American Civil War, Egypt, Egyptian Armed Forces, George Orwell, Kirkpatrick Doctrine, Muslim Brotherhood, United States, Washington Post
My post on the Egyptian Coup (‘Egyptian Coup Coverage Execrable‘ July 7) focused on the dissembling and hand wringing displayed by some over the term ‘Coup d’etat’ used by others to describe the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Muhammed Morsi government. Since my post there has been a massacre–some 50 dead outside the Republican Guard complex where the deposed president was thought to be held–and a further deepening of the Egyptian crisis. Two columns by American ‘old media’ stalwarts, George Will and Eugene Robinson, both writing for the Washington Post, are considered here while some contributions from the old lefty New Left Review echo my earlier effort.
George Will first.
In my blog I made a reference to George Orwell’s ‘boot stamping on your face–forever” quote to illustrate two possible outcomes of the Egyptian Coup–both undesirable: continued military dictatorship or civil war. While Orwell’s quote from his novel 1984 describes a fictional totalitarian society and was pointed at then-existing Soviet totalitarianism, I used it in a manner meant to highlight the brutality of all dictatorships, rather than only that of the Soviet Union. Will’s ‘Egypt’s preferable tyranny’ column in the Washington Post of July 10 also uses Orwell’s quote, but in a disingenuous manner, wherein he tries to deflect attention from the fact that he doesn’t call the overthrow a coup d’etat.
In his opening paragraph Will piously cites Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren in order to chastise Mohammed Morsi for ruling “noisily and imprudently (the tone Will strikes here smacks of paternalism).” He then writes that it’s “difficult to welcome a military overthrow of democratic results.”
Difficult, but necessary.
Wiping a salty tear away, he then breaks out the cake and confetti.
To George Will, the Morsi government represented a ‘revolutionary autocracy’ rather than a tried-and-true ‘traditional autocracy’. Although in power for only about a year, the Morsi government might well have become worse than the status quo, and that risk was too great to justify leaving the future of Egypt in the hands of the Egyptian people. That’s pretty much the construction of the argument as Will has laid it out.
Lacking a credible charge of repression against the Morsi government, Will constructs a ‘what if’ argument that is fallacious on its face. Elided from consideration by Will is any other option that may have been available other than a coup d’etat. In setting up his argument this way, Will is playing coy. His elegant construction will come to rest in a cul-de-sac of nostalgia wherein he and his compatriots can break out the bottle rockets to go with their cake and confetti.
Will describe’s Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government as “tyranny portended” while actually existing, reinstated military tyranny is “preferable to Morsi’s because it is more mundane.”
The masses in the streets were revolting for banality?
Will’s argument is redolent of Bush-era preventive war massacre making, but it has deeper roots; besides, not even Will would make the argument that Morsi’s government presented an imminent threat to the United States and therefore could be justifiably overthrown using the doctrine of preemptive war.
So he needs to look elsewhere.
At this point in his article Will decides to pantomime heavy lifting, lest his frequent sprinklings of neo-liberal thought-stopping bromides end up as so much claptrap, undermining his own argument. The “economic dynamism,” “liberalization” and “modernization” he associates with preferable tyrannies come with necessary evils. That’s just ‘reality’, you can hear him saying. Thus “Egypt’s best hope is authoritarianism amenable to amelioration” (and lame alliteration) and is contrasted to the Morsi government’s “democratic coloration, however superficial and evanescent.”
Now we are getting somewhere.
The Morsi government wasn’t actually democratic, just tinted that way? Really? Morsi was elected by 52% of voters last year, an election victory followed by a 64% nationwide voter approval of a new constitution proposed by the government. And however much I, or anyone else, may disagree with the Egyptian Brotherhood, isn’t it a rather inept leap of logic to describe the last year as just window dressing for a potentially brutal theologized autarchy? Here Will effects a lecture-from-on-high tone using Great White Men from the Western Canon quotes to hopefully conceal what is at heart a heartless and thoroughly contemptible apologia for dictatorship.
That’s what his argument amounts to.
