He was a socialist, he nationalized resources and industries and he began to introduce collectivization.

These two events are emblematic of how the U.S. treated countries whose economies are at the periphery of the global capitalist system’s division of labor and capital accumulation.

This approach has continued after the end of the Cold War with necessary adjustments.

It rests on three pillars.

First, the structure of these economies must be (neo)liberal-market, so that they can be plundered by American, and more generally global, corporations. Second, it must be made sure that the resources of these economies are not nationalized but available, mainly as raw material, for the US and other economies at the center of the capitalist system rather than being beneficial to the locals. Third, it is immeasurably preferable to achieve these goals (and others, such as the elimination of autonomous trade unions to secure cheap labor) by installing dictatorships whose supporting elites profit from the arrangements. The wave of Latin American progressive democracies shows how dangerous this development is for the conjunction of global capital and empire.

In terms of the American approach, what sets the Middle East apart from other regions is Israel. Consequently, in addition to the three pillars mentioned above, U.S. proxies in the region must also be pro-Israeli and cooperate with that state tacitly or overtly.

Few love affairs in the modern Middle East have been more passionate than the one between the Shah’s notorious SAVAK and the Israeli SHABAK. This trend has been enhanced since the end of the Cold War with Egypt as its linchpin, and President Hosni Mubarak as the chief collaborator with Washington and Jerusalem.

The reluctance of the Obama administration to unequivocally endorse the democratic demands of the Egyptian intifada stems not only from historical American aversion to true democracy in the Third World, but also from Israeli pressure to sustain Mubarak for as long as possible.

If the Egyptian intifada is suppressed, the US and Israel will get away with it, at least for a while. If, however, this revolution is successful and sweeps other parts of the Middle East, and if it produces something akin to the Latin American neo-Bolivarism, there may be a price to pay.

Recent events in Egypt have once again exposed the hypocrisy of the U.S. government’s foreign policy. The policy to support what it views as stable and moderate, but authoritarian and oppressive, regimes in the Middle East is fundamentally flawed and diametrically opposed to the American ideals of freedom and human dignity.

For the last three decades, the U.S. has played a major role in supporting President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt, after Israel, is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, mainly military.

Repression of political opposition in Egypt was justified in the name of security crackdown against the so-called Islamic fundamentalists. The U.S. government continued to extol the dictator by calling him “a stalwart ally” and a “force for stability and good in the region.” Tear gas canisters and tanks on the streets are supplied by the U.S., as are helicopters and fighter jets making low passes over the peaceful demonstrators in the liberation square.

The mainstream media and U.S. administrators are still obsessed with the Islamic threat to such an extent that they imagine the Muslim Brotherhood behind this uprising in Egypt. The U.S. government held on to hopes that their man might weather the popular uprising and avoid any statements acknowledging the brutality of the Egyptian regime.

Sober Western analysts state that it is the young secular forces that led the massive pro-democratic movement in Egypt. It is an economic and political revolution uniting various segments of the society, rising up against the -(U.S.-backed) anti-democratic, authoritarian regime.

If real regime change comes to Egypt, it would mean a shift in its relations with the U.S. and its protégé Israel.

President Obama’s administration should be prepared to acknowledge that change. Otherwise, America could be on the wrong side of history.

At this stage in events, comparisons between the uprisings in Egypt and the 1979 revolution in Iran, while compelling, are in many ways inaccurate. Fears of another “Islamic revolution” allow Egyptian elites and the U.S. to buy enough time to influence an otherwise inevitable transition in governance.

Historically speaking, three features of the current uprising seem to invite these comparisons: the protesters’ overarching demand that an autocratic leader propped up by military aid from the U.S. step down, a sitting democratic president wavering between universal principles and short-term U.S. interests, and a fairly strong Islamist element in the opposition. Parallels to the Shah, Carter and Khomeini are not necessarily far-fetched.

On closer inspection, these comparisons do not stand pat. First, unlike Khomeini in Iran, there is no charismatic leader in Egypt unifying the opposition through an appeal to legitimacy based in Islam. Second, the justification for clerical rule in Iran developed through an interpretation of religious authority with no similar institutional parallel in Egypt today. Finally, the strong leftist presence in pre-revolutionary Iran led to anti-imperialist demands that were global in scope. Egyptian protests thus far have not been as explicitly concerned with American intervention.

The question remains: What function do comparisons to the 1979 revolution serve? It seems as if the “hard choice” facing American policy makers ““ a choice between supporting a dictatorial ally, on the one hand, and protestors calling for the very democratic principles that we claim to espouse, on the other ““ revolves around a fear of what democracy may bring. In response, American and Egyptian elites are scrambling to influence the transition as they see fit.

What if, however, we were to believe that any effort to truly stand by the Egyptian people’s call for self-determination must trust that those people are more than able to fulfill that call on their own without a transition period to “train” them for independence? What if, in other words, we actually believed in democracy?

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