For America, stability trumps freedom
In echoing Mubarak’s call for an ‘orderly transition’, the US is undermining the fight for democratic rights.
Over the weekend, the US and other Western powers ‘threw their weight behind’ Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s new vice-president, supporting his efforts to end the Egyptian pro-democracy protests that started on 25 January.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton urged patience, saying that reform ‘takes some time’ and ‘there are certain things that need to be done in order to prepare’. She warned: ‘Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception and rigged elections to stay in power.’
But it is becoming clear that the American calls for an ‘orderly transition’ are really boosting the Mubarak regime’s attempts to defuse the protests, to regain control and forestall meaningful democratic change. When a people is faced with a repressive regime that is determined to put down opposition and maintain its grip on power, ‘order’ is not a virtue.
Suleiman has rejected the protesters’ main demand, namely to end the dictatorship. Instead, he has insisted that Hosni Mubarak must remain in office until the September elections. In fact, as the New York Times reports, he has tried to gain the upper hand over the protesters: ‘Police forces were returning to the streets, and an army general urged protesters to scale back their occupation of Tahrir Square.’ The Washington Post also noted this development: ‘Army units have increased their presence in and around Tahrir Square, parking tanks on every street. Although they have allowed the protests to unfold, military officials have gradually imposed obstacles – more checkpoints, more coils of razor wire, limitations on television cameras – and urged demonstrators to go home.’
In backing Suleiman, the US and the West are backing the Mubarak regime itself. Suleiman was appointed vice president by Mubarak less than a week ago, and as the head of the Egyptian general intelligence service he is thoroughly implicated in the undemocratic ruling order. As Jane Mayer highlights in the New Yorker, Suleiman ‘was the CIA’s point man in Egypt for renditions – the covert programme in which the CIA snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances’. And he clearly wants to place an iron grip on the protests. When Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour of the opposition Wafd Party suggested that Suleiman repeal Egypt’s emergency law, which allows the authorities to arrest people without charges, Suleiman replied: ‘At a time like this?’ So, arrest without charges is what America’s call for ‘order’ amounts to.
Meanwhile, it appears that the established opposition representatives have blinked. The Washington Post reports that the main opposition groups are no longer insisting on Mubarak stepping down immediately, and have entered into talks with Suleiman to reform the political system gradually. The opposition figures are a ‘loose coalition of political parties, intellectuals and protest organisers’.
The group includes leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, under Mubarak, has been banned from operating in the political sphere. Many in the West portray the Muslim Brotherhood as a dynamic and threatening Islamic group that will take over if the Mubarak regime falls, but in fact it is not that influential and does not have the support of the majority of the people, especially the protesters (for more background on this issue, see here and here). Now, ironically, the Egyptian regime and the West are effectively re-establishing the Muslim Brotherhood as a player in local politics.
The good news is that it looks like the protesters are having none of this compromise from these ‘opposition’ figures. They are sticking to their demands, and recognise the regime’s ploy for what it is. ‘All these attempts at putting people to sleep by responding to very marginal demands is just a tactic to gain time’, said the Muslim cleric Hafez Moussa, according to the Washington Post. ‘As soon as the people leave the square, he will take his revenge on all of them.’ The political figures meeting with Suleiman do not represent the masses. According to Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian political analyst and journalist, they ‘are all completely irrelevant’. ‘The people in Tahrir Square wouldn’t recognise them, or else would barely give them the time of day.’
The US is propping up a regime that has no legitimacy, no right to rule. Neither the regime nor the US can bring democracy; only the Egyptian people can do that. It is still possible that the ruling clique and army will launch a bloody crackdown in Tahrir Square, and the US and the other Western powers will have paved the way with their calls for ‘order’. Or we could see the continuation of the current war of attrition, where the aim seems to be to dampen the protesters’ spirits while encouraging the rest of Egyptian society to return to ‘normality’. Either way, intensified Western intervention is making things harder for the pro-democracy protesters.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.
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