Hosni Mubarak depicted in a mural. (Photo:thierry ehrmann / Flickr)America's ruling elites - and those of the Western world more generally - are comfortable dealing with ruthless tyrants and dictators all over the world, partly because they've just had more practice with it than dealing with 'democratic' governments in so-called 'Third World' nations. This is especially true when it comes to the Arab world, where the West has only ever dealt with dictatorships, and often by arming them and supporting them to repress their own populations, and in return, they support US and Western geopolitical, strategic and economic interests in the region. America's relationship with Egypt - and most notably with Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt from 1981 to 2011 - has been especially revealing of this imperial-proxy relationship between so-called 'democracies' and dictatorships.
Maintaining cozy relationships with ruthless tyrants is something US presidents and their administrations have done for a very long time, but in recent decades and years, it has become more challenging. The United States champions its domestic propaganda outwardly, presenting itself as a beacon of democratic hope, a light of liberty in a dark world, espousing highfalutin rhetoric as the expression of an adamantine code of values - beliefs in 'freedom' and 'democracy' as untouchable and non-negotiable - all the while arming despots, tyrants, and ruthless repressors to protect themselves against their own populations and to stem the inevitable tide of human history.
Simply by virtue of the fact that people are more connected than ever before, that more information is available now than ever before, and with more people rising up and demanding change in disparate regions all over the world, it has become more challenging for the United States and its imperial partners to maintain their domination over the world, and to maintain their propagandized fantasies in the face of glaring hypocrisies. In short, it's harder for the world to take America seriously about democracy when it so consistently arms and works with dictatorships. And so, for those who justify such injustice, they must dance between rhetoric and reality, attempting to find some thin line of reasoning between both to present some pretense of rationality; all the while, attempting to undermine any attempts to understand America as an empire. This dance is difficult, often very spastic and erratic, but America is a championship dancer with dictatorships. America's 'Mambo with Mubarak', however, revealed the challenges of being the ultimate global hypocrite in a world of mass awakening and popular uprisings.
Shortly after becoming president, in June 2009, Barack Obama was asked by a BBC reporter, "Do you regard President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler?" to which Obama replied, "No, I tend not to use labels for folks. I haven't met him. I've spoken to him on the phone." Obama continued, calling Mubarak a "stalwart ally" to the United States, who has "sustained peace with Israel" and "has been a force for stability." A few months earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an interview with an Arab television network in Egypt in which she said, "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family," and added, "I hope to see him often."
In May of 2009, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey wrote in a diplomatic cable that Mubarak would more likely die than ever step down as president, noting, "The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2011 and if Mubarak is still alive it is likely he will run again and, inevitably, win." The "most likely" successor to Mubarak, noted Scobey, was his son Gamal, adding, "some suggest that intelligence chief Omar Soliman [sic] might seek the office; or dark horse Arab League secretary general Amre Moussa." Ultimately, Scobey noted, in terms of choosing a successor, Mubarak "seems to be trusting to God and the ubiquitous military and civilian security services to ensure an orderly transition."
Before Mubarak was to visit Washington in August of 2009, Scobey wrote to the State Department that Mubarak was "a tried and true realist" with "little time for idealistic goals." Further, Scobey noted, Mubarak's "world view" is most revealed by his reaction to U.S. pressure to "open Egypt" to political participation and relax the police state dictatorship, of which he had only "strengthened his determination not to accommodate our views." Scobey further reported that Egypt's defense minister Tantawi "keeps the armed forces appearing reasonably sharp," while Omar Suleiman and the interior minister, al-Adly, "keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics," which is to say, torture and human rights abuses. Further, Scobey warned, "Mubarak will likely resist further economic reform," which is to say, to enhance and deepen neoliberal measures which facilitate impoverishment, plundering and exploitation by a small domestic and international oligarchy at the expense of the domestic population at large, noting that Mubarak might view further reforms "as potentially harmful to public order and stability."
Another cable from 2009 reported how, "Mubarak and [Egyptian] military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil [military to military] relationship and consider the $1.3b in annual [military aid] as 'untouchable compensation' for making and maintaining peace with Israel," as well as ensuring that "the US military enjoys priority access to the Suez canal and Egyptian airspace."
A 2009 cable prepared for the Pentagon's CENTOM (Central Command) chief, General David Patraeus, in the lead-up to a visit to Egypt, noted that the United States has avoided "the public confrontations that had become routine over the past several years," with the Bush administration. Ambassador Scobey had pressured Egypt's interior minister to release three bloggers, a Coptic priest, and grant three U.S.-based "pro-democracy" groups to operate in the country (the latter of which was denied). In anticipation of Hillary Clinton's visit to Mubarak in 2009, Scobey recommended that Clinton not thank Mubarak for releasing a political opponent, Ayman Nour, whose imprisonment in 2005 was condemned around the world, including by the Bush administration.
Scobey noted in another 2009 cable that Mubarak took the issue of Ayman Nour "personally, and it makes him seethe when we raise it, particularly in public." Referring to Egypt as a "very stubborn and recalcitrant ally," Scobey explained: "The Egyptians have long felt that, at best, we take them for granted; and at worst, we deliberately ignore their advice while trying to force our point of view on them."
When Mubarak visited the White House in August of 2009, in a joint press conference following their meeting, Obama referred to Mubarak as "a leader and a counselor and a friend to the United States," and went on to thank Egypt for its support to Iraq in its "transition to a more stable democracy." Mubarak explained that it was the third time in three months he had met with Obama, describing relations between the US and Egypt as "very good" and "strategic."
Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations explained that the Obama administration did not want to view its relationship with Egypt through the issue of 'democracy,' noting: "I think there is an effort to see the relationship in broader terms, because the experience of looking at it through the straw hole of democracy and democracy promotion and reform proved damaging to the relationship." Cook added, "Let's be realistic - Hosni Mubarak and the people in the regime don't really have an interest in reform." At the White House, Mubarak went on to meet with Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, after all, as Hillary previously noted, they were "family friends."
On his trip, Mubarak was also accompanied by his Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and the intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. The dictator also met with Vice President Joseph Biden. The purpose of the meeting, noted the New York Times, was to signal "an effort to re-establish Egypt as the United States' chief strategic Arab ally." Former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, Abdel Raouf al-Reedy, commented, "The United States has to have a regional power to coordinate its policies with and Egypt cannot be a regional power without the United States... So there is some kind of a complementary relationship."
To Tango with Tyranny
This "complementary relationship" between regional dictatorships and imperial powers is not confined to Egypt (or America), nor are its various rationales. The Arab Spring sparked in Tunisia in December of 2010 and led to the overthrow of its long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011. Tunisia was, in the words of international law professor and former United Nations Special Rapporteur Richard A. Falk, a "model U.S. client." Between 1987 - when Ben Ali came to power - and 2009, the United States provided Tunisia with $349 million in military aid, and in 2010 alone, the U.S. provided Ben Ali's dictatorship with $13.7 million in military aid.
Tunisia, which was a former French colony, also had strong relations with France. During the outbreak of the crisis in December of 2010, the French suggested they would help Ben Ali by sending security forces to Tunisia to "resolve the situation" in a show of "friendship" to the regime. The French foreign minister suggested that France could provide better training to Tunisian police to restore order since the French were adept in "security situations of this type." Jacques Lanxade, a retired French admiral, former military chief of staff and former French ambassador to Tunis noted that the French had "continued public support of this regime because of economic interests," and added: "We didn't take account of Tunisian public opinion and thought Ben Ali would re-establish his position." In other words: we support dictators, and don't care about human populations as a whole. So surprised were the French at the thought of a popular uprising overthrowing their stalwart ally in Tunisia, that Sarkozy later - after the fall of Ben Ali - stated that the French had "underestimated" the "despair... suffering," and "sense of suffocation" among Tunisians. Perhaps a delicate way of suggesting that the French government does not care about the despair, suffering or suffocation of people until the people overthrow the French-subsidized dictators, forcing the imperial power to do a little dance with democratic rhetoric until it can find a replacement to support, and return to its habitual 'underestimations' of entire populations.
This imperial logic has been given terms and justifications from establishment intellectuals and academics in the United States and other Western powers. Academics with the Brookings Institution, an influential U.S. think tank, suggested in 2009 that this was the logic of "authoritarian bargains," in which dictatorships in the region were able to maintain power through a type of "bargain," where "citizens relinquish political influence in exchange for public spending," suggesting that: "non-democratic rulers secure regime support through the allocation of two substitutable 'goods' to the public: economic transfers and the ability to influence policy making."
Of course, these 'intellectuals' failed to acknowledge the fact that in the previous three decades, the "bargain" part of the "authoritarian bargain" was dismantled under neoliberal reforms. But facts are trifling obstructions to justifications for injustice, and such 'intellectuals' - who serve power structures - will wind their way with words through any and all frustrating truths, so long as the end result is to continue in their support for power. Such a "bargain" could have been argued under the likes of Nasser, but Mubarak was another creature altogether, and the intellectual discourse built around support for dictatorships had not evolved over the course of several decades, save for the words used to describe it.
In 2011, those same academics wrote an article for the Brookings Institution in which they noted that as economic conditions deteriorated and unemployment rose, with neoliberal reforms failing to provide economic opportunities for the majority of the populations, the "Arab authoritarian bargain" - or "contract" - between dictators and the populations was "now collapsing," adding that, "the strategies used by Arab leaders to maintain power may have run their course." They added: "Partial political liberalization may not be enough at this point to make up for the current inability to deliver economic security and prosperity, spelling the final demise of Arab authoritarian bargain."
F. Gregory Gause III, writing in Foreign Affairs, the establishment journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, the most prominent foreign policy think tank in the United States, referred to this concept as "authoritarian stability" theory. Following the initial Arab Spring uprisings, he wrote about the "myth" of authoritarian stability, noting that many academics had focused on trying to understand "the persistence of undemocratic rulers" in the region, though implicitly without questioning the imperial relations between the local governments and the dominant Western powers. Gause himself acknowledged that he had written an article for Foreign Affairs in 2005 in which he argued that, "the United States should not encourage democracy in the Arab world because Washington's authoritarian Arab allies represented stable bets for the future," and that, "democratic Arab governments would prove much less likely to cooperate with U.S. foreign policy goals in the region." Gause then reflected in 2011 that, "I was spectacularly wrong."
Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, a prominent American think tank, and was previously foreign minister and deputy prime minister in the Jordanian dictatorship. Following events in Tunisia, Muasher wrote an article for the Carnegie Endowment in which he explained why the events were not foreseen, noting that: "The traditional argument put forward in and out of the Arab world is that there is nothing wrong, everything is under control." Thus, wrote Muasher, "entrenched forces argue that opponents and outsiders calling for reform are exaggerating the conditions on the ground," an argument which he noted, "has been fundamentally undermined by the unfolding events in Tunisia." Because Tunisia had comparably low economic problems, a small opposition, and a "strong security establishment," it was thought that "the risk of revolt was considered low." Muasher wrote: "It wasn't supposed to happen in Tunisia and the fact that it did proves that fundamental political reforms - widening the decision-making process and combating corruption - are needed around the entire Arab world."
