The Middle East Revolutions in Historical Perspective: Egypt, the Palestinians, and the United States

          From the early 1880s down to the end of World War II, British and French colonial rulers, among others, held the Arab peoples of the Middle East in subjugation. Weakened by the war against Hitlerism, the European imperialists retreated under pressure from the United States, which stepped in to take their place. The creation of Israel as the last "colonial-settler state" (1948) and Israel's expulsion of the indigenous population of Palestine from their land and homes framed one side of the European retreat; the failed Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, known as the Suez Canal crisis (1956), framed the other.

          During the war the U.S. moved decisively to secure the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and transfer the desert kingdom from the British sphere of influence to one of hegemony by the U.S. and American oil corporations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered into a collaboration with the reactionary King Ibn Saud — a "lethal embrace" that his successors, Truman and Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon, steadily developed.[1] Through the machinations of the CIA, Iran and the oil-producing countries in the Persian Gulf region came under Washington's protection.

          Thereafter, the overall framework for Middle East order that American policy planners constructed was essentially a continuation of the European one, based on support for monarchs, military dictators, and Saudi Islamist extremism. Israel fitted into the picture because Pentagon officials considered it a possible base from which to project U.S. power throughout the region — a prospect that Saudi Arabia found unobjectionable. In 1967, when the U.S.-Israel relationship was established in its present form, Washington's commitment to Israel went hand-in-hand with its hostility to the secular nationalism of Egypt's Gamal Abdel-Nasser.


          Now a spontaneous, unplanned democratic revolution is in progress in modern Egypt. The army and police-centered political power, to save itself from the threat of democracy, has forced President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled with unstinting U.S. support for thirty years, to transfer power to the army and exit the scene. The army leadership, while engaging the democratic movement, is fighting to control the pace and content of reform. Egypt with 82 million people is the largest Arab state and one of the most strategically important, besides being a cultural leader and former unifier of the Arab world. The system of economic exploitation and private plunder that military dictators Anwar Sadat and Mubarak operated for the past forty-years is deeply rooted. Popular attempts to disentangle the armed forces from the economy — in effect dismantle the social basis of the dictatorship — are being resisted by Egypt's military rulers and privileged elites. The military commanders have not abdicated as they should but instead merely promised to allow "an elected civilian government to . . . build a free democratic state," while at present ruling by fiat.[2] This persistence of military rule is the first structural obstacle that Egypt's oppressed people face as they struggle to move their peaceful revolution forward.

          The second arises from the deceitful U.S. response to the popular revolutions triggered by the political awakening in Tunisia that then spread to Egypt and Yemen, where protests are continuing. Since Mubarak's fall, over 10,000 protesters have called for freedom and reform in Bahrain, a tiny Persian Gulf island-country headed by Sunni king Hamad al-Khalifa and his crown prince who rule over a population that is 70 percent Shi'ite. Neither the family dynasty, neighboring Saudi Arabia, nor the Obama administration want this oil-producing and refining state, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, to become a democratic nation. Elite opinion in the U.S., however, requires Obama to publicly deplore the bloody beating-down of the unarmed peaceful protesters, which has been taking place with U.S.-supplied tanks and crowd-control weapons.

          In nearby Iran, too, public protests have re-ignited, though here Washington has quickly and unequivocally condemned the government unlike its tepid, ambiguous response to Egypt's crisis.[3] Sympathy demonstrations now routinely roil Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In Algeria, which borders Tunisia and has a dictatorship that lacks legitimacy, youthful protesters have taken to the streets demanding reform.[4] Rich, oil and gas-exporting Libya too is beset by popular demands for Egyptian-like reform, and is responding by using weapons supplied by U.S. and European (French, British, Italian and Russian) arms dealers to brutally suppress calls for the ouster of dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi and his corrupt regime.[5] Qaddafi has ruled for forty-one years and has been America's pal since 2006, but as of this writing the forces supporting the "dictator-for-life" have firm control only of the capital, Tripoli.

          Taken together, this firestorm of peaceful democratic protests, facilitated by cell phones and satellite images, have deeply frightened dictators and monarchs while affecting the entire American structure of Middle East domination and, indeed, U.S. relations with Muslim peoples across Asia. A whole American strategy is collapsing, forcing Washington planners to either continue on their reactionary course or abandon the dictators, monarchs, and Israeli Zionists whose policies have generated the crisis.

          In the event that Egyptian civic organizations of a secular, democratic nature proliferate, that the protesters in Egypt do not demobilize, and that they continue to influence the political process, ordinary Egyptian citizens can be expected to demand that their state authorities start pursuing an independent, pro-Egypt foreign policy consonant with Egyptian and Arab interests. This implies supporting the interests of the occupied Palestinian people and ending Egypt's complicity in Gaza's blockade. Although the managers of the American national security state suddenly professed support for a less suffocating status quo for the Egyptian people as it became clear that Mubarak was doomed — "Mubarakism without Mubarak" — they are unlikely to accept a sequence of outcomes that directly challenge American power and regional security goals.

