Egyptian Junta Claims U.S. Conspiracy While Accepting U.S. Support

Foreign Policy In Focus February 21, 2014
[Republished by Common Dreams]
   Egypt’s U.S.-backed regime now claims that the progressive, anti-authoritarian activists that brought down Mubarak are simply U.S. agents. Three years ago, three Arab dictators were ousted in the largely nonviolent uprisings of what has become known as the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, with the adoption of a progressive democratic draft constitution, the future in that country is looking positive. In Yemen, the democratic evolution remains stagnant amid enormous challenges, but there are still signs of hope. In Egypt, however, autocratic rule has reasserted itself with a vengeance.

How to discredit your democratic opponents in Egypt

Open Democracy February 17, 2014
[Republished by International Center on Nonviolent Conflict]
   The Egyptian military regime is pushing conspiracy theories to discredit their democratic, non-violent opponents. Aiming at several birds with one stone, with respect to their US backers, they are trying to have it both ways at once. Democracy and non-violence will fight back. The brutal crackdown on both Islamist and secular oppositionists by the US-backed Egyptian military junta has taken on a bizarre twist: using government-controlled media to promote long-discredited conspiracy theories originally put forward by ultra-left fringe groups.

Credit the Egyptian People for the Egyptian Revolution

While there will undoubtedly have to be additional popular struggle in Egypt to ensure that the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak leads to real democracy, the ouster of the dictator is by any measure a major triumph for the Egyptian people and yet another example of the power of nonviolent action. Indeed, Egypt joins such diverse countries as the Philippines, Poland, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Nepal, Serbia, Bolivia, Indonesia, and others whose authoritarian regimes were replaced by democratic governance as a result of such unarmed civil insurrections.

Unfortunately, there are already those who are trying to put the credit (or blame) for the Egyptian Revolution on anybody but the literally millions of ordinary Egyptians – men and women, Christian and Muslim, young and old, workers and intellectuals, poor and middle class, secular and religious – who faced down the truncheons, tear gas, water cannons, bullets and goon squads for their freedom.

It was not the military that was responsible for Mubarak’s downfall. While some top Army officers belatedly eased Mubarak aside on February 11, it was more of a coup de grace and than a coup d’état. It was clear to the military brass, watching the popular reaction following his nonresignation speech the previous day, who recognized that if they did not ease him out, they would be taken down with him. The Army’s refusal to engage in a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Tahrir Square came not because the generals were on the protesters’ side – indeed, they had long been the bedrock of Mubarak’s regime – but because they could not trust their own soldiers, disproportionately from the poor and disenfranchised sectors of society, to obey orders to fire on their own people.

It was not the United States, long the primary foreign backer of the Mubarak regime. The Obama administration played catch-up for most of the 18-day uprising, initially calling only for reforms within the regime. To Obama’s credit, he did push for an end to attacks on protesters and the shutting down of the Internet, and reportedly threatened a cutoff of military aid and strategic cooperation if US weapons were used in a massacre or other major repression. Though Obama eventually called for a speedy transition to democracy, however, he never explicitly called on Mubarak to step down. His strongest and most eloquent words in support for the pro-democracy struggle came only after Mubarak’s departure, giving a sense that it came more from a desire to not be on the wrong side of history than his desire to play the role as a catalyst.

Some US Embassy staffers had sporadic contacts with pro-democracy activists in recent years and, through such Congressionally-funded foundations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), there was some limited financial assistance to a number of civil society organizations. This small amount of US “democracy” assistance did not include any support for training in strategic nonviolent action or other kinds of grassroots mobilization that proved decisive in the struggle, and the key groups that organized the protests resisted US funding on principle. In any case, the amount of US funding for NED and related programs in Egypt paled in comparison with the billions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance to the Mubarak regime and the close and regular interaction among US officials and leading Egyptian political and military leaders. In addition, most of this limited “pro-democracy” funding was eliminated altogether a couple of years ago, following Obama’s inauguration.

Nor was it the Internet. Social media helped expose the abuses of the regime and get around censorship prior to the uprising and, during the revolt, at times helped with tactical coordination for the protests. It is important to note, however, that less than 15 percent of the Egyptian population had access to the Internet (mostly through cafes heavily policed by the regime) and, for a number of key days early in the struggle, it was shut down completely. (Ironically, it may have helped the movement in some cases, as a number of residents in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities decided to come out onto the streets to see what was happening first hand since they could not learn from the Internet.) While, on balance, the Internet was certainly helpful, it was probably not necessary for the movement’s success. The Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and other successful pro-democracy civil insurrections in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa took place without access to Internet technology. In Mali – an impoverished landlocked West African nation – word of the eventually victorious 1991 pro-democracy struggle against the Traore dictatorship was spread through griots, the traditionally singing storytellers, who would wander from village to village. When a people are committed to a struggle, they will find ways to communicate.

And neither the Tunisian nor the Egyptian revolutions were a result of WikiLeaks. While the leaked cables exposed how US diplomats were well aware of the corruption and repression of the respective regimes and their propensity to deliberately exaggerate the influence of radical Islamists among the opposition, such malfeasance by their governments was certainly nothing new to the citizens of those countries.

It certainly wasn’t the Islamists. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had been playing more the role of informal loyal opposition to the Mubarak regime in recent years. They refused to endorse the initial protests until the last minute and then only half-heartedly. Not only did their higher level of support as the movement later took off smack of opportunism, the conservative Brotherhood and its aging leadership had been increasingly seen by the young secular activists who spearheaded the movement as being almost as out of touch with their day-to-day realities as the regime. The chants, signs, and other outward manifestations of the protesters were decidedly secular with liberal democratic and leftist themes.

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Nor was the successful, large-scale application of nonviolent tactics that succeeded in bringing down the dictator a result of assistance or training by outsiders. There were a couple of seminars organized by Egyptian pro-democracy groups which brought in veterans of popular unarmed insurrections in Serbia, South Africa, Palestine, and other countries along with some Western academics who have studied the phenomenon, but these seminars focused on generic information about the history and dynamics of strategic nonviolent action, not on how to overthrow Mubarak. Neither the foreign speakers nor their affiliated institutions provided any training, advice, money, or anything tangible to the small number of Egyptian activists that attended. As one of the academics who lectured at one of these seminars, I can vouch that the Egyptians present were already very knowledgeable and sophisticated in terms of strategic thinking about their struggle. None of us foreigners can take credit for what later transpired.

Nor was it a spontaneous reaction to the Tunisian Revolution, which had emerged victorious in its largely nonviolent uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship two weeks earlier. While the unarmed insurrection in Tunisia certainly inspired and empowered many Egyptians who had long been sunk in fear, cynicism and apathy, the Egyptian revolution had been a long time coming. There had been a dramatic growth in Egyptian civil society during the preceding years, with an increasing number of labor strikes and small, but ever-larger, demonstrations led by such youthful, secular pro-democracy groups as Kefaya (meaning “Enough!”) and the April 6 Movement (named after a nationwide strike and protest on that date in 2008.) Increasing government repression, worsening economic conditions and parliamentary elections this past November that were even more transparently fraudulent than most, led many of us to suspect that it was only a matter of time before Mubarak would be ousted in a popular uprising. Indeed, my visits to Egypt and meetings with pro-democracy activists led me to predict in an article posted in early December that “Egypt could very well be where the next unarmed popular pro-democracy insurrection takes place of the kind that brought down Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia and scores of other autocratic regimes in recent decades.” (Little did I know the Tunisians would beat them to it.)

It is, therefore, critical, particularly for those of us in the United States and other Western countries, not to deny agency to an Arab people who had the courage and smarts to organize and fight their own nonviolent revolution.

Indeed, this revolution strikes a blow to the two extremes in the nearly decade-long battle between Islamist extremists and US imperialists. Al-Qaeda’s first attack against US interests was in 1995 against a residential compound in Riyadh used by US soldiers responsible for training the Saudi National Guard, the branch of the Saudi military used primarily for internal repression. The line put forward by Osama bin Laden and like-minded self-styled jihadists has long been that US-backed dictatorships can only be defeated through terrorism and adherence to a reactionary and chauvinistic interpretation of Islam. On the other extreme, the line put forward by American neoconservatives and their supporters has long been that democracy could only come to the Middle East through US military intervention, as with the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The people of Egypt and Tunisia have powerfully demonstrated that both of these violent militaristic ideologies are wrong.

These are hardly the first countries to have seen dictators overthrown through nonviolent action. Its power has even been acknowledged even by such groups as Freedom House, a Washington-based organization with close ties to the foreign policy establishment. Its 2005 study observed that, of the nearly 70 countries that had made the transition from dictatorship to varying degrees of democracy in the previous 30 years, only a small minority did so through armed struggle from below or reform instigated from above. Hardly any new democracies resulted from foreign invasion. In nearly three-quarters of the transitions, change was rooted in democratic civil-society organizations that employed nonviolent methods. In addition, the study noted that countries where nonviolent, civil resistance movements played a major role tend to have freer and more stable democratic systems.

A different study, published in 2007 in the journal International Security, used an expanded database and analyzed 323 major insurrections in support of self-determination and democratic rule since 1900. It found that violent resistance was successful only 26 percent of the time, whereas nonviolent campaigns had a 53 percent rate of success.

From the poorest nations of Africa to the relatively affluent countries of Eastern Europe; from communist regimes to right-wing military dictatorships; from across the cultural, geographic and ideological spectrum, democratic and progressive forces have recognized the power of nonviolent action to free them from oppression. This has not come, in most cases, from a moral or spiritual commitment to nonviolence, but simply because it works.

As noted in such books as “Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East,” there is a long history of nonviolent resistance in the Middle East, including Egypt’s 1919 independence struggle against the British. Iran has a long history of such uprisings, including the Tobacco Strike of the 1890s, the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the aborted Green Revolution of 2009. Palestine has witnessed the general strike of the 1930s, the first intifada in the late 1980 and more recent campaigns against the separation wall and settlement expansion in the West Bank. In Sudan, unarmed insurrections ousted military dictatorships in both 1964 and 1985 (though the democratic governments that followed were eventually overthrown in military coups.) The 2006 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon ended years of Syrian domination of that country. There has also been an ongoing nonviolent resistance campaign in the nation of Western Sahara against the illegal Moroccan occupation. And, in recent weeks, pro-democracy protests have broken out in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria, Iran, and other countries.

This rich history, mostly dramatically played out on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities in recent weeks, demonstrates a critical point: Democracy will not come to the Middle East through foreign intervention, sanctimonious statements from Washington, voluntary reforms by autocrats, or armed struggle by a self-selected vanguard. It will only come through the power of massive non-cooperation with illegitimate authority and the strategic application of nonviolent action by Middle Eastern peoples themselves.

Mubarak’s Ouster: Good for Egypt, Good for Israel

The inspiring triumph of the Egyptian people in the nonviolent overthrow of the hated dictator Hosni Mubarak is a real triumph of the human spirit. While there will likely be continued struggle in order to insure that the military junta will allow for a real democratic transition, the mobilization of Egypt’s civil society and the empowerment of millions of workers, students, intellectuals and others in the cause of freedom will be difficult to contain.

It is disappointing, then, that what should be a near-universal celebration comparable to what greeted the nonviolent overthrows of authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, Chile, Serbia and elsewhere has been tempered by the right-wing Netanyahu government in Israel and its supporters in the United States who oppose Egypt’s democratic revolution.

Israel’s standing among democrats in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world has no doubt suffered as a result of the Israeli government’s outspoken support for Mubarak and opposition to the pro-democracy struggle during the Egyptian dictatorship’s final weeks. Indeed, the very assumption that the continued suffering of 82 million Egyptians under a corrupt and brutal authoritarian regime was somehow less important than the possible negative ramifications of democratic change for five and half million Israeli Jews smacks of racism.

In reality, Israel has nothing to worry about.

While sympathy for the Palestinian cause runs deep among ordinary Egyptians, it is hardly the principal focus of the Mubarak regime’s opponents, who are demanding political freedom and economic justice. Unlike the movement which overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979, Egypt’s movement is overwhelmingly secular, their civil society is much stronger, the country’s intellectuals and business class are far more open to the West, and there is no religious hierarchy with control over vast networks of resources.

The overwhelming role played by religious forces in Iran contrasts with the demonstrations, strikes, and other actions in Egypt, which has been led from the outset by secular youth through the Internet and other means of communication. The slogans, communiqués, banners, graffiti, tweets, and Facebook messages have been almost exclusively secular in orientation, pushing nationalistic and liberal democratic themes. And, despite decades of U.S. support for the Mubarak dictatorship, the Egyptian protests have featured virtually no explicit anti-American or anti-Israel overtones, a striking contrast with the Iranian revolution. Indeed, the protests have almost exclusively focused on Mubarak’s misrule rather than the U.S. role in enabling it.

Although most of the Egyptian protesters are presumably practicing Muslims, they show no desire to establish an Islamic state, which was an explicit demand of much of the Iranian revolution’s leading activists from the beginning of the struggle.

