EE: Report #11, FOCUSING ON EGYPT
Encircling Empire Reports is a selection of essays, blog posts, and news reports covering a given time period. They are intended to be useful for those interested in: ● contemporary and critical political anthropology ● public anthropology ● imperialism and imperial decline ● militarism/militarization ● the political economy of the world system ● hegemony and soft power ● counterinsurgency ● revolution ● rebellion ● resistance ● protest ● activism ● advocacy ● critique.
This and previous issues have been archived on a dedicated site—please see: ENCIRCLING EMPIRE.
In this report, commentary on the latest news about the attempts to prop up the Mubarak regime in Egypt; an update on spreading protests across the Arab world; followed by a select list of news resources to help keep track of the protests in Egypt and to help us understand them; then we turn to the role of the Internet in the protests, and the government shutdown; finally, a comprehensive write up of Wikileaks’ Egypt cables.
WHAT DID HE SAY?
From Tuesday, 25 January, through the momentous events of Friday, 28 January, Egypt is experiencing a growing mass uprising against the U.S. supported dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak who is now seeing his 30th year in power. At the time of writing, both Mubarak and Obama have made televised speeches in which both have said precisely the wrong things: Mubarak, that he intends to keep power, and yet partly conceding that the protesters have valid grievances by announcing that he would fire all of his ministers; Obama, in saying that he wants Mubarak to implement “reforms,” clearly indicated that the U.S. is ready to continue to work with a dictator who is responsible for the deaths and torture of numerous Egyptians. Obama even went as far as demanding that the protesters should engage in peaceful actions, as if they had initiated any of the violence. Both “leaders” have failed to learn from history. Ronald Reagan, a president who presumably is to be classed as more right wing than Obama, even characterized as an extremist, nonetheless instructed his office to tell the Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos on 24 February 1986 that for Marcos it was “time to cut and to cut it cleanly.” Later, in a personal call with Marcos in Hawaii, Regan dismissed Marcos’ request for U.S. support for his return to the Philippines. Marcos also was smart enough to know that his time was up. Let’s see if Mubarak is as smart, because there is no hope for Obama.
At the same time as Friday’s protests, “a high-level Egyptian military delegation was in Washington on Friday for pre-scheduled defense talks, even as Egypt’s army took to the streets to face unrest sweeping the country,” Reuters reported.
THE AMERICAN WALL IS COMING DOWN
Protesters, in the tens of thousands, turned out on the streets of Sanaa, Yemen, various provincial centres and a port city on Thursday, 27 January, calling for an end to the U.S.-supported regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. At the same time, Jordan saw three consecutive days of protests, at the time of this report, “demanding the country’s prime minister step down, and the government curb rising prices, inflation and unemployment.”
KEEPING TRACK OF THE PROTESTS
Friday, 28 January 2011, saw massive protests across Egypt and clear evidence that the security services were losing control. The headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was completely engulfed in flames, with no fire services arriving to extinguish the flames, and this during the curfew imposed by Mubarak (from 7:00pm to 6:00am). The Foreign Ministry was taken over by protesters. Protesters moved through the streets of Cairo late into the night. Suez and Alexandria saw police stations taken over, weapons turned on the police, and a column of tanks embraced and welcomed, by the protesters, in a clear attempt to “disarm” the military which was sent to suppress citizens and to drive a symbolic wedge between the military and Mubarak. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and, a few hours later, President Barack Obama came out with nearly identical public addresses about Egypt.
The best and most up to date coverage is being provided by Al Jazeera English on its dedicated site: Anger in Egypt. Check in with its live blog. AJE relies on satellite transmissions of its live video feed, thus getting around the total shutdown of the Internet in Egypt, as ordered by Mubarak (see more below on the Internet and the protests).
Produced by Al Jazeera English, these maps of the protests for 28 January come from “Mapping Egypt’s ‘day of wrath’:”
Also from Al Jazeera English, “Timeline: Egypt unrest: A chronicle of the demonstrations against the country’s leadership,” which provides an overview of some of the landmark developments for each day since the protests began earlier this week.