Will then reaches into his bag of tricks and dusts off an ossified Cold War doctrine that rests on a tortured logic (pun intended) in the ‘Kirkpatrick Doctrine’. That doctrine–which I remember vividly from it’s application throughout the 1980s in Latin America–retroactively justified the overthrow of left-leaning nations and proactively supported the propping up of some of the hemisphere’s most brutal dictatorships.
Beginning with the Chilean Coup of 1972 and proceeding onwards through collaboration with the neo-Nazi generals of Argentina, the genocidal regimes of Guatemala and the training, equipping and deployment of an illegal army intent on overthrowing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine posed itself as the only real alternative to Soviet tyranny, or so it was postulated. Of course, this was total bullshit then, and 25 years later only smells worse.
In turn, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine relied on the ‘He’s a son-of-a-bitch, but our son-of-a-bitch‘ argument as first articulated by President Franklin Roosevelt to describe Nicaragua’s then dictator, Anastasio Somoza Garcia and his brutal dictatorship. The needs of us empire to secure developing third world peripheries for us business were, and appear to continue to be, the overriding priority that shapes us foreign policy.
Will ends his column by cracking open the us constitution and instructing Egypt’s revolutionaries on the benefits of compromise. A final stomach-churning leap into the refuge of an oversimplification located in the American Civil War wraps it up: Abraham Lincoln was actually a “traditional autocrat” who had to reject “popular sovereignty” in border states that supported slavery in order to uphold higher values (preservation of the union, equality, etc.).
Someone should poke George Will–preferably with a sharp stick–and remind him that it’s 2013 and we live in a multipolar world now. He should consider re-shelving this shopworn, sorry-assed excuse for intelligent political analysis for something more nuanced and modern.
Then again, perhaps he shouldn’t be disturbed.
It was always the overarching framework of us empire to bifurcate all conflicts into the Evil Empire v.s. the Great Democracy, no matter how mendacious one had to be to stuff all the heterogeneity of regional and local conflicts into that filter. The beneficiaries of this cleaving have always been the plutocrats. But as with Will’s use of an empty metaphor to help us understand the crisis in Egypt–or justify the military’s solution to that crisis–the Kirkpatrick Doctrine cannot account for all of the changes in the world that have happened over the past 25 years that alter fundamentally the global context within which those changes have occurred: the rise of China–a one party state apparatus in charge of key industries and institutions necessary for state control, but with a limited private sector; the collapse of state socialist regimes but the rise of the Bolivarian Revolutions of the 2000s and the endurance of Cuba; the triumph of neo-liberal economic models together with the 2008 cratering of the global financial system, etc.
Will’s reduction of the Arab Spring uprising forces to those of an amorphous mass of ‘democratic’ and vaguely ‘secular’ forces set in opposition to a potential theocratic tyranny strikes me as hopelessly out of date, and suggests the potential bankruptcy of his ideology.
Perhaps there is a silver lining here.
If you have any doubt as to the us government’s posture toward the Morsi government, read the documents secured through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests made by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and Al Jazeera, distilled into an article entitled “US bankrolled anti-Morsi activists” (Al Jazeera, July 10 2013). So long as Will is pulling out foreign policy doctrine from the 1980s, I’ll do him one better by locating Al Jazeera’s report within the context of us counterinsurgency warfare; the ‘democracy assistance’ programs (funding murderers, political charlatans, dirty cops, and other un-sundry characters) run by the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID as described in the Al Jazeera article, sound as if they were taken from the pages of David Petreaus’ fabulous ‘civic’ programs used in Iraq or those I personally witnessed in Nicaragua in the 1980s: destabilization under the guise of democracy (now NGO) support and so on. The Al Jazeera report is informative and holds up well to the poorly articulated, non-documented blather of bullshit that constitutes the national security establishment’s dismissal of it to date.
I salivate thinking what Wikileaks will unearth here.
We now turn to Eugene Robinson, another Washington Post columnist who recently weighed in on the Egyptian Coup, but one who represents the outer limits of loyal dissent with us empire.
No hand wringing here.