This concept of "there is nothing wrong, everything is under control," has been referred to by Noam Chomsky as the "Muasher doctrine," noting that this has been consistent U.S. policy in the region since at least 1958, when Eisenhower's National Security Council acknowledged that the US supported dictators and opposed democracy, and that this was a rational policy to serve American interests in the region.
There are, however, factions within the American elite that understand that the 'Muasher Doctrine' is unsustainable and that they must push for 'reform' within the Arab world over the short-term in order to ultimately maintain 'order' and 'stability' over the long term. This is where 'democracy promotion' comes into play.
U.S. Democracy Promotion in Egypt: A Hidden Plot or Hedging Bets?
Following the Arab Spring's toppling of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, some commentators in the West have critically noted the U.S. and Western support for pro-democracy groups within the Arab world - likening them to the Western-funded 'colour revolutions' that swept several former Soviet bloc countries - and concluded that the Arab Spring was a U.S.-supported attempt at 'regime change.'
Indeed, the United States and its Western allies provided extensive funding and organizational support to civil society groups, media organizations, activists and political parties in several countries where - through contested elections - they helped to overthrow entrenched political leaders, replacing them with more favourable leaders (in the eyes of the West). In Serbia, U.S. non-governmental and even governmental organizations poured funding into the organization Otpor which helped engineer the ousting of Milosevic, providing hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in support through organizations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI), among other agencies.
As several former Soviet republics slowly 'opened' their societies, Western-funded NGOs and civil society organizations flooded in, with powerful financial backers. Over the course of years, funding, training, organizational support, technical and material support was provided for a number of organizations and political groups that helped overthrow regimes in Georgia (2003), the Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Not only were there government funded NGOs involved, but also private foundations, such as billionaire George Soros' Open Society Institute.
These Western-backed 'color revolutions' included major organizational support from the local American embassies in whichever country they were seeking a change of government. The activists who made up Serbia's Otpor organization aided in the training of other groups in countries like Ukraine. In Serbia, the U.S. government officially spent $41 million "organizing and funding" the operation to remove Milosevic. A primary strategy in funding these 'colour revolutions' was to organize the opposition within a country "behind a single candidate." Such Western organizations also provided extensive funding for so-called "independent" media networks to promote their particular agenda in the country, following a pattern set by the CIA some decades earlier in terms of covertly funding opposition groups and media outlets.
In Ukraine, the Bush administration spent some $65 million over two years to aid in the 'colour revolution' which took place in 2004, and several other Western countries contributed to the process and funding as well, including Great Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Such immense funding programs trained hundreds of thousands of activists, and when elections and protests took place, tents, cameras, television screens, food and other equipment were provided en masse, and the events were met with an immediately favourable reception in the Western media.
When it comes to Egypt and the Arab Spring, the United States did attempt to provide some funding and organizational support to various pro-democracy groups. The April 6 movement in Egypt, which was pivotal in organizing the January 25 protest in Cairo that led to the overthrow of Mubarak on February 11, was one group that received some U.S. support. Other groups in Bahrain and Yemen also received U.S. support. Egyptian youth leaders attended a 'technology meeting' in New York sponsored by the State Department, Facebook, Google, MTV and Colombia Law School, where they received training "to use social networking and mobile technologies to promote democracy."
One Egyptian youth leader commented upon the meeting and U.S. support, stating, "We learned how to organize and build coalitions... This certainly helped during the revolution." Another Egyptian activist noted the hypocrisy of the U.S., which, while funding some pro-democracy groups, was providing billions in financial support to the military dictatorship the activists had to struggle under, stating, "While we appreciated the training we received through the NGOs sponsored by the U.S. government, and it did help us in our struggles, we are also aware that the same government also trained the state security investigative service, which was responsible for the harassment and jailing of many of us."
As several Wikileaks cables showed, however, the Western-backed Arab dictatorships were extremely suspicious of U.S.-supported democracy groups and activists. This was especially true in Egypt, where one cable from 2007 reported that Mubarak was "deeply skeptical of the U.S. role in democracy promotion." The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in 2006 about the "arrogant tactics in promoting reform in Egypt." Mubarak's son, Gamal, was described in one 2008 cable as being "irritable about direct U.S. democracy and governance funding of Egyptian NGOs." Ultimately, the local dictatorships would increasingly clamp down on such organizations, attempting to prevent their functioning or interaction with Americans institutions.
A December 2008 cable from the U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey in Cairo noted that one activist from the April 6 movement had met with U.S. government officials in the United States as well as with various think tanks. The activist (presumably Maher) reported to Scobey that the Egyptian government "will never undertake significant reform, and therefore, Egyptians need to replace the current regime with a parliamentary democracy," noting that the activist further "alleged that several opposition parties and movements have accepted an unwritten plan for democratic transition by 2011." However, Scobey added, "we are doubtful of this claim." After noting that several April 6 activists had been arrested and harassed by the Egyptian dictatorship, Scobey continued: "April 6's stated goal of replacing the current regime with a parliamentary democracy prior to the 2011 presidential elections is highly unrealistic, and is not supported by the mainstream opposition."