The Muslim Brotherhood – which represents at most about 25% or the population – still embraces a tiresome anti-Israel rhetoric, but the current generation in leadership are also pragmatists who have renounced violence and condemned terrorism. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who had been a Muslim Brotherhood activist as a teenager and much later went on to co-found Al-Qaeda, has denounced the Brotherhood precisely for its “betrayal” of what he claimed were “Islamic principles” because they – among other things – “acknowledge the existence of the Jews.”

In a democratic election, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely win scores of seats in the 454-member lower house and could even conceivably be a junior partner in a coalition government. But its political orientation would not be much different from the legal conservative Muslim-identified parties currently in the Jordanian and Moroccan parliaments or even the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely be more moderate and more committed to the democratic process than some of the hard-line fundamentalist Jewish parties in the current ruling coalition government of Israel.

More importantly, the Muslim Brotherhood – like virtually all Egyptians, in particular the armed forces – recognizes that Israel cannot be defeated militarily. Egypt fought four wars with Israel between 1948 and 1973 and lost each one badly at considerable costs; the military balance is even more skewed in Israel’s favor today. Similarly, support for terrorist groups would invite devastating Israeli military reprisals. Allowing arms, rocketry, or other weapons to Hamas militia could provoke another disastrous military confrontation with Israel which would likely spill over to Egyptian territory.

With so many desperate economic and other domestic problems to deal with in a post-Mubarak era, the last thing Egyptians would support is a war with a powerful neighbor they would surely lose. Military aid and cooperation with the United States, as well as the badly needed economic assistance, would end if Egypt threatened war or supported terrorism.

And, while there has long been popular opposition to the Camp David Accord, the disagreement has generally not been because it made peace with Israel. To most Egyptians, the 1978 peace agreement was problematic for other reasons:

One was that the agreement did not address the plight of the Palestinians or create a comprehensive peace. Just months after Israelis withdrew their troops from a now-demilitarized Sinai Peninsula and no longer having to worry about their southern flank, Israel launched its devastating 1982 war on Lebanon. With the Arab world’s largest and most powerful armed forces no longer able to play a deterrent role, Israel has subsequently been emboldened to launch a series of large-scale military incursions into Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip; colonize much of the West Bank to the verge of making the establishment of a viable Palestinian state impossible; and place 1.5 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip (administered by Egypt between 1948 and 1967) under a draconian siege with devastating humanitarian consequences. As a result, Mubarak was seen as an accomplice to Israeli militarism, unilateralism, and oppression.

A second objection was that the agreement included what was essentially a tripartite military pact. While most peace agreements historically have resulted in demilitarization, the Camp David agreement instead led to dramatically increased U.S. arms transfers to both Israel and Egypt totaling $5 billion a year. This costs the Egyptians greatly, since – while the military hardware came courtesy of U.S. taxpayers – it ended up costing Egyptians billions of dollars in terms of additional personnel, training, and spare parts. Furthermore, this aid included training and equipment in domestic political repression, mostly used against nonviolent pro-democracy advocates.

The agreement also led to large-scale U.S. economic penetration and the privatization of public assets to wealthy well-connected Egyptian elites and multinational corporations, which further resulted in growing inequality and corruption. Contrary to popular belief in the West, Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat was not assassinated for having made peace with Israel. All indications are that his assassins – part of an underground extremist Islamist group – were far more upset about his domestic repression and opening the country up to Western influence than the peace treaty with Israel. Indeed, the assassin’s cry, “I have killed Pharaoh” – the same moniker given Mubarak by his critics for his autocratic condescending rule – is hardly indicative of an obsession with Israel.

Ironically, most of the prominent American pundits and politicians claiming that the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship would threaten Israel are the very politicians who have encouraged Israel’s wars on civilian populations in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and other policies which have helped create extremist elements that really do threaten Israel. Similarly, those now claiming that Egypt’s nonviolent indigenous struggle against Mubarak will result in a repressive Iranian-backed anti-Israel fundamentalist regime are some of the very people who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq — which has resulted in a repressive Iranian-backed anti-Israel fundamentalist regime.

Pro-Mubarak politicians – be they Republicans like Senator John McCain, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ilana Ros-Lehtinen, or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, or Democrats like Senator Dianne Feinstein or Representatives Howard Berman and Gary Ackerman – appear committed to continuing the policies of divide and rule between the Semitic cousins of the Middle East. From providing military aid to rhetorical support, they continue to support the suppression of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East only to then insist the United States has to back the rightist Netanyahu government because Israel is “the sole democracy in the Middle East.” As much a protection racket as a self-fulfilling prophecy, their support for the militarization of the region and their backing of tyrannical regimes appears designed to reinforce their insistence that because Israel is surrounded by authoritarian regimes, close cooperation between the rightist expansionist camp in Israel and the United States military is necessary in order for the Jewish state survive. With Israel as its surrogate, it enhances the U.S. military presence in the critical region of the Middle East.

One cost of U.S. support for authoritarian Arab regimes is that it provides yet another rationalization for blaming the Jews. President Barack Obama’s delay in coming around to support Egypt’s pro-democracy movement – though largely the fault of pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and other hawks in the foreign policy establishment – was instead widely blamed on the Israeli government and “the Israel Lobby.” Meanwhile, the Mubarak regime – supposedly a friend of Israel – was claiming that the protesters and the foreign journalists who were covering them were part of an Israeli plot; pro-democracy demonstrators, human rights monitors and journalists attacked by Mubarak’s goons were routinely subjected to anti-Semitic epithets.

For decades, Arab dictators – now joined by the autocratic Iranian regime – have used Israel as an excuse for their militarization and authoritarianism, cynically manipulating the Palestinian cause for their own ends. Democratic systems, however, are usually far less likely to give in to such scapegoating and paranoia.

Virtually all of the largely nonviolent civil insurrections around the world over the past three decades have led to democratic governance and moderate secular leadership. There is little reason to suspect Egypt would be different. Such nonviolent revolutions require the building of broad coalitions that help encourage pluralism and compromise, empower ordinary people, and build civil society. This creates not just political change but fundamental social change of the kind that has the will and the means to resist potential encroachments against newfound democratic institutions and individual liberties and disingenuous efforts to mobilize support for aggressive war.

As a result, there is little chance Egypt would abrogate Egypt’s 1978 peace agreement with Israel or threaten armed conflict.

However, a democratic Egyptian government would likely be more outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause and in opposition to the current right-wing Israeli government. A democratic Egypt would likely ease the blockade of food, medicines and other humanitarian goods into the besieged Gaza Strip. Egypt would presumably mobilize its diplomatic clout to try to pressure the Obama administration to go beyond words in blocking Israel’s illegal colonization of occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Taking such positions does not threaten Israel, however. Indeed, these are the very steps that are necessary for making peace.

The emergence of an Arab democratic order that is assertive against the occupation, while not threatening Israel militarily, could help galvanize the Israeli peace movement and other opponents of the Israeli occupation. As Kai Bird, writing in Foreign Policy, noted, “the emergence of an Arab democratic polity should convince Israeli voters that their leaders have become too complacent and too isolationist. After Tahrir, a majority of Israelis may conclude that they can’t live in the neighborhood without forging a real peace with their neighbors.”

What we have seen between Israel and Egypt for the past 33 years has been a cold peace, based upon a Pax Americana, arms transfers, and dictatorial rule. What the region needs is a real peace, made by the democratic governments representing the peoples of the affected countries, based upon international law, self-determination, and human rights.

Why Egypt Will Not Turn Into Another Iran

Some prominent congressional leaders and media pundits, in a cynical effort to mislead the American public into supporting the Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and opposing the popular nonviolent struggle for democracy, have raised the specter of Egypt’s government falling into the hands of radical Islamists who would attack Israel and support international terrorism. To illustrate this frightening scenario, these apologists for authoritarianism try to compare the current pro-democracy uprising against the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak with the 1978-79 insurrection against the U.S.-backed Iranian dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi.

These backers of the Egyptian dictator point out that the Iranian revolution was, like the current uprising in Egypt, initially a broad-based movement of young left-leaning activists struggling for greater democracy. They note, however, that not long after the Shah’s overthrow, the Iranian government was taken over by anti-democratic Islamist clerics and their allies who soon turned Iran into a brutal authoritarian theocratic state whose repression soon surpassed even that of the ousted U.S.-backed monarch.

In reality, there is virtually no chance that Egypt will take such a tragic turn should the revolution succeed in, not only overthrowing Mubarak, but ousting his allies in the military and ruling party. Indeed, comparing the possible popular overthrow of the Egyptian regime with that of the Shah is completely ahistorical.

More accurate analogies to the current struggle in Egypt would include the popular nonviolent insurrections that ousted the right-wing Latin American military juntas in Chile and Bolivia, the authoritarian Asian regimes in Mongolia, the Philippines and Nepal, the Eastern European Communist systems in Poland, East Germany ,and Czechoslovakia,, the African dictatorships in Madagascar and Benin, the post-Communist autocrats in Serbia and Ukraine, and more than a dozen other repressive regimes including such Muslim countries as Mali, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. The transition away from authoritarianism has been smoother in some of these countries than in others, but virtually all of them – including those in which Islamist played a role in the pro-democracy struggle – are democracies at this point.

Not Iran 1979

The difference between Egypt today and Iran of the late 1970s is striking.

The direction of the anti-Shah movement in Iran from the outset came from the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini and other Shiite Muslim clerics. Inspirational sermons, tactical advice, and specific calls for strikes and demonstrations came through smuggled cassette tapes, radio broadcasts, and other communication from the clerical leadership. Though many on the ground in the struggle against the Shah were leftists and other secular democratic forces – some of whom organized important strikes, demonstrations, and other actions independently from the religious hierarchy – the religious overtone of the demonstrations was apparent in the slogans, communiqués, banners, graffiti, and other means throughout the 13-month struggle that led to the Shah’s overthrow in February 1979.

The overwhelming role played by religious forces in Iran contrasts with the ongoing demonstrations, strikes, and other actions in Egypt, which has been led from the outset by secular youth through the Internet and other means of communication. The slogans, communiqués, banners, graffiti, tweets, and Facebook messages have been almost exclusively secular in orientation, pushing nationalistic and liberal democratic themes. And, despite decades of U.S. support for the Mubarak dictatorship, the Egyptian protests have featured virtually no explicit anti-Americanism, a striking contrast with the Iranian revolution. Indeed, the current protests have almost exclusively focused on Mubarak’s misrule rather than the U.S. role in enabling it.

Although most of the Egyptian protesters are presumably practicing Muslims, they show no desire to establish an Islamic state, which was an explicit demand of much of the Iranian revolution’s leading activists from the beginning of the struggle.

The Shah’s forced secularization of Iranian society – which was merged in the minds of many Iranians with authoritarianism, corruption, inequality, and Western imperialism – helped create the Islamist reaction. By contrast, Mubarak’s regime, although nominally secular, quietly worked with conservative Muslim elements both to placate religious Egyptians – by expanding religious programming in the media, engaging in religiously based censorship, and discrimination against the country’s Coptic Christian minority – as well as to mobilize some pro-regime Islamists to attack liberal and leftist opponents.

Another key distinction is that Iranian Muslims are overwhelmingly from the Shiite tradition, whereas Egyptian Muslims are Sunni. Shiites have a clear religious hierarchy; ayatollahs are essentially the equivalent of cardinals in the Catholic Church, with schools, medical facilities, social services, and businesses – not to mention houses of worship and large numbers of clergy – under their direct control. Iranian clerics had strong organizational networks under their command they could mobilize and consolidate against democratic secular forces in aftermath of the Shah’s overthrow.

By contrast, Sunnis have an egalitarian tradition. Some clerics may have a bigger following than others, but – unlike Shiites – they do not have a privileged class of spiritual leaders whom believers are obliged to obey. While the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups have supported a network of health care clinics and other social services in Egypt, their leadership does not have anything close to the mobilizing capacity the Shiite clerics had in Iran. Indeed, according to Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the group’s Guidance Council, they only operate half a dozen clinics in Cairo, a city of 18 million people.

The ayatollahs influence in Iranian society ended up determining the outcome of the Iranian revolution due to the thoroughness by which the Shah, through his dreaded U.S.-trained SAVAK (secret police), decimated the secular democratic opposition. The mosques and the Shiite religious institutions, by contrast, were much harder to penetrate and suppress and were thereby in a better position to take advantage of the power vacuum after the Shah’s fall.

Most significantly, compared with Iran in the 1970s, Egypt today has a much stronger civil society, a more literate and educated population, greater access to information technologies that didn’t exist in Iran or anywhere else 30 years ago, and – despite serious economic hardships – a larger middle class . Egypt also has a strong tradition of political parties going back to the nineteenth century. Though Egypt has for decades been a one-party state in terms of governance, and elections have been routinely stolen, there are well-established legal political parties. These include the New Wafd, Al-Ghad (“Tomorrow”), the National Progressive Unionists, the Nasserists, the Liberals (Ahrar), and more than a dozen others, virtually all liberal or left-wing.

In addition to these secular political parties, major secular pro-democracy groups include Kefaya (Enough!) and the April 6 Movement, the primary organizers of the recent demonstrations. Industrial labor unions and professional associations are far more prominent in the current demonstrations and in Egyptian society overall than they were in Iran at the time of the revolution. And, unlike Iran under the Shah, Egypt has virtually no prominent dissident Islamic clergy.

