Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Western Hypocrisy? The West and the Undemocratic

Let’s briefly recap on the US government’s response to the revolution in Egypt:

In the afternoon on the first day of the uprising, Tuesday the 25th of January, the US Secretary of State confirms her faith in the stability of the Mubarak regime. Like most European government spokespeople, Hilary Clinton urges ‘restraint on both sides’.

The following day, after mass arrests and killings on the part of the police, US officials continue to maintain that Mubarak remains a close ally in the region. Later the same say, on Wednesday the 26th, the Obama administration does an ‘about face’ and calls for quick reforms as the opposition in Egypt continues to grow and shows resolve.

Demonstrations continue throughout the country through the week, and on Sunday the 30th the US acknowledges the need for a new government, and defends the US government’s record as a human rights defender and promoter of civil society in Egypt.

On Tuesday, February 1st, the day of the “Million Man March” US diplomats meet with El Baradei, an opposition spokesperson. That day US President Obama urges Mubarak not to seek re-election in the presidential elections in September – a statement soon proceeded by an announcement from the Egyptian government that Mubarak’s second public statement will be televised later that night. In that statement Mubarak does none other than state clearly that he will not run, and was not planning to run, for re-election.

On the 2nd of February, the day after what turned out to be a “march” of millions throughout the country, White House spokesperson Gibbs says that the administration was expecting the ‘transition’ in Egypt to happen yesterday (meaning the day of the Million Man March), not in September.

On Thursday, following twenty-four hours of clashes in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo that left at least 7 dead and hundreds wounded, the US announces that it is preparing a proposal for Mubarak to step down.

On Saturday and Sunday, the 5th and 6th of February, the US fumbles. White House officials throw their support behind Vice President Suleiman, and then distance themselves from the remarks of US envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, who stated support for Mubarak’s “continued leadership.”

These last thirteen days in Egypt perhaps reveal for some the hypocrisy of the US (and the Western world generally) as the image of the US as a defender and promoter of democracy and development shatters before a fumbling, reticent reaction to a mass democratic movement confronting an authoritarian Mubarak regime. Such hypocrisy on the part of the West has not only just become apparent of course, even in the West. And in the Majority World Western hypocrisy is known and has been known, although I must admit that I cease to be surprised by how many people I have met here and elsewhere in the Majority World/Global South who are blinded by the Western-sponsored human rights/civil society industry. If the hypocrisy is acknowledged, though, it is easily defended: For the sake of stability, security, peace.

The Mubarak regime held (as of a couple of days ago) the dubious position as a great Western ally in the region, ostensibly for keeping the peace with Israel. Israel came out publicly with its known worries that a change in the Egyptian government would lead to a government less ‘friendly’ to Israel, thereby seriously threatening Israel’s safety in the region. More than this, the US’s position is defended inside and outside of the pro-Israel US political arena on the grounds that the Mubarak regime, like the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, is secular and protects the large Christian minority in Egypt as well as the US and other Western countries against extremist Jihadists and their ‘reign of terror’.

The idea that authoritarianism promotes stability and security finds itself deeply embedded in the Arab world, a pervasive discourse promulgated by Arab states and internalized by populations – AND seriously challenged now as the Tunisian revolution has heralded a paradigm shift in ‘what is possible’ in the region. Not only Tunisia and Egypt, but as I write Jordan, Yemen and Algeria are experiencing major protest activity as populations en masse shed this disbelief and distrust in ‘others as themselves’. As Noam Chomsky has been arguing for years, this “disdain for the population” is a guiding principle of the US, domestically and internationally, and is glaringly reflected in the US and European Union’s publicly-declared narrow vision of ‘the desired’ in Egypt – free and fair elections. As members of the opposition in Egypt responded, their movement is much bigger than a desire for free and fair elections. This movement has much bigger dreams – and do we in the West? Have we not swallowed this false hallowed vision of democracy?

The revolution in Egypt not only plainly illustrates Western hypocrisy, but provides a valuable opportunity to understand the West’s role in building, promoting and maintaining undemocratic political orders throughout the world. Riding on the fear-provoking ideology (of instability and terror in the absence of a coercive authority) is the West’s underlying reason for supporting authoritarian and dictatorial regimes throughout the world: the perpetuation of an undemocratic socio-economic order premised on the West’s control over key resources (material, intellectual, genetic, strategic).