Scobey further reported that the April 6 activist told her that "Mubarak derives his legitimacy from U.S. support," and thus, that the U.S. was "responsible" for Mubarak's "crimes," and the activist suggested that those NGOs which sought to promote "political and economic reform" were living in a "fantasy world." Finally, Scobey noted, the activist "offered no roadmap of concrete steps toward April 6's highly unrealistic goal of replacing the current regime with a parliamentary democracy prior to the 2011 presidential elections." She then noted that most of the "opposition parties and independent NGOs work toward achieving tangible, incremental reform within the current political context," and that the activists "wholesale rejection of such an approach places him outside this mainstream of opposition politicians and activists."
The U.S. government also provided assistance to many activists in the Arab world - including Egypt - in gaining access to technology which allows dissidents "to get online without being tracked or to visit news or social media sites that governments have blocked." Many of the tech firms and non-profits that received funding saw huge increases in the use of their technology across the Arab world during the start of the Arab Spring, much to their surprise. As one tech firm executive stated, "We didn't start this company to go against any government... and here we are impacting millions of people in the Middle East and helping revolutions in Tunisia and Libya. We didn't set out to do this, but we really think it's cool we're doing this."
Such funding and organizational initiatives from the U.S. government and related institutions for pro-democracy groups in the Arab world, and notably Egypt, has led some commentators to suggest that the Arab Spring is simply the Middle Eastern version of the U.S.-sponsored 'colour revolutions' over the previous decade, even writing that such U.S.-supported activist groups "indelibly serve US interests" in terms of "controlling the political opposition," to "ensure that the US funded civil society opposition will not direct their energies against the puppet masters behind the Mubarak regime, namely the US government."
There are some fundamental problems with this position. A 2011 article in EurasiaNet noted that while there were "some similarities" between the Arab Spring and the Color Revolutions the previous decade, "there are key differences as well," primary among them being that the Arab dictatorships "were far more authoritarian and brutal than their counterparts in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine," which meant that the Color Revolutions "occurred in more semi-democratic contexts, in which the regimes... allowed for more media and political freedom, and were generally less repressive." Further, the Color Revolutions based their model for 'regime change' exclusively upon "an electoral breakthrough in which ballot fraud became the focal point around which the civic and political opposition could rally." Such was not the case in Tunisia or Egypt, where the sparks for revolution were unforeseen and rapid, "suggesting that the electoral breakthrough model is only possible in countries where there is some degree of political pluralism," noted Lincoln Mitchell, an Associate Research Scholar at Columbia University.
Further, the Color Revolutions had a "geopolitical element" in which they were incorporated into the "freedom agenda" of the Bush administration, and "occurred in countries that had been the beneficiaries of ample US democracy assistance." While the U.S. was credited - or accused (depending upon who was speaking) - of having "an almost magical role in organizing the opposition, spreading democracy, funding various organizations and the like," in the context of the Arab Spring, "social networking technology has displaced the United States as the apparent catalyst for protest," with Twitter and Facebook being "perceived as the magic explanatory variable."
Indeed, while the U.S. provided funding for several dissident groups in the Arab world, it was not comparable in to the previous 'Color Revolutions' in terms of dollars, training, equipment or technical assistance in any capacity. The dissidents were not organized around a single leader or singular oppositional group, and while the U.S. Embassies were establishing contacts with dissidents, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest they were heavily involved or 'directing' them. The fact that much of the assistance for dissidents was in the form of training and gaining access to technologies is also noteworthy. Technology - in and of itself - is neutral: it can be used for good or not. It is entirely dependent upon how the person(s) using it choose to wield it. The United States sought to help activists gain access to technologies to work around the authoritarian regimes (which the US was supporting with billions in military and economic aid), and to slowly push for 'reforms.' The U.S. can help activists with getting training and access to technologies, but it has no control over how those activists ultimately utilize these technologies.
Further, as was revealed by the 2008 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, while the Embassy and U.S. government had established contact with the April 6 Movement, Scobey portrayed their objectives as "highly unrealistic," and the unnamed activist in the cable even stressed that the U.S. was "responsible" for the "crimes" of Mubarak. The cable stressed that the U.S. was in contact with mainstream opposition forces in Egypt, none of which were determining factors in the revolution, whereas the April 6 Movement, as Scobey noted, was "outside this mainstream of opposition and activists," proposing the "unrealistic goal of replacing the current regime."
The U.S. interest in doing this was not altruistic, of course, but was ultimately aimed at 'hedging their bets.' Certainly, the U.S. government would be seeking to use activists and dissident groups for its own purposes, but one must also acknowledge that activists and dissident groups use the U.S. government (and its funding) for their own purposes. The State Department and USAID (which provide the majority of funding for pro-democracy groups and activists from the U.S. government) know what they are told by those groups, what the groups write in reports and grant applications. In a country like Egypt, which was ruled by a repressive military dictator for three decades, sources of funding for democracy projects and activism is not easy to come by. As an activist, you would likely take whatever sources of funding and support you could get, so long as you can use the access and support for your own objectives, which is exactly what the April 6 Movement did.
Indeed, in the Arab world, the United States and its Western allies have not been interested in promoting revolution, but rather an incremental process of reform. Top US policy planners at the Council on Foreign Relations produced a report - and strategic blueprint - for the United States to follow in 2005, entitled, In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How, co-chaired by former Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who sits on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institute, and is chair of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, one of the major pro-democracy funding groups based out of the US.