Al Jazeera’s “In pictures: Anger in Egypt”
Sarah Carr’s “Egypt Uprising” flickr photostream
THE INTERNET AND THE EGYPTIAN PROTESTS
See the following reports for analysis of the role of the Internet in the Egyptian mass protests:
“When Egypt turned off the internet: Egypt goes off the digital map as authorities unplug the country entirely from the internet ahead of protests,” Al Jazeera English, 28 January 2011:
“Computer experts say what sets Egypt’s action apart is that the entire country was disconnected in an apparently co-ordinated effort, and that all manner of devices are affected, from mobile phones to laptops. It seems, though, that satellite phones would not be affected. ‘Iran never took down any significant portion of their Internet connection, they knew their economy and the markets are dependent on Internet activity,’ Cowie said. When countries are merely blocking certain sites, like Twitter or Facebook, where protesters are co-ordinating demonstrations, as apparently happened at first in Egypt, protesters can use ‘proxy’ computers to circumvent the government censors. The proxies ‘anonymise’ traffic and bounce it to computers in other countries that send it along to the restricted sites. But when there is no internet at all, proxies can’t work and online communication grinds to a halt. Renesys’ network sensors showed that Egypt’s four primary internet providers, Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr, and all went dark at 12:34am. Those companies shuttle all internet traffic into and out of Egypt, though many people get their service through additional local providers with different names. Italy-based Seabone said no internet traffic was going into or out of Egypt after 12:30am local time.”
“Online activism fuels Egypt protest: Online social networks being used by activists to communicate and organise anti-government protests,” Fatima Naib, Al Jazeera English, 28 January 2011:
“Egyptian authorities have blocked internet and mobile services in a bid to quell anti-government protests, but the measures may have come a bit too late. Activists spread the word online about Friday’s protests, detailing the list of public squares where people should gather. Calls for action circulated on Twitter and Facebook since early on Friday morning…. A youth group that calls itself the April 6th Movement distributed 20,000 leaflets late on Thursday outlining a basic blueprint of where to go and what supplies to take. They urged people to distribute the information through emails and in person rather than Facebook and Twitter to avoid government interference.”
“Interview with Hossam el-Hamalawy: Professor Mark LeVine interviews journalist and blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy on the situation in Egypt,” Al Jazeera English, 27 January 2011:
“The internet plays only a role in spreading the word and the images about what goes on the ground. We do not use the internet to organise. We use the internet to publicise what we are doing on the ground hoping to inspire others into action.”
“Egyptian Youths Drive the Revolt Against Mubarak,” David D. Kirkpatrick and Michael Slackman, The New York Times, 26 January 2011:
“Almost three years ago, on April 6, 2008, the Egyptian government crushed a strike by a group of textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla, and in response a group of young activists who connected through Facebook and other social networking Web sites formed the April 6th Youth Movement in solidarity with the strikers. Their early efforts to call a general strike were a bust. But over time their leaderless online network and others that sprang up around it — like the networks that helped propel the Tunisian revolution — were uniquely difficult for the Egyptian security police to pinpoint or wipe out. It was an online rallying cry for a show of opposition to tyranny, corruption and torture that brought so many to the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday, unexpectedly vaulting the online youth movement to the forefront as the most effective independent political force in Egypt.”
“Twitter Confirms That They’re Being Blocked In Egypt,” TechCrunch, 25 January 2011.
THE U.S. AND EGYPT IN THE WIKILEAKS CABLES
On 27 January, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley declared that Egypt is “an ally and friend of the United States, an anchor of stability in the Middle East which is helping us pursue a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.” Thanks to a decision by Wikileaks to set its own agenda for the release of diplomatic cables, independent of its submission to the media monopoly currently managing the release, we now have some recent historical perspective to add to the discussion, based on some unique primary sources. The following is a comprehensive report that tries to encompass almost all of Wikileaks’ recently released Egypt cables.
Human Rights in Egypt
Through the U.S. Embassy cables from Cairo, we become readily aware that the U.S. was very familiar with the depth and extent of its ally’s abuse of its own citizens. Writing in 2009, Ambassador Margaret Scobey wrote to the Secretary of State that, “Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive. Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event….security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat,” but the Egyptian government had stopped denying that torture occurred and reportedly some police officers were convicted of torture and murder. Nonetheless, the cable goes on to affirm: “Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread.” Referring to the 06 April 2008 strike organized on Facebook, the Egyptian government arrested a Muslim Brotherhood member and tortured him, to scare other “April 6 Movement” members. Otherwise, the government “is more reluctant to torture Islamists, including Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members, because of their persistence in making public political statements, and their contacts with international NGOs that could embarrass the regime….the exception to this rule is when MB members mobilize people against the government in a way the regime deems threatening.” The cable expresses skepticism about the alleged firings of abusive officers, in the context of a “culture of police brutality,” and indicates that they may have been fired for other reasons. The cable concludes that the Egyptian government “has not begun serious work on trying to transform the police and security services from instruments of power that serve and protect the regime into institutions operating in the public interest, despite official slogans to the contrary.” On other occasions, as indicated in this cable from 2010, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor and Human Rights Posner raised police brutality directly with the authorities, only to face denials and recriminations about U.S. prodding on human rights issues. Speaking with a range of Egyptian authorities, Posner faced what was a stone wall of denial of human rights abuses under the Emergency Law.