Another key distinction between Iran in the 1970s and Egypt today is economic. In Iran, the powerful traditional merchant class – known as bazaaris – was bitter at the Shah’s draconian taxation, fines, and other efforts to place them at a disadvantage to his preferred neo-liberal economic development model that brought in foreign investment, foreign consumer goods, and other competition. They found a natural affinity with the religious hierarchy, who opposed such Western economic (and other) penetration and with whom they had strong historical ties, including intermarriage. As a result, they threw their considerable political and economic influence into the consolidation of clerical rule.

By contrast, the comparable traditional merchant class in Egypt is largely dependent on the tourist trade. Although Iran’s foreign revenue overwhelmingly comes from its sizable oil exports, the number one source of foreign income for Egyptians has long been Western tourism, which would drop off considerably if Egypt fell under radical Islamist control. In addition, the merchant class in Egypt is disproportionately made up of Coptic Christians, who would obviously never support the establishment of an Islamist state.

In addition to the tourist trade, Egypt is far more dependent than Iran on good economic ties with Western countries in other ways as well. Egypt is the largest importer of grain in the world, most of which comes free of charge in the form of U.S. foreign aid. The country’s very economic survival would be a stake if it developed a hostile relationship with the West. Iran, by contrast, is one of the world’s largest oil exporters and – despite U.S. sanctions – has always had a steady source of outside revenue without foreign tourists or foreign aid.

The Muslim Brotherhood

U.S. apologists for the Egyptian dictatorship point to the fact that the largest single opposition group – and arguably best organized – is the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which has played a role in Egyptian politics since the 1920s. Being the single largest opposition group, however, does not mean that the Muslim Brotherhood has majority support – far from it. Most estimates put their popular support at 20-15 percent, with the upper estimate at 30 percent or slightly higher. Its active adherents probably number no more than 100,000 out of a population of over 82 million. There are also serious divisions between the more progressive and more conservative elements within the movement, and it would likely split into two or more political parties once legalized. Indeed, according to the Egyptian newspaper El-Masry El-Youm, both the women’s and youth wing appear to have already split from the Muslim Brotherhood last week and joined the April 6 Movement.

Many Egyptians have been attracted to the Brotherhood simply because it was the largest and best-organized opposition to the dictatorship. With Mubarak gone and a democratic order in place encouraging a plethora of other political movements to organize without fear or political repression, many more visible and viable choices would be available to the Egyptian voter.

The young activists of Kefaya and the April 6 Movement consider the Muslim Brotherhood and its aging leadership to be as out of touch with their day-to-day realities as the regime. A full 60 percent of Egypt’s population is under 30 years of age and – like young people in most countries – their attitudes regarding the role of women, sexuality, and related issues tends to be more tolerant than their elders, so the Muslim Brotherhood’s social conservatism is not very appealing. In addition, since the Brotherhood has had a hard time recruiting younger members in recent years, their median age is much older than almost any other political grouping. The young people who have joined the movement during the past decade or so have tended to be modernists and reformers.

Also limiting the Muslim Brotherhood’s appeal is that it not only refused to endorse the smaller protests and strikes of the young pro-democracy activists in the years leading up to the current uprising, it offered only a half-hearted and very belated endorsement of the massive protests of January 25 that launched the pro-democracy insurrection. Although their support for the demonstrations became more visible subsequently as the popular struggle gained momentum, this apparent opportunism has undoubtedly weakened their standing among those committed to creating a new Egypt.

U.S. officials in the State Department and elsewhere familiar with Egyptian politics, even under the Bush administration, have long dismissed claims that the demise of the Egyptian regime would lead to a fundamentalist state. U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Ricciardone argued in a January 2006 cable recently made public through Wikileaks that “We do not accept the proposition that Egypt’s only choices are a slow-to-reform authoritarian regime or an Islamist extremist one; nor do we see greater democracy in Egypt as leading necessarily to a government under the MB.” In another cable three months earlier, the ambassador noted how Egyptian authorities “have a long history of threatening us with the MB bogeyman.”

Not only will the Muslim Brotherhood not likely play a major role in a post-revolutionary Egyptian government, it is not an extremist group like the Taliban. A number of radical Islamist organizations, ranging from the Palestinian Hamas to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, split off from the Muslim Brotherhood several decades ago. Today’s Brotherhood is a relatively moderate organization committed to electoral politics and nonviolent organizing. It formally renounced armed struggle more than 40 years ago and has repeatedly condemned terrorism, particularly the large-scale international terrorism of al-Qaeda.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s so-called “al-Qaeda link” cited by U.S. apologists for the Egyptian dictatorship primarily is in regard to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who had been a Muslim Brotherhood activist as a teenager and much later went on to co-found the terrorist organization with Osama bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri, however, rejected the Brotherhood precisely because of its rejection of violence and relatively moderate politics, which he denounced as a “betrayal” of “Islamic principles.” According to the al-Qaeda second-in-command, the Muslim Brotherhood was “falsely affiliated with Islam” because its leadership allegedly “forget about the rule of Shariah, welcome the Crusaders’ bases in your countries and acknowledge the existence of the Jews.”

In a democratic election, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely win scores of seats in the 454-member lower house and could even conceivably be a junior partner in a coalition government. But its political orientation would not be much different from the legal conservative Muslim-identified parties currently in the Jordanian and Moroccan parliaments or even the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely be more moderate and more committed to the democratic process than some of the hard-line fundamentalist Jewish parties in the current ruling coalition government of Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Though strongly anti-Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood recognizes along with the Egyptian armed forces that Israel cannot be defeated militarily. Egypt fought four wars with Israel between 1948 and 1973 and lost each one badly at considerable costs; the military balance is even more skewed in Israel’s favor today. Support for terrorist groups would invite devastating Israeli military reprisals. With so many desperate economic and other domestic problems to deal with in a post-Mubarak era, the last thing Egyptians would support is a war with a powerful neighbor they would surely lose. Although a democratic Egyptian government would likely be more outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause and in opposition to the current right-wing Israeli government – and would likely ease the blockade of food, medicines and other humanitarian goods into the besieged Gaza Strip – it would never abrogate Egypt’s 1978 peace agreement with Israel. Too much U.S. aid depends on maintaining the agreement.

Nonviolent Democratic Change

Virtually all of the largely nonviolent civil insurrections around the world over the past three decades have led to democratic governance and moderate secular leadership. There is little reason to suspect Egypt would be different. Such nonviolent revolutions require the building of broad coalitions that help encourage pluralism and compromise, empower ordinary people, and build civil society. This creates not just political change but fundamental social change of the kind that has the will and the means to resist potential encroachments against newfound democratic institutions and individual liberties.

Such movements contrast with armed struggles against authoritarian governments, where martial values predominate and an elite vanguard controls the course of the revolution, more often than not resulting in another dictatorship.

Even more problematic is when a dictator is overthrown through outside intervention, since the newly installed regime dependent on a foreign occupying force tends to result in its delegitimization in the eyes of their citizens, creating a nationalist reaction that could lead to a violent insurrection that in turn leads to repressive rule. Indeed, this is exactly what has taken place in Iraq. Ironically, most of the prominent American pundits and politicians now claiming that Egypt’s nonviolent indigenous struggle against Mubarak will result in a repressive Iranian-backed fundamentalist regime are some of the very people who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq – which has resulted in a repressive Iranian-backed fundamentalist regime.

A democratic Egyptian government will certainly take more independent positions from the United States on some strategic and economic issues. It would likely be less amenable to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions. Being dependent on the will of the Egyptian people for its authority, such a government will likely be relatively nationalistic, attempting to prioritize the needs of Egyptians more than the current authoritarian regime has felt obliged to do.

However, while a democratic Egypt – which could help pave the way for greater democracy elsewhere in the Arab world – may set back certain perceived U.S. strategic and economic interests in the short- to medium-term, it would be the best thing that could happen in the long-term.

Terrorism and extremism, Islamic and otherwise, tend to grow out of authoritarian societies where it becomes impossible to address grievances, defend human rights, and demand social and economic justice through democratic means. “The images of intimidation and fraud that have emerged from the recent elections favor the Islamist extremists whom we both oppose,” Ambassador Ricciardone acknowledged in a cable to FBI director Robert Mueller following the 2005 Egyptian elections. “The best way to counter narrow-minded Islamist politics is to open the system.” It’s no surprise that virtually all of al-Qaeda’s leaders and financial backers – and a large majority of its members – have come from countries ruled by U.S.-backed dictators like Mubarak.

For its overall national security interests, then, the United States must end its support of the Mubarak regime and other Middle Eastern dictators and welcome nonviolent democratic movements for change.

Egypt’s pro-democracy movement: the struggle continues

Despite the natural subsidence of dramatic demonstrations on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, as many protesters return to jobs and catch their breath, there is little question that the pro-democracy struggle in Egypt has achieved lasting momentum, barring unexpected repression. As with other kinds of civil struggles, a movement using nonviolent resistance can ebb and flow. There may have to be tactical retreats, times for regrouping or resetting of strategy, or a focus on negotiations with the regime before broader operations that capture the world’s attention resume.

Those who were expecting a quick victory are no doubt disappointed, but successful People Power movements of recent decades have usually been protracted struggles. It took nearly a decade between the first strikes in the Gdansk shipyards and the fall of Communism in Poland; Chile’s democratic struggle against the Pinochet regime took three years between the first major protests and the regime’s acquiescence to holding the referendum which forced the dictator from power.

Most successful unarmed insurrections against authoritarian regimes take a much shorter time, but they usually take weeks or months rather than days. As of this writing, the Egyptian protests have only been going for two weeks. It took ten weeks of struggle in East Germany during the fall of 1989 before the Berlin Wall came down. It took three months before the first student demonstrations in Mali and the downfall of the Traore dictatorship in 1991. Indeed, the pro-democracy movement in Tunisia which many credit as having inspired the Egyptian uprising took nearly a month, and they are still struggling to ensure that the end of the Ben Ali regime will also lead to real democracy.

Despite the failure of the protests in Egypt thus far to dislodge the hated Mubarak regime or force the president’s resignation, there have been some notable victories.

Millions of Egyptians, in direct defiance of emergency laws banning public demonstrations, have taken part in pro-democracy protests. A remarkable cross-section of Egyptian society was visible in these demonstrations in Cairo and other cities across the country: young and old, Muslim and Christian, men and women, poor and middle class, secular and religious. Despite waves of attacks by plainsclothes police and paid squads of young toughs, clearly unleashed by the regime – and comparable to the notorious Basiji in Iran or Mugabe’s green bombers in Zimbabwe – which the regime hoped would disperse the protesters and cower them into submission, the pro-democracy activists in Tahrir Square have held fast. Moreover, there have been key defections among prominent journalists and intellectuals who were previously willing to parrot the government’s line or keep quiet – for example, the president of the Arab League joined the protests at one point. The movement has also provided cover and legitimacy for opposition political figures who would have otherwise been jailed or ignored.

Equally importantly, the movement has forced the United States and other western governments to end their unconditional support for the regime and press for Mubarak to step down. These shifts illustrate that, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington and London will ignore what happens on the ‘Arab street,’ it has proven itself capable of disrupting expectations in Washington and London.

Specifically, the demonstrators have forced Mubarak to renounce plans for re-election or to have his son run in his place, making him a lame duck. Their exposure of the ruling party’s corruption has led leading figures to formally resign from the party, including Mubarak and his son. They have forced the government into negotiations with representatives from the opposition.

Above all, events of the past couple of weeks have changed Egyptian society. German anthropologist Samuli Schielke, who was present at the demonstrations, observed that the sense of unity and power experienced by the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere is necessarily transient. Negotiations, party politics, tactical decisions and other processes that will inevitably arise during the course of a democratic transition are going to be messy and not produce the incredible energy of coming together in the popular contestation of public space and saying “no!” However, he observes, “thanks to its utopian nature, it is also indestructible. Once it has been realised, it cannot be wiped out of people’s minds again. It will be an experience that, with different colourings and from different perspectives, will mark an entire generation.”

Similarly, after covering both the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, British journalist Peter Beaumont emphasized the significance of this shift in attitude: “A threshold of fear has been crossed. For what has happened in both countries is that the structures of a police state have been challenged and found, to the surprise of many, to be weaker than imagined.” He goes on to note that regardless of how soon Mubarak is forced to leave, “a transition of power is already under way” – not as a result of formal negotiations or diplomatic efforts by the United States or the European Union, but from the people effective seizing power for themselves. The bold actions by what were once relatively small bands of activists “have been embraced by a wider population no longer afraid to speak or to assemble.”

For years, the Mubarak regime has offered short-term fixes and various small concessions which have failed to pull up the roots of the country’s problems. A combination of paternalism and repression by the regime had fostered an atmosphere of apathy and cynicism. Now, however, a whole new generation has been empowered and the regime, with its feet to the fire, realizes more significant changes are necessary if they are going to survive. Yet each new concession demonstrates the regime’s relative weakness and the movement’s growing power, thereby emboldening the activists to press forward with their demands for an authentic democratic transition.