           Economic misery, skyrocketing food prices and high youth unemployment produced by decades of neo-liberal globalization policies made Egypt's protests particularly volatile. Harsh political repression intensified the force of the economic violence produced by a neo-liberal globalization that drew in foreign capital from around the word while leaving the majority of Egyptians impoverished. This set the stage for a revolution in which Egyptian women and men, working in the new factories built during the 1990s, took a leading role.

          The revolutionary upsurge can also be traced to the reactions of Egyptians to the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003; the Israeli-U.S. war against Lebanon in 2006 and Hezbollah's successful armed resistance to it; continued Israeli expansionism in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and Israel's blockade, with Egyptian support, of the Gazan Palestinians since 2007. The massive war crimes that Israel, with U.S. support, has perpetrated against Palestinians living in Gaza did not go unnoticed in the Arab countries. These background events not only keep the region in turmoil; they also make clear that critical factors in the outcome of the democratic movement will hinge on the willingness of the Egyptian officer class and its U.S. backers to share power with the emerging democratic forces and modify fundamental domestic and international policies.[6]

          Arab historian and activist Gilbert Achcar pointed to a vast array of Egyptian groups spearheading the opposition to the military-police dictatorship, led by Mubarak. They included: people who demonstrated solidarity with the second Palestinian uprising of 2000, and later opposed the U.S. assault and occupation of Iraq; leaders of Egypt's free (non-government sanctioned) labor movement; associations of urban youth movements; members of the middle class; leaders of civil society movements like "Kefaya [Enough!]" and the liberal Mohamed ElBaradei, as well as representatives of the once banned Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, has evolved over many decades into a non-radical, non-clerical organization composed primarily of doctors, engineers, and other professionals for whom civil society concerns are paramount and religious ones appear secondary, though whether they really are is another matter. Not surprisingly, Brotherhood leaders have signaled support for the army's leadership.

          Many of these leading players understand that the armed forces have long acted behind the scenes as a force for their oppression though some continue to harbor illusions about the neutrality of the national army. Mubarak's officers and the businessmen he enriched with U.S.-funded patronage sought to exploit those popular illusions so as to weaken the protesters.[7]

          Reviewing schematically what has occurred, we see that during the first week of the nationwide democratic upsurge — January 25 to February 4 — the protests for democracy were so powerful that some anticipated that the force of the people would quickly sweep away the dictator. The demonstrators converged on public squares, in peaceful, orderly protests, demanding an end to military dictatorship and the implementation of universal principles of freedom, democracy, and economic and social justice. Gradually their demands became more specific: an immediate end to the "state of emergency," the writing of a new democratic constitution, an end to torture and police repression, reform of the corrupt judiciary, and punishment for all who committed crimes against the people. There were more radical demands being put forth by striking workers and protesters in different industries. These included a more equitable distribution of profits, a system of progressive taxation, a minimum wage, food subsidies and other forms of support for the unemployed, Unfortunately, the movement led by the middle-class and militant youth tended to slight them.[8]

          Instead, what the middle class called for, above all, was the resignation of Mubarak and his entire military government, including vice-president Suleiman; the "creation of a broad-based transitional government appointed by a 14-member committee, composed of senior judges, youth leaders, and members of the military"; dissolution of Mubarak's one-party (NDP) parliament; and elections following the drafting of new constitution by a council of 40 public intellectuals and constitutional experts.[9] Unless all officials who formed the dictatorship resigned, and their structure of rule, including the state security apparatus, was dismantled, many dissidents believed their sacrifices would have been in vain and they would have to live in fear of eventually being targeted for arrest and torture. Their fear dissipated as they grew more confident and their numbers swelled.

          Until the very end, when it was a choice of Mubarak or themselves, and their American advisers had helped them to see just why Mubarak had to go, the top leaders of the National Army refused to break with him. As the situation unfolded, senior commanders refrained from ordering soldiers to fire on citizens and offered protesters protection at some moments while encouraging them to dismantle their barricades and go home at others. On the uprising's 9th day, after police had failed to crush the demonstrators, Mubarak's intelligence service gathered a small army of armed thugs and had them bused into Cairo, where they converged on the huge Tahrir Square, "epicenter" of the national revolt. Agents provocateurs, plain-clothes riot police, unemployed people whom the regime paid 17 dollars a day, thugs mounted on horseback and camels, attacked the pro-democracy protesters with fists, clubs, knives, long iron bars, Molotov cocktails, guns, and bullets, while uniformed security forces shot at them with U.S.-supplied tear gas grenades.