A 2010 cable describes the history and uses of the Emergency Law:
“Egypt’s State of Emergency, in effect almost continuously since 1967, allows for the application of the 1958 Emergency Law, which grants…broad powers to arrest individuals without charge and to detain them indefinitely. The Emergency Law creates state security courts, which issue verdicts that cannot be appealed, and can only be modified by the president. The Emergency Law allows the president broad powers to ‘place restrictions’ on freedom of assembly. Separately, the penal code criminalizes the assembly of 5 or more people in a gathering that could ‘threaten public order’.”
By now the U.S. government must be abundantly aware that the Egyptian regime will not undertake serious democratic reforms. The cables confirm this.
Concerning President Mubarak’s impending trip to Washington in 2009, to meet with Obama, this U.S. Embassy cable states that Mubarak “understands that the [Obama] Administration wants to restore the sense of warmth that has traditionally characterized the U.S.-Egyptian partnership. The Egyptians want the visit to demonstrate that Egypt remains America’s ‘ indispensable Arab ally’.” The cable reveals that “Mubarak continues to state that in his view Iraq needs a ‘tough, strong military officer who is fair’ as leader,” and finds this to be a “telling observation,” that, “we believe, describes Mubarak’s own view of himself as someone who is tough but fair, who ensures the basic needs of his people.” Mubarak repeatedly stresses that he fears any reform will open the door to revolution, such as the case of Iran in 1979, or the advent of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. The U.S. Embassy is quite clear about the stance of Mubarak toward his domestic political opposition, noting that the military is not geared toward fighting external threats, and “EGIS Chief Omar Soliman and Interior Minister al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics.” In Mubarak’s view, “violence” would arise from “unleashed personal and civil liberties.” Indeed, he has only been “supportive of improvements in human rights in areas that do not affect public security or stability,” such as campaigns against “female genital mutilation.”
About the 2011 elections, the Americans said of Mubarak that “it is likely he will run again, and, inevitably, win.” National Democratic Party insider and former minister Dr. Ali El Deen Hilal Dessouki relegated democracy to a “long term goal,” even describing the political system as “pharaohnic.” The U.S. Embassy was well aware of a range of Egyptian government attempts to “suppress critical opinion,” by taking action against journalists, bloggers, and even an amateur poet, flooding the courts with lawsuits against them based on fabricated charges. The Emergency Law was used to block a court-ordered release of a blogger. One cable notes: “In a blogging environment often critical of the government, the GOE has selectively moved against certain bloggers.” This cable states that “Egyptian democracy and human rights efforts…are being stymied.”
The Fears of the Government of Egypt: Iran, Muslim Brotherhood, Bloggers
One thing that stands out in the cables is the recurring pattern in Egyptian government officials’ remarks, right up to President Mubarak, about their dominant fears—the most commonly cited ones are Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and bloggers.
Mubarak seems obsessed with supposed Iranian attempts to undermine his rule by cultivating support with his domestic opposition. In fact, he sees Iranian influence and Iranian maneuvers almost everywhere across the Middle East and North Africa.
The U.S. Embassy cables detail the deliberate persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Mubarak regime, in the run up to elections. In a briefing to Senator John Kerry, the Prime Minister of Qatar, Hamad bin Jissim Al Thani, states that the “The Egyptian government…has jailed 10,000 Muslim Brotherhood members without bringing court cases against them.” This also affects Mubarak’s decisions on succession and the option of bequeathing power to his son, Gamal: the Prime Minister of Qatar noted that President Mubarak “is thinking about how his son can take his place and how to stave off the growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Across the cables the Muslim Brotherhood is mentioned in numerous other contexts.