The other co-chair of the Task Force report was Vin Weber, former Congressman and member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the primary 'democracy promotion' organization funded by the U.S. government. Other members of the Task Force which produced the report held previous or present affiliations with First National Bank of Chicago, Occidental Petroleum, the Carnegie Endowment, the World Bank, Brookings Institution, Hoover Institution, the U.S. State Department, National Security Council, National Intelligence Council, the American Enterprise Institute, the IMF, AOL-Time Warner, and Goldman Sachs. In other words, the strategic blueprint for promoting 'democracy' in the Arab world was developed by major U.S. strategic and corporate elites, including those who literally run the major democracy promotion organizations (including those that funded such groups in Egypt and elsewhere).
So what did the report have to say about the American Empire's strategy for promoting democracy in the Arab world? Firstly, the report noted that, while "democracy entails certain inherent risks, the denial of freedom carries much more significant long-term dangers. If Arab citizens are able to express grievances freely and peacefully, they will be less likely to turn to more extreme measures." Thus, the report noted, "the United States should promote the development of democratic institutions and practices over the long term, mindful that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside and that sudden, traumatic change is neither necessary nor desirable." Most importantly, however, the report noted: "America's goal in the Middle East should be to encourage democratic evolution, not revolution."
So how can we interpret this? Democracy, as the United States defines it, is more "secure" precisely because it provides an institutional framework in which control may still be exercised, but where there are various degrees of freedom, enough to allow social pressures to be released, dissent to exist, and thus, contribute to the overall stability of a society through building consent to the power structures which rule it. Dictatorships are supported by coercion, not consent.
As America's most influential political commentator of his time, Walter Lippmann, articulated in the 1920s, that modern democracies required the "manufacture of consent" of the public by the powerful, because "the public must be put in its place... so that each of us [elites] may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd." Manufacturing the consent of the public to the social order - and its prevailing power structures and hierarchies - would allow for "the least possible interference from ignorant and meddlesome outsiders." A system in which the public's consent was manufactured, noted Lippmann, "would provide the modern state with a foundation upon which a new stability might be realized."
That "stability" has been understood by U.S. elites for nearly a century, and it is known to be built upon the "manufacture of consent." This is why the Task Force report on promoting Arab democracy noted that, "the denial of freedom carries much more significant long-term dangers." The Arab Spring revolutions did not follow the criteria established by the U.S. strategy, which specifically said that, "sudden, traumatic change is neither necessary nor desirable," though it is exactly what took place, and of course, that democracy should be promoted through "evolution, not revolution." As the Task Force report further noted, there was a risk that, "if Washington pushes Arab leaders too hard on reform, contributing to the collapse of friendly Arab governments, this would likely have a deleterious effect on regional stability, peace, and counterterrorism operations." While instability may arise "in the short term" from promoting democracy, the report suggested, "a policy geared toward maintaining the authoritarian status quo in the Middle East poses greater risks to U.S. interests and foreign policy goals."
For the United States and its Western allies, "democracy" is not the goal, but rather a means to a goal. The goal is, always has been, and always will be, "stability and prosperity;" control and profit. When the dictatorships fail to bring about stability and prosperity, "democracy" - so long as it is constructed along Western liberal state-capitalist lines - will be the preferred option. The European Union, when reporting on its own efforts to promote democracy in the Mediterranean region, noted that, "we believe that democracy, good governance, rule of law, and gender equality are essential for stability and prosperity." In other words, democracy is not the goal: control and profit are the goals. The means are merely incidental, whether they be through dictatorships, or top-down democratic structures.
The problem in the Arab world is deepened for the United States when one looks at public opinion polls from the region. Just prior to the outbreak of protests in Tunisia, a major Western poll on Arab public opinion was conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, published in the summer of 2010. The results were very interesting, noting that only 5% and 6% of respondents in 2010 believed that "promoting democracy" and "spreading human rights" were the two factors (respectively) which were most important in America's foreign policy in the region. At the top of the list of priorities, with 49% and 45% respectively, were "protecting Israel" and "controlling oil," followed by 33% each for "weakening the Muslim world" and "preserving regional and global dominance."
Further, 92% of respondents felt that Iran has a right to its nuclear program if it is peaceful, and 70% feel that right remains even if Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. Roughly 57% of respondents felt that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, things would be "more positive" for the region, compared to 21% who thought it would be "more negative." The poll asked which two countries posed the largest threat to the region, with Israel at 88% and the United States at 77%, while Iran was viewed as one of the two major threats to the region by only 10% of respondents, just above China and equal to Algeria.
In other words, if truly representative - or genuine - democracies emerged in the region, they would be completely counter to U.S. strategic interests in the region, and thus, real democracy in the Arab world is not in the American interest. Top-down democracy, however, largely influenced by Western ideas and institutions, in which people are able to select between a couple parties which articulate social differences but implement largely identical economic and strategic policies, is an ideal circumstance for imperial powers.
Interestingly, Barack Obama's 2010 budget sought to cut funding for democracy and governance aid to both Egypt and Jordan by roughly 40%, and for Egypt specifically, "funding has been cut by nearly 75 per cent for pro-democracy NGOs of which the Egyptian government does not approve." These are hardly the actions of an American government seeking to implement 'regime change' through funding pro-democracy groups. Michele Dunne, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment, a major U.S. based think tank, noted that the cuts to funding pro-democracy groups in Egypt (and elsewhere) show that, "the Obama administration has decided on a more conciliatory approach toward the autocratic regimes, such as Egypt's, that dominate Middle Eastern politics."