          The assault on the peaceful dissenters occurred after Obama had reportedly pressed Mubarak to resign and allow his newly appointed vice president and "torturer-in-chief," Gen. Omar Suleiman, to put down the revolt. Suleiman, trained by the U.S. military, had been the CIA's Cairo "point man," in charge of expediting the illegal U.S. program of extreme rendition, in which prisoners were sent to Egypt (among other countries) to be tortured.[10] Journalist Pepe Escobar writes that Egyptian protesters "from all walks of life, from students to lawyers, not to mention Egyptian human-rights groups" know that Suleiman "supervised US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) renditions as well as torture of al-Qaeda suspects)… [and] was a minister without portfolio and director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, the national intelligence agency, from 1993 to 2011." But it "doesn't matter that the Egyptian street abhors him; for the top echelons of the army he is the new rais. Al-Jazeera describes him as 'the point man' for Egypt's secret relations with Israel…. On the other side of the spectrum, Human Rights Watch stresses, 'Egyptians… see Suleiman as Mubarak II, especially after the lengthy interview he gave to state television Feb 3 in which he accused the demonstrators in Tahrir Square of implementing foreign agendas. He did not even bother to veil his threats of retaliation against protesters.'"[11]

          Suleiman allowed military police to attack journalists and human rights workers and bears ultimate responsibility for the deaths of over 300 demonstrators, mass imprisonments and mistreatment of detainees, and dozens of illegal disappearances.[12] When Suleiman took over from Mubarak, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and Frank Wisner, Jr. her special envoy to Cairo, initially let it be known that Washington supported him. Finally, on the 18th day of protests, after workers had staged strikes throughout the country and millions of Egyptians had called for the end of the regime, Mubarak stepped down. This opened the present interlude of freedom and negotiation while still leaving the military in charge and the foundation of military rule intact.

          The military has normalized its central role in Egyptian politics much as Japan's armed forces did after the Russo-Japanese War ended in 1905. Getting rid of Suleiman and his ilk and ending Egyptian military rule will not be easy. As Middle East correspondent Anthony Shadid pointed out, "Since the revolt the military has … emerg[ed] as the pivotal player in politics it long sought to manage behind the scenes. The beneficiary of nearly $40 billion in American aid during Mr. Mubarak's rule, its interests span the gamut of economic life — from the military industry to businesses like road and housing construction, consumer goods and resort management. Even leading opposition leaders, like Mohamed ElBaradei, have acknowledged that the military will have a key role in a transition."[13]

          The 74-year-old Suleiman and 75-year-old Defense Minister, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the Higher Military Council that controls the government, have conceded to the protesters' demand for a dissolution of the parliament and suspension of the constitution. But as they struggle to retain the military's grip, they enjoy the backing of the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia — as well as leading European powers — Britain, Germany, France, and Italy. All of them are searching for safe ways to tamp down the revolutionary ferment and turn Egypt's crisis to their advantage. Because U.S. taxpayers annually provide $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, second only to Israel for countries where the U.S. is not at war, these top Egyptian generals remain in close contact with the Pentagon and members of Congress, as well as powerful lobbyists who profit from doing business with their regime. They also enjoy the support of pro-Zionists in all branches of the U.S. government as well as right-wing pundits who back Obama's approach to shaping the Egyptian movement so that it remains responsive to U.S. priorities.

Whither Egypt?

          A brief comparison of Egypt and South Korea, societies with entirely different political cultures, reveals both obstacles to and possibilities for democratic transitions. Both are nations in which bureaucratic planners in Washington fostered military dictatorships that stifled democratic forces and in which they tried to insure that each country filled its respective place within a U.S.-dominated global neo-liberal order. The idea of shutting out Soviet influence in these countries cannot explain U.S. policy toward them. Although today South Korea has 48 million citizens — little more than half the population of Egypt — and the two nations operate in dissimilar international environments, the comparison is fruitful.

          Under dictator Syngman Rhee (1948-60), who ruled during and after the Korean War, South Korea lacked a strongly independent, indigenous capitalist class and allowed few civil freedoms. Forced from power by popular protests, Rhee left the country and Gen. Park Chung Hee (1961-79) stepped in as the South's first military dictator. The U.S. whose policies had set the stage for the growth of militarism and dictatorship strongly supported Park and was able to entice him to send troops to fight in Vietnam. Nevertheless, starting in the Park years South Korea experienced rapid, export-led industrialization and undertook major political and economic reforms. Its capitalist and financial class grew large and autonomous despite being hampered by the armed forces and their huge size. (In 2010 it had 653,000 active forces and 3.2 million regular reserves, far larger than Egypt's military.[14]) Korean capitalists too benefited from the dual economic assistance of Washington and Tokyo.

