Political protests continued throughout Egypt yesterday and today, though in smaller numbers due to a violent crackdown by security forces. The government has banned public gatherings and has arrested thousands, deploying baton-wielding riot police, tear gas, and plainclothes officers. Nonetheless, even larger demonstrations are planned for tomorrow after Friday prayers.
Looking at the above scene, we all of course hope for the citizens of Egypt to beat back a dictatorship that has given them nothing but thirty years of immiseration and brutal repression. But beyond this abstract solidarity and this instinctive recoiling from clear injustice, are there other reasons Americans should care?
Yes, because American taxpayers directly underwrite this injustice, and directly sponsor the ongoing oppression.
Since 1979 the U.S. has given Egypt $1.3 billion in unconditional military aid every year, and hundreds of millions more in annual economic assistance. That’s over $60 billion of U.S. taxpayer money straight into Mr. Mubarak’s pocket. Some of the military aid goes to modernizing Egyptian army forces and equipment. That army, lavished with patronage and perks, is given monopolistic control over broad swathes of the domestic Egyptian economy, and is in turn deeply loyal to the Mubarak regime. But since Egypt faces no real external military threat, much of the military aid is diverted to buttress Mubarak’s brutal domestic security apparatus, which has been especially busy this week beating and tear-gassing its own citizens.
How are we to feel about that? Secretary Clinton, after an initial anemic statement on Tuesday in which she helped propagandize for the regime by declaring it “stable,” came out much more forcefully yesterday:
We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.
That’s pretty strong stuff, in the world of diplomat-speak anyway. But what happens when Mubarak, alas, decides to let this “important opportunity” pass? What happens when he has bloodied enough faces to demonstrate once again that he cares not a whit about the “legitimate needs and interests” of his people?
What is most infuriating is the total contempt on display here by the Egyptian government. There has been no attempt by Mubarak to conciliate, or even acknowledge the people’s grievances. Mubarak’s reptilian Interior Minister has merely issued a statement that preposterously blames all the unrest on their eternal bogeyman, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mohamed ElBaradei, erstwhile head of the IAEA and a current leader in the opposition movement, notes in the NYT that it is in fact the country’s youth that is propelling the current protests. Egypt is famous for a disillusioned and disenfranchized citizenry that has grown resigned and apathetic toward its seemingly hopeless political plight. But ElBaradei notes that the nation’s youth is more politicized and angry than ever before.
“It was the young people who took the initiative and set the date and decided to go,” said an admiring ElBaradei of the recent protests.
Here, again, is the real tragedy which lays bare this regime’s disregard for anything beyond its own short-term survival. These brave young protesters are disproportionately urban, modern, educated, and technologically savvy. In short, they represent any realistic hope that Egypt has for a future of growth, prosperity, development, innovation, and cultural vitality. By disregarding their legitimate grievances, the regime shows its utter disdain for the very future of its own country. This is not surprising, of course, but it is appalling anew.
While Hillary Clinton’s strong words of support for democratic change is nice to see, our decades-long sponsoring of this vile regime gives us no credibility to criticize its behavior. The only lever we have is all that U.S. taxpayer money, which has done nothing but helped the regime perpetuate its power. There has never been a credible threat to condition any of our military aid on real political reform, or on assuring that the above scenes of brutality do not occur. That would be unduly interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs, we are told. But of course, we are interfering now, just on the wrong side.
Savvy commentators like to point out that if the Mubarak regime falls, the only large-scale opposition movement waiting in the wings is the Muslim Brotherhood, who harbor foreign policy objectives that are rather less amenable to U.S. interests. And so, the argument goes, we better be careful what we wish for when we call for democracy in Egypt. I once had some residual sympathy for this line of thought, but no longer. The reality is that no one knows how free and fair elections would turn out. There’s never been one. As the Egyptian government has deliberately set up the Brotherhood as the only real and semi-tolerated opposition group in the country—all the better to scare western governments into unconditional support for the status quo—more liberal forces have never had the chance to organize and coalesce into a viable movement. Were they given this political space to operate unfettered, who knows how they’d do?
It’s certainly true that the MB would play a large role in any future democratic Egyptian government. But it is long past time that we give up our misplaced fear of nonviolent Islamist groups that agree to abide by democratic outcomes. As much as I loathe their platform, the Brotherhood has met this criteria for many years. It contains within it both conservative and reformist strains, and the U.S. should be preparing to navigate this future landscape with a view toward ensuring our interests within it, rather than just handing the money over year after year and hoping everything stays quiet.
Our unconditional taxpayer support for this regime is no longer justifiable on any of the old grounds. The regime guarantees neither domestic nor regional security or stability, and has done precisely nothing in thirty years to advance Arab/Israeli peace. It impoverishes and brutalizes and stands against the aspirations and well-being of its people, and our government should end our complicity in this depraved state of affairs; this sordid sponsorship, done in our names, with our money.