While funding for democracy groups in Egypt was cut by 75% for 2010, U.S. aid to the Egyptian government would amount to $1.55 billion for 2010, of which $1.3 billion was in the form of military aid. Michele Dunne noted, "My conversations with members of the [Obama] administration have made it clear that they did not want economic assistance to irritate the Egyptian government," whereas the Bush administration's funding for civil society groups in Egypt had caused a great deal of frustration from Mubarak and his regime. Under Bush, such funding had "doubled and tripled." Under Obama, much of this was undone. Safwat Girgis, who runs two Egyptian-based NGOs, said that Obama's "decision is in the best interest of the Egyptian government, not the people nor the civil society organizations... In my opinion, this is just an exchange of interests between Egypt and the United States."
The 'Liberal Opposition' in Egypt
When powerful Western states seek to influence or manage 'transitions to democracy,' they generally support whatever elite most closely resembles themselves, usually a variation of liberal democratic state-capitalist groups. But whatever dominant institutions pre-exist in that society have to be integrated with the new 'method' of governance (political parties, elections, etc.), though the pre-existing oligarchy generally remains in charge. Transitions to 'democracy' are promoted by the American Empire as if the United States had some sort of 'God complex,' seeking to remake the world in its own image... or delusion, rather.
Political parties need to be organized. Those which are more 'Western' are deemed more acceptable to Western elites, usually the 'liberal democrats,' or some variation thereof. In Egypt, there was not such an organized opposition in time for the revolution. There were attempts within Egypt to develop a liberal opposition, but the dictatorship kept a firm fist over political life. One such liberal opposition figure was Mohamed ElBaradei, an international diplomat who had, for decades, lived in the West.
In 2009, the former head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, announced that he would consider running for president of Egypt in the planned 2011 elections, commenting, "I have been listening tentatively, and deeply appreciate the calls for my candidacy for president." He explained that he would "only consider it if there is a free and fair election, and that is a question mark still in Egypt." ElBaradei received support in running for president from the liberal Wafd party, as well as from groups within the Kefaya ("Enough") movement.
As ElBaradei arrived in Egypt in February of 2010, he was greeted by hundreds of Egyptians welcoming him, hopeful for his potential presidential bid. The first multiparty elections in Egypt were held in 2005, though the entire process was "marred by fraud," unsurprisingly. While 2011 was set to have a follow-up election, most assumed that Hosni Mubarak would attempt to hand power over to his son, Gamal. That same month, ElBaradei announced that he was going to form "a national association for change" in Egypt, opening the invite for "anyone who wanted a change to the ruling party" to join the association, following talks with several opposition figures and civil society leaders, including a representative of the Muslim brotherhood. The National Association for Change would have as its "main target" to "be pushing for constitutional reforms and social justice," explained ElBaradei.
In June of 2010, the Muslim Brotherhood officially endorsed the 'reform campaign' of ElBaradei, following a meeting between ElBaradei and Said al Katani, the leader of the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc. Both the Brotherhood and ElBaradei's National Association for Change announced that they would plan to co-ordinate and work together in the future on promoting reform in Egypt.
The National Association for Change (NAC) created a petition which called for constitutional amendments allowing independent political candidates to run in the upcoming election, as well as providing independent supervision of the elections. Only 70,000 signatures were attached to the petition within a few months, though ElBaradei had been anticipating millions. ElBaradei had been hoping for mass protests and a boycott against the upcoming legislative elections planned for the fall of 2010, commenting that, "anyone who will participate in this charade will be giving legitimacy or pseudo-legitimacy to a regime desperate to get legitimacy." ElBaradei also extended his criticisms to the Egyptian population, suggesting that there was "a high level of apathy and despair that anything is going to change," and that "people need to mature... I can be a leader if I have the people behind me. I can't bring about change single-handed."
The following month of July 2010, Mohamed ElBaradei was appointed to the board of trustees of the International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG describes its goals as being to work "through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict," producing "regular analytical reports containing practical recommendations targeted at key international decision-takers."
The board of trustees was made up of a number of prominent Western elites from the state, military, think tanks, corporations and international organizations, including: Thomas Pickering, former US Ambassador; George Soros, billionaire investor and chair of the Open Society Institute; Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General (now on the international advisory board of JPMorgan Chase); Samuel Berger, former U.S. National Security Adviser and chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group; Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander; Carla A. Hills, former U.S. trade representative and member of numerous corporate boards; Jessica Tuchman Matthews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Javier Solana, former NATO Secretary-General, among many others.
Senior advisers to the International Crisis Group also include Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi Ambassador to the United States; former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico, among many other former top government officials and current corporate and think tank leaders.
Further revealing how entrenched the ICG is within the Western imperial establishment, roughly 49% of its funding comes from governments, including the foreign affairs departments and aid agencies of the governments of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the European Union, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. Roughly 20% of the ICG's funding comes from private foundations, such as the Carnegie Corporation, Elders Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Foundations (run by the Soros family), the Radcliffe Foundation, Stanley Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Private sector support for the ICG accounts for 31% of its funding, from individuals and institutions such as: Dow Chemical, McKinsey & Company, Anglo American PLC, BG Group, BP, Chevron, Shell, Statoil, the Clinton Family Foundation, ENI, and many others.
