U.S. allies fall as Arabs demand Freedom and Justice

Is the cost in human dignity for 80 million Egyptians an acceptable exchange for Mubarak’s imprimature on the so-called "peace process?"

Prof. Charles Hirschkind, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 8, 2011.

All the regimes are shaking now. This is just the beginning.–”Fawaz Traboulsi, Lebanese journalist, Feb. 11, 2011.

The neocons who masterminded the U.S. invasion of Iraq predicted that once Saddam Hussain was ousted, other Arab regimes hostile to the U.S. and Israel would fall like dominos and be replaced by free market states friendly to Israel and the West. The theorists were half right. Dominos were blown over in a storm of protests that began in Tunisia and swept through the Arab Middle East–”but they were not falling in the direction the neocons hoped.

Instead, people who had suffered too long from crushing poverty and humiliation were able, by pressure of their numbers, to topple two powerful U.S. allies, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Although both were autocrats who presided over corrupt regimes, they were regarded in Washington and Jerusalem as dependable allies.

Other Arab rulers closely allied with Washington felt the ground shake as well. Demonstrations in Jordan and Yemen forced King Abdullah to broaden his government to include members of the Muslim Brotherhood and vow to give the public a greater role in decision-making. Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh promised he would not run for re-election in 2013, as demands that he leave continued. Mass demonstrations are taking place even in normally quiet Bahrain, the home port of the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet.

The mostly young crowds that gathered in the streets of Middle East cities in late January and February were calling for democracy, jobs and an end to corruption and police brutality, including torture. In rejecting their rulers, the protesters were challenging U.S. Middle East policy as well. While Israel was promoting itself as "the Middle East’s only democracy," the U.S. was supporting and arming any Middle East dictator, no matter how brutal, as long as he posed no threat to Israel.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, described the dilemma facing President Barack Obama: "The problem for America is, you can balance being the carrier for the Israeli agenda with Arab autocrats, but with Arab democracies you can’t do that." Larry Diamond, director of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy and the Rule of Law, disagrees. "Most protesters resent Israel’s treatment of the Palestians and want an independent Palestinian state," he wrote in the Feb. 19 San Francisco Chronicle. "But mainly they want to transform their own country, politically and economically." Argued Diamond, "a democracy will produce a much more reliable partner for peace."

Because the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies failed to foresee the seismic shift about to take place, the Obama administration was caught off balance when the uprisings began. As the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square grew steadily larger and more angry, the Obama administration wavered between sympathy and alarm. White House officials who talked daily with the Israelis shared a mutual concern that if the Egyptians held free elections the Muslim Brotherhood was certain to be part of the new government. It is an outcome that pro-Israel groups in the U.S. and their allies in Congress bitterly oppose.

The Brotherhood renounced violence years ago, but in any case Egyptian polls show it with only a 15 percent approval rating, and their spokesman said the party would not seek a majority in parliament. According to Shadi Hamid, a fellow of the Brookings Center in Qatar, the Brotherhood hates al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda hates the Brotherhood. "So if we’re talking about counterterrorism," Hamid said, "engaging with the Brotherhood will advance our interests in the region."

Israel and its supporters, however, were prepared to suspect any replacement of Mubarak who enjoyed popular support. In accord with its policy of smearing anyone critical of Israel, pro-Israel spokesmen targeted Mohamed ElBaradei, a consensus figure in Egypt who headed a coalition that included youth organizations and secular liberals as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2005 ElBaradei received the Nobel Prize for Peace for his work as chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but this did not impress his U.S. critics. "He is a stooge of Iran," proclaimed Malcolm I. Hoenlein, vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "He fronted for them. He distorted reports."

On Feb. 11, the day Mubarak resigned, ElBaradei outlined in a New York Times op-ed column his vision of an Egypt that would be free and democratic, and at peace with its neighbors. He wrote, "The rebirth of Egypt represents the hope of a new era in which Arab society, Muslim culture and the Middle East are no longer viewed through the lens of war and radicalism, but as contributors to the forward march of humanity."

If ElBaradei’s dream is realized it will be as a result of the extraordinary resilience and courage of tens of thousands of Egyptians who over the course of 18 days never lost their fervor. Although they remained steadfastly nonviolent, Mubarak lashed out with force. On Feb. 1 hundreds of his supporters, mobilized by his security forces and secret police, charged into the peaceful crowds in Tahrir Square on horses and camels, wielding whips, clubs, firebombs and guns. By the end of two days, hundreds of protestors had been injured, and at least 365 killed. Dozens of reporters were arrested, as were many human rights workers. The offices of Al Jazeera were destroyed.