The movement will have to think strategically as to how it might be able to achieve victory. A recent article on these pages by Maciej Bartkowski and Lester Kurtz compares the Solidarity movement in Poland, which was able to force the Communist regime to negotiate a series of compromises which eventually led to multi-party democratic elections in which the Communists were defeated, with the youthful pro-democracy activists on Tiananmen Square during that same period whose all-or-nothing demands failed to budge the regime and resulted in a massacre and the crushing of the movement. Sometimes a movement will have to be temporarily satisfied with a series of relatively minor concessions, declare a partial victory as a testament of their power and the vulnerability of the regime to pressure, then regroup for another round of public resistance and demands, and continue this process until the government has given away so much they no longer effectively rule. What makes this more feasible in the Egyptian case than perhaps in other movements that have so far been unsuccessful, as in Iran, is that the Egyptian Army has plainly been unwilling to engage in general repression. This seems to have created a viable political space for the movement, where effectively none existed before except through the internet and organizing out of sight of the authorities.

It is also important to recognize that successful unarmed insurrections against dictatorships have usually engaged in a multiplicity of tactics other than the mass demonstrations and multi-day sit-ins. For example, the movement could take advantage of the government’s economic vulnerabilities. Already, as a result of the de facto 12-day general strike and other disruptions, including the exodus of foreign tourists and the regime’s decision to shut down the Internet for a period, the country lost well over $3 billion in revenue. The desperate xenophobic campaign by the regime – including Mubarak’s thugs attacking foreign journalists, human rights workers and others – has undoubtedly scared away not only tourists but inhibited business visitors.

Other potential tactics by the opposition, such as periodic work stoppages and slowdowns, one-day general strikes, tax resistance, selective international sanctions targeted at the regime and its supporters, or a boycott of particular industries or institutions controlled by the government, armed forces, ruling party or pro-Mubarak families, would squeeze further the regime’s ability to demonstrate that it has any meaningful control of events going forward.

It is critical that, whatever tactics are employed, there needs to be long-range strategic planning, a logical sequencing of tactics, and an awareness that – as in any campaign – one needs to take advantage of one’s strengths and target the opponent’s weaknesses.

The dramatic events of recent weeks have illustrated that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves. Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its legitimacy and withdraw their cooperation from business and life as usual. Mubarak and his enablers have lost their long primacy in Egyptian affairs and it is doubtful that either he or his vice-president Omar Suleiman, the notorious former head of military intelligence, will be able to regain it. Supplanting the regime with a legitimate government that emerges from free and fair elections will be no easy task. But the most important steps, the dissolution of the status quo and the empowerment of the people, have already been accomplished.

Egypt: Lessons in Democracy

Together, the unarmed insurrection that overthrew the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the ongoing uprising in Egypt have dramatically altered the way many in the West view prospects for democratization in the Middle East. The dramatic events of recent weeks have illustrated that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves.

While many observers have acknowledged how unarmed pro-democracy insurrections helped bring democracy to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Africa, they had discounted the chances of such movements in the region, despite Tunisia being far from the first.

There has actually been a long history of nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in North Africa and the Middle East. Egypt wrested its independence from Great Britain as a result of a massive nonviolent resistance campaign launched in 1919. In Sudan, military dictators were ousted in nonviolent insurrections in 1964 and 1985, though the democratic experiments that followed were cut short by military coups a few years later. In 1991, in a nonviolent struggle succeeded in ousting the Traore dictatorship in Mali, despite the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters by the armed forces. Though it is one of the poorest countries in the world, Mali has been one of the most stable and democratic countries in the region ever since. The recently published book Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East documents numerous other popular pro-democracy movements throughout the Arab world.

The current struggle in Egypt—the center of Arab media, scholarship, and culture—has enormous ramifications for the region as a whole. The predominantly young secular activists who initiated the struggle reject not only the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak but also conservative Islamist leaders; they have put together a broad coalition of young and old, Muslim and Christian, poor and middle class to challenge a brutal corrupt regime which has held power for nearly thirty years. Like-minded civil society activists are organizing elsewhere. Indeed, 2011 could be to the Arab world what 1989 was to Eastern Europe.

In the early days of the uprisings, top U.S. officials defended the United States’ close ties with the authoritarian leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and, making lukewarm statements about the need for “reform” and urging “both sides” to refrain from violence (despite the far greater violence from state authorities). They refused to back the pro-democracy movements, call for democratic change, or threaten the suspension of U.S. military aid. However, the very day Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, President Obama came out with a strong statement lauding the pro-democracy movement and criticizing the dictator’s oppression. Similarly, in the early days of the Egyptian protests, Obama administration officials made similar calls for “restraint” on “both sides,” speaking only in terms of reform from within Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. By the fifth day of the demonstrations, however, apparently not wanting to be on the wrong side of history, the Obama administration started speaking in terms of a transition to democratic rule and making it clear that large-scale repression of nonviolent protesters—which would presumably be implemented with U.S.-supplied weaponry—would be unacceptable.

These shifts illustrate that, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington will ultimately impact what happens on the “Arab street,” the Arab street has proven itself capable of impacting what happens in Washington.

This change is long overdue. The Obama administration, in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of its predecessor, had fallen back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Indeed, Obama’s understandable skepticism of the neoconservative doctrine of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through “regime change” turned into an excuse for further arming these regimes—which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular, indigenous, bottom-up struggles for democratization.

At the same time, there was a subtle, but important, shift in the U.S. government’s discourse on human rights when Obama came to office two years ago. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view. It focused, for instance, on elections—which can, in many cases, be easily rigged and manipulated—in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding U.S. power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing such rights as freedom of expression and the right to protest, recognizing that human rights reform can only come from below and not imposed from above.

Until now, this had largely been rhetorical. Even now, as of this writing, the United States still needs to take a firmer stance toward Mubarak and the Egyptian military. And, regarding U.S. policy in the region as a whole, the United States needs to stop propping up other Arab dictators and supporting the Israeli occupation through ongoing military assistance.

However, the Obama administration has been reminded of where power actually comes from: Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its authority. Through general strikes, filling the streets, mass refusal to obey official orders, and other forms of nonviolent resistance, even the most autocratic regime cannot survive.

One cannot help but admire the Egyptians, who—like the Tunisians, Serbians, Filipinos, Poles, and many others before—have faced down the teargas, water cannons, truncheons, and bullets for their freedom. However, as long as the United States remains the world’s No.1 supplier of security assistance to repressive governments in the Middle East and elsewhere, the need for massive nonviolent action in support for freedom and democracy may be no greater than here.

MSNBC Q&A on Egypt

Q: Which countries in the region share similar economic, political, demographic and social conditions to those that have ignited unrest in Tunisia and Egypt?

A: Most Arab countries share these problems. However, some are more susceptible to these kinds of uprisings than others. For example, in Syria, civil society is weaker and the secret police are stronger. In Saudi Arabia and the smaller emirates of the Gulf, they can buy off much of the opposition. However, I would not be surprised to see an upsurge in pro-democracy protests in Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.

Q: Separately, which of the countries in the region have the greatest economic and strategic importance to the U.S. – and why?

these kinds of uprisings than others. For example, in Syria, civil society is weaker and the secret police are stronger. In Saudi Arabia and the smaller emirates of the Gulf, they can buy off much of the opposition. However, I would not be surprised to see an upsurge in pro-democracy protests in Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.
Q: Separately, which of the countries in the region have the greatest economic and strategic importance to the U.S. – and why?
A: Israel, of course, is traditionally America’s strongest ally. Egypt is the most important Arab ally in terms of strategic cooperation. Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil wealth, is most important economically. Iraq continues to be the biggest worry, given the ongoing violence and instability and the domination of the government by hard-line Shiite parties, some of which have ties to Iran. In general, while the prospects of democratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere may result in their pursuing policies that are less amenable to the United States, international financial institutions, and other Western powers than the current pro-Western dictators, in the long term, I would argue that greater democratization in the Arab world is beneficial to America’s economic and security interests: When people can address their grievances nonviolently through an established political process, they are far less prone to embrace extremist ideologies and terrorism.
Q: What can you tell us about how widespread the support is for the uprising among Egyptians?
A: One thing that’s struck me about this uprising is its breadth — old-young, men-women, Christian-Muslim, secular-poor and middle class; factory workers and intellectuals. Though the initial instigators were young and middle class, it’s one of the broadest based uprisings of its kind I’ve ever seen. If there were a free election held today I’d be surprised if Mubarak got more that 20-23 percent of the vote. Of course, he wouldn’t hold free elections and all the elections held in the past have been rigged.
Q: I know this situation has a very long history, but can you tell us what has spurred this to happen now?
A: Frustration with the Mubarak regime has been growing, but no doubt the democratic revolution in Tunisia played a role. Indeed, recent decades have seen scores of unarmed insurrections against corrupt autocratic regimes from the Philippines to Poland, from Chile to Serbia, from Maldives to Mali.
Q: What are the basics that the people are demanding? That is, for what are they struggling/fighting?
A: Freedom of speech, press, assembly, free/honest elections, etc. which they believe is impossible as long as Mubarak (or his son) is in power. Also, greater economic justice; poverty and inequality are growing. Liberalizing the economy while not liberalizing the political system is a dangerous combination.
Q: Given that this is happening in more than one Arab country, what do you think the likelihood is that this could spread to Saudi Arabia? Is the House of Fahd any better positioned to deal with an uprising than Mubarak?
A: Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, will probably be among the last to change. As an oil-rich … state, they can buy off a lot of potential opponents. In addition, the power of the hard-line Wahabbi clerics may make pro-democracy elements nervous about challenging the monarchy for fear at what might replace it.
Q: What role do you believe the Muslim Brotherhood is playing in the Egypt protests and does that organization enjoy broad support among the Egyptian people?
A: The demonstrations are led primarily by young people who are not only anti-regime, but find the aging leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood as out of touch with their day-to-day realities as the government. There seems little support for the more extreme Islamists either. The Brotherhood’s refusal to endorse the protests until after they started and were clearly gaining support was clearly opportunistic and doesn’t help their standing.
Q: Does Iran play any part in this … behind the scenes?
A: Iran has very little influence in Egyptian politics.
Q: With the U.S. support of Mubarak, how can they expect anyone that replaces him to be friendly to the U.S. It seems like the U.S. once again has provided an excuse to an Islamic state to hate them.
A: While I don’t expect a post-Mubarak government to be fanatically anti-American or dominated by Islamist radicals, there is understandable disappointment among most Egyptians at the longstanding support from Washington of the Mubarak dictatorship. A democratic Egyptian government would likely be somewhat more independent from the U.S. and the IMF, but not overtly hostile.
Q: Is there popular support for Mohamed ElBaradei? What aspirations does he have?
both secular nationalists and moderate Islamists. Has strong democratic credentials.
Q: How do these protests affect other moderate governments in the region, such as Jordan?
A: I think authoritarian governments throughout the region, whether they are pro- or anti-American, are probably pretty nervous right now.
Q: Does Mubarak still enjoy support from the military, or is their allegiance leaning towards the protesters?
A: The military leadership still supports him, but there are serious questions as to whether ordinary soldiers will be willing to suppress the protesters.
Q: Do you think people in Egypt will be able to accomplish anything out of this protest? Even with the strict government they have?
A: Egypt will never be the same. The apathy and feelings of powerlessness have been shattered. Even if Mubarak survives the current round of protests, Egyptian civil society has been re-awakened. His days in power are numbered. It’s a reminder that if democracy comes to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Western capitals, but from the people themselves.
Q: Is the safety of Israel at risk if the government is toppled, and what would happen to the world’s oil supply’s ability to make it thru the Suez Canal?
A: The people of Egypt want social and economic justice and would not be inclined to get in a war with Israel or risk a confrontation with the international community around oil supplies. These protests are about domestic issues, about freedom and justice. While there is certainly broad sympathy for the Palestinian cause, they have more pressing matters at home to deal with.
Q: Is this an uprising more rooted in oppression from the government rather than a religious ideology?
A: There are Christians and Muslims and secularists all out of the street. This is very much about resisting government oppression and its mismanagement of the economy than about religion.
Q: How do the riots affect us here in the U.S.? Why should we care?
A: The United States has been the major economic, political and military supporter of the Mubarak regime for nearly 30 years. This has hurt our standing. Much of the anti-Americanism in the Middle East is not because they “hate our freedom” but because our policies have, unfortunately, been less about freedom than about supporting dictators like Mubarak. This needs to change if we are to have any credibility in that part of the world.
Q: Do you think that regional unrest will prompt U.S. military action? Will it prompt any economic sanctions or other penalties?
A: Not likely. Military force paradoxically doesn’t work very well against hundreds of thousands of unarmed demonstrators. In addition, I would assume that the Obama administration would recognize it would put us on the wrong side of history. U.S. intervention will probably be limited to the diplomatic front. So far there have been no threats of suspending U.S. military aid.
Q: What sort of time frame are you expecting in terms of transition in Egypt? And, what other power players might try to muscle in?
A: No telling. Obviously lots of domestic and foreign elements will try to take advantage of the situation, but it will be the Egyptian people on the streets who will ultimately determine the nation’s future.
Q: Would whatever type of regime that arises from this keep similar relations that Israel and Egypt currently have, or could this lead to a step back?
A: I would guess that a democratic Egyptian government might be more outspokenly critical of certain Israeli policies, but I don’t think there’s any realistic chance of breaking off the peace treaty or anything like that.
Q: Are we seeing signs of broader support from the Egyptian middle class or the intellectual community and how important is that to the success of the protesters in this situation?
A: Yes, there is growing opposition across class lines. And, even if the protests are initially suppressed, I think it will embolden Egyptian intellectuals to be more outspoken in their opposition.
Q: Is this similar to the protests in Iran, i.e., the government will slowly squash it?
A: The Egyptian government could, like the Iranian regime in 2009, successfully crush the rebellion this round. However, the Egyptian regime has a much smaller social base than the Iranian regime, and is therefore far more vulnerable in the longer term.
Q: How will this affect control of the Suez canal – thus the price of oil?
A: It shouldn’t affect the normal operations of the Suez Canal, unless the canal operators joined a general strike. Even in that case, the impact on oil prices would be minimal, since most supertankers are too big for the canal anyway.
Q: If Hosni Mubarak steps down, how likely is it that his son, Gamal Mubarak, (or perhaps his other son) would take over and be accepted by the people? … Do the Egyptian citizens view the sons any differently than the father? (Editor’s note: BBC News reported Saturday that the elder Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Alaa, had flown to London; Egypt’s state-run television denied the report.)
A: Gamal is disliked even more than his father. I was one of those predicting an uprising like we are seeing now if he was named president. Even in Hosni Mubarak can hold on for awhile longer, I think it’s safe to say at this point that Gamal’s career is finished.
Q: Why is Gamal more disliked than his father?
A: Gamal is seen as a spoiled brat and not particularly competent. In addition, the 1952 revolution was to overthrow a monarchy and establish a republic, so hereditary succession is seen as something of an anachronism.
Q: How will this unrest affect U.S. citizens who want to travel to Egypt?
A: I don’t think they have to worry about their personal safety in terms of being attacked for being Americans. However, normal travel could be disrupted because of demonstrations, etc.
Q: What is the “best case” scenario for this demonstration?
A: Best case scenario in my view would be a speedy transition to an interim government under ElBaradei or similar credible figure with free elections some time in the next few months.
Q: Is it probable that Mubarak will agree to at least some of the protesters’ demands? And, are the protesters likely to accept?
A: Mubarak may try to accede to some of the protesters demands, but at this point he may need to be thinking more in terms of sooner or later going into exile. His credibility is shot at this point.
Q: What role are women playing in the protests? Are Muslim and Christian women taking to the streets?
A: Women have not been as visible as during the Tunisian protests, but they have been present, particularly during the more nonviolent protests during daylight. And there have been both Christians and Muslims, both with headscarves and without.
Q: Do you see a warmer peace with Israel if Mubarak falls? I would describe the current peace as a cold peace.
A: At least while the current right-wing Israeli government is in power, it will more likely continue to be a cold peace. Things could warm up with a more moderate Israeli leadership, however.
Q: What do you think the U.S. response should be?
A: I have been disappointed in the Obama administration’s failure to more openly challenge the Mubarak regime and more openly support the pro-democracy movement. I would advocate, for example, for a suspension of U.S. military aid.
Q: Does the wave of activism in north Africa prompt the populations of Iran and Syria to respond in a similar manner? Are there benevolent monarchies in the region that have earned a viable relationship with their citizenry, thereby mitigating the populist uprisings?
A: Civil society is weaker in Syria and their secret police are stronger, but there is still a lot of discontent with Assad. I do expect to see another round of protests in Iran at some point, not because of North Africa, but because the grievances with the Iranian regime are as strong as ever. Kuwait, in part because of major nonviolent protests a few years ago, has opened up politically. The monarchy is still ultimately in charge, but the parliament has some real power as well.
Q: In light of the events in Egypt, how significant is it that Jordan’s King Abdullah sacked his government? How do you rate the likelihood of a “domino effect” toppling other strongmen in the region?
A: It is indicative that even under a monarchy, people power can lead to changes in unpopular appointees and unpopular policies. Whether the monarchy itself is threatened is unclear at this time. There is little question that events in Tunisia and Egypt will inspire pro- democracy movements throughout the region. Egypt is particularly significant, given that it is not only by far the largest Arab country, but traditionally the center of media, scholarship, and popular culture.
Regimes will be forced to make substantial reforms in order to survive. Those that don’t could be putting themselves in jeopardy. Indeed, 2011 could be to the Middle East what 1989 was to Eastern Europe.