Western elites were obviously taking note of potential changes in Egypt, and certain groups within elite circles seek to get ahead of change and try to steer 'reforms' into safe areas (for entrenched power structures). They were aiming to encourage 'reform' in Egypt, not revolution. The International Crisis Group (ICG) is a good example of this, an organization with a focus on monitoring and providing 'advice' to states and other powerful institutions on preventing and managing crises, bringing together corporate, financial, 'philanthropic,' strategic and intellectual power players into a single institution. Inviting Mohamed ElBaradei into the group was an opening to attempt to bring Egypt's potential future leadership more closely aligned with the interests and ideas of the Western elite. When ElBaradei returned to Egypt once again - though days after the uprising began - he suspended his membership with the International Crisis Group.
Mohamed ElBaradei, after forming the National Association for Change in Egypt, spent most of his summer in 2010 abroad, though he returned in September to meet with opposition groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, at the Brotherhood's annual Ramadan iftar banquet, where one leader from the Kefaya movement lambasted the Brotherhood for not taking an official stance in announcing it would boycott the coming legislative elections. Since the Brotherhood was the only large organized opposition within Egypt, the more liberal-leaning opposition groups formed a tenuous alliance with the organization.
As a leader in the National Association for Change - Cairo University political scientist Hassan Nafaa - said: "We are forced to come together." A spokesperson for the Brotherhood commented, "There are now only two possibilities: the regime or the Muslim Brotherhood." Still, the Brotherhood, which held the largest opposition seats in the Parliament (with 20% of the total), "has been careful not to criticize Mubarak directly and insists it would never nominate its own candidate for the presidency." The official stance of the Brotherhood has, however, "alienated many of its most active young members," many of whom resigned in protest. Mohamed Salmawy, the president of the Egyptian Writers' Union, referred to the Brotherhood, saying, "They can never come up with a real platform... If they did, it would give them away. They would be found out as people who do not believe in democracy."
That same month, ElBaradei went on to call for a national boycott of the elections and told several activists that, "regime change was possible in the coming year." The National Association for Change had compiled nearly one million signatures demanding constitutional change, and ElBaradei commented, "If the whole people boycott the elections it will be, in my view, the end of the regime."
Intelligent Imperialism: The Working Group on Egypt
The Working Group on Egypt was formed in April of 2010 as a co-operative effort by officials from multiple prominent U.S. think tanks to encourage a change in policy toward Egypt, and more specifically, to encourage 'democratic reforms.' The Working Group consisted of nine different individuals: Elliott Abrams, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, former State Department official who also served on the National Security Council in both the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations; Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, former senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former member of the State Department in the Reagan administration, and he also currently sits on the Secretary of State's Foreign Affairs Policy Board; Scott Carpenter of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, previously served as a Deputy Secretary of State in the Bush administration, and served as an adviser in managing the Iraqi occupation, previously having worked with the International Republican Institute (IRI); Ambassador Edward Walker of the Middle East Institute, a former Assistant Secretary of State and ambassador to Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
Other members of the Working Group included: Tom Malinowski, a director of Human Rights Watch, and former member of the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and former speechwriter for Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright; Ellen Bork of the Foreign Policy Initiative, former director at Freedom House, former deputy director of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), former State Department official and member of the Council on Foreign Relations; Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recognized as a 'foremost' authority on democracy-assistance programs, he served in the State Department working with USAID on 'democracy assistance' to Latin America during the Reagan administration; Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment, a former member of the National Security Council staff and the State Department's Policy Planning staff, she also served as a diplomat in Israel and Egypt, and currently is a vice president at the Atlantic Council and is on the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy; and Daniel Calingaert, vice president of Freedom House, formerly with the International Republican Institute (IRI), and was a researcher at RAND Corporation.
Of the nine officials that make up the Working Group on Egypt, Calingaert was the only one who did not previously serve on the National Security Council or State Department. Moreover, several of the most influential U.S.-based 'democracy promotion' organizations were heavily represented in the Group, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, and Freedom House.
Thomas Carothers, a member of the Working Group, is considered by the major think tanks and establishment journals to be "one of the world's foremost experts on democracy building." In 1997, he wrote an article explaining the general strategy of "democracy assistance" by the United States, primarily focused on supporting 'institutions' that the state views as "constituent elements of democracy." This is broken down into three areas, providing support to "the electoral arena, governmental institutions, and civil society." In the electoral arena, the focus is on providing for "free and fair elections." They also "aid" in the development of political parties, "primarily through technical assistance and training on campaign methods and institutional development," with the ultimate aim of creating a "party system" in which there are several different parties which differ only in "mild ideological shadings."
In terms of providing assistance to 'governmental institutions,' Carothers noted the U.S. democracy aid "seeks to help build democracy from the top down," as opposed to allowing for democracy to generate from the bottom up (aka: genuine democracy). One of the primary facets of this program is for the U.S. to "aid" in the writing of a new constitution, "to help steer the country toward adopting a constitution that guarantees democratic government and a full range of political and civil rights," of course including private property rights for corporations and specific privileges for elites.
The U.S. also offers "assistance" in helping to form parliamentary bodies and undertake "judicial reform... to increase the efficiency and independence of judicial systems." In terms of support to 'civil society,' U.S. assistance tends to pour into NGOs, the media, and unions. The key determinant of support for NGOs is if they "seek to influence governmental policy on some specific set of issues." Support for media aims to make it an "independent, professionalized media," which is to say, corporate controlled; and support for unions, Carothers explained, was an older 'assistance' program by the U.S. government aimed at building up unions "not affiliated with leftist political parties or movements." Again, for the United States, "democracy" is all about "top down," which is to say, democracy engineered by (and for) elites.
