The Poor People of Egypt
by JOHN CHUCKMAN
How is it that the people of Egypt, after a successful revolution against the repressive 30-year government of President Mubarak, a revolution involving the hopes and fears of millions and a substantial loss of life, have ended up almost precisely where they started?
After Mubarak’s fall, there were many comments from prominent citizens of one of Egypt’s neighbors, the one styling itself “the Middle East’s only democracy,” expressing great concern over the end of decades of brutal dictatorial rule for eighty million neighbors. The comments, from many prominent Israelis, were disturbing in tone and certainly did not welcome the idea of an expansion of democracy in the region.
But the revolution continued, with some starts and stops, and Egyptians voted in their first free election. By all accounts, it was a cleaner election than many in that other great defender of democracy, the United States, but democracy as Winston Churchill famously said is “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” and the majority went to a religious-affiliated party, the Muslim Brotherhood, a party which had been persecuted and suppressed for years by Mubarak, an activity which endeared him to democracy-loving Israeli governments.
Now, that name, Muslim Brotherhood, undoubtedly sounds ominous to many in a post-9/11 world, a world where fears and disinformation about Muslims have become a daily, unavoidable part of the news in much of the Western world. But the truth is that the Muslim Brotherhood was not radical, and in many respects the religious note in Egyptian politics was not altogether different from that of a long history of Christian-affiliated parties in Western Europe or Latin America, such as the Christian Democrats.
Indeed, Egypt’s good democratic neighbor itself has been ruled in many aspects of its national life by ultra-orthodox religious parties needed to make a governing coalition in its heavily-splintered political system. And these Israeli fundamentalist parties do not reflect anything like the mild religious traditions of Europe’s Christian Democrats. These Israeli parties are composed of people who believe in theocratic rule, in the superiority of one group over others, in the unique truth of one set of ancient writing, in ancient views of women’s rights, and in legalizing many practices violating principles of the Enlightenment. As political analysts know, small parties can exert inordinate leverage on a society where they absolutely are required to form a government, that leverage necessarily seeming quite undemocratic to most citizens living under its shadow.
Well, Egypt’s new government did do some things that strict secularists such as myself do not like to see, its new constitution being chief among them. No liberal-minded person wants to live under a constitution giving special place to one religious group over another, but then that is nothing unusual in the world, and it is especially the case for emerging countries with many years of political experimenting in democratic institutions ahead of them.
So Egyptians unhappy with Morsi’s brief time in government started demonstrating against him. In doing so, they unwittingly weakened the foundations of a fragile set of democratic institutions and played into the hands of those who wanted the military coup we have now witnessed, with members of an elected government under arrest and many hundreds of people on both sides, for and against the Morsi government, killed in the streets, and a distressing return to where Egypt was about three years ago.
The truth is that the road to a fully-functioning democracy is always a very long one. The United States from its founding took a couple of hundred years to achieve even the semblance of democracy we see today. America started – despite the high-sounding words of its constitution – as a place where the people did not elect the president (the elites of the electoral college did), where the Senate was appointed (not changed until the 20thcentury), where a massive industry in human slavery legally flourished, where no women or blacks or even most men (those without specified amounts of property) could vote, and where the Bill of Rights served as a mere advertising slogan because its list of rights could not be enforced by a Supreme Court owing strict allegiance to the concept of states’ rights. The common sentimental view of early America is just that, sentimental.
The journey toward free and fair democratic government must be started somewhere, and Morsi’s government was perhaps as promising a start as is possible in a country mired in poverty and lacking democratic institutions as Egypt is, but the re-establishment of a junta is no start at all.
So, who are the people who wanted the coup and why did they want it?
To answer this we must go back to some of the acts of the Morsi government and see just who was extremely unhappy about them. One was a new general policy towards the hostages Israel holds in Gaza, by which I mean the million and a half people who also elected a new government some years back, the Hamas Party, in clean elections. There is no use repeating the fairy tale about Hamas being a terrorist organization: it most certainly is not, although through Israel’s manipulation of the severe weaknesses in America’s political structure (the acceptance of political donations in any amount as free speech, the acceptance of virtually unlimited lobbying, and the duopoly party system allowing one to be played against the other) Israel did succeed in having white declared to be red.
Morsi’s new general policy, offensive to Israel but I’m sure acceptable to most Egyptians, was not one of throwing open the border with Gaza – that would have resulted in air strikes and dire threats by Israel – but it was one of easing up on the past harshness Mubarak maintained to please Israel and the United States, and Mubarak and his military were keen to keep them pleased because the United States pays a huge annual bribe to Egypt to keep just such matters under control.
