Imperial hypocrisies

February 15, 2011

Eric Ruder looks at the myths about Egypt spun among politicians and the press.

THE DAY before Hosni Mubarak officially became Egypt's ex-president, John Negroponte, the U.S. diplomat who has been deployed to war zones from Honduras to Iraq, took to the airwaves to defend his community.

The U.S. intelligence community, that is.

Foreign policy analysts were asking why CIA chief Leon Panetta had spread the word on Thursday, February 10, that Mubarak was about to step down, only to be embarrassed hours later when Mubarak announced his intention to stay, bringing an abrupt end to the celebration that had already begun in Tahrir Square.

Negroponte had just come from the region--in fact, from Cairo just before the demonstrations against Mubarak began on January 25. But Negroponte's full-throated defense of intelligence agencies is interesting because it offers a glimpse into the world view of the ruthless characters who make up the U.S. foreign policy establishment:

When I was in Egypt three weeks ago, it wasn't at all obvious that this was going to happen. Events were occurring in Tunisia...Tunisia was the spark...I don't think this is some kind of an intelligence failure. I think it's a problem that the people and the government of Egypt have with the adequacy of their government, which has been in power for 30 years--an authoritarian regime which they would like to see changed. And what we are watching is a rather messy process by which this now seems to be unfolding.

Barack Obama with Hosni Mubarak during Obama's 2009 visit to Cairo
Barack Obama with Hosni Mubarak during Obama's 2009 visit to Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

So Negroponte, who was director of national intelligence just four years ago, was in Cairo as a popular uprising brought the Tunisian dictatorship to its knees--yet he had no idea that a similar movement could develop in Egypt where the bulk of the population has felt nothing but hatred for a regime notorious for harassment and torture. Now there's a public employee who truly is overpaid!

But the really remarkable aspect of Negroponte's "analysis" is the idea that the Egyptian revolution is nothing more than a matter between the people of Egypt and the government of Egypt--as if every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter hasn't had a smiling photograph snapped with Mubarak. The U.S. government is very much a part of what's taken place in Egypt, having backed every last repressive act of the regime with money, guns and other military hardware.

SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, U.S. policymakers have focused single-mindedly on Islam as the chief threat to U.S. domination of the Middle East, and Mubarak was happy to go along with the new witch-hunt. For years, the Muslim Brotherhood had served as the chief opposition current to the Egyptian regime, and now the fight against the Brotherhood fit neatly under the ideological umbrella of U.S. foreign policy.

Poverty, on the other hand, didn't produce a blip on the intelligence radar. Sure, Egyptians were getting poorer, and rising food prices produced some protests here and there, but Egypt's GDP had been growing rapidly since 2003, even during the global recession. Growth rates fell recently, but they were still at 4.6 percent annually in 2010.

But U.S. officials had begun to believe their own rhetoric about the "threat" of the Muslim Brotherhood--so much so that when James Clapper, the current director of national intelligence, described the Muslim Brotherhood as an "an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam," it caused a firestorm of criticism and a prompt retraction from the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials discounted the obvious threat to the Mubarak regime. In the words of Middle East expert Juan Cole:

The U.S.-backed military dictatorship in Egypt has become, amusingly enough, a Bonapartist state. It exercises power on behalf of both a state elite and a new wealthy business class, some members of which gained their wealth from government connections and corruption.

The Egypt of the Separate Peace, the Egypt of tourism and joint military exercises with the United States, is also an Egypt ruled by the few for the benefit of the few. The whole system is rotten, deeply dependent on exploiting the little people, on taking bribes from the sole superpower to pursue self-defeating or greedy policies virtually no one wants or would vote for in the region.

Some 82 percent of people in the U.S. supported the uprising in Egypt as wall-to-wall cable news coverage pumped it into living rooms across the country. But where most Americans found it easy to identify with an oppressed people rising up against a despotic regime, U.S. politicians found the situation much more "complex."

By the time Obama got around to praising the historic accomplishments of Egypt's people, we had already witnessed Vice President Joe Biden saying, "I would not refer to [Mubarak] as a dictator"; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "warning against [a] hasty exit" for Mubarak; and diplomat Frank Wisner saying, "President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical."

Meanwhile, in the media, one pundit after another echoed the diplomats' concern for "stability." But they didn't ask what this "stability"--in Clinton's words, the need for an "orderly transition"--would mean for the millions of Egyptians rising up across Egypt.

They didn't pause to consider that the kind of "stability" that the U.S. wanted would mean an "orderly transition" to a regime without Mubarak, but with all of Mubarak's henchmen. The Obama administration's "stability," in reality, amounts to the continuing instability that the majority of Egyptians face every day when they try to figure out how to put enough food on the table to feed their families.

What the U.S. trumpets as "stability" in Egypt has nothing to do with actual stability--except through the tunnel vision of U.S. strategic interests.

What the events in Egypt exposed is that the commitment to the timeless American values of democracy and freedom is selective. Any country that won't bend to the will of the U.S. (Iran, Syria) is attacked about their crimes against democracy. But for countries that are allies (Saudi Arabia, apartheid Israel, Jordan), it's a different story.

When a mass movement forces a dictator out of power, U.S. officials suddenly discover their support for the actions of ordinary people against the regime. But right up until Mubarak's ouster, the U.S. continued to give its support--economic and military, diplomatic and moral--to the assassins of that movement.

This hypocrisy only works if we collectively forget that Hillary Clinton urged restraint "on both sides"--at the same time that the regime was using tear gas and rubber bullets supplied by the U.S. government against unarmed demonstrators. Or if we forget the $70 billion that the U.S. has given to Egypt and its kleptocratic rulers--while 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

So next time someone asks you, "But why do people in the Middle East hate us so much?" tell them that there's a simple explanation. We can expect people in the Arab world to be more sympathetic to the U.S. when U.S. foreign policy is more sympathetic to them.

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