Whither Egypt? Whither the Arab World
- 23 Feb 2011
After clinging to power for thirty years, Mubarak has finally stepped down. What are the key issues in the Egyptian revolution? And what are the implications for the United States and Israel? Will the fall of the dictator favour the rise of Islamism as feared by most Western media? Mohamed Hassan answers these questions.
INTERVIEW: Gregory Lalieu & Michel Collon
Until recently, many people in Europe thought it would be difficult to bring down the Arab dictatorships. You do not share that view. Why?
I was a student in Egypt in the 60s. At the time we were thirty thousand foreign students from Africa, India and even Indonesia, beneficiaries of an education programme set up by Nasser a few years earlier. I was in charge of the Somali student office and I remember how most Egyptians saw our presence as a positive thing, a symbol of Egypt’s solidarity with Africa: it made them proud!
In 2009, after a thirty-year absence, I decided to return to the land of the pharaohs. On the plane, I talked with Egyptian journalists and shared my concerns: I had been told that Egypt had become a police state and that arrests were common. But the journalists reassured me, rapidly asserting that their country was a democracy and that there nothing to fear.
Arriving in Cairo, I was staggered to see how the place had developed. Incredible! It had become a huge city, with two thousand new people flocking in on a daily basis. I took a taxi and went to the premises of the association that I’d run. There I found an old Egyptian acquaintance, Mohamed, with whom I regularly drank tea at the time and whom I knew to be in contact with the intelligence services. I asked him about the situation in Egypt. He answered me very angrily that the country was run by gangsters who plundered all the wealth. Aware of his past in the secret services, I suspected Mohamed of saying this to lead me on. “You can say anything,” he said. “No-one here gives a damn. The authorities control nothing. And that bastard,” he added, pointing to a picture of Mubarak on the wall, “doesn’t even live in Cairo. He’s in Sharm el-Sheik,” (a popular resort for tourists).
I was extremely surprised because I thought people didn’t dare criticise the regime in this police state. And so, in the days that followed, I asked people in the street, on the bus at the market, etc. All said pretty much the same thing: “Our leaders are all thieves, one day we will cut their fingers off! I came to the conclusion that Egypt was ripe for revolution.
You say that the country was ready two years ago. Why has the revolution broken out today?
The catalyst was the suicide of Bouazizi Mohamed, the young Tunisian who set fire to himself. For Muslims, suicide is a sin because life is given by God and you are taking it away it with your own hands. But Bouazizi became a martyr because he represented the hardships being experienced by Arab youth hardship. His death was therefore not only a trigger for Tunisia but also for Egypt and other countries in the region. Because the conditions are the same everywhere: a very young population but with no future, strong police repression, corrupt elites…
Young Arabs can’t make sense of this system in which it’s impossible even to imagine the future. Many thirty-year olds can’t afford a house and still have to live with their parents. Others try to emigrate, either losing their lives crossing the huge cemetery that is the Mediterranean, or managing to reach Europe where they get treated like dogs. In the face of this misery, Arab countries have elites whose lifestyle is totally bling, shopping in luxury stores, traveling in the latest 4x4s, cavorting aboard their yachts…
Until now, the poor have got by on solidarity. Unlike in my country, Ethiopia, you won’t see lots of western NGOs distributing bread and other basic necessities. But the contradictions in society have become such that the system had to explode.
This is not the first time that popular uprisings have broken out in the Arab world. But so far they have always been suppressed. How is it that this time they have led to revolution?
Long ago, a Tunisian poet said: “If the people come alive for only one day, anything can happen”. A people can slumber peacefully for hundreds of years, but when it comes to life for even a single minute, nothing can stop it.
This is what’s happening now. There is no scientific explanation. No historian can say precisely why this is happening today. If this had been possible, the enemy, which had no intention of giving the Egyptian people their freedom, would have been able to predict these events and done everything within its power to prevent them.
As you point out, spontaneous riots have erupted regularly and have always been repressed. But these revolts are streams which, over time, eventually form a river of insurmountable opposition.
