Can the Obama Administration Learn Lessons from the Egyptian Uprising?


Karl Marx, in his famous treatise on Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état of 2 December 1851, pointing out its similarities to the coup undertaken by Napoleon Bonaparte a little over 50 years before, remarked that history has the tendency to repeat itself, ‘the first [time] as tragedy, then as farce’.

As with so many other aspects of the dramatic developments unfolding in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region in recent weeks, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s midnight 28 January speech, and the various White House statements that preceded it, prove just how relevant the ideas of the German political theorist and revolutionary are today.

Only three weeks earlier, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had cut a pathetic figure in his speech to the Tunisian nation, vowing to slash food prices, guaranteeing ‘total liberty for the press’ and promising ‘no presidencies for life,’ in a desperate attempt to buy more time for his dictatorial rule.  As in the case of his Tunisian counterpart, whose feeble attempt to assuage the anger of the tens of thousands of brave citizens from all political persuasions and walks of life who participated in the demonstrations was only met by demands to put an end to his government’s charade, Mubarak’s speech was seen by most Egyptians as too little, too late.

For the protesters in Egypt, too, are demanding not only an end to the human rights abuses, rampant corruption, lack of economic opportunities and political freedoms that have characterised the state of affairs of their country for as long as most of them can remember, but also, more importantly, an end to the repressive regime that is responsible for these conditions.  They will certainly not be satisfied with Mubarak’s cynical attempts at ‘reform’, including the appointment of intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a man who was praised by former US Ambassador to Egypt, Edward S. Walker, for the role he has played in supporting some of the most abhorrent and illegal activities associated with the US-led ‘war on terror’, such as the torture and extraordinary rendition of ‘terror’ suspects.

The Obama administration, nevertheless, continued the farce, remaining largely silent, as it had in the Tunisian case . . . until the outrage expressed by the Egyptian people became so deafening that it could no longer pretend not to hear it, thus having to change its rhetoric.

One could witness a beginning of this shift in White House Secretary Robert Gibbs’ 28 January press conference.  Whereas just the previous day Gibbs had reiterated the Mubarak regime’s position as ‘a close and important partner with our country’ and declared its stability, on 28 January his language had already changed, adopting a much more aggressive tone.  ‘The legitimate grievances that have festered for quite some time in Egypt have to be addressed by the Egyptian government immediately, and violence is not the answer,’ Gibbs chided.

Later in the day, his boss engaged in rhetorical acrobatics of his own in an effort not only to hold on to the plot, but to also control the narrative framework in which it was elaborated.  The goal: to prove the Obama administration’s ‘democracy promotion’ credentials without undermining the ‘stability’ of a stalwart US ally — one that has provided invaluable support in promoting US geo-strategic interests vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestine ‘peace process’, the ‘war on terror’ and energy security, as well as promoting US-backed neoliberal economic ‘reforms’ in the region.

The $1.5 billion in aid Egypt receives annually from its US patron demonstrates just how important this relationship is to the Americans.  The Mubarak regime, like most client states, has spent much of these payments on maintaining the security apparatuses necessary for its survival.  In the past, the regime had also invested in social spending, notably food subsidies, education, health and government salaries, spending that primarily affected the lower classes.  In the most recent decades, however, the balance of government spending has been heavily tipped in favour of ‘security’ — the shift in part made possible by US tax dollars: ‘In fiscal year 2005’, the ‘$1.3 billion in FMF [foreign military financing] grants’ that Egypt received from Washington comprised ‘about 80 percent of Egypt’s military procurement budget’, according to a 2006 report by the US’s own Government Accountability Office.

As with Tunisia, Egypt’s nefarious use of US funds for patently undemocratic purposes has come as no surprise for the American government.  In stark contrast to the feigned outrage with which the Obama administration received news of its ally’s heavy-handed crackdown on the popular demonstrations breaking out across the country, as well as on the new media forms of communication that facilitated their organisation, the recent Wikileaks revelations uncovered US foreknowledge of the regime’s brutality.  Exposing what most informed political analysts, as well as the majority of Egyptians, had known all along about the Mubarak regime, the second highest recipient of US military and economic aid in the world after Israel, one cable pointed out that government brutality is ‘routine and pervasive’.  Furthermore, the use of torture against ordinary criminals, Islamist detainees, opposition activists and bloggers, the cables acknowledged, is so widespread that the Egyptian government ‘no longer even tries to deny its existence.’

The cables also reveal that the Obama administration aimed to maintain a close political and military relationship with Mubarak, despite acknowledging the existence of a colossal democracy deficit, stating: ‘The tangible benefits to our [military] relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the US military enjoys priority access to the Suez canal and Egyptian airspace.’

Despite all of this, in his 28 January press conference on the eve of the post-Juma’h (Friday prayer) protests, the most dramatic to hit Egypt since the unrest began, Obama still refrained from acknowledging the demands of the brave protesters calling for Mubarak to step down.  Instead, he emphasized the need for the regime to make reforms, saying: ‘This moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise.’  Referring to his 2008 Cairo speech, Obama urged Mubarak to recognise that ‘no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise.’

Once again, the Obama administration has demonstrated a gross duplicity in its approach to the matter of democracy.  In this sense it, like other Western governments expressing their preferences for ‘stability’ and ‘order’ over justice and accountability, has found itself on the wrong side of history.

Perhaps there is a further lesson they could take from Marx’s 18th Brumaire, in which he made another of his most famous formulations, this time on the role individual agency plays in history: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’

In the face of overwhelming odds — including unflagging Western support for their governments, a world economic order designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many, well-financed, equipped and trained security apparatuses, largely thanks to the Americans, as the tear-gas canisters used against protesters and stamped ‘made in America’ made chillingly clear — the people of Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the region where protesters have taken to the streets have decided that, despite these inauspicious circumstances, they are no longer willing to be mere objects in a history written by and for the benefit of others.  They are prepared to risk life and limb to regain their rightful place amongst history’s subjects.

It is time for Obama to pay more than lip service to the increasing role of people power in transforming the political contours of the region.  He can begin by removing the American-made obstacles before the Egyptian opposition — including Islamists, led by the most popular opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and secularists, represented by their most popular figurehead, former United Nations atomic energy chief Mohamed El-Baradei — whose demands include an immediate end to the repressive measures — described by a Muslim Brother leader as ‘organised state terrorism’ — being employed by the Mubarak regime against demonstrators, an end to the Mubarak regime, and the instatement of a transitional government leading to real democratic reforms and accountability for the crimes committed by the Mubarak regime.

Obama can also take advantage of the opportunity to implement much-needed structural changes in US foreign policy towards the region, by placing real conditions on the economic and military aid the US government provides to all undemocratic and repressive regimes in the region, including Israel, Jordan and Yemen, to help facilitate the efforts of the people of these countries to similarly regain their agency and make ‘their own history’.  Dramatic cuts in aid to these states, coupled with an overall reduction in US military spending and an end to US aggression in the region, would have the effect of ‘killing two birds with one stone’, as it would also promote US government efforts to reduce the gaping US budget deficit in a more ethical manner than current proposals to cut social spending.  That would be real ‘change we can believe in‘.

Corinna Mullin is a Lecturer in Comparative and International Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), with reference to the Middle East.  Her current research involves comparative international political theory and explores Islamist and Western conceptions of peace, war, justice, and sovereignty.


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