When I spent the Summer of 1980 in Cairo the Middle East, it was a time of heady optimism in the immediate aftermath of the Camp David accords. One of the maxims at the time was a comparison of the Egyptian and Palestinian people. It was said that both the Palestinians and Egyptians were poor, but whereas the Palestinians were miserable, the Egyptians were relatively happy. Not so anymore.
It is the season of revolution in the Middle East , and it’s long overdue, in part because of misplaced American Foreign Policy priorities since the Korean War. What began as a little spat between a police officer and a street vendor led to self-immolation by the vendor, and a full scale revolution in Tunisia . The anti-dictatorship fervor soon spread to Egypt . The demonstrations in Cairo this week were unimaginable 30 years ago, even 5 years ago. What changed all that? Facebook and other internet dynamics are given most of the credit. But dissatisfaction with economic stagnation and political repression has been stewing for years. The reign of Hosni Mubarak (pictured here) in Egypt has been a 30-year run of corruption and brutal repression, with tacit American approval, and a LOT of financial support.
Street life in Cairo during Sadat’s reign had a patented charm to it. Late-model cars competed with pedicabs, donkey-carts and livestock transportation for space on Cairo ’s crowded roads. You could buy great bread for a few piasters (virtual pennies), a good meal for under $1, and a faluka ride on the Nile for less. One could hop in a cab and have a beer at the Café Riche, where Nasser plotted the last Egyptian Revolution, or buy hashish behind the Al-Azhar mosque for a great price. Everywhere this gringo went, he was greeted by cries of “Welcome in Egypt ; you are welcome in Egypt .” Americans have always been welcome in Cairo ; even during Nasser ’s anti-Western reign. The people always loved our dollars and culture, and most people desperately want to leave Egypt and come to America . I enjoyed the comforts of several Cairo homes and wonderful meals with people (men) who had befriended me, with the faint hope that I would sponsor them to come to America. My assurances that I was no big shot and had no influence at the American Embassy didn’t matter to them. False hope was better than none.
While life in Cairo appeared charming and easy going, it was also very much a police state, with either a policeman or army regular on almost every street corner. Despite the charm and hospitality, Cairo has always brimmed and simmered with an underlying discontent. When Anwar Sadat was assassinated by one of his officers in 1981, Mubarak was seen as a caretaker, whose reign was to be temporary. 30 years later, it’s finally coming apart at the seams. Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist with Alwaleed, a 24-hour news channel. He noted in a story for the Washington Post, “There were reasons for people to get angry 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and now it is here.” He added “the Arab world has been seeking renaissance for the last hundred years,” but that it has been thwarted by corrupt authoritarian regimes.
Revolutions can make for strange bedfellows. The Society of Muslim Brothers (Al-Akhwan al-Muslimun) has been the most visible and effective opposition party in Egypt , since long before Mubarak assumed power in 1981. Though they are officially outlawed, they are “tolerated” for the sake of not inciting a full-scale revolt. Part of the American motivation for unconditionally supporting Mubarak’s notoriously repressive regime, has been the fear of an Islamic uprising, similar to Iran . Now the Muslim Brotherhood is allied with the secular middle-class in their wish to overthrow the government. This leaves the inevitable question of who will fill the power vacuum if Mubarak is deposed, and how. Whenever a revolution occurs, the question becomes, “What next?”
Ironically, this week’s news has also brought serious discussions of an “Islamic Reformation.” The Muslim Brotherhood would NOT be behind any such thing, so any hope of a working coalition between the pro-Western secular community and the rigidly fundamentalist Brotherhood, would be tenuous. Indeed, the Brotherhood’s greatest ally and asset is the deep poverty that besets Cairo . Since their founding in the 1940’s, the Brotherhood has given hope, refuge and charity to poor people. Cairo is a city of 18 million people, crammed into an area designed to accommodate about 7 million. The “happiness” that characterized most impoverished Egyptians 30 years ago has long since dissipated.
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has failed to support any liberalization of Egypt , and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is particularly culpable. She literally turned the other way when Mubarak rigged the national election in November 2010. America has talked big about promoting democracy in the Middle East , but continued to enable the Egyptian government and military with $1.55 billion per year. Obama and Clinton have rightfully pressed Israel to improve their human rights record, but been mostly silent about Mubarak’s crimes.
