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February 10, 2011
TWO PILLARS OF CYNICISM
by Vijay Prashad
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.
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
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: email@example.com