Interview: All eyes on Egypt’s military: How will it respond?

As mass demonstrations continue to threaten Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power, the country’s powerful military is emerging as perhaps the crucial player in determining the course of events in the Middle East’s most populous nation.

Already, the army — which has long enjoyed close ties to the ruling regime — is playing a key role in the efforts of the embattled Mubarak regime to control the growing chaos. Over the weekend, after police withdrew, the army deployed to cities across Egypt, keeping order but generally not forcing protesters from the streets. Today, the Egyptian government received permission from Israel to move soldiers into the Sinai Peninsula, which has been largely demilitarized since a 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. And Mubarak has now turned to three career military men — including Omar Suleiman, a former army general and head of the intelligence services, now appointed vice president — to help run the government.

But the army has promised not to fire on peaceful protests, and has said it recognizes the legitimacy of the protester’s demands. If it were to turn completely on Mubarak, he could lose his already tenuous hold on power.
The Lookout asked Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, about how the Egyptian military might respond, and how that response might influence events:

LOOKOUT: What role has the military played in Egyptian society during Mubarak’s regime? How is it viewed by ordinary Egyptians?

SZ: Egypt has essentially been under military rule since the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1952. Mubarak, for example, was the commander of the Egyptian air force prior to Sadat (also a career military officer) naming him as vice-president in 1975. In recent years, the military hierarchy appeared to oppose Mubarak’s intention of naming his son Gamal as his successor. With the naming of military intelligence chief Suleiman as vice president, the military hierarchy is reasserting its political leadership.

LOOKOUT: Now that the army has been called out into the streets in certain areas to confront protesters, are Egyptian soldiers expected to remain loyal to Mubarak? Would that still likely be the case if they were ordered to fire on Egyptian citizens?

SZ: While the military might be willing to push Mubarak aside, they are unlikely to support a democratic transition of the kind being demanded from the street. And there are certainly those in the military leadership who would be willing to try a Tiananmen Square-style massacre to stop it. The bigger question is whether soldiers, overwhelmingly from the poorest and most disenfranchised segments of the Egyptian population, would be willing to obey those kinds of orders. I would tend to doubt it.

LOOKOUT: Without the support of the army, would Mubarak have any way to hold onto power?

SZ: In either case, it appears at this point that Mubarak is finished. Certainly by September, when the presidential elections are scheduled, but I am assuming long before then. You can have all the formal trappings of government you want and all the military firepower at your disposal you can muster, but if people don’t recognize your authority and refuse to obey your orders, you no longer have power. Dictators from [Ferdinand] Marcos to [Slobodan] Milosevic, when faced with similar uprisings, found this out the hard way, and it’s becoming increasingly likely that Mubarak will as well.

LOOKOUT:Â What are the various pressures acting on the military, both the commanders and the rank-and-file troops?

SZ: The Obama administration has apparently told the military that a crackdown would lead to the severing of US military aid and cooperation, which — given the $1.5 billion annual taxpayer-funded US assistance — is quite a disincentive. For the troops, they may be faced with the choice of disobeying commands or attacking their friends, family and neighbors.

LOOKOUT: The military could well play a role in any new regime that replaced Mubarak. What might such a government look like and how might it rule differently from Mubarak’s regime? Would it be any more democratic or open?

SZ: Some argue that the military under Oman Suleiman’s leadership is essentially in charge already. In any case, Suleiman has shown strong leadership and mediation skills, and is well liked in some Western capitals, but he is no democrat. He is despised by many Egyptians as a result of his ruthlessness as head of military intelligence, where he effectively served as torturer-in-chief.

While some hope he might be pragmatic enough to lead a democratic transition, it is unlikely that the protesters will be satisfied unless there is a broad representative civilian interim government that can oversee free elections. Neither Mubarak nor the military can be trusted to supervise free and fair elections.

Obama’s Shift on Egypt

There has been a major shift within the Obama administration over the weekend regarding its policy toward Egypt. President Obama appears to have finally realized that reform within the regime, as the administration had been advocating until Sunday, will not placate the Egyptian people. The administration has yet to issue an explicit call for the authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, at least in public. However, yesterday, for the first time, Secretary of State Clinton and other officials began calling for “an orderly transition” to democracy.

The apparent change in the administration’s approach comes from the belated realization that nothing short of a Tienanmen Square-style massacre would probably stop the protests, and such measures using US-provided weaponry would inflame anti-Americanism throughout Egypt and the entire Arab world and would likely drive the anti-Mubarak resistance underground into the arms of violent extremists. White House sources indicate that the Obama administration has made it clear to the Egyptian military that any large-scale repression would have seriously negative implications for the US-Egyptian relationship, presumably meaning severing US military aid and cooperation, which has amounted to $1.5 billion annually. They are pushing for Mubarak and the military to bow out in place of an interim civilian coalition followed by free elections.

Given the ambivalent signals from the administration last week and continued support for Mubarak by some prominent Republican Congressional leaders and influential media pundits, there is concern within the White House as to whether the Egyptian regime has gotten the message. Already, Republicans and their allies are building the foundations of an “Obama lost Egypt” attack should a democratic transition lead to an anti-American government or serve as a precedent for further instability in the Middle East. Ironically, the position of hard-line elements in the Egyptian military may also be bolstered by human rights advocates and other critics of the Obama administration on the left who, understandably angry at US support for the longstanding support of the Mubarak dictatorship, have continued to underscore the outlandish statements late last week by Clinton and by Vice-President Joe Biden in which they appeared to be defending the regime.

There have been major divisions within the administration over the past few days regarding US policy toward Egypt. However, Biden, Clinton, and others who favored backing Mubarak, or steering the regime to a milder authoritarianism under Omar Suleiman and the military, appear to have lost out. Obama appears to have recognized that the future of Egypt will come not from Washington and other Western capitals, but from the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities and that, when an unarmed insurrection advances to the stage it currently is in Egypt, the United States can no more suppress or co-opt pro-democracy forces than the Soviet Union could do in regard to similar movements in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Indeed, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington will ultimately impact what happens on the “Arab street,” the Arab street has proven itself capable of impacting what happens in Washington.

In belatedly pushing for a democratic transition in Egypt, Obama has demonstrated a rare show of spine against not only Congressional Republicans, but many prominent Democratic hawks, State Department veterans, the Israel Lobby, and other supporters of the Mubarak dictatorship. Obama may have finally realized that, at this crucial historical juncture, the United States cannot afford be on the wrong side of history.

This change is long overdue. The Obama administration, in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of its predecessor, had fallen back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Indeed, Obama’s understandable skepticism of the neoconservative doctrine of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through “regime change” turned into an excuse for further arming these regimes, which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular, indigenous, bottom-up struggles for democratization.

At the same time, there was a subtle, but important, shift in the US government’s discourse on human rights when Obama came to office two years ago. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view. It focused, for instance, on elections — which can easily be rigged and manipulated in many cases — in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding US power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing such rights as freedom of expression and the right to protest, recognizing that human rights reform can only come from below and not imposed from above.

Until now, this had largely been rhetorical. Military aid and arms sales to Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and other repressive Arab regimes continued unabated. However, the White House’s statement yesterday calling for the Egyptian regime to support “universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association, and speech,” the exercise of which would surely lead to its downfall, is indicative of an awareness that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves.

The United States still needs to take a firmer stance toward Mubarak and the Egyptian military. The lingering hopes in Washington that Mubarak will be able to stay in office until the presidential election in September are completely unrealistic. And, regarding US policy in the region as a whole, the United States needs to stop propping up other Arab dictators and supporting the Israeli occupation through the ongoing military assistance.

However, this apparent shift away from the Mubarak regime — like the similar reversal in US policy toward the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia a couple weeks ago — serves as an important reminder as to where power actually comes from: Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its authority. Through general strikes, filling the streets, mass refusal to obey official orders, and other forms of nonviolent resistance, even the most autocratic regime cannot survive.

One cannot help but admire the Egyptians, who — like the Tunisians, Serbians, Filipinos, Chileans, Poles, and others — have faced down the teargas, water cannons, truncheons and bullets for their freedom. However, as long as the United States remains the world’s No.1 supplier of security assistance to repressive governments in the Middle East and elsewhere, the need for massive nonviolent action in support for freedom and democracy may be no greater than here.

US Continues to Back Egyptian Dictatorship in the Face of Pro-Democracy Uprising

Washington’s continued support for the Egyptian dictatorship in the face of massive pro-democracy protests is yet another sign that both Congress and the Obama administration remain out of touch with the growing demands for freedom in the Arab world. Just last month, Obama and the then-Democratic-controlled Congress approved an additional $1.3 billion in security assistance to help prop up Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime.

In the course of some pro-democracy civil insurrections, such as those in Iran and Burma, Washington has strongly condemned the regime and provided strong words of encouragement for the pro-democracy activists challenging their repression. In a couple of cases, such as Serbia and Ukraine, the United States and other Western countries even provided limited amounts of economic assistance to pro-democracy groups. Most of the time, however, and particularly if the dictatorship is a US ally like Egypt, Washington has shown little enthusiasm for such freedom struggles.

