In a speech attacking ‘multiculturalism’ Prime Minister David Cameron argued for a “muscular liberalism” that would actively confront “extremist” ideologies — principally radical Islamism — that fail to conform to “Western values”. The problem is not with Islam per se, he argued, but with those “distortion[s]” of Islam that reject “democracy, the rule of law, equal rights” and other core British “values”. Indeed he cited the “hundreds of thousands of people demanding the universal right to free elections and democracy” in Egypt and Tunisia as evidence of the capacity of “Western values and Islam” to coexist.
An instructive demonstration of these “Western values” was provided later on the same day when the British government joined the U.S. in calling for a “transition” in Egypt “headed by vice-president Omar Suleiman”. Suleiman is the former chief of military intelligence, in which capacity he distinguished himself by besieging Gaza, collaborating with CIA ‘renditions’ and presiding over an extensive regime of torture. Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born Australian citizen disappeared by the CIA to Egypt, described his encounter with Suleiman:
[Habib was] repeatedly subjected to electric shocks, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks. At one point, his interrogator slapped him so hard that his blindfold was dislodged, revealing the identity of his tormentor: Suleiman. Frustrated that Habib was not providing useful information or confessing to involvement in terrorism, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a shackled Turkistani prisoner in front of Habib, which he did with a vicious karate kick.
For his troubles Suleiman is as hated within Egypt as he is popular with the U.S., Europe and Israel.
In backing Suleiman’s bid for control the U.S. and Britain are directly opposing the demands of the protestors lauded by Cameron. Indeed, as Rami Khouri reports, they are “frantically groping for ways to transfer power from one old military officer to a group of equally old colleagues”. This is not to say that American officials are of one mind. There is a spectrum of views: from those, like US special envoy Frank Wisner, who demand “continued leadership” by Mubarak, to those, like Hillary Clinton, who are calling for Mubarak to go so that the regime can survive.
Initially the former view was dominant. But as the revolt spread and it became clear that Mubarak’s continued rule was untenable, the U.S. and the Egyptian regime shifted to Plan B: “to ride out the uprising with their basic authoritarian prerogatives intact”. Biden and Blair aside, Mubarak won’t be missed. The military establishment already viewed the octogenarian’s rule as nearing its end, and viewed his plan to transfer power to his son, Gamal, as “completely unacceptable”. With protestors demanding his ouster, the question quickly became: who would succeed him? Already by February 1 it was clear that behind the scenes Mubarak was no longer in control and that a military coup by Suleiman and his supporters in the military establishment and abroad was in motion. By February 5 U.S. officials were informing their counterparts in Europe that Suleiman was in control.
Increasingly blunt American calls for Mubarak’s exit, as well as the Egyptian military’s decision to refrain from firing on the protestors, can thus be explained as an attempt to secure the legitimacy of the regime to “ensure that a post-Mubarak Egypt doesn’t alter its behavior”. As academic Robert Springborg explains, “The military will engineer a succession. The west — the US and EU — are . . . working closely with the military . . . to ensure a continuation of a dominant role of the military in the society, the polity and the economy.”
This promotion of the Egyptian military is intended “to ensure that Mubarak’s fall does not” fundamentally alter “the existing order”. Mubarak will leave and the political process will be modified in some respects, but “regime change would not take place”, since any new elite “would be dependent upon the military, internal security forces, intelligence service, bureaucracy and business community to govern the country”. This dependence would “allow the military to ensure continuity of policy”.
For some analysts, all of this poses a problem: how to reconcile American and European policy with the “Western values” proclaimed by Cameron? This “complex and confounding dilemma” lies at the heart of the “US-Egyptian relationship”, former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel Daniel Kurtzer informs us. On the one hand the Egyptian regime co-operates with U.S. foreign policy objectives, but on the other hand, its model of governance “is at odds with our ideals”. Nicholas Burns, professor of diplomacy and international relations at Harvard Kennedy School, pictures President Obama on a high wire juggling two “important” but “conflicting” objectives: America’s ambition to be “Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Empire of Liberty'” on the one hand and its “real world interests” on the other. “Every country has both values and interests”, the New York Times reports, and sometimes, regrettably, the two “conflict”.
That the U.S. is indeed guided by such idealistic commitments is taken to be self-evident. America’s “transcendental purpose” exists irrespective of the reality of American policies, and to attempt to demonstrate or refute its existence by reference to the factual record is, as Hans Morgenthau explained, “to confound the abuse of reality with reality itself.”
