A dispatch for the “Arguing the World” blog at Dissent magazine.
Published in Dissent.
If you have to shut down Internet access and texting for your whole country, that’s a pretty good sign that your regime is not legitimate. It’s also a good sign that your regime is in big trouble.
Such is the situation right now in Egypt. And the Mubarak government is not the only one in the region that is panicking. Following a democratic uprising in Tunisia that unseated the notoriously corrupt and repressive regime there, mass protests have spread to Yemen and Jordan—and who knows where they will end?
The situation is very dynamic, with live coverage available here. You can hear commentary from Middle East experts Juan Cole and Stephen Zunes. I also found this first-hand account of protests in Cairo by Yasmine El Rashidi at the New York Review of Books blog to be very interesting.
At this point, I would add just a few comments.
First, the situation in Egypt is helpful in making clear how U.S. foreign aid functions. In international development circles, there’s a debate about whether foreign aid actually works. On the political scene, a variety of doubters, especially those on the right, rail against corruption, mismanagement, and dependency—arguing that aid sent abroad is a giant liberal boondoggle.
But a huge percentage of U.S. foreign aid is not meant to ease poverty or foster humane development, nor is it backed by any progressive intention. Rather, it is given out basically in the form of bribes to various regimes so that they will align themselves with U.S. geopolitical interests. As Juan Cole further notes in his Democracy Now interview, a large amount of aid money meant for foreign countries actually serves to subsidize U.S. corporations, which are contracted to produce goods or services (or armaments or farm surplus) that are then sent abroad. The actual utility of these things for aid recipients is questionable, and any benefits to the poor in recipient countries are at best indirect.
Aid to the Egyptian government is a nice case in point. Even though it is notoriously undemocratic, the Mubarak regime has for decades received a massive amount of U.S. aid, both military and non-military. We’re talking billions of dollars per year, regularly placing Egypt just behind Israel on lists of top recipients. But the United States has no incentive to demand any sort of accountability for the aid. On the contrary, our leaders have incentives to use aid flows as pork for our corporations and to allow the Egyptian government to siphon off the remaining largess however it wishes. An attitude of permissiveness makes the aid all the more effective as a means of ingratiation.
Since the protests have erupted in Egypt, the Obama administration has put on a sorry display of standing by its man (just as the Bush administration no doubt would have). Vice President Biden has gone to bat for the regime, resulting in headlines reading, “Joe Biden says Egypt’s Mubarak no dictator, he shouldn’t step down…“
But if you look at what Biden actually says, it’s sort of comical—and fairly honest. He never asserts that Mubarak isn’t a dictator; he just admits that, since he wants the current Egyptian regime to remain an ally, he’s not in any position to come out and say it. Biden stated:
“Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with—with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
Well, of course he wouldn’t call Mubarak a dictator! As he just explained, the regime is a vital ally of the United States in the region, and he has no interest in alienating it.
President Obama has tried to have it both ways by at once supporting the regime and telling it to use the protests as occasion to implement reforms. “[T]he government has to be careful about not resorting to violence, and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence,” he said. “And I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances.” But even as the Egyptian state began to crack down, the White House wouldn’t speak of curtailing military aid. It has been practicing realpolitik, plain and simple.
(Although, as the situation rapidly develops, there are signs that the Obama administration might be changing its position—something that is surely a grim sign for Mubarak.)
The other point I would make is that when demonstrations like these erupt, they’re inevitably labeled “spontaneous uprisings.” However, that characterization is usually more a product of previous media neglect and ignorance than it is an accurate description of protest activity. If you’re not paying any attention to a country’s politics and only swoop in when things have reached a crisis point, events will invariably look out-of-the-blue. Yet that’s hardly the whole story.
Yes, there are extraordinary moments when public demonstrations take on a mass character and people who would otherwise not have dreamed of taking part in an uprising rush onto the streets. But these protests are typically built upon years of organizing and preparation on the part of social movements.
I haven’t seen great backgrounders out yet detailing movement activity in Egypt and Tunisia, but there have been some signs of foresight and preparation. In Cairo, for example, polished manuals have been passed from hand-to-hand among protesters, serving as guidebooks for action:
“Anonymous leaflets circulating in Cairo also provide practical and tactical advice for mass demonstrations, confronting riot police, and besieging and taking control of government offices.
Signed “long live Egypt”, the slickly produced 26-page document calls on demonstrators to begin with peaceful protests, carrying roses but no banners, and march on official buildings while persuading policemen and soldiers to join their ranks.”
Well-produced twenty-six-page booklets—reflecting a lot of careful thought—do not exactly fit within the image of “spontaneous uprising.” As we continue to watch this story, I’ll be eager to see pro-democracy organizers who have been at it over the long haul get their due.