The United States has defended its support of the Mubarak dictatorship as part of the war on terror, seeing the Egyptian regime as a bulwark against Islamic extremism; however, the main organizers of the massive street protests are the 6 April youth movement, which is not only alienated from the secular Mubarak regime, but from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, as well. The Brotherhood refused to back up the protesters through the morning of January 25, (though it later opportunistically endorsed them as it witnessed hundreds of thousands of ordinary Egyptians joining the protesters’ ranks). The demonstrators being beaten, shot and tear-gassed by US-supplied equipment want freedom and justice, not theocracy.

While European leaders strongly criticized the crackdown, as of the afternoon of the second day of the protests, Hillary Clinton still refused to criticize the Egyptian government. Despite appearances to the contrary, Clinton insisted that “the country was stable” and that the Mubarak government was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” despite the miserable failure of the regime in its nearly 30 years in power to do so. Asked whether the United States still supports Mubarak, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Egypt remains a “close and important ally.” As during the Tunisian protests, the Obama administration tried to equate the scattered violence of some pro-democracy protesters with the far greater violence of the dictatorship’s security forces, with Gibbs saying, “We continue to believe first and foremost that all of the parties should refrain from violence.”

Finally, after 36 hours of heavy police repression, Clinton issued a statement urging “Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications including on social media sites.” Rather than calling on the dictator to step down, she encouraged him to take more responsible leadership, saying, “We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

At the height of the protests, as tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists nonviolently occupying Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo were being brutally assaulted by police, Obama delivered his State of the Union address. While claiming that the United States supports “the democratic aspirations of all people,” he made no mention of Egypt, nor of the dramatic events unfolding there which, outside of the United States, were the major focus of the world’s media at that hour.

The repressive nature of Egypt’s Mubarak dictatorship has been well-documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and other groups. This is a country where a simple gathering of five or more people without a permit is illegal. Peaceful pro-democracy protesters are routinely beaten and jailed. Martial law has been in effect for nearly 30 years. Independent observers are banned from monitoring the country’s routinely rigged elections, from which the largest opposition party is banned while other opposition parties are severely restricted in producing publications and other activities.

It’s well documented that the Egyptian government engages in a pattern of gross and systematic human rights abuses against perceived opponents of the regime, including massive detentions without due process, torture on an administrative basis and extrajudicial killings. Targets of government repression have included not just radical Islamists, but leftists, liberal democrats, feminists, gay men, independent-minded scholars, students, trade unionists, Coptic Christians and human rights activists.

In an interview with the BBC in 2009 just prior to Obama’s visit to Egypt, Justin Webb asked the president, “Do you regard President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler?” Obama’s reply was “No,” insisting that, “I tend not to use labels for folks.” Obama also refused to acknowledge Mubarak’s authoritarianism on the grounds that, “I haven’t met him,” as if the question was in regard to the Egyptian dictator’s personality rather than his well-documented intolerance of dissent.

In further justifying his refusal to acknowledge the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian government, Obama referred to Mubarak as “a stalwart ally, in many respects, to the United States.” He praised Egypt’s despotic president for having “sustained peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region,” though, given that no Arab government has waged war with Israel for over 35 years, this is hardly so unique an accomplishment as to justify shying away from legitimate criticism of the Egyptian leader’s dictatorial rule. Obama went on to insist that, “I think he has been a force for stability. And good in the region.”

When the BBC’s Webb asked Obama how he planned to address the issue of the “thousands of political prisoners in Egypt,” he answered only in terms of the United States being a better role model, such as closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and of the importance of the United States not trying to impose its human rights values on other countries. While these are certainly valid points, they offer little hope for the thousands of regime opponents now languishing in Egyptian prisons. Obama said nothing about the possibility of linking even part of the more than $1.7 billion in annual US aid to the Mubarak regime to providing freedom for these prisoners of conscience.

The most negative assessment Obama could muster for Mubarak’s dictatorial regime in the interview was, “Obviously, there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt.” Given that there have also been criticisms of the manner in which politics is conducted in every country of the world, including the United States, this can hardly count for a public display of disapproval. Even the Washington-based Freedom House ranks Egypt in the bottom quintile of the world’s countries in terms of political rights and civil liberties. Webb’s question was not about whether there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt. The question was whether Mubarak was an authoritarian leader. Even if Obama did not feel comfortable labeling the Egyptian president himself as an authoritarian, he should have at least acknowledged that Mubarak leads an authoritarian government.

Obama’s lack of support for democracy in Egypt and the Arab world has caused intense anger throughout the region. Think how much better relations would be with the people of the Middle East if Obama had said something like, “Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East … the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

Could he say such a thing? Yes. In fact, those were his exact words when, as an Illinois state senator, he gave a speech at a major antiwar rally in Chicago on October 2, 2002.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US military and economic aid. As president of the United States, Obama would have enormous leverage, should he choose to wield it, in pressing Egypt to end oppression of its own people, suppression of dissent, toleration of corruption and inequality and mismanagement of its economy.

To his credit, when Obama visited Egypt in 2009 and gave his now-famous speech at the University of Cairo, he did engage in a few symbolic efforts to demonstrate a concern for human rights. He didn’t praise Mubarak from the podium, as is generally customary on such occasions. Nor did he physically embrace Mubarak or otherwise offer visual displays of affection, as is typical during such visits to leaders in that region. The Obama administration invited some leading critics of the regime, including both secular liberals and moderate Islamists, to witness his speech. However, Kefaya, Egypt’s leading grassroots pro-democracy group, boycotted the speech. It demanded that Obama show his commitment to democracy in deeds, not words.

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Backdrop to the Resistance

The vast majority of Egyptians are under 30 years of age. They are fed up with the repressive and corrupt US-backed regime that has provided so little promise for their future. While most are observant Muslims, there is not much enthusiasm for the traditional conservative Muslim Brotherhood and its aging leadership, which has dominated the organized opposition. There is virtually no support for Islamist extremists, either. Many of these young Egyptians seem dedicated to making change on their own terms. Smart phones and the Internet are leading to unprecedented access to alternative media and are forming the basis for a growing wave of pro-democracy organizing.

Crushing poverty, increasing human rights abuses, rampant inflation, institutionalized corruption, a deteriorating educational system and high unemployment have spawned the largest social movement in the country in more than 50 years. Even prior to this week’s dramatic events, many thousands had protested in Cairo, Alexandria and other major cities despite brutal police attacks on demonstrators, widespread torture of detainees and other repressive measures.

The Obama administration acknowledges that, despite the repression, Egypt has developed “a vibrant civil society.” Unfortunately, says opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, US policy toward the Middle East “has not been based on dialogue, understanding, supporting civil society and empowering people, but rather it’s been based on supporting authoritarian systems as long as the oil keeps pumping.” The Nobel Peace Prize laureate also observed, “If you bet on individuals, instead of the people, you are going to fail. And western policy so far has been to bet on individuals, individuals who are not supported by their people and who are being discredited every day.”

Journalist Ibrahim Eissa noted that “Obama is not pressuring Mubarak at all” to end the repression, nor is Obama “realizing that society is going to implode on itself and destroy those regimes.” Similarly, Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House observed how the November parliamentary elections posed “a clear-cut choice for the Obama administration – whether to side with the Egyptian government or with the Egyptian people.” Despite rampant fraud, a refusal to allow independent election monitors and mass arrests and media suppression just prior to the election, Obama successfully pushed for a renewal of the multibillion dollar aid package to the Mubarak regime just weeks later.

A conference held in New York last year on the future of democracy in Egypt concluded that a possible explosion in popular protest could occur in the near future in response to repression and economic injustice. In an article last month, I predicted (unaware that the Tunisians would beat them to it), that “Egypt could very well be where the next unarmed popular pro-democracy insurrection takes place of the kind that brought down Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia and scores of other autocratic regimes in recent decades.”

The United States had provided a limited amount of aid to civil society organizations addressing women’s issues, working conditions, human rights and other pro-democracy efforts. An audit by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) concluded that economic assistance to these independent civil society organizations was far more effective than aid to government-controlled aid recipients.

On coming to office, however, Obama slashed such funding by 75 percent while maintaining the $1.3 billion in military assistance. Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, observed that, “Members of the administration have made it clear that they did not want economic assistance to irritate the Egyptian government.” Funding now goes into an endowment, which can only allocate to groups approved by the Mubarak regime. According to Safwat Girgis, leader of the Egyptian Centre for Human Rights, Obama’s decision “is in the best interest of the Egyptian government, not the people nor civil society organizations.”

Such “pro-democracy” funding from the US-government-backed agencies has been controversial among some opposition groups, for fear that dependency on such assistance could make them susceptible to a US political agenda. In addition, providing pro-democracy assistance to civil society groups while providing security assistance to a regime suppressing those very organizations is not unlike the US government’s old practice of paying for anti-smoking campaigns while subsidizing the tobacco industry. Still, a number of pro-democracy groups feel abandoned by Obama.

Indeed, US support for Egypt’s armed forces, paramilitary units and secret police – altogether numbering nearly one million – remains at over $1.3 billion annually. Egypt receives more than any other country except Israel. The military hardware provided by the United States not only directly contributes to the dictatorship’s ability to crush dissent and remain in power, but costs the Egyptian people billions of dollars in personnel, training, spare parts and upkeep which could go into badly needed domestic programs.

Economic Injustice

In addition to growing demands for political freedom, protests for economic justice are also on the rise.

Egypt’s minimum wage of $6 a day hasn’t gone up in more than a quarter century, even though the cost of living has quadrupled. Even by the World Bank’s modest measurements, nearly half of all Egyptians live below the poverty level. Per capita income is barely $1,000 a year. More than 40 percent of young Egyptians cannot afford to rent or purchase an apartment, or even marry.

Meanwhile, it’s become increasingly difficult for Egypt to feed its growing population, due in part to US pressure on the country to pursue an export-oriented model of development. More than half of Egypt’s food is imported – much in the form of subsidized US wheat – further escalating dependence on Washington.

For decades, the Egyptian regime has been reversing the socialist initiatives of the popular president Gamal Abdul Nasser, who ruled from the 1952 revolution until his death in 1970. The result has been increased inequality, with a tiny, wealthy elite controlling the majority of the economy and political power with little interest in opening up the political process to the masses. Mubarak’s US-backed neoliberal economic agenda has accelerated since the 1990’s, privatizing more than half of all public enterprises. This shift has resulted in weakened job security, fewer benefits and longer hours. The official government union does little to defend the workers. As a result, workers have taken things into their own hands. More than two million have participated in more than 3,300 strikes, demonstrations, factory occupations and other mass actions since 1998. A 2007 sit-in by 3,000 municipal workers at the finance ministry ultimately won them higher salaries and the right to form an independent union.

Last spring, thousands of workers staged rotating sit-ins in front of the parliament building despite efforts by police to disperse them by force. Prominent pro-Mubarak parliamentarian Hassan Nashaat al-Qasas called on the government to go beyond the use of water cannons and “shoot them” instead. In response, hundreds of defiant protesters marched, carrying placards with targets and shouting, “Shoot us!” As protests grew, the government announced a freeze on further privatization and gave in on a number of other economic demands.

Egypt is a critically important country. There are 82 million Egyptians, the equivalent of seven times the population of Israel and Palestine combined. Given the level of repression and the longstanding US support of the Mubarak regime, it is disappointing that more Americans haven’t challenged our Egypt policy. Historically, US support for authoritarian regimes does not end until the US public demands it. It is high time, then, to demand that Obama end US support for Mubarak and give the people of Egypt a chance to determine their own future.

Fraudulent Egyptian Election

The November 28 Egyptian parliamentary elections were a farce. The vast majority of Egyptians boycotted the charade. But even those who did try to vote witnessed massive ballot-stuffing, vote-buying, intimidation, multiple voting in pro-government precincts, interminable delays in pro-opposition precincts, and mass arrests of opposition supporters.

When the Mubarak regime forbade any international monitors to watch the polls, opposition parties and civil society activists organized a large network of poll watchers in order to catch anticipated government efforts at rigging the election. They had fielded thousands of monitors for the last parliamentary elections as well for as recent municipal elections, documenting massive fraud. However, the government banned even Egyptians from monitoring this most recent election, thereby allowing officials to engage in widespread ballot-stuffing and other irregularities.

When some modest political liberalization led to an upsurge in protests over the past year, the government decided to engage in a major crackdown on dissent. In the lead-up to last month’s elections, the regime shut down nearly 20 satellite television channels, outlawed media coverage of court cases, dismissed the most prominent critical newspaper columnists, restricted NGO activities, monitored text messages, and arrested nearly 2,000 opposition activists. Said fired columnist Ibrahim Eissa, “The Egyptian government seems to have gotten the green light from the Obama administration to go back to the way they were before.”

Opposition leader Mohammed El-Baradei, winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, called for a boycott of what were clearly going to be fraudulent elections. However, a combination of threats and inducements led a number of opposition parties to participate anyway. Notably, more than three-quarters of Egyptian voters boycotted the polls. In what some opposition activists interpreted as a rebuke of the boycott, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Mike Hammer remarked that “the United States commends those Egyptians who participated in the parliamentary elections on Sunday.”

