Still defying a dictator the U.S. backs

February 9, 2011

The revolutionary struggle in Egypt is maintaining its momentum despite the efforts of the Mubarak regime and the White House to divide it--and maintain the status quo.

THE BIGGEST protest yet in Tahrir Square, accompanied by demonstrations and strikes across Egypt.

That was the response Tuesday of the mass of Egyptians in Cairo to the Mubarak regime's mixture of repression and limited concessions. In carrying out their U.S.-approved program of promising reform by day and carrying out arrests by night, Egyptian ruler President Hosni Mubarak and his henchman, Vice President Omar Suleiman, have only spurred the opposition to a greater level.

Instead of the "return to normalcy" called for by the regime and echoed by the mainstream Western media, Cairo saw hundreds of thousands surge into Tahrir Square, forcing the military to abandon its attempts to restrict access. According to Al Jazeera English, civil servants getting off work joined the protest in large numbers--just hours after they had gotten a 15 percent wage and pension increase as the government tried to buy off sections of the opposition.

For the first time, protesters blockaded the parliament building near Tahrir Square. The chants were as defiant as ever: "Go Mubarak, go! The regime must go!" Journalists demanded that the head of their professional syndicate resign after he publicly disparaged the revolution.

Egyptians are continuing to defy the Mubarak regime and its U.S. backers
Egyptians are continuing to defy the Mubarak regime and its U.S. backers (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

And once again, the struggle surged far beyond central Cairo. Across the country, working people, the poor and sections of the middle class continued to take to the streets, occupying public spaces--and now challenging their bosses. For example, as Ahram English Online reported:

Labor protests escalated in Suez with textile workers joining in and demonstrating, with 2,000 others demanding their right to work. Ali Fuad, a worker at the station, said: "We are having a sit-in today to demand our rights, which are in the text of the workers' law, our right to obtain the annual increase in salary, which the management refuses to give us so we strike with all the laws that uphold the right of workers."

WORKERS LIKE Ali Fuad are causing consternation and worry not just in Mubarak's well-fortified presidential palace, but in the White House as well. The emergence of working-class struggle over economic as well as political demands has the potential to deepen the social base of the revolutionary movement and bring further pressure on the Egyptian state and the crony capitalists who surround it.

That's what's keeping President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton up at night. It's bad enough that a popular revolt could topple the iron-fisted ruler at the center of their Middle Eastern strategy. A workers' upsurge that results in democratic trade unions independent of Egypt's state-controlled labor organizations would set--from the standpoint of the U.S. and its stooges--an even more dangerous example in the Arab world.

So the Obama administration last week retreated from its insistence on a transition that should "begin now," in Obama's words. One can imagine the discussion in the White House situation room: Do we really want to see a democratic revolution sweep away the guy who's our number two recipient of military aid and a guarantor of U.S. support for Israel?

Enter Frank Wisner, the ex-ambassador to Egypt under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., a prominent businessman and a fix-it guy when Washington wants its way in the Middle East.

Wisner was sent to meet with Mubarak early last week as millions of people took to the streets. Mubarak went on national television that night and refused to step down, and the next day, the regime unleashed its security forces and thugs against the Tahrir Square demonstrators, to the horror of people around the world.

The official story is that Wisner was rebuffed by Mubarak, and that the U.S. had no choice but to back off its demand for change and instead work to keep the dictator in office until elections scheduled for September, with a few limited concessions along the way. The U.S. media compliantly took up that story.

Wisner, however, promptly embarrassed the White House by publicly praising Mubarak via a videolink to a global security conference in Munich: "The president must stay in office in order to steer those changes through. President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical."

U.S. officials disowned Wisner's comments as those of a private individual--as if a man entrusted on one day to personally convey a message from the president of the United States to a key ally was merely a private citizen the next day.

And by the way, Wisner is a "private citizen" who works for Patton Boggs, one of the biggest lobbying/law firms in Washington. Among Patton Boggs' biggest clients is--you guessed it--Egypt, where the firm is working for the government to carry out the privatization of more than 2,000 Egyptian schools.

THE YAWNING gap between the Obama administration's professions of sympathy for the Egyptian protesters and its continued support for Mubarak isn't hard to understand.

While U.S. imperialism has gotten a facelift from the Obama administration's friendlier rhetoric compared to that of George W. Bush--remember Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009?--the fact is that that U.S. maintains its grip on the world in large part through clients like Mubarak. While he's more brutal and more corrupt (with a family net worth estimated at $70 billion) than many, the Egyptian dictator isn't so different from a number of strongmen, autocrats and even monarchs on the U.S. gravy train.

What's different now is that the revolutionary movement in Egypt has brought those practices to light.

It's impossible to talk about the beating of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper or the arrest of Google executive Wael Ghonim without talking about how Egypt's police state routinely treats pro-democracy and labor activists far more savagely. Even the mainstream media couldn't avoid reporting on the made-in-the-USA labels on the bullets and tear gas canisters--paid for largely through the $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt that comes from U.S. taxpayer dollars--fired at people for asserting their democratic rights.

Thus, on NPR's All Things Considered, host Robert Siegel asked Joshua Keating, associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine, whether he thought it was inevitable that the U.S. will back allies who fall "embarrassingly short of our standards of democracy or human rights?" Keating's reply: "I do. Unfortunately, it's been a reality throughout U.S. history."

That kind of "realism" means that the U.S. will keep scrambling to help the Egyptian regime try to divert the revolution into empty negotiations, if not hijack it altogether.

The U.S. recognizes that there's little choice other than to ease out Mubarak. But they want to do it through a quiet and gradual constitutional change, not as the result of a roiling popular rebellion. And Washington officials are fine with scapegoating a few ministers and corrupt businessmen, as long as their own core economic and military stakes in the country remain intact.

And so the double game continues: The U.S. offers public praise for the regime when it promises modest concessions, and shakes a finger when security forces arrest or attack protesters, while doing nothing to stop them. If the Mubarak regime can blunt the revolution by erecting a democratic façade over what is essentially a military government, the Obama administration will be relieved.

That's why the most important act of solidarity with the Egyptian revolution that U.S. activists can undertake is to demand an end to all U.S. military aid to Egypt.

Without the constant flow of money, military hardware and political support, the Egyptian regime and security apparatus would be far less able to withstand revolutionary democratic change. It's time for the emerging solidarity movement to demand a cutoff of U.S. aid to Egypt--now.

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