If we set this dogma aside and examine the facts, it emerges that the American counter-revolutionary intervention in Egypt, as described above, has followed a “standard pattern”: support for an allied dictatorship until the allegiance becomes untenable, at which point it is dropped and the U.S. tries to determine or co-opt its replacement. U.S. policy in the Middle East since WWII has consistently opposed regional independence — or what the New York Times, gloating after the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup in Iran, described as “fanatical nationalism”. In the Middle East, as elsewhere, the U.S. has promoted democracy where it “appears to fit in well with US security and economic interests”, and has opposed it when it is perceived to conflict with those interests.
Guided by this “transcendental purpose” the U.S. is working with the Egyptian regime to consolidate its control. The resignations of top NDP officials, including Gamal Mubarak, were “driven by the Egyptian military’s desire to legitimize the political transition to a post-Mubarak regime while saving the foundation of the regime itself”. In parallel to these political manoeuvres the army stepped up efforts to impede the protests, making access to Tahrir Sq. difficult and blocking road access to the presidential palace. The military intends to manage Mubarak’s departure but it does not want to see the NDP, as the only organised political force in the country apart from the Muslim Brotherhood, collapse.
Its problem is that the protestors recognise these diversionary and deflationary tactics for what they are. If the demonstrators keep turning out the military will find it difficult to open fire on them without irreparably destroying its status in Egyptian society. Its strategy appears to be to try and wait the protestors out, making it more difficult for demonstrators to congregate but otherwise hoping that they exhaust themselves, until, when Mubarak finally leaves, most will be prepared to accept that as a victory and return to their homes. Though the balance of forces is firmly on the regime’s side, the success of its strategy is not assured. The demonstrators appear to recognise that a mere shift of personnel at the top that leaves the “deep state” intact will not produce meaningful political change. They are unlikely to accept the solution prepared for them by the regime and its international backers.
People in Britain should take inspiration from the Egyptian demonstrators’ acuity in this respect. The British state’s approach to democracy in Egypt mirrors, as one would expect, its approach to democracy at home. The development of modern democracy in Europe and America has fundamentally been concerned with, from the point of view of those in power, “conveying the appearance of inclusion” while “designing means to retain actual control over decisionmaking in the hands of a social elite” (Amadae: 31). The connection between elite hostility to democracy abroad and hostility to democracy at home is strikingly illustrated by the application of counter-insurgency theory developed for use in Vietnam to the American ghetto in the 1960s. At that time development theorists were increasingly of the view that successful social engineering depended in part on the “populations whose development was being engineered” taking “an active interest in the process”, which in turn required some level of “citizen participation” (Light: 166-9). Domestically this led to increased emphasis on “community participation” to combat urban disorder, institutionalised through the Community Action Programmes (CAPs). The CAPs took the principle of popular participation too far, however, when they began to “mobilize” a “powerful enem[y]” — the domestic population — and they were quickly subverted and destroyed by powerful interests (Paton, C. R. “Office of Economic Opportunity: U.S.A.” Social Policy & Administration 23.1 : 97). At home as abroad, American and European elites “[do] not want to control” popular constituencies but equally they “[do] not want to allow developments to get out of control”.
Elections in the U.S. and Britain bear a striking resemblance to the shuffling of officials in the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes. True, as a civilised Western democracy, we don’t need to take to the streets to force one group of elite rulers to replace another. But the effect is much the same. On a wide range of issues, foreign policy foremost among them, the American and British publics are marginalised from policymaking, with no representation in the formal political sphere. We can choose to accept this state of affairs as beyond our control and, as the Egyptian military is trying to persuade demonstrators to do, return to our homes and let political elites continue with business as usual. Or we can recognise, with the Egyptian revolutionaries, that real political change must deal with the “deep state” — the national and international socioeconomic structure to which every political party must accommodate in order to govern. The British government supports torture, repression and tyranny abroad, and opposes democracy and equality at home. If these are the “Western values” to which Cameron demands allegiance, I would rather identify with the Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Sq being attacked in their name.
Jamie Stern-Weiner studies Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He is a member of the New Left Project editorial team and maintains a personal blog at <heathlander.wordpress.com>. This article was first published by New Left Project on 6 February 2011 under a Creative Commons license.
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