by Joe Shea
January 28, 2011
THE NEW REVOLT
BRADENTON, Fla., Updated Jan. 29, 2011-- Americans don't ask their country to get involved in the internal political struggles of the nations it interacts with, and the general rule is that we don't.
But prior to the last decade, we were surely too involved in such struggles. I recall a Bolivian official telling me in 1970 how a CIA officer gave $25,000 to a candidate of the early 1960s to throw the presidential election there. The official spilling those beans was a head of the nation's state police, and was forced into exile himself.
In 2001, credible evidence emerged that the CIA dropped $10 million from 1990 onward on Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos, along with high-tech surveillance gear, to spy on political rivals of President Alberto Fujimori. They're both in jail now after their secret videos showed dozens of politicians taking bribes.
By virtue of U.S. financial support for Tunisia's leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was able to ensure that government contracts and a lot of employment in the country was controlled by his family and friends, while he stood accused of ignoring falling wages and growing poverty among the great majority of Tunisians. So far, to protestors, Ben Ali's replacement looks too much like his predecessor. His regime's secret files have not yet come to light. He is in exile.
So, as Capital One ads ask, after 30 years of unbending rule, what is in Hosni Mubarak's pocket?
I'll get to that later, but I really hope the CIA has not made their historic mistakes again. It's always nasty business when the intelligence gathered by dictators gets revealed on CNN.
For now, forces I will not deign to characterize are threatening Mubarak, the leader of Egypt who is a key ally in our effort to prevent a genocidal war against Israel. Already, those forces have overthrown the dictatorial leader of Tunisia, a country on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa; there's also a rebellion in Yemen, where an autocracy with little regard for the common man remains in power but under constant challenge; and there's yet another, milder one in Jordan. In the first week of January, there was also widespread unrest in Algeria over food and oil prices, but for now, amid plans to reshuffle membership in President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's cabinet, Algeria is calm.
The United States is warily awaiting a definitive outcome of these various events. While being publicly sympathetic to calls for economic and political reform, it is carefully distancing itself from future Fujimoris. Last Thursday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs openly waffled when asked if the U.S. still stands behind Mubarak; just a month ago, his answer would have been a firm and unequivocal "Yes."
So when President Obama took to the airwaves Friday evening, it wasn't to praise Mubarak's leadership; instead, Obama told him to keep his promises to Egypt's people, and called on him to refrain from violence against protestors - about 70 have died - and restore Internet and cell phone service. In the same hour, both NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and anchor Shepard Smith on FoxNews went out of their way (in identical phrases, each unattributed) to call Egypt "the greatest ally of the United States in the Middle East." That phrase should pertain to Israel alone, but was aimed now at reassuring Mubarak. These deliberately mixed and inchoate signals obscure the real truth: Israel is our one true ally in the Middle East, and Mubarak is just a special case, a faithful friend but a creature of necessity. Smith said tonight that Israel is "standing by" the current Egyptian government, a predictable and practical stance.
I don't want to characterize the protestors across the Middle East as "reformers" because I really don't know what their truest, deepest motives are. So far, media coverage of the uprisings suggests they are not motivated by hatred of the U.S. - something much espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - except that the protestors don't seem to be too fond of us, either.
That's because of our practical-minded support for their corrupt, authoritarian and reform-resistant leaders. For that reason, I would never discount the ability of Islamic extremists to co-opt a revolution anywhere in the Middle East, so my usual sympathies for the forces of freedom and reform are tempered by that very great possibility - presuming it is not already fact.
While it hasn't yet clarified itself to such a degree, the new revolt looks a lot like the Middle Eastern equivalent of the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and is moving at the same speed or faster - it's underway in five countries.
Notably, it also dovetails well with Osama bin Laden's plans for a region-wide Fifth Caliphate, yet he seems absent here - perhaps because he is under so much pressure from surveillance drones he can't stick his head out of a foxhole without getting it blown off. Unlike the historic revolt of the USSR's member states in the early 1990s, though, it remains very much unclear where genuine democracy may find a home in its aftermath.
In Egypt, at least, one key opposition leader is former United Nations nuclear arms inspector Mohammed ElBaradei, an intelligent, progressive and even heroic man whom Western leaders and Israel will likely welcome if he comes to power. As in the former USSR, though, democracy can prove elusive for those who seek it, and uncontrollable even for those who actually hold its reins. In the Middle East, democracy's future is even harder to predict than it was in Russia.
If ElBaradei becomes the next president of Egypt, is he the strongman who can hold onto the office? We knew for sure where Boris Yeltsin stood in 1991 - atop a tank in Red Square - so we were quick to cast our lot with him. We won't move so quickly now.
On Friday, Egypt's Mubarak called in the Egyptian Army to fight his own people. That was after scenes of his riot police sharing water bottles with protestors in Alexandria escaped the wet blanket of his communications crackdown and bloomed on the Internet. Now the army seems to also have embraced the revolt. As the world watched Saturday, protestors climbed on Army tanks and shared kisses anf flowers with Mubarak's last line of defense.
Naming his brutal chief spy as Egypt's first vice-president in 30 years also seems unwise. Peru's Fujimori also appointed his chief spy, the aforementioned Montesinos, as his chief advisor, only to have Montesino's 100-odd videos of Peruvian politicians taking bribes quickly force both to leave the country; Montesino's now in jail, where Fujimori's joined him.
As in Russia, and in the Marcos-era Philippines, and in Peru, huge demonstrations may force events in Cairo move very, very quickly for Mubarak and his new Vice-President. On Saturday, NBC News reported, the number of protestors in Cairo topped 100,000. Those numbers will get anyone's attention. When they all decide to knock on your door, you'd better have a helicopter "standing by" on the roof.