However, Obama and Clinton are merely the caretakers of a bankrupt American policy that has had us supporting brutal dictatorships in many parts of the world. Why is this? It comes down to International Relations 101:
- Q: What are the determinants of American Foreign Policy?
- A: The interests of the American multi-national corporations
There is no other right answer or explanation for this short-sighted policy. The West learned nothing from its losses in Iran in 1979, and has continued to repeat the same mistakes in Nicaragua , El Salvador , Iran , Iraq , Jordan , Egypt , Saudi Arabia and Yemen . There’s a long list too.
Another popular maxim in academic-diplomatic circles of the 1980s was that, “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The corruption of Palestinian leadership led to many. Since Camp David, the United States has missed one opportunity after another to bring stability to Egypt and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The biggest mistake? Giving too much money to both Israeli and Egypt with no terms of accountability.
When Mubarak either abdicates or dies, the power vacuum question is uncertain and scary. Will Egypt hold fair and free elections? Or will a military government take hold? For 30 years, Mubarak has ruled by intimidation and the presence of a brutal and intimidating police force. Now they are outnumbered, with more protesters and protest sights than can be accounted for. And there is much to rebel against. A form of martial law has been in effect since Sadat’s assassination in 1981. This “emergency law” allows for arrest and detention without cause or trial. The pretext for this is to prevent “terrorism”, which is loosely defined. As an example of government brutality, Egyptian police beat mourners who came to claim the bodies of their loved ones at a school fire in 2005.
My time in Cairo was a wonderful, beautiful education experience, with the usual misadventures that a graduate student encounters on his first trip abroad. Cairo was a beautiful montage of Egyptian, Arab, French, British and American-flavored Western culture. Remnants of Cairo ’s colonial history are everywhere. While part of the city strived to be in the 20th Century, one could visit neighborhoods where life has stood still since the 18th or 15th Century. Or even the 9th Century behind the walls of the Old City . For the past 30 years, most Egyptians have worked and pined for better lives. The government, meanwhile, has been downright medieval, with government-sanctioned brutality that would make Quentin Tarantino squirm.
Doing business with the government in Cairo is an exercise in maddening bureaucracy. On three different days, I went to a central government office to try to have my visa renewed. Each time, I went away frustrated by the literal byzantine confusion and chaos. I quit worrying about my expired visa when advised by Egyptians and American students that it really didn’t matter. “Ma-alesh,” I was told repeatedly; meaning “it doesn’t matter,” and it never did. I learned this: The Egyptian bureaucracy is the world’s worst, because they’ve had 5000 years to get it wrong and compound the confusion. The people accept that and do business accordingly.
The Egyptian Museum just off Tahrir Square is one of the most fascinating museums in the world, by all accounts. It contains treasures and antiquities that date to 5,000 years ago, including the inner tomb of King Tut. (I managed to take a picture of it and not get arrested. I also climbed one of the Great Pyramids of Giza without consequence. It was a charmed trip.) The Egyptian people recognize the importance and value of their history, as evidenced by the “human shield” created around the National Museum to prevent looting. That may be the happiest story on the day of conflict, pain and grief.
The riots in Egypt have shown some peculiar dynamics and shifting alliances. Whereas the police have been notoriously brutal in recent days, including stopping ambulances carrying wounded, and beating the drivers and EMT workers, the recently dispatched military has assumed a more gentle tone. Egyptian citizens actually welcomed the military presence after days of police brutalities, and invited them to join the revolution.
The police are professionally trained thugs; most of the military is made of reluctant conscripts, who are still viewed as national heroes for their work in 1973. After a pitched battle in Alexandria yesterday, the rioters and troops shared handshakes, hugs, water bottles and compared battle wounds. Has the aftermath of a riot ever assumed the atmosphere of a high-school football game between neighborhood rivals? Only in Egypt , and this represents a ray of hope.
H. Scott Prosterman
H. Scott Prosterman is a writer and editor in Berkeley, and holds a M.A. from the University of Michigan in Middle Eastern Studies.