Robinson’s column, “Egypt’s dark future” (Washington Post, July 8 2013) calls the overthrow a coup d’etat that “puts the military as firmly in command as it was during the autocratic reign of Hosni Mubarak.” He suggests Morsi tried to assert civilian control over the military; but I’m not sure they even went that far. Morsi’s government also upheld both the prerogatives of the Egyptian military caste as well as those of the multi-national corporations; in short, continued capital accumulation as per usual.
So why was the Morsi government considered such a threat?
Robinson’s best section is worth quoting in full:
“Under Morsi, an elected Islamist-led government honored the terms of a peace treaty with Israel. It was an extraordinary example for the rest of the Muslim world. Now, alas, we have an example of what happens when an elected Islamist-led government gets too big for its britches.”
Robinson ends by urging the Tahrir Square multitudes to “try ousting the generals next time.”
Sometimes I just love reading Eugene Robinson; this is one of those times.
He just cut right through Will’s elegant, but ultimately defenseless, apologia and calls a spade a spade.
Thanks for that, Mr. Robinson.
The most informative coverage of the Arab Spring I’ve found anywhere has been with the New Left Review, in particular articles by Tariq Ali, Hamzen Kandil, and Perry Anderson. Points made by these social theorists are worth exploring further, and both intersect the aforementioned columns and bring me to the last theme of this essay: What about those multitudes? Why did they explode in 2011; why again, now?
On the 2011 uprising, Perry Anderson asserts, “The single spark that started the prairie fire suggests the answer. Everything began with the death in despair of a pauperized vegetable vendor, in a small provincial town in the hinterland of Tunisia. Beneath the commotion now shaking the Arab world have been volcanic social pressures: polarization of incomes, rising food prices, lack of dwellings, massive unemployment of educated—and uneducated—youth, amid a demographic pyramid without parallel in the world.” (New Left Review, “On the Concatenation in the Arab world” No. 68 March-April 2011.)
That sounds about right.
Elsewhere New Left Review notes that the failure of the Egyptian masses to target, and potentially split, the Egyptian military during the 2011 uprising was a tactical mistake that has contributed to the present impasse. If the Egyptian military had been split perhaps a faction amenable to a revolutionary program more in the mold of what happened in Venezuela could have been possible; leftist Islamists? Instead, Egyptians elected the Brotherhood–who managed to piss everybody off–and in stepped the West and the military.
A last permutation on this question appears in the same issue of New Left Review (No. 68 March-April 2011) in an interview with Hazem Kandil, a political sociologist with Cambridge University. Coming so soon on the heels of the February popular uprising, the exchange is timely, informative and, in at least one spot, a bit awkward. Kandil is asked by NLR about “the sub-proletariat of the slums in Cairo and the other big cities.” He puts their numbers at a staggering five to six million people “…contingent human beings for those with a settled life, whom they terrify, as people possessing nothing, descending from their sinister habitats on the ordered city, speaking a strangely distorted Arabic, desperately looking for jobs, stealing goods and harassing citizens before retreating to their dark world. Might they not one day ransack the city and burn it down? Fortunately, this menacing human mass was entirely absent from the revolt, which probably contributed to its civilized and peaceful character. A day before Mubarak stepped down, activists in Alexandria were planning to summon it into the city, to swell the numbers of the movement even more.”
Might I suggest that the very absence of these slum dwellers may have contributed to the ultimate failure of the uprising? Perhaps the secular left balked at turning the slum dwellers against the military, and ended up with the Muslim Brotherhood as the best organized opposition ready to capitalize on a democratic process?
The NLR interviewer seems a bit stunned by Kandil’s response, and follows up not once, but twice, asking whether a statistically significant portion of these people are educated and organized and have any human agency at all, finishing with the obvious: “How could there be any hope of an Egyptian democracy if they were excluded from political mobilization in advance, as liabilities for any demonstration?”
Unfortunately Kandil’s attitude towards the Cairo slum dwellers sounds an awful lot like those doctrinaire leftists of another era railing against this social class or the other as insufficiently revolutionary to carry forward revolt, or act as the vanguard, or harboring character defects, criminal elements (ghetto revolts) or whatever.
In any case, it is interesting to consider: just the specter of slum dwellers flooding Cairo and Alexandria sent the Mubarak regime packing…