In addition, we must factor in the particular global context. Lenin said that unlike turtles, humans do not live hundreds of years. We must therefore analyse the history of mankind in terms of decades. And the world has changed dramatically over the past decade.
Is the economic crisis an important factor?
There has indeed been a serious crisis within capitalism, resulting in the decline of Western powers and the shift from a unipolar world dominated by Washington to a multipolar world marked by the rise of emerging countries. However, the weakness of the U.S. is not so new. The real change is that the world image of the U.S. now reflects this weakness. Indeed, it is not just about economic or military strength. There’s also the psychological impact of the image generated by a power like the United States. Such intellectual and cultural domination is very important.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an orchestrated attack by American intellectuals such as Francis Fukuyama with his ‘End of History’ theory and Samuel Huntington with his “clash of civilisations”. This offensive unleashed genuine intellectual terror on the rest of the world with its claim that the West had become masters of the world.
How was this image of Western omnipotence sullied?
First, there was the war in Afghanistan. I remember in 2001, right at the height of the anthrax affair: CNN journalists were interviewing a Taliban minister. He was an old man, rather backward, with a turban, big beard, etc. A hyped-up reporter asked him if his country was responsible for the anthrax attacks. The old man burst out laughing — he didn’t understand a thing and had no idea even what anthrax was! But U.S. television was trying to portray this modest man as a dangerous terrorist! Based on this kind of ridiculous scenario, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. But the war has proved a fiasco and the Western superpower’s image has been hit hard.
The other important element has been the Iraqi resistance. The United States have been unable to control the country and their military debacle in the face of the resistance fighters has sent the price of a barrel of oil from $30 to $75 in no time at all. This sudden surge has replenished the coffers of oil producing countries, previously indebted through World Bank and IMF programmes. They have been able to pay off their debts and regain some of their independence.
The military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have been failures. The brutal use of force has opened the eyes of the Arab populations: only fools and cowards kill this way. This senseless violence has thus served to reinforce resistance to imperialism. In addition, there was the theory that the U.S. military was capable of waging five wars at the same time: two major and three mid-level wars. The Afghan and Iraqi resistance has shown the rest of the world that this was all false: it was merely intellectual terror.
Have developments in information technology also played an important role?
Absolutely. Social networks on the Internet have allowed the protesters to organize, despite police repression. But I think the main element is the emergence of news media such as Al Jazeera. Media domination of the West has been broken and the gap that once separated both local elites and Westerners from the peoples of the Third World is no longer so great. Today, young Latino or Arab students receive better information than their counterparts in the West. Access to television has been popularised and local channels are broadcasting in the languages of citizens of the Third World. This is very important because control of information is a key element in times of conflict.
Mussolini was the first to use the news media as a weapon of war. In the 30s, Italian radio broadcast programmes in Arabic, aimed at colonies controlled by the Allies. The radio station even invited the Mufti of Jerusalem to serve fascist propaganda. Then the British realised the usefulness of this concept and created the BBC World Service, which broadcasts in several languages. Gradually, the Western media emerged as masters of the news market and have been spouting their propaganda to the rest of the planet. But today, people in the South have their own media. This development has also helped to democratise information and culture previously accessible only in books. To some extent, this has reduced the gap between different social classes.
Another consequence: the level of political consciousness of Arab citizens has become heightened. People are no longer afraid — they organise and take to the streets. Normally, in times of peace, it can take years to raise such consciousness. But in times of crisis, things speed up. A few weeks ago, while demanding the resignation of Mubarak, the Egyptians organised the Million Man March in Cairo. Do you know where that came from? The Million Man March in 1995 organised by activist Louis Farrakhan in the U.S., to draw the attention of politicians to the situation of African Americans. It’s a veiled reference, a message sent to make President Obama see that the level of political consciousness of Egyptians is very high.
Mubarak’s Egypt was a key pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East. This pillar may be collapsing and others could follow in the region. Do you think the U.S. was prepared for such changes in the Arab world?