Central to this socio-economic order are the gamut of liberalization and privatization policies undemocratically pursued in countries like Egypt and part and parcel of the growth and spread of a vast military-industrial complex, which now can hardly be called “American.” As is documented and widely cited, the US has given billions in aid to Egypt in the last decades, mostly funneled to the military. But this “aid” has been in the form of loans that have added drastically to Egypt’s debt and benefited private US military contractors with a large, steady and dependent ‘market’. Since the dawn of the neoliberal era, in the mid-1970s, under Sadat’s “open door” policy American aid has led to the mushrooming of the Egyptian military, consolidating the military’s position as a prominent actor in all major sectors of the economy[1]. This has had the effect of creating a professional officer class, which has a strong presence in the ranks of the middle and upper-middle classes.

The last thirty years of neoliberalism have mushroomed the upper-middle class in Egypt, made up not only of military officers but of a politically powerful business class (often the two intersecting, as officers have used their patronage networks to consolidate business holdings). Liberalization and privatization policies have created monopolies and an extremely wealthy business elite that has propped up and enriched the Mubarak regime – as well as large profits for American and European businesses, particularly since the dawn of trade agreements and public-private partnerships. By as early as the 1980s, the US became the largest importer of goods into Egypt, and despite a jump in exports during the last five years, Egypt’s trade deficit has grown.

One clear marker of neoliberalism, the ‘revolving door’ between government and business, is alive and well in Egypt: For example, in 2004, under the Nazif administration, the head of Unilever Mashreq (a Middle East Foods and HPC (Home and Personal Care) Division of the Unilever Group International) became the Minister of Trade and Industry, Rachid M. Rachid. The Rachid family is one of the wealthiest and politically influential families in Egypt. Another well-known example is Ahmed Ezz, a steel monopoly tycoon, parliamentary member and former (as of last week) leading member of the ruling National Democratic Party.

The Mubarak regime’s peace alliance with Israel quickly reveals itself as a convenient business alliance. Of foreign agribusinesses operating in Egypt Israeli companies rank fourth in their country presence (of all countries with foreign agribusinesses operating), with ninety-eight companies as of May 2010[2]. And as was spotlighted on February 5 with the coordinated attack on the natural gas pipeline in the Sinai, supplying Israel and Jordan with gas, Egypt is a main supplier of natural gas to Israel.

The revolution in Egypt may be understood as the culmination of deepening discontent with a police state that has become the 1990s IMF “poster child,” following years of regular protests and sit-ins by Egyptian workers reduced to the working poor and the steady emergence of political reform movements (such as Kefaya and the National Coalition for Change). Deep anger and frustration have shown their faces clearly not just in Cairo and Alexandria, but in places like Suez, where vast profits generated from the Suez canal have not translated into local development, and Al-Arish in the North Sinai, where residents are not benefiting from large gas and tourism revenues generated locally.

One of the reported slogans of the demonstrations has been Bread! Freedom! Justice! Despite the media’s narrow focus on the Mubarak regime’s human rights violations, the political and civil reasons for the uprising cannot be separated from the social and economic. However, revealing is that one of the first responses to the uprising on the part of the regime was a quick shift from the business elite to the military elite at the top decision making posts in government. Mubarak brought in two military men to fill the post of Vice President and Prime Minister. And after sacking his Cabinet, the first declared measures of the new Cabinet were decidedly interventionist – an economic assistance package for the poor, price controls, continued subsidies.

Also, revealing is that Ahmed Ezz, who immediately left the NDP during the first days of the uprising and whose office was completely ransacked, was not allowed to flee the country. Reports also surfaced that the former Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid is not allowed to leave the country. And there has been lots of talk about Gamal Mubarak. He disappeared and then ‘reappeared’ this week only to resign from the NDP. Now the focus is on the timely release by the Guardian of the Mubarak family fortune, estimated to be as much as USD 70 billion[3]. The family used their position within the military and then later in political office to accumulate wealth, often in deals with western companies.

As long as the financial system is running and Western corporations are profiting and Western ‘expertise’ is respected and sought after, in order to maintain its control over markets, the West will continue and change their support for foreign governments. At a time of uprising, though, it is not clear in which direction “security” will be maintained – “security” meaning the maintenance of the Western-sponsored socio-economic order that privileges large businesses and a global consumer class, and spawns widespread state repression and corruption. Hence, the US government vacillates and contradicts. Rather than being merely hypocritical, its role as the maintainer of an unjust, hierarchical and deeply undemocratic global order becomes known.

[1] Mitchell, T. 2002. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[2] GAFI (General Authority for Foreign Investment) internally-circulated document

[3] Inman, P. 2011. Mubarak family fortune could reach $70bn, say experts. Guardian, 4 February. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/04/hosni-mubarak-family-fortune [Accessed on 6 February 2011].

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