It’s been thrilling to watch Egyptian mass demonstrations roll back the ossified Mubarak regime, especially as events in Tunisia suggest a knock-on effect that has rattled the Arab world. But this drama can’t be read as the Arab world’s “Berlin moment,” as some have enthused. Yes, serious reforms are in the offing, especially regarding more genuine elections. But limited prospects for reforms are just as clearly indicated.
Reading anodyne language from the US and Europe warning the power elite in Egypt not to use too much force against demonstrators while not mentioning Mubarak at all, we must assume that ousting Mubarak is “viewed with favour” by the West. This should be signal. The US, UK and the rest of Europe are not so much steering events as surfing a wave of popular mobilisation, which they have encouraged for some time, as the only way finally to dislodge Mubarak and his crony core. The happy (naive) interpretation is a confluence of Western and Egyptian interests and values regarding democracy and good governance, coupled with disgust in old dictators clinging to kleptocratic power. But since when has US foreign policy encouraged democracy for the benefit of ordinary people? In fact, this Western imprimatur signals some hard realist western interests—and some ominous undercurrents.
Western motives in ousting Mubarak are obvious. The old man has outworn his usefulness to the US in being unable to contain burning social dissatisfaction in Egypt, raising risks that Egypt might escape the grip of US foreign policy through the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood. The US and Israel don’t want Egypt—in older days the leader of the Arab world and now a vital Israeli ally—going the way of Lebanon, where genuine democracy has allowed Hizbullah to control a parliamentary majority. It would be a disaster for Israeli if two of its borders fell into political hands less sanguine about starving the population of Gaza, ensuring the continuing division of Palestinian politics, training the security forces of the Palestinian Authority to repress Hamas, confining the ‘peace process’ to empty formulas, and demonising Iran.
Hard if fragmented evidence of Western involvement is obvious, too. Many close observers are recalling a Wikileaks record that the US Embassy has been in contact with Egyptian activists for some years about getting rid of Mubarak, granting one key activist top-level access with US government authorities, technical advice regarding mass communication and other encouragement, and helping protect his anonymity. We can also recall Hillary Clinton’s recent tour of the Arab world, in which she made a series of speeches bizarrely endorsing the dramatic reform of US-allied Arab governments. Clinton sees the entire Middle East through an Israeli lens: if she calls for change, her concern is that Egypt and other Arab states be enabled to do their bit to sustain Israel’s ‘security’ more effectively. So US diplomatic graffiti is clear: the US wants to secure its withering power base in the Middle East against rising political dissent and therefore wants rotten old stick Mubarak out of the way to restore Egypt’s old leadership role. The same US graffiti is designed to be read by other wobbling Arab allies, like Yemen: toe the line or face the same.
It takes little imagination to fill in the rest. In coming years, we’ll likely get a Wikileaks glimpse into the backroom conversation, held in the second or third day of the Egyptian insurrection, in which European, US and Israeli allies read Mubarak a literal riot act (pointing out the window) instructing him against all his druthers to appoint securocrat Omar Suleiman as deputy president. Suleiman is the ideal successor for US interests and has clearly been hand-picked now to take the reins. He’s immaculately polite (recall the Western appeal of Karzai) and ‘comfortable in the halls of power’, as al-Jazeera has noted. He’s a core high operator in Israeli/US foreign policy, including the ‘war on terror’ (supervising US-requested renditions, etc.), and a good personal buddy of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, with whom he once male-bonded in surviving a shared assassination attempt. He’s a proven ally in the deceitful manipulation of the Palestinian Authority: e.g., leading the phoney “unity” talks while supervising Egyptian assistance to the US in training PA armed forces to repress Hamas in the West Bank and ensuring the brutal sealing of Gaza.
Best of all, Suleiman is an intelligence chief, welded firmly within the US-Israeli intelligence nexus that props up the Fatah-led PA, assists with the mess in Afghanistan, tortures or assassinates the more dangerous opponents to US and Israeli interests, and orchestrates the subversion of Syria and Iran. Such a figure, Washington must hope, can recreate an effective US-Israeli-Egyptian power bloc in a Middle East now drifting away from US moorings as Turkey, Lebanon and even Iraq progressively defect from Western-preferred policies.
So, yes, the old fossil Mubarak has been cut loose and a ‘new Egypt’ (as presidential candidate Mohamed el-Baradei calls it) will soon be announced. The orange or purple or green or lavender or puce revolution will be applauded, the people will rejoice and more meaningful elections will be held. But Suleiman and his technocratic allies are already pre-positioned to ensure that the new Egypt precludes any access to real political influence by factions that, in the US view, are ominously closer to Hizbullah in their regional outlook. The whole point of the current drama is indeed to defuse the legitimate mass popular discontent that feeds the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood—just as Hamas appealed to the disenchanted Palestinian electorate and Hizbullah has appealed to the disenchanted Lebanese electorate, the majority of whom otherwise don’t favour Islamic parties but were driven to support them through terminal political frustration.
This new Egypt will definitely improve some conditions for some Egyptians over coming years: especially by creating jobs for the masses of educated unemployed men, who are now driving the street demonstrations. But reforms in Egypt will focus on technocratic economic solutions: emphasizing standard liberal capitalist measures regarding government and financial transparency, reduced corruption to encourage business growth, an end to routine police torture practices, etc., etc. The security state will otherwise stay in place—and the conditions for a highly unequal society will not fundamentally change. Egypt will stay firmly in the fold of US/Israeli security interests and global economic norms. It will just play that role more adeptly than before.
Alas, the truly mass democratic character of this revolution actually favours this outcome. The demonstrators are calling, in principled fashion, not for any specific leadership but for genuine elections. It’s not impossible that more robust democracy will ultimately escape US control, as they did in Lebanon. But the hundreds of thousands now demonstrating in Egyptian cities lack the top-level access to prevent Suleiman’s security/technocrat network, with its foreign imprimatur, from ensuring that the ‘democratic’ transition generates simply a more efficient and stable version of the client-state role that Egypt has been playing for decades. Such a state cannot really alter the conditions that now impoverish and marginalise whole segments of Egyptian society. Some of the street activists recognise this, of course. Whether they can meaningfully alter the grand Western design for which their principled passion is now being co-opted is entirely unclear.
Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science living in Cape Town, South Africa, hailing from firstname.lastname@example.org.