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How Egypt’s Generals Sidelined Uncle Sam

Posted on Jun 5, 2014

Photo by Funky Tee (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Dilip Hiro, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Since September 11, 2001, Washington’s policies in the Middle East have proven a grim imperial comedy of errors and increasingly a spectacle of how a superpower is sidelined. In this drama, barely noticed by the American media, Uncle Sam’s keystone ally in the Arab world, Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has largely turned its back on the Obama administration. As with so many of America’s former client states across the aptly named “arc of instability,” Egypt has undergone a tumultuous journey—from autocracy to democracy to a regurgitated form of military rule and repression, making its ally of four decades appear clueless.

Egypt remains one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid, with the Pentagon continuing to pamper the Egyptian military with advanced jet fighters, helicopters, missiles, and tanks. Between January 2011 and May 2014, Egypt underwent a democratic revolution, powered by a popular movement, which toppled President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. It enjoyed a brief tryst with democracy before suffering an anti-democratic counter-revolution by its generals. In all of this, what has been the input of the planet’s last superpower in shaping the history of the most populous country in the strategic Middle East? Zilch. Its “generosity” toward Cairo notwithstanding, Washington has been reduced to the role of a helpless bystander.

Given how long the United States has been Egypt’s critical supporter, the State Department and Pentagon bureaucracies should have built up a storehouse of understanding as to what makes the Land of the Pharaohs tick. Their failure to do so, coupled with a striking lack of familiarity by two administrations with the country’s recent history, has led to America’s humiliating sidelining in Egypt. It’s a story that has yet to be pieced together, although it’s indicative of how from Kabul to Bonn, Baghdad to Rio de Janeiro so many ruling elites no longer feel that listening to Washington is a must.

An Army as Immovable as the Pyramids

Ever since 1952, when a group of nationalist military officers ended the pro-British monarchy, Egypt’s army has been in the driver’s seat. From Gamal Abdul Nasser to Hosni Mubarak, its rulers were military commanders.  And if, in February 2011, a majority of the members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) abandoned Mubarak, it was only to stop him from passing the presidency on to his son Gamal on his 83rd birthday.  The neoliberal policies pursued by the Mubarak government at the behest of that businessman son from 2004 onward made SCAF fear that the military’s stake in the public sector of the economy and its extensive public-private partnerships would be doomed.

Fattened on the patronage of successive military presidents, Egypt’s military-industrial complex had grown enormously. Its contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP), though a state secret, could be as high as 40%, unparalleled in the region. The chief executives of 55 of Egypt’s largest companies, contributing a third of that GDP, are former generals.

Working with the interior ministry, which controls the national police force, paramilitary units, and the civilian intelligence agencies, SCAF (headed by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, doubling as the defense minister) would later orchestrate the protest movement against popularly elected President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. That campaign reached its crescendo on June 30, 2013. Three days later, SCAF toppled Morsi and has held him in prison ever since.

The generals carried out their coup at a moment when, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center, 63% of Egyptians had a favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood, 52% approved of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, and 53% backed Morsi, who had won the presidency a year earlier with 52% of the vote.

Washington Misses the Plot

Remarkably, Obama administration officials failed to grasp that the generals, in conjunction with Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, were the prime movers behind the Tamarod (Arabic for “rebellion”) campaign launched on April 22, 2013. Egyptians were urged to sign a petition addressed to Morsi that was both simplistic and populist. “Because security has not returned, because the poor have no place, because I have no dignity in my own country…,” read the text in part, “we don’t want you anymore,” and it called for an early presidential election. In little over two months, the organizers claimed that they had amassed 22.1 million signatures, amounting to 85% of those who had participated in the presidential election of 2012. Where those millions of individually signed petitions were being stored was never made public, nor did any independent organization verify their existence or numbers.

As the Tamarod campaign gained momentum, the interior ministry’s secret police infiltrated it, as did former Mubarak supporters, while elements of the police state of the Mubarak era were revived. Reports that cronies of the toppled president were providing the funding for the campaign began to circulate. The nationwide offices of the Free Egyptians—a party founded by Naguib Sawiria, a businessman close to Mubarak and worth $2.5 billion—were opened to Tamarod organizers. Sawiria also paid for a promotional music video that was played repeatedly on OnTV, a television channel he had founded. In addition, he let his newspaper, Al Masry al Youm, be used as a vehicle for the campaign.

In the run-up to the mass demonstration in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on June 30th, the first anniversary of Morsi’s rule, power cuts became more frequent and fuel shortages acute. As policemen mysteriously disappeared from the streets, the crime rate soared. All of this stoked anti-Morsi feelings and was apparently orchestrated with military precision by those who plotted the coup.


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