Yet the demonstrators returned in the greatest numbers yet. On Feb. 4, 100,000 men and women of all ages, rich and poor, secular and religious, gathered in Tahrir Square to demand an immediate end to the Mubarak dictatorship. Despite the huge turnout, Obama reacted to pressure from Israel and the rulers of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the next day retreated from his demand that Mubarak leave office "now." He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called instead for an "orderly transition," to be presided over by Vice President Omar Suleiman while Mubarak remained in office.

The announcement was a sharp rebuff to the pro-democracy movement and prompted a letter to Obama from a diverse group of American specialists on Egypt, who warned that the U.S. might be agreeing to "an inadequate and possibly fraudulent transitional process in Egypt." The experts had good reason for concern. Suleiman was a former intelligence chief and remained a close adviser to Mubarak. He served as an important contact for the Israelis and for the CIA, most recently when it was sending suspected terrorists to Egypt to be tortured.

As a key participant in a one-party system that ruled Egypt for three decades, Suleiman helped enforce emergency laws that allowed the government to abolish freedom of the press and assembly, and imprison and torture tens of thousands of political dissidents. As protests continued, he refused White House requests that he lift the emergency laws, and declared that the Egyptian people were not yet ready for democracy. Mubarak, meanwhile, insisted he would stay in office until September. Finally, on Feb. 11, a date that will long be celebrated across the Arab world, he resigned under pressure from the increasingly angry Egyptian people.

The historic events in the Middle East revealed the limitations of U.S. influence in the region, and cast doubt on the longstanding policy of supporting any authoritarian regime that served America’s global interests. During the Cold War the U.S. supported dictators from Africa to Latin America who could be relied on to suppress leftist movements. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., Washington’s focus shifted to the Middle East to safeguard the flow of oil and assure Israel’s security. The bill for such alliances came due on 9/11.

Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks on the Word Trade Center, has repeatedly maintained that those attacks were a response to America’s support for corrupt and oppressive rulers, and its collaboration with Israel’s illegal occupation. His statements were dismissed as the words of a ruthless terrorist, but it is probably no coincidence that Mohammed Atta, who flew a plane into the World Trade Center, was a graduate of Mubarak’s jails.

Another threatened U.S. ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, rules over the poorest country in the Middle East, which as such is a fertile ground for militants. Since al-Qaeda began moving into Yemen, the U.S. has supplied Saleh with millions of dollars worth of weapons. Meanwhile, young people remain without jobs, and as UNICEF representative Geert Cappelaere has pointed out (see Jan./Feb. 2011 Washington Report, p. 66), "funding for Yemen’s children is in short supply."

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Yemen in January, Saleh’s opponents asked her how the U.S. could support a deeply unpopular and corrupt strongman yet continue to advocate democracy. Clinton explained, "There are terrorists operating from Yemeni territory. Stopping these threats would be a priority for any nation, and it is a priority for us."

The people of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and the Gulf emirates had far different priorities: democracy and social justice. In Washington that message was slow to sink in. Shortly after the protests began, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley called Egypt "a stabilizing force," saying, "It has made its own peace with Israel and is pursuing normal relations with Israel. We think that is important."

Translation: Mubarak could be counted on to enforce Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and is fiercely opposed to Hamas and Hezbollah. ElBaradei, on the other hand, had referred to the blockade of Gaza as "a brand of shame on the forehead of every Arab, every Egyptian, and every human being."

To Egyptians who had been inspired by Obama’s speech in Cairo two years ago calling on Arab regimes to respect "the will of the people," the hypocrisy of Washington’s support for Mubarak was all too evident. Said Samir, a 26-year-old Cairo resident, asked, "If America really cares about democracy, why aren’t they behind us?" ElBaradei posed that question directly to Obama in a Jan. 31 interview on CBS News. "You are losing credibility day by day," he told the president. "On one hand you’re talking about democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and on the other hand, you’re lending your support to a dictator who continues to oppress his people."

A week after Obama urged Mubarak to institute reforms but did not ask him to resign, Mubarak resigned and the American president reversed himself once again. He praised the Egyptian uprising as a model of "nonviolence and moral force," and compared it to Gandhi’s resistance to British rule. Obama also dispatched the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, to Israel to assure the Israelis of continued U.S. support for Israel’s security.

With the army currently in control of Egypt and the transition to democracy yet to take place, the Egyptian people’s struggle for freedom is certain to continue. "The revolution is not over," one youth leader said. "This is just the beginning." The questions that remain are what America’s role in the process will be, and whether Washington has learned that support for regimes that deny freedom to their own people leads to turmoil, not stability.

As the donor of $1.3 billion a year to the Egyptian army, the U.S. can insist that it turns over power to a civilian government as quickly as possible. But the surest way for the U.S. to assure stability in the Middle East and remove a major source of tension is to support those demanding justice and human rights and work to end Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.