Despair and Continuity
Actions always speak louder than words, even if words also act.
Take US policy toward Egypt since January 28, 2011, the day that protesters overran Mubarak’s coercive apparatus and effectively forced the political elite into a series of belated concessions that culminated in Mubarak’s resignation. At the time, though there were competing camps, the Obama administration settled on a policy of calling for a meaningful transition and criticizing violence against protesters. Obama went to great pains to assure all concerned that the US had nothing and wanted nothing to do with the political outcome in Egypt. “The future of Egypt will be determined by its people,” he said, continuing that “attacks on reporters are unacceptable, attacks on human rights activists are unacceptable, attacks on peaceful protesters are unacceptable.”
Fast-forward 13 months: Soldiers and state-funded thugs regularly beat protesters as the elite in Egypt constructs a new political arena through parliamentary elections and other means. Meanwhile, ships disgorge innumerable American-made tear gas canisters on Egyptian docks, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta goes bowling with the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Given all these developments, it should be no surprise that the US has now decided to continue its aid payments to Egypt. But it is important to unpack exactly what happened. Congress, with its dismal approval ratings, did not approve the measure. The Obama administration, through the agency of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, used a national security waiver, overriding Congressional dissent so that the $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt’s generals could flow unimpeded. One State Department apparatchik justified the move by saying that “on the democracy side, Egypt has made more progress in 16 months than in the last 60 years.” In other interviews, State’s emphasis was on the “strategic partnership” between the US and Egypt.
The December-to-February media spectacle of the NGO fiasco, the mounting persecution that Egyptian activists confront, the general lack of progress toward democracy -- none of that got in the way of business as usual. Many had already made the argument for why, in the end, aid would not be cut.
We are left with continuity rather than change. Despite the historic demands in the region for change, the Obama administration -- much like its predecessors -- refuses to heed the call. It is a dynamic high on theater but low on behavior modification, hypocrisy in its purest form. But is it enough to point out the hypocrisy?
I would argue no. The US action to reinstate the aid flows reveals the transnational participation in Egypt’s transition. The media and academic construction has always been an “Egyptian” revolution, one of several “Arab” uprisings. If only Arabs and Egyptians had so much say in their own destiny. Transnational counter-revolutionary forces troll the region and are supporting the local political elites as they adapt to new conditions and attempt to reestablish lines of control over the population. What emerges in Egypt is unlikely to resemble Mubarak’s Egypt. But it remains to be seen whether the new Egypt will be less autocratic. And the Obama administration has not been neutral in the process. They continue to be enablers of autocracy.
During the original 18-day uprising in 2011, as Mubarak promised reforms, Obama lectured the Egyptian ex-president on his “responsibility to give meaning to those words.” Yet, when it comes to foreign policy, the American president’s actions have not matched his words, either. Hope and change -- don’t we wish.