The last thing the U.S. policy elite wants is real democracy in Egypt. That country has been a linchpin of American foreign policy for more than 30 years precisely because its government has been able to defy the will of the Egyptian people. If that should change now, America’s rulers and their Israeli partners will be in panic mode, if they aren’t already.
We may discount the insipid kind-of-pro-democracy statements coming from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They wanted the street protesters to go away, and if lip service to human rights would help bring that about, then they would engage in it. But they were careful not to encourage the throngs in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square because they don’t trust common people with big decisions. Obama and Clinton played a cunning game, but rather ineptly. Earlier this month their special envoy, Frank Wisner, publicly said his old friend Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak “must stay in office to steer” the way toward a “national consensus around the preconditions” for reform. Clinton tried to distance herself from Wisner’s too-blunt words before essentially saying the same thing later.
But events moved too fast, and now Mubarak is history.
The American policymakers must be frustrated. They need a firm hand in Egypt, but Mubarak stayed too long and they were powerless to maneuver Vice President Omar Suleiman into power. Suleiman was to be their new man. He had been a good servant through the years: When the CIA needed to have someone tortured, he was the go-to guy. The people would not have accepted him as the successor to Mubarak.
Why did the U.S. government side with authoritarianism in Egypt? To update what Franklin Roosevelt is reported to have said about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1939: Mubarak and Suleiman may have been sons of bitches, but they were our sons of bitches. For decades they were faithful agents of the American empire, at a cost of well over a $1 billion a year from American taxpayers. In the eyes of the power elite, it was money well spent.
Support for Egyptian dictators was part of a bigger plan. Since World War II, when America succeeded Great Britain as the chief imperial power in the region, the U.S. government has opposed Arab nationalism and independence, and supported any ruler — secular or religious — who would toe the U.S. line. When it was necessary to cultivate the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt because it hated secular nationalism and Marxism, that was the policy the Americans pursued. (In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower hosted a Muslim Brotherhood envoy at the White House, despite its reputation for violence.) At other times, it supported autocratic rulers who suppressed that organization (which renounced violence more than 50 years ago). It all depended on who America’s official enemy was and who was willing to carry water for the U.S. government — a cynical game, but that’s what superpowers do to gain their objectives.
And what were America’s objectives? Control of the vast oil reserves, which are seen as essential to U.S. global hegemony, and (mostly for domestic political reasons) unconditional support of Israel, including its expansion onto Palestinian land and intimidation of its neighbors. Any Arab leader willing to advance those goals — no matter how brutal or defiant of the people — could be a well paid friend of the United States. Otherwise, watch out.
The problem for America’s policy elite is that Arabs like neither foreign interference nor the brutal treatment of the Palestinians. That’s why they had to be denied a say in their own governance. Look up what happened when the “wrong” parties won elections in Algeria and Gaza. If the winner in a free Egyptian election is a party that sides with the long-suffering Palestinians, don’t expect the U.S. government to stand by.
And yet what could it do? Egyptians have experienced people power. They know what it’s like to abolish a government. Incredibly, Mubarak is gone, and resistance to other dictators is spreading. For America’s rulers, the chickens are on their way home. How could they not have known this day would come?
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation, author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and editor of The Freeman magazine.
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