The Fall of the American Wall: Tunisia, Egypt, and Beyond

Posted on January 28, 2011 by


On 20 January 2009, this is what an instrument of American pacification stated on his entry into office:

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

But who clenched that fist? Which American defense contractors helped to build the fist, with what amount of U.S. military aid, and with how much Israeli armour plating? Against whom was that fist clenched? Let’s be really clear about what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, perhaps soon Israel/Palestine (see The Palestine Papers), and now Lebanon and Yemen: a wall of U.S. supported dictatorships and clients is collapsing and the U.S. is on the wrong side of a history it can no longer write with any credibility or legitimacy. Right now, in the streets of Cairo and numerous other cities in a blacked-out Egypt, a nation reduced to serving as Israel’s ham fisted border guard, is revolting. More will follow, and we can say that with absolute certainty.

When it was already too late to salvage its allied regime in Tunisia, Hillary Clinton made the usual reformist sounds, but still with an emphasis on order and, of course, reform (the staunch stance of the counter-revolutionary, at least since America’s days as the director of the Alliance for Progress). Juan Cole has argued convincingly that American foreign policy, largely on auto-pilot in late second-term Bush mode, has been willing to sacrifice everything and everyone in the name of counterterrorism and national security. Not everyone is willing to continue being sacrificed, and not for the pursuit of American interests over, above, and against their personal freedoms and feeding their families. What Cole most likely would not intend to suggest is that the U.S.’ special relationship with Tunisia emerged only with Bush. Instead, that particular relationship extends back almost as far as the founding of the U.S. More recent, under the 31-year rule of dictator Habib Borguiba (predecessor of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), his regime received circa $750 million annually, and then advanced military support as well. Between 1987 and 2009, under Ben Ali, the U.S. signed $349 million in sales of military hardware to Tunisia. After 2009, with Obama in office, Tunisia was to be sold military helicopters in a $282 million sale. The Pentagon announced: “This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that has been and continues to be an important force for economic and military progress in North Africa.” Ben Ali’s Tunisia, as one article put it, was a “model U.S. client.”

With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement about its Egyptian partner–“our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people“–the U.S. has clearly taken the wrong side, and it’s something that it will likely pay for. Except that it has been paying, lots, for a long time: “The US has provided Egypt with $1.3 billion a year in military aid since 1979, and an average of $815 million a year in economic assistance. All told, Egypt has received over $50 billion in US largesse since 1975.” This report from the Congressional Research Service, put the economic assistance figure at over $2 billion annually, a sure sign to Mubarak that he could put off any “reform” indefinitely as long as Washington bankrolled his power. The U.S. has also invested a large amount of advanced weaponry into Egypt’s so-called “defense.” Numerous reports, including observations by senior opposition leaders in Egypt, point to the spontaneous, self-organizing, youth-driven protests in Egypt, emerging from a gigantic part of the population that has borne the brunt of extreme levels of unemployment, miserably low wages, and harsh state control over their daily lives with nearly 30 years of “emergency” rule in force. They know all about the clenched fist, and who paid for it.

The notion that American leaders, fully aware of the depth of corruption and brutality among its allies, could think that U.S. interests would be safely pursued by exacting a punishing tribute from Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, and so on, is utterly astonishing. It shows how decrepit and blind U.S. foreign policy has become, a hegemon well into decline, plunging into the deepest depths of senility.

*****

On a personal note, I am very grateful for the continuous correspondence over these past two years from a group of very friendly Egyptian comrades–students, professors, journalists, trade union activists–who have helped me to learn a great deal about daily life under America’s ally, Mubarak. What is happening now, has always been on their minds, they never tired of fighting back, and I wish them every success. If there is any justice in this world, Mubarak should be made to face it, as should his patrons in Washington.