David Price 10/7/02
President Bush’s planned war on Iraq stands to unleash unprecedented levels of Middle Eastern political instability, raising the possibility of inadvertent and presumably unwanted regional “regime changes” beyond the borders of Iraq. As Arab leaders consider adopting public stances of support, silence, or opposition to American military action, their positions present dangers for them at home and abroad, as opposition to Washington will carry financial and political penalties, while silence or support can lead to insurmountable domestic problems.
During a visit to Egypt this past month I found it evident that America’s talk of an Iraqi invasion places Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a difficult situation that threatens his political survival. An Iraq war will force Mubarak to choose between risking economic collapse by opposing the Bush Doctrine, or risking massive domestic upheaval if he succumbs to Washington’s financial and political pressure to not oppose the war. America could quickly crush Mubarak’s regime by denying Egypt foreign aid—a vital commodity in a country that can only feed itself for two-thirds of the year—though this gambit would unleash Islamic fundamentalist political forces that few Western analysts seem to understand. Conversely, the Egyptian domestic backlash that would descend on Mubarak should he succumb to the sort of pressures he met with the elder Bush’s invasion of Iraq (under which almost half of Egypt’s massive US debt was forgiven by sending a homeopathic tincture of troops to Saudi Arabia) appears to be so great that he could face open rebellion if not revolution in the streets.
In the last few months President Bush has declared that suspension of Egyptian aid is a tactic his administration will freely use to shape Mubarak’s domestic or international policies. This summer when American University, Cairo (AUC) sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim was sentenced to a seven year prison term for his involvement in human rights work, the Bush administration—suddenly converted to the cause of human rights, and apparently reversing its own position limiting the transference of funds from blacklisted foreign political organizations—fired warning shots over Mubarak’s bow, declaring that vital U.S. aid could be eliminated if Mubarak’s policies were not in line with Washington’s wishes. There was nothing subtle about these remarks, and the message was clearly directed less at the Ibrahim situation than at the consequences of opposing Bush’s long planned war.
It is common for Western pundits to uncritically upgrade Egypt’s political ranking to that of “regional moderate” without clarifying what this hollow categorization entails, ignoring that martial law has been in place since Sadat’s was assassinated by fundamentalist members of his own army in 1981, in an atmosphere where dissidents are routinely rounded up and lawyers are at times punished along with their clients. Egyptian electoral processes make Floridian electoral practices look like paragons of propriety, with candidates and parties needing approval to appear on the ballots and elections going against Mubarak’s (NDP) party being nullified by rigged court rulings. This last year when Islamic Brotherhood candidate Jihan Al Halafawi won her parliament seat in Alexandria by an election landside victory, the elections were officially invalidated and the new elections this July were marked by police intimidation of voters and violence against journalists (including AP reporter Sarah Al Deeb), and arrests of secular and religious figures who protested this most basic violation of human rights.
always occupied a difficult position, trying to bridge Nasser’s secular
policies and Sadat’s penchant for posturing as a devout Muslim (who’s rumored
artificial forehead “zabib” prayer-mark was long the subject of jokes and
derision in the countryside) that helped unleash fundamentalist Islamic
currents that were always present but kept distant from post-revolutionary
Egyptian power relations. While
Mubarak’s way has been cleared by perpetual marshal law’s ability to deny even
the most basic of human rights, the balance between secular and sacred
authority and the inevitable frictions in a diverse society marked by rapid
growth in Islamic fundamentalism alongside a Christian minority and a Cairene
intellectual elite appears to be creating an increasing perilous situation that
seems unlikely to continue without significant clashes. After Israel’s destruction of Beirut in
1982, Cairo’s intellectual scene became one of the most impressive in the
Middle East and Africa, where galleries feature the controversial work of
artists like homoerotic photographer and filmmaker Van Leo, or artist, Lara
whose themes are decidedly postmodern, while on the streets outside the galleries one can stumble across the traditional tragic drama of an enraged older brother physically attacking the hapless suitor of a younger sister caught walking alone with her would-be sweetheart. The contradictions are multiple and it is difficult to imagine anything but blood and tragedy coming from this mix if this American war weakens the current regime. It is not that the Mubarak administration is just and must preserved as is (it isn’t—it shouldn’t be), only, that the US stands to carelessly upset an unjust domestic balance in Egypt in such a way that empowers a theocratic state.
