The United States has been intensely involved in Egyptian affairs for over fifty years. You wouldn’t know this from watching the nightly news over the last decade, however – up until the last few week, our relationship with Egypt has garnered scant media attention. Regardless of the lack of coverage, it’s simply a matter of public record that for over thirty years the US Department of State and Defense have jointly supplied the dictator of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, a man with one of the more egregious human rights records in the region, with hundreds of billions of dollars in US aid, deadly US-made weapons and tanks, and (near) unconditional security and support.
Since he took power in 1981, the US has been Mubarak’s most indispensable ally, providing him with both the monetary and military support necessary to maintain his stranglehold on the impoverished and oppressed Egyptian population. Thus it should not come as a surprise that alongside the millions of Egyptian protesters who currently blanket the streets of Cairo and Alexandria lie hundreds of empty tear gas canisters on the ground, each of which bear an ominous inscription: “MADE IN THE USA”.
What we are witnessing in Egypt might be the first of many democratic spillovers from the recent revolution in Tunisia, a nation that, like Egypt, was “a police state with little freedom of expression or association, with serious human rights problems, ruled by a dictator whose family is hated by the population for the corruption and brutality of the family regime.” This is a quote from a secret cable sent by a US Ambassador, recently released by Wikileaks.
Shortly after this cable arrived in Washington, our government doubled down on its fifty-year policy toward democracy promotion the region: it went ahead and provided substantial military aid to the very Tunisian dictator that the ambassador described. Tunisia was one of five foreign beneficiaries of US aid during this time – the others were Israel, Egypt, Jordan and, interestingly, Colombia, a country which has long held the prize as our hemisphere’s most blatant and monstrous human rights violator.
Throughout the twentieth century, the US has carefully maintained a foreign policy focused on subverting democratic revolutions like the one we are witnessing today in Egypt, for fear of any one nation setting a “dangerous example” — that is, a precedent that could serve as a model for other oppressed nations in regions of immense strategic and monetary value. Hence, when Cuba revolutionaries overthrew the Batista dictator in 1959, the United States responded by punishing the Cuban people with an unprecedented onslaught of terror and economic strangulation — much of which still remains state policy — in order to stifle the consequent spread of Latin American sovereignty throughout the region, as well as to send a strong and simple message to Cuba’s neighbors: remain obedient, or else.
Since 1960, the US has been involved in subverting over eighteen fledgling democratic revolutions throughout Central and South America. The same can be said for similar democratic movements throughout the Middle East over the last sixty years, starting as early as the Iranian democratic elections of 1953. Known as the “1953 Iranian coup d’état” (Wikipedia it), in 1953 US and British intelligence agencies colluded to assassinate the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and installed in his place a pliant pro-western dictator, the Shah. It was of little concern to US and British policy planners that the man they were installing into power was an brutal and merciless war criminal, for the reason Mosaddegh had to be removed was infinitely more important: upon seizing power, the newly elected prime minister, along with the unanimous support of the democratically elected Iranian Parliament, sought to nationalize the country’s oil reserves and use the money for infrastructure, education, and national development — clearly an unacceptable course of action to the US and British oil industry.
Other examples of US sanctioned assassinations and coup d’états are well documented, for all those who care to look. Take the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979, for example, a revolution led by Nicaraguan peasant farmers, Catholic Priests, and the rural poor to overthrow the US-installed Somoza dictatorship, a kleptocratic strongman responsible for a thirty-year reign of terror over the nation of Nicaragua. The US strongly supported the Somoza, who kept his people in line by ruling with a heavy hand: he abolished labor unions, kept wages as low as possible, flooded the country with foreign imports, and allowed foreign multinationals to own all of Nicaragua’s resources to the exclusion of the people in the region.
By 1979, conditions in Somoza’s Nicaragua had deteriorated to such an extent, that the UN had ranked it the poorest country in the hemisphere, surpassing Haiti, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. These conditions culminated in “Sandinista guerillas,” as they were called, storming the capital Managua and ousting the Somoza, who subsequently fled to Miami.
After the Sandinistas had removed the Somoza dictator, they went forth and implemented a quasi-socialist government, focused on improving education, utilizing Nicaragua’s rich natural resources to the benefit of the people — including “land reform,” or a set of policies which gave each Nicaraguan farmer land to cultivate for profit — and implementing a whole host of other poverty-reduction laws and policies. The reforms were heralded throughout the international community as a success: after a few years in power, the UN awarded the Sandinistas various humanitarian honors for the major gains they had achieved in improving the Nicaraguan literacy rate, as well as for massive reductions in rural and urban poverty.
Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending. When Reagan got into power, he deemed the Sandinistas “Marxists” — a convenient term used during the time to smear anyone who refused to live under a US-backed dictator — and classified Nicaragua as a terrorist state. Soon the CIA armed and trained thousands of Somoza loyalists, known as the “Contras,” to overthrow the Sandinista government and reinstall the Somoza into power. Reagan funded the Contras by selling deadly weapons to Iran — at the time a nation on the US terrorist list — and used the proceeds to fund the Contras.
The Contras unleashed a massive terror campaign against the people of Nicaragua, undermining the reforms and with it the Sandinista government. During this time, the World Court deemed the Contras a “terrorist organization” and condemned the United States for sponsoring “terrorism in the region” — a charge the Reagan administration dismissed, but which still stands today (look it up, it’s a matter of public record.) Nicaragua has, until recently, remained the poorest nation in the region.
And we wonder why they hate us. We wonder why there is terrorism. In so long as the US tries to control regions like the Middle East by subverting democracy and installing and supporting military dictators, we will live in a world with “terrorism”.
It remains to be seen exactly what will happen when Mubarak finally abdicates his thrown, and after the protesters leave the streets and return home. Will the US try, as it has done in the past, to subvert democracy in Egypt, for fear of what the Egyptian people will do if they actually gain control over their own country, and with it its natural resources, including the Suez Canal? Or is the US so overextended in the region that it can no longer influence Middle Eastern policy like it has in the past? Are we witnessing a paradigm shift, a new era in which Third World nations rise up and begin to take control over their own countries, and with it their own natural resources and economies? Will Saudi Arabia be next, or maybe Iran? Will the Jordanian monarch fall, and with him the Libyan dictator? Or will the United States’ worst fears be realized, and the Egyptians follow the Iranians of 1979 and replace a pro-American secular autocracy with an anti-American Islamic theocracy — a course of action that could have been averted if we had not overthrown the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister in 1953 in the first place.
Whatever happens, one thing is clear: what happens in Egypt will not stay in Egypt. It goes without saying that whichever form of government follows this revolution will be of incredible importance to the US and to its ally, Israel. If the Egyptians install a government that is hostile to Israel, as the Palestinians did in 2006 with the election of Hamas, it could portend serious problems for peace in the region. An alliance between an Islamic Egyptian theocracy and an Islamic Iranian theocracy could threaten Israel and drive the US and its NATO allies into a major war. Alternatively, if the US involves itself in the affairs of the Egyptians and tries to install another Mubarak-like dictator in his stead, the people of Egypt will turn on his successor and ultimately on the US.
We must keep a few things in perspective: there is no credible evidence that the demonstrations we are witnessing in Egypt are motivated by religion or by anti-American or anti-Israeli sentiments. The demonstrations appear, at this point in time, to be completely motivated by economics and by the larger ideals of liberty and freedom. They appear to be anti-sectarian and secular in nature. From the footage I’ve been watching, the Egyptians look Westernized: they have shaved faces and are clad in American garb. One protester in the street was wearing a pair of designer sunglasses. This is important. It is also important to recognize that if these demonstrations really are, as most are reporting, motivated by young Egyptian college students, then the last thing these protesters want is to lead a revolution only to find themselves in a hot war with their neighbors. They do not want to overthrow a pro-western oppressor in exchange for an Islamic fundamentalist oppressor. It is not only in the interest of the United States, but also in the interests of Egypt and Israel, to avoid conflict at all costs.
We can support Egyptian freedom and sovereignty while also affirming our unequivocal and unwavering support for our friend and ally, Israel. It ought not — and cannot — be one or the other. This is not to say that Israel need not change, quite the contrary. Israel must realize that it must reach a peace treaty with the Palestinians and settle its conflicts with its neighbors, and the US must put pressure on Israel to do so. A peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians is the only solution to avert war. It is unfair and ultimately misguided for Israel to demand that the US continue to support a dictator in Egypt in order to maintain stability in the region. Israel must figure out a way to coexist in the region without asking the US to support (and fund) the overt oppression of its neighbors.
But it is worth noting how unique this revolution really is. Imagine if you were an Egyptian in Cairo right now, looking at the prospect that, for the first time in your life, you might actually be able to obtain fundamental human rights? That for the first time in your life you might be able to become a participant in a government, not a subject of a government? That you might be able to work with your fellow Egyptians to create an economy that actually supports you and your family, that builds schools and libraries and police stations that benefit the communities in which you and your fellow citizens live? It is clear that it’s a new day in Egypt. The question is: is it a new day in America?