Eric Walberg reflects on the reasons for the very different reactions to Egypt’s revolution among North Americans
Western media always welcomes the overthrow of a dictator — great headline news — but this instance was greeted with less than euphoria by Western — especially American — leaders, who tried to soft-peddle it much as did official Egyptian media till the leader fled the palace. Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak was a generously paid ally for the US in its Middle East policy of protecting Israel, and the hesitancy of the Western — especially US — governments in supporting fully what should have been a poster-child of much-touted US ideals was both frustrating and highly instructive.
Canadian government support for Mubarak was even more staunch until vice-president Omar Suleiman’s 20 second resignation speech 11 February, clearly written with a metaphorical gun to one or both of their heads. This craven loyalty to an autocrat reviled by his people was the US-Israeli preferred solution. Much better to cool the passionate revolutionaries, allow the system, so beneficial to Israel, to adjust and survive.
But perhaps more important, much better to continue Egypt’s state-of-emergency laws that allow the regime to keep Israel critics and devout Muslims under raps, and just as important, allow the US to “render” undesirable Muslims there to be tortured. Imagine if the records of these renditions over the past decade by the US (and Canada) to Egypt were to come to light, falling into the hands of the revolutionaries, much like Britain’s secret treaties in WWI fell into the Bolsheviks’ hands?
“They’re not going to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” quipped Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper glumly. He could well be articulating — in his own tasteless way — the sentiments of the Egyptian military establishment, which had no use for a Mubarak dynasty and sided with the rebels, though at a considerable cost. Those now in power, nominally headed by Minister of Defence and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces Mohammed Tantawi, must push determined demonstrators out of Tahrir Square, get people back to work, shut down further strikes, and keep their US military advisers (not to mention the US president himself) assured that the centrepiece of Egyptian foreign policy remains in place. Truly a messy task.
It is hard to believe now that just a few weeks ago, Mubarak was invincible, his visage gracing at least one page in every newspaper every day, meeting with some Western leader, posing with Israeli notables, confident that he was in control of his desert ship-of-state. After the initial euphoria, and as evidence of his misrule and the perilous state that he left Egypt in pours out of newly liberated media, people are overwhelmed, irritable and depressed. People have undergone a wrenching shift in their thinking in the past three weeks.
Iranian leaders note the eerie coincidence with their own revolution of 11 February 1979 overthrowing the shah (1941-79). A national holiday, more than half the population of Iran was out on the streets celebrating along with Egyptians when Mubarak finally resigned last Friday evening. US commentators prefer to compare the revolution to the overthrow of Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos (1965-87) and Indonesian president Suharto (1968-98). They even suggest it could lead to another Iranian revolution.
Despite the many differences, Iran and Indonesia are the closest parallels: an anti-colonial revolt against a repressive pseudo-Muslim autocrat whose corruption and nepotism undid him. Those revolts triumphed when the army and police gave up supporting the US-backed leader, much as Egypt’s security apparatus did. The long repressed Muslim Brotherhood is the Sunni equivalent of the Iranian clerics. Even if the US can steer Egypt into the secular Indonesian model, it will still have to come to terms with the fact that Indonesia does not recognise Israel, that any future Egyptian government will almost surely renegotiate the 1979 peace agreement with Israel.
It seems that Egypt’s suffering and oppression are something alien to Western experience. But this is far from the truth. As the fervour spread like wildfire during the first few weeks, I recalled how the leftist community in Toronto is just as self-righteous and eager for change, how neoliberalism has left Canadian society with yawning income disparities not much different than those of Egypt. The most obvious difference being that the general standard of living in Canada is higher and the middle class (still) more numerous. But the very idea of such a spectacular event as happened here to address issues of social justice is impossible to imagine there or in the US.
It struck me that the most stark and instructive parallel is not with Indonesia or Iran, but between pre-revolution Egypt and the current US, which, like Egypt, has reached the end of the same gruelling 30-year neoliberal road that Egypt did under Mubarak’s reign, jettisoning any pretense of a just society. The coincidences abound: both the US and Egypt began their ill-fated journeys in that very 1981, with the ascendancy of US president Ronald Reagan and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat, though El-Sadat had actually pre-empted Reaganomics with his infitah, dismantling of much of Egypt’s socialism.
Each US presidency since then has either embraced or been pressured by the exigencies of capitalism and electoral democracy to enact greater and great tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, meanwhile cutting social services and increasing spending on so-called defence. Each “new” government has regularly flouted the consensus of the electorate on all major issues, from the environment, social services, jobs, to weapons production, invasions, drug laws and the Cubas and Irans which in defiance dare to flout the empire.
Income disparity is arguably the strongest impulse to revolt. As measured by the Gini coefficient (0 is perfect equality) Egypt stands in a far better light at .34 than the US .45 (Canada is .32).
So why did Egyptians succeed spectacularly where Americans — in even greater need of a revolution — fail spectacularly?
Egyptians seem to be much more politically astute than their American counterparts, more willing to admit that their leaders take bribes, lie, follow policies dictated by business or lobbies and which counter public opinion.
But the key to understanding why a revolution like Egypt’s is impossible in the US is the fact that, unlike Egypt’s army (composed mostly of conscripts), the US has a mercenary (excuse me, professional) army, which would have little compunction to fire on any group threatening the sanctity of the political establishment. Conscription is a vital brick in building a democratic society, an safeguard allowing the society to be dismantled if it turns into a jail or a brothel, a brick which has been lost to the US and its satellites. A brick that Egyptian protesters used to telling effect.
Senator John Kerry said that the Egyptian people “have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities”. So what are Egypt’s prospects of creating a thriving democracy? They would be wise to listen to Kerry and to observe the US system, though not to copy it but on the contrary to learn from its sorry state.
Why would Americans expect a president to be fair and hear them when he must raise a billion dollars from corporations to outspend his equally compromised rival in elections? New York Times analyst Bob Herbert looked enviously at Egyptians’ longing for democracy, comparing the US political system to a “perversion of democracy”, bemoaning that at the very moment Egyptians are discovering it, “Americans are in the mind-bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.”
And yet Americans blissfully pledge their allegiance, weep on 4 July and during presidential inaugurations, despite the unassailable evidence of the injustices both domestically and abroad of the system they live under. Egyptians, though just as nationalistic, were able to see through the facade of their pseudo-democracy and rise up to overthrow the guilty parties. They are the heroes of all true democrats in the world. The few people particularly in North America who see through their own quite transparent political facade can only look on wistfully.
What became the anthem of the revolution — “Why?” by Mohamed Munir — was written, presciently, a month before the 25 January spark that burned away (let’s hope) much of the chaff accumulated during 30 years of neoliberal “reforms”. He cries out to his homeland like a spurned lover who vows to take his country back from the usurpers:
If love of you was my choice
My heart would long ago have changed you for another
But I vow I will continue to change your life for the better
Till you are content with me.
How different from the equivalent American song — Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” — self-pitying and hopeless in this, the world’s sole superpower:
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Till you spend half your life just covering up.
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/ You can reach him at http://ericwalberg.com/