Make no mistake, as uncontested-patron the United States played a major role in the development of Mubarak’s anti-democratic and repressive administration—a move that in the long run has done more than any other factor to strengthen the cause and importance of the Islamic Brotherhood. As the US has financially underwritten Mubarak’s régime allowing him to suppress basic human and civil rights in Egypt, it has been the idiom and agency of religious justice (not unlike Martin Luther King’s use of the church and biblical themes of social justice to launch his campaign in this country) through which Mubarak’s opposition has found its voice. The US’s decision to turn a blind eye to Mubarak’s oppressive tactics has strengthened the Brotherhood in ways that electoral victory never could—after all, had the Brotherhood been given some more access to power, their lack of fiscal competence would have likely transformed their status from powerful critics to political hack. Instead, their denied access to the electoral system has only strengthened their status. The Egypt that Bush’s war could topple is in many ways difficult to rationalize saving in its present form, but the “régime change” Bush and Congress may instigate could claim numerous lives in the economic collapse and “famine” that would occur after Egypt’s new regime broke ties with its old American financiers. Egypt needs political reform, but the changes brought by a sudden revolutionary unleashing of the Brotherhood would be more theocratic than democratic—thus democratic reforms in Egypt need to be hastened separately from this military fiasco.
In the end, it is the military and police who maintain what passes for order in Egypt. Egyptian military and police forces have long been exploited and underpaid, with the rank and file composed largely of mandatory conscripts paid with sub-subsistence salaries. As Egyptian opinion an Iraq war rages against Bush it would be risky to rely on these underpaid and disenfranchised draftees to suppress or attack popular protests against Egyptian policies aligned in anyway with Bush’s war. On September 22nd a friend and I happened upon a tense scene in southern Cairo where white uniformed cops (serving mandatory 3 year draft terms) methodically worked their way up the street seizing property from the shop keepers and placing it in their police pickup truck. Some citizens protested with complaints that they had rights, or that the police were thieves, but most stood in frozen silence as these kalishnikov-clad thugs strong-armed their way up the street. We made ourselves scarce after observing cops taking chairs from coffee shops, biscuits from a small dukan and a large box of tomatoes from woman selling vegetables on the street. People hurried to their shops, tossing in wares and hurriedly zipping down their metal roll-top doors, and as news of these cops made their way through the neighborhood we watched shopkeepers scurry to barricade their shops before being visited by these bad lieutenants. While this particular episode occurred in a Coptic Christian neighborhood, similar exploitive ventures occur in other poor neighborhoods in Egypt. Bad cops can be found around the world, but the poverty and desperation of Egypt’s police and military force could create problems for an administration wishing to maintain order under conditions of social unrest—conditions that an American war in the Gulf would likely ferment. I witnessed and heard of similar episodes back in 1989-1990 when I lived out in the Fayoum Oasis, but these reports were always smaller in scale and isolated from such public viewing—such organized, open theft marks a shift in desperate relations.
Conspiracy theories abound in Egypt. This past month, a widely reported public talk by AUC professor Galal Amin on September 11th discussed in detail farfetched theories that groups (including Zionist conspirators) other than al-Quaida were responsible for the previous year’s attacks on the Pentagon and the WTC. These conspiracy theories have such currency that US Ambassador David Welch penned a surreal rebuttal in the Sept. 20th issue of the Al-Ahram newspaper. But Egyptians long accustomed to lies from Washington now disregard such occasional truth-speakers as understandably unreliable, and the gap between Washington and Egypt widens to dangerous levels.
Bush’s careless adventures in Iraq and Palestine stand to strengthen the hand of Islamic fundamentalists throughout the region—who hold a growing clear voice of reason, delivering a biting political-economic critique of American policy in the region (stressing American corporate opportunism and control of vital petroleum resources) that makes far more sense than the claptrap we read from Thomas Friedman and his cohort here at home. While the Islamic Brotherhood’s critique of American foreign policy is often succinct, their solutions are downright frightening, yet Bush’s policies empower these anti-secular, anti-intellectual, anti-western forces in ways that Washington seems oblivious.
While America’s corporate petroleum ubberlords stand to garnish great profits at the capture of an Iraqi client state, American political interests have much to lose in this gambit. Egypt is a longstanding important ally in the region. Beyond the obvious benefits of allies smoothly managing the Suez Canal, and manufacturing American military hardware, pharmaceuticals and other consumer goods; Mubarak’s oppressive rule has simultaneously strengthened, and kept a burgeoning Islamic revolution at bay. But is not clear that Washington understands the dangers for Egypt that are inherent in its desired Iraqi war. As one friendly fundamentalist rhetorically asked me a few weeks ago at a sidewalk coffee shop across from Cairo’s Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, “Doesn’t the United States realize that it is doing more to undercut Mubarak’s power than any of his domestic opposition?”
David Price is an anthropologist who studies Egyptian irrigation. His forthcoming book Cold War Witch Hunts (Duke) examines the FBI and CIA’s interactions with American anthropologists during the Cold War.