Hammer did note, however, that the United States was “disappointed with the conduct during and leading up to Egypt’s November 28 legislative elections.” He stressed, “We look forward to continuing to work with the Egyptian Government and Egypt’s vibrant civil society to help Egypt achieve its political, social, and economic aspirations consistent with international standards.” The administration’s willingness to acknowledge Egypt’s burgeoning civil society is encouraging and constitutes a positive shift from the previous administration. However, it is naïve to assume that the current Egyptian regime has any desire to live up to international standards of democracy and transparency.

Republic of Fear

For the entirety of his nearly 30 years in power, Mubarak has ruled under an “Emergency” Law restricting freedom of speech and other civil liberties. It makes gatherings of more than five people illegal, bans participation in elections by any political party not approved by the government, and removes security services from judicial oversight. The token opposition inside the legislature previously was unable to change any laws; their influence will be even less now with their numbers substantially reduced in the stolen election. Prominent Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour, who came in second in the rigged presidential election of 2005, was sentenced to five years in jail. His party’s headquarters was burned down a year ago.

Scores of prominent bloggers have been arrested and given long jail terms on dubious charges in recent months. Last June, security forces beat to death a young businessman and prominent pro-democracy blogger after dragging him out of an Internet café. Massive nationwide protests ensued.

Although the State Department acknowledges that the regime suppresses freedom of the press, association, and religion, the U.S. government – under both Republican and Democratic administrations –annually rewards Mubarak with billions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance. Early into his presidency, Obama dispatched Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Cairo to affirm continued unconditional aid. Similarly, Secretary of State Clinton declared that there would be no human rights “conditionality” in the close relationship between the United States and Egypt, regarding foreign aid or anything else.

This unconditional aid to the increasingly repressive Mubarak regime was awarded by a Democratic administration with a large Democratic majority in Congress. Chances of getting tough on Egypt’s dictatorship will likely decrease with a Republican majority back in the House.

As senators, both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Clinton attempted to justify their support for the illegal and disastrous Iraq War on the grounds that “it should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove from power the current Iraqi regime and promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” Yet their professed support for democracy in Iraq was as phony as their claim that Iraq at that time had “weapons of mass destruction.” If they really cared about advancing democracy in the Middle East, they would not need to advocate a costly invasion, occupation, and bloody counter-insurgency war. They would simply insist on conditioning U.S. aid to Egypt and other Arab regimes to free multiparty elections.

This raises the serious question of whether the United States even wants free multiparty elections, in Egypt or any place else, that would replace a pro-American regime with one more independent-minded. Police states such as Mubarak’s can even be useful, as when the Bush administration outsourced captured Islamist radicals to be tortured in Egypt.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit publicly acknowledged that State Department pronouncements, critical of Egyptian government’s renewal of the state of emergency last spring, were aimed at “calming U.S. human rights groups and media” and that relations between Egypt and the United States would be “unaffected.” Unfortunately, he appears to have been right.

“Nobody gives a damn of what’s going on in Egypt,” says pro-democracy blogger Wael Abbas, summarizing U.S. policy as “Mubarak is a friend, and he’s allowing McDonald’s and Hardees’s and Pizza Hut. To hell with the Egyptian people. If they want democracy, we don’t care.”

Similarly Pakistani-American human rights lawyer Wajahat Ali, writing about Egypt, noted that “the US seems more committed to supporting reliable despots who toe the line than to dealing with democratic parties representative of the people’s desires and values.”

The only time the United States put conditions on aid to Egypt was in 2008, but not over human rights or democracy. Democratic Representatives Nita Lowey (NY), David Obey (WI), and the late Tom Lantos (CA) successfully threatened to withhold $100 million of the $1.7 billion package unless Mubarak more strictly enforced the siege on the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian regime complied, even to the point of beating and detaining international human rights activists, including Americans, who attempted to bring food and medicine to Palestinian civilians in the besieged territory in January 2010.

Prior to becoming president, Barack Obama criticized U.S. support for Mubarak and other Arab dictatorships, declaring “Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.” Unfortunately, as president, he has increased U.S. support for these dictatorships.

ElBaradei warns that U.S. policy toward Egypt risks creating a new generation of Islamist extremists, noting, “Only if you empower the liberals, if you empower the moderate socialists, if you empower all factions of society, only then will extremists be marginalized.” Even the Washington Post has recognized that “Mubarak’s successors will need to acquire political legitimacy; if they cannot do so through democracy they probably will resort to nationalism and anti-Americanism.” Support for repression only breeds anti-Americanism, including Islamist extremists. It is not surprising that the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Muhammed Atta, was an Egyptian radicalized by the repression and corruption of his U.S.-backed government.

Democracy Assistance

The United States had provided a limited amount of aid to civil society organizations addressing women’s issues, working conditions, human rights, and other pro-democracy efforts. An audit by the U.S. Agency for International Development concluded that economic assistance to these independent civil society organizations was far more effective than aid to government-controlled aid recipients.

On coming to office, however, Obama slashed such funding by 75 percent while maintaining the $1.3 billion in military assistance. Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, observed that, “Members of the administration have made it clear that they did not want economic assistance to irritate the Egyptian government.” Funding now goes into an endowment, which can only allocate to groups approved by the Mubarak regime. According to Safwat Girgis, leader of the Egyptian Centre for Human Rights, Obama’s decision “is in the best interest of the Egyptian government, not the people nor civil society organizations.”

Such “pro-democracy” funding from the U.S. government-backed agencies has been controversial among some opposition groups for fear that dependency on such assistance could make them susceptible to a U.S. political agenda. In addition, providing pro-democracy assistance to civil society groups while providing security assistance to a regime suppressing those very organizations is not unlike the old practice of the U.S. government paying for anti-smoking campaigns while subsidizing the tobacco industry. Still, a number of pro-democracy groups feel abandoned by Obama.

Indeed, U.S. support for Egypt’s armed forces, paramilitary units, and secret police – altogether numbering nearly one million – remains at over $1.3 billion annually. Egypt receives more than any other country, except Israel. The military hardware provided by the United States not only directly contributes to the dictatorship’s ability to crush dissent and remain in power, but costs the Egyptian people billions of dollars in personnel, training, spare parts, and upkeep which could go into badly needed domestic programs.

Economic Injustice

In addition to growing demands for political freedom, protests for economic justice are also on the rise.

Egypt’s minimum wage of $6 a day hasn’t gone up in more than a quarter century, even though the cost of living has quadrupled. Even by the World’s Bank modest measurements, nearly half of all Egyptians live below the poverty level. Per capita income is barely $1,000 a year. More than 40 percent of young Egyptians cannot afford to rent or purchase an apartment, or even marry. Meanwhile, it’s become increasingly difficult for Egypt to feed its growing population, due in part to U.S. pressure on the country to pursue an export-oriented model of development. More than half of Egypt’s food is imported, much in the form of subsidized U.S. wheat, further escalating dependence on Washington.

For decades, the Egyptian regime has been reversing the socialist initiatives of the popular president Gamal Abdul-Nasser, who ruled from the 1952 revolution until his death in 1970. The result has been increased inequality, with a tiny wealthy elite controlling the majority of the economy and political power with little interest in opening up the political process to the masses.

Mubarak’s U.S.-backed neo-liberal economic agenda has accelerated since the 1990s, privatizing more than half of all public enterprises. This has resulted in weakened job security, fewer benefits, and longer hours. The official government union does little to defend the workers. As a result, workers have taken things into their own hands. More than two million have participated in more than 3,300 strikes, demonstrations, factory occupations, and other mass actions since 1998. A 2007 sit-in by 3,000 municipal workers at the finance ministry ultimately won them higher salaries and the right to form an independent union.

Last spring, thousands of workers staged rotating sit-ins in front of the parliament building despite efforts by police to disperse them by force. Prominent pro-Mubarak parliamentarian Nashaat alQasas called on the government to go beyond the use of water cannons and “shoot them” instead. In response, hundreds of defiant protesters marched carrying placards with targets shouting “shoot us!” As protests grew, the government announced a freeze on further privatization and gave in on a number of other economic demands.

People Power

The vast majority of Egyptians are under 30 years of age. They are fed up with the repressive and corrupt U.S.-backed regime that has provided so little promise for their future. While most are observant Muslims, there is not much enthusiasm for the traditional conservative Muslim Brotherhood and its aging leadership, which has dominated the organized opposition. There is virtually no support for Islamist extremists, either. Many of these young Egyptians seem dedicated to making change on their own terms. Smart phones and the Internet are leading to unprecedented access to alternative media and are forming the basis for a growing wave of pro-democracy organizing.

A conference held earlier this year in New York, on the future of democracy in Egypt, concluded that a possible explosion in popular protest could occur in the near future in response to repression and economic injustice. Crushing poverty, increasing human rights abuses, rampant inflation, institutionalized corruption, a deteriorating educational system, and high unemployment have spawned the largest social movement in the country in more than 50 years. Many thousands have protested in Cairo, Alexandria, and other major cities despite brutal police attacks on demonstrators, widespread torture of detainees, and other repressive measures. Indeed, Egypt could very well be where the next unarmed popular pro-democracy insurrection takes place of the kind that brought down Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia, and scores of other autocratic regimes in recent decades.

The Obama administration acknowledges that, despite the repression, Egypt has developed “a vibrant civil society.” Unfortunately, says ElBaradei, U.S. policy toward the Middle East “has not been based on dialogue, understanding, supporting civil society and empowering people, but rather it’s been based on supporting authoritarian systems as long as the oil keeps pumping.” The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate also observed, “If you bet on individuals, instead of the people, you are going to fail. And western policy so far has been to bet on individuals, individuals who are not supported by their people and who are being discredited every day.”

Journalist Eissa noted that “Obama is not pressuring Mubarak at all” to end the repression nor is Obama “realizing that society is going to implode on itself and destroy those regimes.” Similarly, Daniel Clingaert of Freedom House observed how the elections now “pose a clear-cut choice for the Obama administration—whether to side with the Egyptian government or with the Egyptian people.”

Egypt is a critically important country. There are 82 million Egyptians, the equivalent of seven times the population of Israel and Palestine combined. Given the level of repression and the long-standing U.S. support of the Mubarak regime, it is disappointing that more Americans haven’t challenged our Egypt policy. Historically, U.S. support for authoritarian regimes does not end until the U.S. public demands it. It is high time, then, to demand that Obama end U.S. support for Mubarak and give the people of Egypt a chance to determine their own future.

How Not to Support Democracy in the Middle East

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo to the Muslim world marked a welcome departure from the Bush administration’s confrontational approach. Yet many Arabs and Muslims have expressed frustration that he failed to use this opportunity to call on the autocratic Saudi and Egyptian leaders with whom he had visited on his Middle Eastern trip to end their repression and open up their corrupt and tightly controlled political systems.

Imagine the positive reaction Obama would have received throughout the Arab and Islamic world if, instead of simply expressing eloquent but vague words in support of freedom and democracy, he had said something like this:

“Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

Could he have said such a thing?

Yes. In fact, those were his exact words when, as an Illinois state senator, he gave a speech at a major anti-war rally in Chicago on October 2, 2002.

Coddling Tyrants

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, while Saudi Arabia is the number-one buyer of U.S. arms. Obama would have enormous leverage, should he choose to wield it, in pressing these two regimes to end oppression of their own people, suppression of dissent, toleration of corruption and inequality, and mismanagement of their economies. Yet he was apparently unwilling to take advantage of his highly publicized visits with the leaders of these two countries to break with his predecessors’ coddling of these tyrannical regimes.

To his credit, while in Egypt Obama did engage in a few symbolic efforts to demonstrate a concern for human rights. He didn’t praise his Egyptian host, the dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak, from the podium, as is generally customary on such occasions. Nor did he physically embrace Mubarak or Saudi King Abdullah or otherwise offer visual displays of affection, as is typical during such visits to leaders in that region. The Obama administration invited some leading critics of the regime, including both secular liberals and moderate Islamists, to witness his University of Cairo speech. However, Kefaya, Egypt’s leading grassroots pro-democracy group, boycotted the speech. It demanded that Obama show his commitment to democracy in deeds, not words.

Since his address was directed to the Muslim world as a whole, and not just to Egypt, it may not have been appropriate in that particular speech to specify particular human rights abuses in that country or explicitly call on Mubarak to release political prisoners or allow for free elections. However, it appears that there was no clear effort by Obama, at any point during his Middle East trip, to pressure the Egyptian dictator or his Saudi counterpart to end the repression in their countries.

Despite taking a conciliatory role in the Arab-Israeli conflict in recent years, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah reigns over a brutal and misogynist theocracy. The royal family, with the consultation of reactionary Wahhabi religious scholars, rules by decree. There’s no constitution and no elections (save for one male-only poll for some powerless local advisory councils in 2005.) No public non-Islamic religious observance is allowed. Political prisoners are routinely tortured and the execution rate (through beheading) is the second-highest in the world. The country is routinely ranked as one of the most repressive on the planet. During his visit to the kingdom last week, however, Obama refused to utter a word of public criticism about the family dictatorship, but did praise the king for “his wisdom and his graciousness.”