U.S. imperialism is out of touch. It lives in a magical Disney world where everything is beautiful and everything is working just fine. It failed to predict the Afghanistan and Iraq disasters and thought it would then move on to Iran. Another example: China has been working for some time to develop a new type of sophisticated combat aircraft. According to its information, the Pentagon estimated that Beijing would master the technology needed to complete this project within the next fifteen years. A few months ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went on an official trip to Beijing. You know how polite the Chinese are! So when their guest arrived on the airport tarmac, they prepared a welcome gift — with the famous fighter plane taking off, to the sheer amazement of the Secretary!
Why do Western governments appear to have been so surprised by the Arab revolutions?
During my trip to Egypt in 2009, I was very struck by the large police and security presence surrounding the Western embassies. In the hotel bar where I was staying, I got to know the British diplomats. When the ice was broken, I asked what that security presence around the embassies meant. They laughed and told me: “Mr. Mohamad, you’ve hit on a sensitive point. We feel like we live in a zoo. We were told that the Egyptians were dangerous and so our embassies have been placed in cages! In fact, in the name of the war on terror, our movements are very restricted. Our government and the Egyptian government prevent us from meeting the people.”
These diplomats were therefore unable to form an accurate idea of Egyptian society and received only positive news from the Mubarak government. It reminded me of the book The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam by Robert McNamara. McNamara was the best statistician in the history of the United States. He made the Ford Motor Company one of the largest companies in the world, then served as Minister under Kennedy and then Johnson.
McNamara tells in his book of how, during Johnson’s presidency, the United States had thousands of experts in South Vietnam to assist the government. Every day he received reports from these experts saying that everything was fine. As a statistician, McNamara suspected that the probability of receiving 100% positive reports on the situation in South Vietnam was unrealistic. He decided to meet these experts, diplomats, officers and CIA agents who were sending him daily reports, in Honolulu. A week later, when the experts returned, McNamara received very different reports: “The Viet Cong are in danger, we need more reinforcements and assistance in the South! .So McNamara visited the scene to clarify things. In fact, diplomats and U.S. officials used to write their reports about ten o’clock in the morning, after a good breakfast, a game of tennis and a large glass of whiskey. Their reports did not adequately reflect the objective situation on the ground, but rather their own desire for personal well-being and incompetence.
The British diplomats I met were in the same situation. They had no idea of the reality on the ground while, in just a week, I myself could see that Egyptian society was about to explode.
Does the fall of Mubarak risk favour the rise of Islamism in Egypt?
Much has been said about the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Mubarak was not a shield helping to contain the Islamist trend. The Brotherhood was in fact in fact an essential part of Mubrark’s dictatorship.
From 1956 to 1970, Gamal Abdel Nasser governed Egypt based on a socialist programme, and made many reforms. He also suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and made a number of mistakes in the process. At that time, Egypt was close to the Soviet Union. On Nasser’s death, Anwar el-Sadat took over the country and gradually moved closer to the United States. He adopted a liberal economic policy and submitted to U.S. interests in the Middle East, burying the hatchet with Israel along the way.
However, Nasser’s legacy was still very strong in Egypt. This was an obstacle for Sadat, who wanted to follow the precepts of the World Bank and sell off public enterprises to benefit private companies. The new Egyptian president had to get rid of those who still adhered to Nasserist policy. Mubarak had a particular role at the time. His mission was to form gangs and arm them through the secret services to fight the Nasserists and Communists. But such repression alone was not enough — it was also necessary to combat Nasser’s legacy on an ideological level.
Sadat used religion to that end. On the one hand, a whole series of stories came out about Nasser’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. And the agenda of these revelations was no fluke in my opinion. By contrast, Sadat was portrayed as a man of God and a devout Muslim. He introduced a number of measures to strengthen the importance of religion in Egyptian society, having verses from the Koran read before the news, for example. Sadat also released Muslim Brotherhood members from prison.