“Egypt’s bloggers are playing an increasingly important role in broadening the scope of acceptable political and social discourse, and self-expression,” and Egyptian bloggers work as human rights activists, although this has been diminished by various government crackdowns and the turn to other social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. While usually targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, the government “has also used the Emergency Law in some recent cases to target bloggers and labor demonstrators.” But, according to Interior Ministry State Security Director Rahman, the Muslim Brotherhood is the “mother of all extremism and terrorism in Egypt and the world.”
Economic Crisis and Domestic Discontent
While much has been made of the causes and catalysts of the present protests, few media reports focus on Egyptians’ economic plight, unlike the U.S. Embassy cables. This cable states that “Economic reform is ongoing although Egypt still suffers from widespread poverty affecting 35-40% of the population.” Another cable indicates that, “the effects of the global economic crisis on Egypt are beginning to be felt. As the global credit crunch worsens, Egypt remains vulnerable as exports, Suez Canal revenues, tourism, and remittances — its largest sources of revenue — are all down and likely to continue to fall.” And yet, “Mubarak will likely resist further economic reform if he views it as potentially harmful to public order and stability” apparently dismissing the significance of events such as the fact that “there were bread riots in 2008 for the first time since 1977.” Indeed, “Economic reform momentum has slowed and high GDP growth rates of recent years have failed to lift Egypt’s lower classes out of poverty. High inflation, coupled with the impact of the global recession, has resulted in an increase in extreme poverty, job losses, a growing budget deficit and projected 2009 GDP growth of 3.5% – half last year’s rate.”
Nonetheless, even while speaking of likely economic woes to plague Egypt as a result of the global financial crisis, Gamal Mubarak, son of the dictator, gives his expert fiscal advice to Senator Joe Lieberman, telling him what the U.S. needs to do with its banking system. Lieberman receives the comments with approval.
Not letting Egyptian human rights abuses stand in the way, the cables detail a continuing and growing level of U.S. military cooperation and support for Egypt, and vice versa. On military relations, in a U.S. Embassy “scene setter” cable for General Schwartz (similar cables were written for FBI director Mueller and Admiral Mullen), we read that the “U.S.- Egypt military relationship is strong, but should change to reflect new regional and transnational threats. More focus is needed on combating emerging threats, including border security, counter terrorism, civil defense, and peacekeeping. Egypt continues to improve efforts to combat arms smuggling into Gaza, but a decision by Field Marshal Tantawi to delay a counter tunneling project threatens progress.” The cable outlines how and why U.S. military assistance matters to the Mubarak regime:
“President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil relationship and consider the USD 1.3 billion in annual FMF as ‘untouchable compensation’ for making and maintaining peace with Israel. The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the U.S. military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace. We believe, however, that our relationship can accomplish much more.”
“Much more” includes trying to get Egypt to play a role in training the Iraqi military. Indeed, one cable speaks of Egypt’s offer “to train Iraqi and Afghan military officials.” Egypt also requested U.S. approval for an Egyptian sale of 140 M1A1 tanks to Iraq, manufactured in Egypt under a production agreement. While proclaiming goals of democracy promotion and respect for human rights in Egypt, the cable concentrates more attention on Egypt sealing over 100 tunnels across from Gaza, needed for the Palestinians to sustain themselves. Other cables also detail the high level military-to-military relations between the U.S. and Egypt.
Never too far: domestic unrest. To Gen. Schwartz: “Your visit will fall on the anniversary of the April 6, 2008 nation-wide strike protesting political and economic conditions. At least one opposition group has called for another April 6 strike this year.”
It is also made clear by that the Egyptian government understands that the military has its own “corporate interests,” and could have a say in who the next leader of Egypt might be. As the Prime Minister of Qatar noted, “the Egyptian ‘people blame America’ now for their plight. The shift in mood on the ground is ‘mostly because of Mubarak and his close ties’ to the United States.”
No Chance for a Popular Uprising
In what might be the grossest miscalculation ever on the part of the Mubarak regime, we encounter an easy dismissal of the possibility for domestic upheaval. An insider in the National Democratic Party and a former minister told the U.S. Embassy that, “widespread politically-motivated unrest…was not likely because it was not part of the ‘Egyptian mentality.’ Threats to daily survival, not politics, were the only thing to bring Egyptians to the streets en masse.”