Ignoring Egyptian Repression

As with Saudi Arabia, the repressive nature of Egypt’s Mubarak dictatorship has been well-documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and other groups. This is a country where a simple gathering of five or more people without a permit is illegal. Peaceful pro-democracy protesters are routinely beaten and jailed. Martial law has been in effect for more than 28 years. Independent observers are banned from monitoring the country’s routinely rigged elections, from which the largest opposition party is banned from participating and other opposition parties are severely restricted in producing publications and other activities.

It’s well documented that the Egyptian government engages in a pattern of gross and systematic human rights abuses against perceived opponents of the regime, including massive detentions without due process, torture on an administrative basis, and extra-judicial killings. Targets of government repression have included not just radical Islamists, but leftists, liberal democrats, feminists, gay men, independent-minded scholars, students, trade unionists, Coptic Christians, and human rights activists.

It’s therefore quite disappointing that, even though the human rights situation in Egypt has actually worsened since his 2002 speech in which he advocated fighting to end repression in that country, Obama now refuses to even acknowledge that country’s authoritarianism. In an interview with the BBC just prior to his departure to the Middle East, Justin Webb asked him directly, “Do you regard President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler?”

Obama’s reply was “No,” insisting that “I tend not to use labels for folks.” Obama also refused to acknowledge Mubarak’s authoritarianism on the grounds that “I haven’t met him,” as if the question was in regard to the Egyptian dictator’s personality rather than his well-documented intolerance of dissent.

In further justifying his refusal to acknowledge the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian government, Obama referred to Mubarak — whom he dismissed as a “so-called” ally back in 2002 — as “a stalwart ally, in many respects, to the United States.” He praised Egypt’s despotic president for having “sustained peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region,” though — given that no Arab government has waged war with Israel for over 35 years — this is hardly so unique an accomplishment as to justify shying away from legitimate criticism of the Egyptian leader’s dictatorial rule.

Obama went on to insist that “I think he has been a force for stability. And good in the region.” Such an assessment is in marked contrast to his remarks from less than seven years ago, where he publicly acknowledged that Mubarak’s corrupt and autocratic rule was creating conditions where Egyptian youth “grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.” Since coming to Washington, Obama has surely read the intelligence reports that note many young Egyptians have been radicalized in reaction to Mubarak’s corrupt and autocratic rule, and some have gone on to play key roles in al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that have dangerously destabilized the region.

When the BBC’s Webb asked Obama how he planned to address the issue of the “thousands of political prisoners in Egypt,” he answered only in terms of the United States being a better role model, such as closing the prison at Guatánamo Bay, and the importance of the United States not trying to impose its human rights values on other countries. While these are certainly valid points, they offer little hope for the thousands of regime opponents now languishing in Egyptian prisons. Obama said nothing about the possibility of linking even part of the more than $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to the Mubarak regime on providing freedom for these prisoners of conscience.

The most negative assessment Obama could muster for Mubarak’s dictatorial regime in the interview was, “Obviously, there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt.” Given that there have also been criticisms of the manner in which politics is conducted in every country of the world, including the United States, this can hardly account for a public display of disapproval. Even the Washington-based Freedom House ranks Egypt in the bottom quintile of the world’s countries in terms of political rights and civil liberties. Webb’s question was not about whether there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt. The question was whether Mubarak was an authoritarian leader. Even if Obama did not feel comfortable labeling the Egyptian president himself as an authoritarian, he should have at least acknowledged that Mubarak leads an authoritarian government.

The Return of Realpolitik

In his recent speech, Obama claimed to have “an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.” Emphasizing that such concepts are not just American ideas but basic universal human rights, he pledged that the United States “will support them everywhere.”

Yet few on the proverbial Arab Main Street are going to believe the United States actually supports human rights until such noble rhetoric is matched by action, specifically an end to the arming and funding of repressive governments in the Middle East. As Shirin Sadeghi said, “Obama’s inevitable message to the Muslim world” is that “the United States will look the other way at your governments’ repressive policies because a working relationship with them is more important than a consideration of the peoples’ rights.”

Similarly, while Israel is an exemplary democracy for its Jewish citizens, that country’s U.S.-supplied armed forces have engaged in massive violations of international humanitarian law against Arab and Muslim peoples, with bipartisan support from Washington.

It appears, then, that in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of his predecessor, Obama is largely falling back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Obama’s understandable skepticism of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through “regime change” is no excuse for arming these regimes, which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular indigenous bottom-up struggles for democratization (and then, in turn, justify the large-scale unconditional support for Israel because it’s “the sole democracy in the Middle East”).

Because this is the aspect of U.S. foreign policy most Arabs and Muslims experience firsthand, support for these corrupt and despotic regimes is arguably the single biggest motivation for the young disenfranchised men that join the ranks of radical Islamists against the United States, even more so than U.S. support for Israel or the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Continued support for the dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, therefore, ultimately places Americans at risk.

Largely as a result of the longstanding bipartisan U.S. effort to prop up the Mubarak dictatorship, the percentage of Egyptians who look favorably upon the United States in recent years has plunged into the single digits, which is a significantly lower percentage than even Iranians. With more than 80 million people, Egypt is by far the world’s largest Arab country and remains the center of Arab and Islamic culture, media, and scholarship. It’s therefore not a country whose people the Obama administration should risk alienating. Like the series of administrations from Eisenhower to Carter, which insisted on supporting the despotic Shah of Iran, Obama’s insistence on continuing to arm and support the Mubarak regime could be sowing the seeds of yet another disastrous anti-American reaction.

Another problem with Obama’s apparent willingness to continue America’s strategic and economic support for these dictatorships is that it provides the neocons and other right-wing critics an opportunity to appear to seize the moral high ground. Despite the fact that U.S. military and economic support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other repressive regimes in the greater Middle East actually increased under the Bush administration, Obama’s failure to speak out more forcefully for greater freedom and democracy in the region is now becoming a Republican line of attack. Just because Bush and his supporters disingenuously used “democracy promotion” as a rationalization for its invasion of Iraq and other reckless policies, however, it doesn’t therefore follow that supporting democracy is a bad thing.

Almost none of the dozens of successful transitions to democracy in recent decades have come from foreign intervention. The vast majority have come from democratic civil society organizations engaging in strategic nonviolent action from within. While the United States cannot instigate such “people power” movements, at least we can stop providing autocratic regimes with the means to suppress them. And there’s no better place to start than the Middle East.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/how_not_to_support_democracy_in_the_middle_east

Bombings and Repression in Egypt Underscore Failures in U.S. Anti-Terrorism Strategy

The devastating bombings which struck the Egyptian city of Sharm al-Sheik on July 24 underscore both the extent of the threat from Islamist terrorists and the failure of the United States and its allies to effectively deal with it.

That the bombers were somehow able to get around the military checkpoints through which traffic on all the major roads leading into the city must pass is a sobering indication of the terrorists’ sophistication and their network of support. The blasts killed 88 people, nearly twice as many as did the more-publicized terrorist bombings in London two weeks earlier. And it could have been far worse: two of the three bombs went off well short of their intended targets.

Terrorist attacks this past October in Taba and Ras a-Satan, other coastal resort cities on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killed an additional 32 people.

Support for Despotic Regimes

Why has Egypt become the target of such terrorist violence?

While governments which supported the American invasion of Iraq may have become particularly attractive targets for Islamist terrorists, this is not the case with Egypt, which joined virtually all other Arab governments in opposition to the war.

And though the U.S.-led invasion has certainly increased the ranks of Islamist terrorists in the Middle East and beyond, Arab dictators such as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak have been targeted by al-Qaida and like-minded Islamist extremists long before the ill-fated U.S. conquest of Iraq.

Indeed, support for corrupt and despotic regimes has long been recognized as the single biggest grievance of Islamists against the United States, even more so than U.S. support for Israel and the war against Iraq.

Egypt has been under Mubarak’s autocratic rule for almost a quarter century. Amnesty International and other reputable human rights groups have documented gross and systematic human rights abuses against perceived opponents of the regime, including massive detention without due process, torture on an administrative basis, and extra-judicial killings. Targets of government repression have included not just radical Islamists, but leftists, liberal democrats, feminists, gay men, independent-minded scholars, Coptic Christians, and human rights activists.

Despite promises of incipient democratic reforms, which have been hailed by the Bush White House, Mubarak has thus far refused to allow supporters of any kind of genuine political opposition to organize.

On July 30, plain-clothes Egyptian security forces, wielding truncheons, violently attacked peaceful protestors demonstrating against human rights abuses by the U.S.-backed regime. More than 1,000 uniformed security officers prevented the demonstration from taking place at Tahrir Square, in heart of Cairo, where it had been scheduled. When some demonstrators attempted to reassemble several blocks away, the police assault began. Scores were arrested, including George Ishaq and Amin Eskandar, leaders of Kifaya, the country’s leading pro-democracy group. Among those most seriously wounded were journalist Shaaban Abd al-Rahim al-Daba and trade union activist Kamal Abbas, director of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services in the city of Helwan.

This assault by Egyptian security forces followed a similar attack last spring against a group of women protesting peacefully for greater democracy the day of a government-managed plebiscite supposedly opening up the political process. Though the Bush administration has praised these supposed reforms as evidence of a democratic change in the Middle East, the Mubarak regime has actually strengthened its power to limit the ability of opposition political parties to challenge the government, further restricted these parties’ rights to publish newspapers, and made it virtually impossible for independent candidates to run for president.

It is tragic but not surprising that in a political system where the people are effectively barred from expressing their political grievances legally and nonviolently, some Islamist opponents have responded through terrorism.

U.S. support for the Egyptian regime, therefore, places Americans at risk. Largely as a result of the longstanding bipartisan U.S. effort to prop up the Mubarak dictatorship has led to a bare 2% of Egyptians looking favorably upon the United States, according to a recent public opinion poll. It is important to remember that Muhammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, was an Egyptian.

Misplaced Priorities

Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world, receiving over $2 billion annually, much of that in weaponry and security assistance. Concerns expressed by pro-democracy groups in Egypt and human rights organizations in the United States that such arms and technology transfers are only making further repression possible has been rejected by Washington.

The Sharm el-Sheik bombers’ decision to target hotels catering to foreign tourists was probably not designed primarily to kill “foreign infidels” per se, but was more likely a strategic calculation designed to cripple the country’s vital tourist industry, which provides the government with needed foreign exchange but—outside of the relatively small numbers of Egyptians who work in service jobs catering to tourists—tends not to trickle down to ordinary people.

Sharm el-Sheik, which is well over 300 miles from the pyramids and most other ancient sites which have attracted Western tourists for centuries, is the country’s leading resort and international conference center. It serves as the Egyptian equivalent of Mexico’s Cancun, isolated from the country’s population centers and displaying a level of opulence few in Egypt could ever experience themselves. While the pride of many Egyptians, it serves for many others as a symbol of the Mubarak regime’s misplaced economic priorities which emphasize prestigious development projects while the country’s poor majority go without basic material needs and employment opportunities.

Egyptian Islamists have long stressed the government’s role in perpetuating the extreme social inequality and economic injustice in this country of 75 million. Unlike the progressive vision put forward by proponents of liberation theology in Latin America, however, the more radical Islamists—such as those believed to have been responsible for the July 24 bombings—have instead taken advantage of people’s legitimate grievances to advance their decidedly reactionary ideology and violent tactics.

Even putting aside the Iraq debacle, the bombings in Sharm al-Sheik—like the London bombings which preceded them—also raise questions regarding the efficacy of counter-terrorism policies by the United States and its allies.

Is high-altitude bombing and related military operations chasing down elusive al-Qaida leaders really the best way to deal with the threat from a decentralized network of underground terrorist cells? Might placing greater emphasis on intelligence-gathering, interdiction, and related measures be a more effective way to combat terrorism?

Rather than pushing for greater democracy primarily in Syria, Iran, and other countries controlled by dictatorships the United States does not like, might it serve our purposes better if we also promoted democracy in countries ruled by dictatorships like Egypt, over which the U.S. government can exert far more influence? Indeed, the overwhelming majority of al-Qaida’s leadership and members come from U.S.-backed dictatorships, not the autocratic anti-American regimes which have become the focus of the Bush administration and Congressional leaders of both parties.

Instead of providing unconditional military aid and economic support to such regimes, might we instead make assistance to foreign governments conditional on their willingness to uphold internationally-recognized standards of human rights?

And, for a fraction of the costs of what the United States has spent on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, might greatly expanded U.S. support for sustainable grassroots economic development in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries constitute a better means to address the root causes of Islamist terrorism?

Unfortunately, not only has the Bush administration refused to reevaluate its counter-terrorism policy, no prominent Congressional Democrat has bothered to raise such questions either. Unless and until prominent voices are willing to stand up to demand a shift away from the Bush administration’s embrace of the Egyptian dictatorship and other autocratic regimes, its over-reliance on military means to fight terrorism, and its failure to support sustainable economic development in Middle Eastern countries, America’s self-destructive policies will likely continue.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/bombings_and_repression_in_egypt_underscore_failures_in_us_anti-terrorism_strategy