The idea that the Egyptian dictatorship was needed to contain the rise of Islamism is therefore false. Islamism was in fact an essential part of the system. It justified the police state that the West supported.
Yet we often portray the Muslim Brotherhood as the main opposition party in Egypt.
That’s wrong. The Muslim Brotherhood were in fact the only party acceptable to the Egyptian regime. If they really had been dangerous, Mubarak’s dictatorship would not have tolerated them. However, the Muslim Brotherhood have even been allowed on several occasions to sit in parliament. In a dictatorship, you don’t tolerate your enemy. It’s not like the Communists or Islamists, who were banned in Tunisia. The Muslim Brotherhood represent the other side of the totalitarian system supported by imperialism. Besides, their socio-economic programme is not at all progressive. They advocated no-holds barred capitalism, free enterprise, and have already opposed the workers’ and peasants’ movement… In short, the perfect line to justify the imperialists’ continued operation in Egypt.
Are there no opposition forces capable of steering the revolution in Egypt?
We have seen that there were many similarities in Tunisia and Egypt between the reasons that led the people to rise up. It is also interesting to note the interaction between these two movements. If the Tunisian revolution had had no impact in the Arab world, it could have been isolated and repressed. But the Tunisian revolution has encouraged the Egyptian people to rise up and at the same time, the Egyptian revolution has weakened the reactionary elements who wanted to stifle the revolution in Tunisia.
There is however one major difference between these two movements. To me, the revolution of Tunisia is better organized, in particular because the opposition parties have learned a lot from their underground experience. Even in prison, the opposition organised itself and no counter-revolutionary force can divide it now.
It’s different in Egypt. The Nasserists and the Communists had less patience than their Tunisian counterparts and represent only a small segment of the population. The Muslim Brothers do not present any real opposition or represent a large part of society. Finally, the Western media talk a lot about Mohamed El Baradei. But this is a man who has spent most of his globetrotting and has no social base in Egypt. Nobody in the country knows of him, except his wife and colleagues!
How could things change then?
The only organised institution is the army, on which everything now depends.
But the army was close to Mubarak and is funded by the United States. Can we expect real change in this institution?
The army is not a homogeneous unit. Just as in Egyptian society, there are different trends within the military. And the body of this institution is composed of ordinary Egyptians, who do not want dictatorship. Besides, remember that the revolutionaries who ended the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 were officers of the army.
Those close to Mubarak are a minority within the army. Now that the dictator has fallen, the Constitution will be amended to legalise all political parties wishing to participate in future elections. We’ll see what forces emerge.
What can Washington to defend its interests in Egypt now? Fund political groups favourable to U.S. interests in a democratic system? The National Endowment for Democracy, a CIA agency, did this in Yugoslavia and Latin America. And the same organisation has already funded opposition groups in Egypt under Mubarak.
The Middle East is so important from a strategic point of view that the United States policy in the region is simply one of repression. And the most important ally in this kind of policy is the police state. It needs an absolute dictatorship.
However, this system of domination is bankrupt because of the level of awareness of Arab citizens. The West claims to have brought democracy but it has brought to power corrupt thieves and fascists, who have oppressed their peoples. This kind of democracy has no meaning because it is based on a lie. Yet it is a vital tool of U.S. policy. After the Second World War, when the U.S. became the major world power, the diplomat George F. Kennan wrote an article that was to have a huge impact on his country’s foreign policy. Kennan explained that the U.S. accounted for 6% of world population but consumed 50% of the planet’s wealth. His aim was to further widen this gap! According to Kennan, human rights and democracy were not a primary concern for the United States. But where revolutionary governments emerged and threatened U.S. interests, Washington should intervene and use human rights and democracy as a pretext.
This is the foreign policy of the United States. If they really cared about democracy, they would immediately intervene in Saudi Arabia. But this is only a pretext and Arab populations are no fools. The United States has only two options in the Middle East: impose dictatorships or leave.
Mubarak was also an important ally of Israel. What could be the impact of his fall for this country?