Now we have the Egyptian military returning to harsh measures: I read, for example, that they were flooding the tunnels which have served as vital supply lines for the imprisoned people of Gaza. Before its overthrow, Mubarak’s government was looking to build a kind of underground Berlin Wall along the entire border with Gaza made of special steel supplied by the United States. Perhaps now the military will take the wall-project up again, surely bringing satisfied smiles to the lips of Israel’s brutal government. You know just on the face of it that there is something very odd and unnatural in Egypt’s behaving this way towards people with whom most Egyptians sympathize for the benefit of another people with whom they do not sympathize.
I think the single most important act leading to the coup likely was Morsi’s meeting with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, a much-hated man in Israel. The meeting in fact was a perfectly natural and normal thing for these two countries to do, given their mutual interests and an ancient history of associations. They are both predominantly Muslim and both are large countries, on the order of 70-80 million people. But I know the meeting must have sent Mr. Netanyahu into a sputtering dark fury and almost certainly had him reaching for the phone to Obama within minutes.
Does Netanyahu have a special phone to the Oval Office, a version of the ‘hot line” established between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1960s to help avoid a disastrous nuclear misunderstanding?
One suspects so because of what surely must be the volume of calls made from one of the world’s smallest countries to one of its largest, regularly asking for things – everything from increases in American aid or access to new technologies and weapons systems or seeking support for Israeli companies trying to land a contract or asking yet again that a damaging spy like Jonathon Pollard be freed or setting new demands in foreign policy towards this or that country fallen under Mr. Netanyahu’s wrath. And we have Obama’s own words when he was caught briefly with an open microphone while talking privately with President Sarkozy of France. Raising the eyebrows of reporters, Sarkozy remarked that Netanyahu was a liar who couldn’t be trusted. Obama agreed that you couldn’t trust anything Netanyahu said, and added further that Sarkozy was lucky in his dealings with Netanyahu: imagine having to speak with him every day the way Obama had to?
Every day? A call from the leader of 1/1,000 of the earth’s population every day? No wonder they keep such things secret.
When the demonstrations by Egyptians disenchanted with Morsi began, they provided the perfect opportunity and cover for a coup. Israel undoubtedly pushed the United States – after all, Obama had intervened to support the original revolution, something not pleasing to Netanyahu and only adding to his stock of reasons for often expressing contempt of the President, and now Morsi was carrying on in “I told you so” ways. The United States in turn undoubtedly let the Egyptian military know it would not object to the overthrow of Morsi (and it hasn’t objected, has it?), reminding the generals of what was at stake here – namely, about a billion and a half in annual bribes for keeping the government of Israel from complaining.
One suspects the CIA was active in stoking the fires of discontented Egyptians, handing out money and promises and encouragement to make the crowds larger and more aggressive. After all, that is just what the CIA does when it isn’t directly overthrowing someone’s government or assassinating someone’s leader or planting false stories in the press or secretly bribing government officials in dozens of countries deemed to be “ours.”
I heard one of CBC Radio’s lesser journalistic lights speak of such a close election as the one in Egypt leaving so many people there feeling the government didn’t represent them. She apparently was unaware that Canada’s Stephen Harper is deemed a majority parliamentary government with about 39% of the vote. Or that many American presidential elections end with margins as close as that in Egypt, Kennedy having been elected by a small fraction of one percent of the popular vote. George Bush received about a half million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000, a victorious minority made possible by America’s antiquated constitution with its anti-democratic electoral college, a result which has been repeated a number of times in American history.
But Americans and Canadians do not go into the streets to overturn the results, nor would we say anything encouraging or positive if they did. If the existing rules are followed in an election, we accept the result, and that kind of stability is absolutely crucial to maintaining any form of democracy. Yet it is somehow acceptable for our press to take that view when the topic is government in the Middle East, and a struggling new democratic government at that.
After all, there has been a steady stream of prejudiced words and carefully selected facts about Islam and the Middle East in the mainline press since 9/11. And ever since that event, much as the five Israeli Mossad agents, disguised as workers for a moving company, who were reported photographing the strikes on the twin towers from the top of their truck while dancing and high-fiving before their arrest and deportation, apologists for Israel have steadily encouraged the notion of Islamic and Arabic irrationality to excuse Israel’s bloody excesses. The notion has become a handy tool to grab whenever there are other events viewed unfavorably by Israel, as in the case of the Egyptian election and some of the democratic government’s acts.
The political future for the poor people of Egypt is not bright. Their prospects for democratic government and all the social changes that it entails over time are indeed collateral damage of Israel’s endless bristling and America’s Israeli-like sense of exceptionalism and belief that it has the right to play God with the lives of tens of millions of others to satisfy troubles in its own domestic politics.
John Chuckman lives in Canada.