But for now, amid rumors his sons have fled to London, Mubarak shows no sign of stepping down. Yet he is viewed by Egyptians in the same way Tunisians viewed Ben Ali. Mubarak has manipulated elections, been implicated in the death of protestors and favored his family in political and economic dealings. He let most Egyptians suffer a grinding and indelicate poverty - despite a booming corporate economy that yet pays workers an average of just $4 a day.
Should the Egyptian Army rebel against him - as they did against Anwar Sadat, whose his own army officers shot him down on a reviewing stand - it will be the end of an important American ally and respecter of Israel. Mr. Sadat signed a historic peace accord with Israel's Menachem Begin in 1978 that transformed the Middle East's alliances, led to rapprochement with other Mideast nations, and still endures today. Some say that treaty would be the first to go if the new President is a product of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which remains powerful in Egypt.
And other outposts of the new revolt? In Yemen, according to WikiLeaks cables released about a month ago, the U.S. has had to conceal a somewhat secret war against Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers and allies, where protestors are challenging the unpopular government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in office for 32 years - longer than Mubarak.
Saleh is another key ally as American anti-terrorism efforts focus on the group known as "al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula," whose membership spawned the Christmas Day bomber of 2009. On Thursday, four different, mostly peaceful demonstrations aimed at Saleh took place in Sana, the capital, as protestors reacted to Saleh's plan to effectively appoint himself president for life - sort of like Hugo Chavez did last month.
But why is the world's leading proponent of democracy so often allied with despotic rulers in the Middle East? It is partly due to the great warp that our affinity and friendship with Israel has introduced into our foreign policy. To the extent that we are fighting terrorism and insurgency across the Middle East it is because of our unshakeable ties to Israel and profound support for its continued existence.
Whenever a Middle East government becomes threatening or inimical to Israel, we ally ourselves with leaders who support Israel's right to exist - either overtly, as Egypt does, or in unspoken fashion, as the leaders of Tunisia and Yemen did. The reward is inevitably U.S. aid, in the form of cash and military gear, that help those leaders withstand the vicissitudes of democratic elections and continue to suppress reform, as well as fight terrorism on their own soil.
None of this is news to anyone. What is news is that protestors, whether reformers or extremist-inspired puppets, can overthrow unpopular governments even in the Middle East that are usually seen as impregnable. Judging by the widespread, angry wage-and-price protests in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, another important U.S. ally, they may even be able to undo popular governments - even if that's unlikely to happen in Jordan - in the name of economic hardships and reform.
What meaning and impact can all this have for Israel? Will new governments, whose aid from America depends on rejecting anti-Israeli movements, toe the line their predecessors did? And if they do, will the cycle of suppression and corruption begin all over again? Or will they revert to hatred to cloak their own shortcomings, making Israel a scapegoat for their economic problems? Or even seek a fresh path to peace?
Let's hope we don't have to find out the hard way. So far, there's little sign that Israel is a target of wrath or playing any role in this entire situation. In itself, that is a good sign of growing health in the Middle Eastern culture that has too long supported anti-Israeli sentiment. Yet it's time for Israel to act.
The best thing Israel can do in this new USSR-like context of revolutionary change is to take a far more serious approach to resolving its internal and external relationship with the nascent State of Palestine, which has already been recognized by Brazil and several other countries.
Reportedly, for instance, the Palestinians recently told Israel that they would cede East Jerusalem and the right of return in exchange for recognition of Palestinian autonomy and sovereignty. Israel apparently was unmoved by this sea change in the Palestinian stance. That intransigence needs to be altered, and quickly, before the new revolt surrounds Israel with strangers, and its lack of progress toward peace can be used as powerful diplomatic leverage against Israel's best interests.
Before we and Israel lose a few more allies where we need them most, Israel should move to accept negotiated solutions with the Palestinians on the right of return and status of East Jerusalem, and dramatically restrain the extreme right-wing Hasidic elements who want to build settlements on the West Bank.
What has also been surprising in these new revolts is how deep and fervent anti-corruption sentiments can be in people who have always been seen as perfectly willing to accept any form of suppression in the name of their devotion to Allah. In Iran, harsh economic realities have long been obscured by the religious posturing of fundamentalist politicians, but elsewhere the economic suffering due to the global recession and repressive governments has become painfully obvious to ordinary people. Many giant corporations in Egypt are doing extremely well, we are told, while many ordinary people have almost nothing, and no jobs.
Even in the United States, corporate profits and reserves are at an all-time high and growing. Yet, as millions of Americans, short of cash, lose their homes or declare bankruptcy, the big firms have stopped hiring. They have abandoned American workers to pay low wages elsewhere - in Egypt, perhaps, in Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen, or Mexico and China. In that condition, revolution - political or violent - is always a possibility, as the Democrats here just learned.
In the Mideast, too, at the moment, Allah is apparently fading from the picture and being replaced by yearning for the Almighty Dollar - or its equivalent - and the promise it brings of real economic equality, a free media and the fashions and lifestyles of the West. For many Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, Jordanians and Algerians, those appear to be so much more fun than compulsory religious obedience, ankle-length burqas and the anonymity of the veil.
Let us hope, then, that economics is the true motive, even if the bright allures of the West are often more false to those who embrace them than the leaders they now hate. (This article was updated at 11:00 p.m. on Jan. 29, 2011.)
Write Joe Shea at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Note: Under the auspices of the U.S. Dept. of State, the U.S. Information Agency and the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles, more than 140 journalists - Including from Al Ahram - from 50 nations have visited the offices of The American Reporter to discuss AR's work on the Internet and foreign relations with Editor-in-Chief Joe Shea. Correspondent Ron Kenner hosted three of those.