What we are witnessing today is historic: Hosni Mubarak, who had been propped up by the US as dictator of Egypt for 30 years with massive military aid, has been forced out of power by a mass popular uprising, the second such dictator to scarper in recent weeks. Second only to Israel, Mubarak had long been the cornerstone of US power in the oil-rich Middle East, and was directly complicit in US-Israeli crimes including the murderous siege on the occupied Gaza Strip.
From the beginning, the revolutionary forces in Egypt have recognised this, calling Mubarak “the agent of the United States and Israel”. When we watch the images of the celebrating multitudes in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt, we whose states have underwritten tyranny in Egypt (and in so many other places) would do well to remember that their description is entirely accurate.
Mubarak has scarpered, a fact that, in itself, is cause for celebration and a testament to the power of an organised, committed populace. However, Mubarak did not rule alone, and the US-backed secret police, the US-financed and –armed army, the massive USAID infrastructure that ensures that US funds go where the US want them to go – all of this is still there. The man who departed the presidential palace in Cairo like a frightened mouse was a subcontractor of the United States, and it is clear both from the history and from the reports coming out of Al-Jazeera and elsewhere that the US are busy seeking a replacement.
Now that Mubarak – the dictator whom the US had supported to the bitter end – is gone, we will likely hear public acknowledgement of what an evil bastard he was, without any acknowledgement that the US government had knowingly and, indeed, enthusiastically supported this bastard for three long and bloody decades. We may even hear US officials start to acknowledge that Mubarak was a dictator, something they had denied even throughout the weeks of upheaval in Egypt. This follows a well-established pattern: When a US-backed murderer becomes untenable (either because he can no longer hold on to power or because he stops obeying orders from the home office), the crimes he committed with our decisive support are acknowledged and condemned (without noting our critical role in committing them). We then hear that nobody ever really liked him, and calls for an “orderly transition” to democracy, ignoring that – in many cases – the same people had claimed all along that there already was democracy in the country in question.
As we hear all this, we would do well to remember the telling words of Joe Biden at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution:
“Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region, Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel … I would not refer to him as a dictator…”
This is the – usually unspoken – operative definition of “democracy” for US imperial managers. As long as a regime remains “responsible” – i.e. compliant with US interests – he is “democratic” enough for us. By definition, no one we – The Good Guys – support could be a “dictator”. At the most, our preferred dictators will be called “strongmen” or “authoritarian leaders” (though Obama refused to describe Mubarak even as “authoritarian”). “Dictator” refers to those who do not play ball. Thus, we routinely hear of the democratically-elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez Frías, as a “tin-pot dictator”, even though the opposition controls 80% of the media, and even media outlets actively involved in the 2002 CIA coup attempt have not faced any real consequences for their criminal actions. Meanwhile, Colombia, where opposition journalists and activists, union organisers, and peasants are routinely massacred by US-armed death squads, is a stellar democracy by US standards. Colombia follows US orders. Venezuela not only openly flouts them, but is actively aiding others in disobeying.
We should make no mistake that the US is seeking – once again – to impose just this sort of “democracy” on Egypt.
As those of us in the United States and Europe celebrate this landmark victory of popular power over a dictator backed by the most powerful state in the world, we should never lose sight of this fact, and the responsibility for us that arises out of it:
What happens in Egypt depends critically on the amount of freedom of action the United States government has, and the freedom of action of the United States government – and its European “lieutenants” (though the fashionable word is “partner”) – depends critically on what the people in those countries do. The Egyptians and Tunisians have ejected their dictators, and it looks like the Jordanians and Yemenis are on their way to doing the same. But it is we who can ensure that no more dictators are imposed from outside on the peoples of the world. That is the power we have, and it is our sacred responsibility.
Except for a few cases in which they allowed Mubarak’s secret police to massacre demonstrators, and themselves attacked and imprisoned demonstrators, the US-backed Egyptian military have taken a studied neutral stance. They know that they have the trust – however underserved, given their role in supporting Mubarak for 30 years – of the Egyptian people, and they would have been foolish to squander that trust before they had a chance to take power outright.
Barring a rank-and-file mutiny, the Egyptian army has secured its role as heir-apparent to Mubarak’s thirty-year dictatorship. US president Obama has already called on the military to take power in Egypt (after weeks of refusing to demand that Mubarak leave power), a vote of confidence that should be deeply disturbing. If the military end up playing along with the US, we will likely soon see massive military repression, camouflaged as “protecting the population from Islamist rioters” or the like.
“The army has been here for thirty years. Why should I trust the army?” an Egyptian pro-democracy activist just asked on Al-Jazeera. Amidst the celebration, we should be asking ourselves that question as well.
People throughout the US and Europe have demonstrated in solidarity with the Egyptian people. It is time to take that solidarity to the next step. We have the power to provide more than just moral support: We can weaken and restrict the states that have long underwritten the oppression of the Egyptian people. If we truly want to support the Egyptian people, we should do in our countries what they have done in theirs. If they can do it under much more repressive conditions, then we can certainly do it. A Tahrir Square in every city in Europe and the US, a space of mass struggle and social reconstruction capable of reducing the orders of politicians and riot police to mere words, would be a huge step on the way to ensuring that the Egyptian people will not have to settle either for a chief lieutenant of Mubarak, such as Soleiman, or an Ahmed Chalabi-style carpetbagger in the mould of Muhammad ElBaradei.
And it would be damned good for us, too.