One week after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s latest president-for-life, when celebrations are drawing down, and soldiers are removing the last vestiges of the 18-day-long demonstration in Tahrir Square, it is time to offer a tentative assessment of what took place, or at least what the world witnessed courtesy of the live TV and Internet. The purpose of this blog is not to diminish the significance of the Egyptian uprising, dishonor the sacrifices or discount the courage of Egyptian heroes and heroines, or in anyway minimize the impact of these events on the future of the Middle East – not to mention, Iran. Nor is it written out of envy or animus. After all, among Middle Eastern countries, Egypt was the first to adopt a constitution – the 1885 “Fundamental Law”- and as such, Egyptians’ struggle for the rule of law precedes ours, and their continued failure is equally, if not more, tragic.
As the recent events in Egypt unfolded, professional pundits-for-hire and copycat experts-on-demand lined up to offer their not-so-candid advice to the bewildered audiences across the globe. The twenty-first century rainmakers confidently announced that the dawn of democracy in the Middle East was near; all that one needed to do to bring it about sooner was to hit the drum harder. In other words, a revolt against a tyrant was portrayed as both necessary and sufficient condition for the birth of democracy. However, the heart- and limb-broken veterans of similar predicaments in the region begged to differ and insisted, “not so fast”, the outcome was going to be the same old, same old.
One of the common currencies of the infomercial media was constant comparison of the uprising in Egypt with the 2009 post-election protests in Iran, or with the demonstrations leading to the 1979 revolution. While the dust is settling in Cairo and Alexandria – or more accurately, is being scrubbed clean by jubilant volunteers – it didn’t appear too far-fetched to even compare these events with the 1953 Iran. However, it is worth noting that while the Egypt’s uprising may have some of the ingredients of Iran’s past experiments with regime change, neither its recipe nor its ultimate concoction has any similarity with Iran’s. Indications are that post-Mubarak Egypt will turn out to be governed by “Mubarkism without Mubarak”. Ironically however, an Egyptian activist – Google executive, Wael Ghonim – went as far as referring to the January 25th uprising as, “Revolution 2.0”. In the high-tech industry’s vocabulary, “2.0” signifies a major upgrade, sometimes even a complete revision, of the original version, to deliver the same results and even more, faster and easier. Is this what happened in Egypt?
In classic revolutions – e.g. in the French, American, Russian and Iranian revolutions of the past– a whole ruling class was uprooted and replaced with a cast of characters with a different outlook, philosophy and agenda. In today’s Egypt, the chance of such revolution succeeding is nil. Instead, in what appears more like a fairy tale, the military – the power-base of Egyptian dictators from Nasser, to Sadat, to Mubarak – was beatified and presented as an impartial referee – or, in the American parlance, an “honest broker”. After only two weeks, protest-weary Egyptians embraced and praised the same military that in the past 58 years had tormented them. What the world witnessed in the last few weeks was not a revolution, but a divine revelation of biblical proportions – a reenacted parting of the Red Sea.
My understanding of a modern-day revolution (2.0?) is what we saw happen in the South African apartheid referendum of 1992, as a result of which the black majority gained political power by allowing the white minority retain the economic power – a Faustian compromise; Or, in more recent years, removal of the entrenched oligarchs in Latin America through the ballot box, and ensuing empowerment of populist governments. Neither of these two versions appears likely in contemporary Egypt. What Egyptians can expect is at best an Iraq-style “democracy” (see below), or only the promise of some procrastinated reforms. As a result, the status quo, i.e. Mubarakism – a.k.a. the U.S. “national interest” in the region– will be preserved and advanced.
The issue is not whether Washington staged the events in Egypt, as Wikileaks-era conspiracy theorists would have us believe; or whether the events in Egypt caught Washington by surprise, as U.S. foreign policy apologists claim. The fact is - at the end - it was a 30-minute phone call from the White House to the Egypt Presidential Palace that sent reluctant Mubarak packing, and sealed the outcome. The real question however is, whether protestors could have succeeded in bringing an end to Mubarak’s presidency if they had not met three conditions, namely (a) their demands were modest befitting their means (i.e. un-revolutionary), (b) the outcome was favored by the U.S., and (c) their military brass was wiling to betray it’s commander-in-chief? (Note: The 2009 post-election protests in Iran met the first two, but not the third condition.)
In many respects the promised outcome of Egypt’s uprising is not without precedent. This is what neo-cons originally marketed as the project to “spread democracy in the Middle East”, one of the stated goals of the Operation Iraqi Freedom. In this version of “democracy” (2.0?), Iraqis were to have periodic elections iff with acceptable results; a parliament filled with “elected” members who would haggle over nonsensical issues, while decisions made elsewhere were implemented by the “elected” government. To guarantee the survival of this “democracy”, permanent American military and intelligence bases – along with the requisite status of forces agreement – would be established that would incidentally facilitate the access of the “international community” to Iraq’s natural resources and market, and perpetuate Iraq’s contribution to the globalized free market economy.
The problem was that Iraqis had difficulty comprehending the wisdom of the new world order. As a result, the price tag for the democratization of Iraq became much heftier than initially estimated: by now, over forty-seven hundred dead and thirty-thousand wounded and disabled American servicemen, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, not to mention millions of injured and refugees. To everyone’s surprise, the project to bring “democracy” to Egypt however, turned out to be a notably cheaper transaction: only 300 dead and 1500 injured Egyptians; For the American side: a few reporters harassed, assaulted or detained – a bargain of a deal!
One can credit Egyptians for being much smarter (they didn’t even utter, “Death to America”), or much less demanding (only Mubarak had to go), than their Iraqi brethren. One can also credit detested Hosni Mubarak for not being as audacious as dreaded Saddam Hussein. However, the real credit must go to President Obama and his foreign policy team (neo-neo-cons, or neo-cons 2.0), who figured out it was much less costly, and thus more prudent, to start the democratization of the Middle East in America’s client states where docile dictators were much more amenable to the national security needs of their foreign benefactors.
What Obama’s foreign policy gurus established with their skilful management of the crisis in Egypt, and the way they brought it to their desired end, is that in the age of Facebook and Twitter, the spread of “democracy” does not necessarily require military invasion, occupation, kidnapping, torture and murder of innocent people, let alone destruction of another country’s infrastructure and depleting of own treasury. There are always more sententious ways. So, it is time to acknowledge what distinguishes the current administration in Washington from its predecessor - despite the fact that their goals remain the same. Along with the victorious people of Egypt, Administration officials in Washington must be celebrating the “mission [easily] accomplished”, and congratulating themselves for the advent of Shock and Awe 2.0. The show has just begun. McLuhan was right.
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