President Barack Obama meets with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in the Oval Office at the White House on September 1, 2010. (Photo: Drew Angerer / The New York Times)
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.
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.
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.