In their first statement, issued to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April of 2010, the Working Group urged Clinton "to promote democratic reform in Egypt in advance of the upcoming elections," warning that, "rather than progressing gradually on a path of desirable reform, Egypt is instead sliding backwards into increased authoritarianism." Noting that, "Egypt is at a critical turning point," the Working Group recommended that the Egyptian government should respond "to demands for responsible political change... [and] face the future as a more democratic nation with greater domestic and international support," which is to say, 'order and stability.'
If this is not done, they warned, "prospects for stability and prosperity in Egypt will be in doubt," which would "have serious consequences for the United States, Egypt's neighbors, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, and regional stability." The United States, they wrote, "has a stake in the path Egypt takes." Noting that Egypt had a massive population of unemployed youth, the statement declared: "To fulfill expectations and to prevent the onset of frustration and radicalism, Egypt must expand citizens' say in how they are governed," explaining that there was "now an opportunity to support gradual, responsible democratic reform," noting that the longer the U.S. waits, "the harder it will be to reverse a dangerous trend."
The Working Group sent a follow-up letter to Clinton the next month, upon Mubarak's decision to extend the "state of emergency" (which he initially passed when he came to power in 1981) for another two years, noting that the situation "heightens our concern that the administration's practice of quiet diplomacy is not bearing fruit," and that, "we are more convinced than ever of the importance of U.S. engagement... the United States is uniquely positioned to engage the Egyptian government and civil society and encourage them along a path toward reform. The time to use that leverage is now."
Noting that when rebels ousted the corrupt Kyrgyzstan government in April of 2010, the population complained of the U.S.'s silence in the face of rigged elections and human rights abuses, "placing a clear priority on strategic cooperation with the government." Watch out, Kagan and Dunne warned: "If the Obama administration does not figure out how to make clear that it supports the political and human rights of Egyptian citizens, while cooperating with the Egyptian government on diplomatic and security affairs, people will be saying that about the United States in Cairo one of these days - and maybe sooner than we expect."
In November of 2010, members of the Working Group on Egypt held a meeting with members of the Obama administration's National Security Council staff, including Dennis Ross, Samantha Power, Pradeep Ramamurthy, Dan Shapiro, and Gayle Smith. The meeting was "to discuss Egypt's upcoming elections, prospects for political reform, and the implications for U.S. policy."
The Working Group on Egypt was made up of a group of strategists from the dominant think tanks and 'democracy' promotion organizations embedded within the U.S. elite establishment, organized in an effort to promote a strategy which would secure long-term Western interests in the Arab world and Egypt in particular, pushing for 'democratic' reforms in order to placate the inevitable tide of history from tossing the United States out of Egypt in a revolutionary fervor. When the uprising began, and thereafter, those involved with the Working Group on Egypt became increasingly influential within U.S. policy circles, most notably at the National Security Council (NSC).
The Secret Report
In August of 2010, Obama issued a Presidential Study Directive to be undertaken by some of his advisers "to produce a secret report on unrest in the Arab world." The 18-page report was produced by Dennis Ross, the senior adviser on the Middle East, and senior director of the National Security Council Samantha Power, along with another NSC staffer, Gayle Smith. Weekly meetings were held between these officials and representatives from the State Department, CIA, and other agencies. The conclusions of the report were - as the New York Times reported - "without sweeping political changes, countries from Bahrain to Yemen were ripe for popular revolt," with particular 'flashpoints' being identified, including Egypt.
The report suggested that proposals be put forward on how to pressure Arab regimes to implement reforms before such circumstances arose. A senior official who helped draft the report later commented, "There's no question Egypt was very much on the mind of the president... You had all the unknowns created by Egypt's succession picture - and Egypt is the anchor of the region."
Yemen, long ruled by Ali Abdullah Saleh, was another nation that figured prominently in the report. Another administration official acknowledged that with rising youth populations, increasingly educated, yet with few economic opportunities and access to social media and the Internet, there was a "real prescription for trouble... whether it was Yemen or other countries in the region, you saw a set of trends." Obama also pressed his advisers to look at the popular uprisings in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia to draw parallels and assess successes and failures. The report laid out a basis upon which the U.S. attempted to navigate its initial strategy during the uprisings of the Arab Spring.
Imperial Dilemma: Choosing Dictatorship or Democracy?
The stage was set, change was inevitable, strategy was lagging - though developing - and the empire was thrown into a crisis when Egypt's 18-day revolt took the world by shock. When one of the most important strategic 'allies' (aka: proxies) of the United States was thrown into a crisis in the form of a popular domestic uprising against the U.S.-subsidized dictatorship, the American Empire attempted to dance its way between the rhetoric - and strategic interest - of 'democracy' and the known stability and comfort of dictatorship. This dance over the 18-day uprising will be the focus of the next part in this series.
This report described some of the key ideas and characters that would become intimately involved in attempting to manage the situation within Egypt during the 18-day revolt and in the years since the uprising overthrew Mubarak. From the dictatorship, to democracy-promotion, and Egypt's 'liberal opposition,' the Obama administration - and most especially the Pentagon, State Department, and National Security Council (often working closely with the Working Group on Egypt) sought to manage the dance between dictatorship and democracy for the Arab world's most populous country in the midst of a popular uprising.
 Justin Webb, "Obama interview: the transcript," BBC, 2 June 2009:
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People's Book Project, head of the Geopolitics Division of the Hampton Institute, Research Director for Occupy.com's Global Power Project and hosts a weekly podcast show at BoilingFrogsPost.