Egypt has large reserves of gas. And Israel is the country that benefits most from these resources, buying the gas at sub-market prices. It has developed an extensive network that depends on Egyptian supplies. Israel has carried out simulations in recent days to alleviate a possible cutoff of the supply. But in the long term, if a new Egyptian government were to review the agreement, things would be very difficult for the Jewish state.
Besides, the Palestinian issue is still unresolved. Egyptian leaders since Sadat have reached agreement with Israel. But the Egyptian people, it is against the occupation and in solidarity with Palestinians. Any democratic government with any claim to represent in any way the aspirations of the Egyptian people could not maintain this relationship with Israel.
Would this also have an impact on U.S. policy in the Middle East?
Absolutely. In 1973, the Yom Kippur War brought Egypt and Syria into conflict with Israel and ended with the defeat of Arab forces. Following the conflict, a peace agreement was signed between Egypt and Israel and the agreement constituted a major pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It was one of Kissinger’s strategies: peace between Egypt and Israel would mean the elimination of the Palestinian issue and the breakdown of Arab unity. In my view, this agreement is finished. The United States has lost Egypt with the fall of Mubarak and power relations will now change in the region.
What can happen in the Arab world now? Will the revolution be confined to Egypt and Tunisia?
No. Riots have broken out in Yemen where the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh, another pro-US dictator, is inevitable. This presents a significant challenge for Saudi Arabia: if a people’s revolution breaks out in Yemen, this will bring the danger to the very gates of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, democracy’s worst enemy in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is a backward country and the main U.S. ally in the region. The feudal monarchy is afraid of popular movements. Besides, it did not want the United States to let Mubarak go. When Obama responded to popular pressure by announcing that it would stop financing the regime of Mubarak, Saudi Arabia immediately said it would take over the funding. It wanted to keep the dictator in power at all costs, in order to prove that riots led nowhere.
If the Arab revolutions had a major impact in Saudi Arabia, the consequences would be huge. In fact, the main tool of domination of U.S. imperialism is the dollar. This is very important because oil is sold in dollars. But a democratic and independent government in Saudi Arabia might refuse to use that currency. Iran has made substantial profits by selling oil in other currencies. The dollar would no longer be the benchmark currency in the world, which would signal the death of U.S. imperialism.
So the United States are in a weak position. In Lebanon too, the strategy has collapsed. There was an alliance with the reactionaries in the country, mostly Sunnis funded by Saudi Arabia, to contain the Hezbollah resistance movement. But this alliance was shattered with the scandal of the investigation into the assassination of former government leader, Rafiq Hariri. A court was set to deliver its conclusions incriminating senior member of Hezbollah, but it turned out that the inquiry had been skewed for political reasons in order to weaken the Shia movement. Finally, Saudi Arabia, which had attempted mediation to calm the situation, threw in the towel. The Lebanese government was dissolved and Hezbollah emerged stronger, with one of its members appointed prime minister. It was a failure for Washington. All their pawns in the region are in crisis.
Finally, what can we learn from these revolutions?
The neocolonial powers do not understand that the world has changed. Take the Ivory Coast for example. The United States and France want to impose Alassane Ouattara, a puppet from the IMF. But he did not win the elections and the situation is at a stalemate. The countries of West Africa should intervene militarily on behalf of the imperialist powers but the African soldiers do not want to cause more bloodshed simply to defend Western interests. This is the great lesson: the level of political awareness in the Arab countries, in Africa and throughout the Third World is much higher now. We can no longer pull the wool over people’s eyes as we could before. I think that conflicts will now arise between the imperialist powers and the countries of the South. In the past, Western powers fought over their share of the Third World cake. Now they have to negotiate with those countries. The political and economic hegemony of the West is coming to an end. The U.S. has many resources in these countries and remains a major regional power. Europe will have to choose: to submit even more to U.S. power or become truly independent. The ideological hegemony of the West has also gone. You no longer have great philosophers like Rousseau, Sartre, Camus, etc. But we do have Bernard-Henri Levy …
That says it all!
Translated from the French by Andrew Morris