          When disaffected military officers assassinated Park, Gen. Chun Doo Hwan seized power and on May 1, 1980, imposed martial law. Immediately student demonstrations erupted in Seoul demanding Chun's resignation and the lifting of martial law. Chun soon had their national leaders arrested. Then on May 18, while the rest of the country stood aside, students in the southwestern city of Gwangju gathered in a city center (renamed "Democracy Square") where they organized protest marches against police and army units.[15] With U.S. diplomatic and military backing, Chun sent in over 3,000 paratroopers and 18,000 riot police who went on a rampage. Over the next few days students and ordinary citizens armed themselves in self-defense, fought pitched battles with the army and police, and gained temporary control of the city. Nine days later their rebellion was crushed. The official (incorrect and underreported) death toll was 174; the citizens of Gwangju claimed an estimated 2,000 people had died.[16] Although Chun was responsible for their deaths, as well as for the crushing of labor unions and the subsequent incarceration and torture of thousands of political prisoners, President Ronald Reagan, strongly supported Chun, just as he did other enemies of democracy and human rights throughout the world.

          Chun was to be the South's last military dictator. After Gwangju, movements for democratization spread and, finally, in June 1987, massive student-led demonstrations overthrew Chun. In the wake of his fall, Korea's democratization movement deepened, thanks in part to the new international environment that was being shaped by the reforms of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev whose initiatives helped end the cold war.

          During the 1980s, Korean citizens, acting through strong labor unions and real opposition parties, succeeded in exerting continuous pressure on the political process. While the student activists were merging with the urban middle class, South Korea was developing economically on foundations laid by the earlier Park and Chun dictatorships. Rising wages and various social reforms marked South Korea's economic advance. It gradually deepening its developmental-state policies modeled on Japan's and became a rule-of-law state.[17]

          The Korean transition failed to ignite a regional revolutionary conflagration on the scale of the widespread democracy movements that are presently sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, though the Korean example did influence Taiwan's transition from single-party military dictatorship to multi-party democracy, which began in 1988. However, as the 1990s unfolded, the democratic revolutions in Asia stalled. Governments in Seoul adopted more neo-liberal policies and economic power came to be concentrated in about thirty giant conglomerates (chaebol). Income inequalities deepened and legislative restrictions were imposed on unions.

          South Korea with its large middle class and ability to buy off opposition reminds us that multi-party democracy and free elections are compatible with neo-liberal economic exploitation and anti-people domestic policies. The South exists in a condition of uncompleted civil war with the North, whose actions often helped legitimate the South's military rule. Governments in Seoul continue to play a buffer role for the U.S. with nearby North Korea, China, and Russia. Unable to end the American military presence in the form of bases and troops, they have been compelled to uphold an unequal "status of forces" agreement with Washington. Yet the combination of U.S. overextension in two costly, unsuccessful wars, and China's rise as the world's second economic superpower with the means to balance U.S. domination in northeast Asia, gives Korean leaders room for maneuver.

          Egypt, in contrast, has no U.S. bases on its soil yet occupies a place in the international order that allows less freedom of maneuver, though it does have some flexibility. Its economy is less dynamic than South Korea's and it has never been a developmental state or one in which the rule of law gained much traction. Its armed forces are large but its intelligence and police forces are even bigger. According to a recent study, the Ministry of Interior commanded 1.7 million men in 2009, including 850,000 police and staff, 450,000 security troops, 400,000 secret police, and plainclothes auxiliaries.[18] It also operates a network of prisons highly valued by the CIA. Egypt's armed forces participate in all areas of the economy. They rein in Egyptian businessmen and foster a corrupt crony capitalism. Finally, one of the functions of the Egyptian military as a U.S. client is that it maintains peace with Israel and accommodates an expansionist Zionism. Hopefully, that peace will continue but no government that emerges in Cairo will want to give Israel a "free hand" in the region the way Sadat and Mubarak did. Rather than allow Israel to enjoy impunity, future Egyptian governments will seek to avoid another war while ending support for Gaza's blockade and renegotiating Egypt's unequal 1979 peace treaty with Israel.[19] The generals may very well calculate that in their time of extremis such steps as opening the Rafah border crossing into Gaza will gain them badly needed legitimacy at home.

          The future of an Egyptian democratic transition still hangs in the balance. The army has taken power. It continues to rule by emergency decree but the overall situation remains fluid. The extremely courageous revolutionary movement so far has not suffered any violent setback; but neither has it proposed anything beyond a democratic political authority and a new constitution, which, depending on who drafts it, could well mean the suppression of strikes and labor unions that have energized the revolution. Egypt's youthful democratic leaders, like the protesters in occupied Palestine, are seeking freedom and justice but must overcome legacies of military-police domination, extreme poverty generated by neo-liberal capitalism, and humiliating subordination to U.S. and Israeli policies. They can achieve much by not losing sight of the fact that, as Noam Chomsky astutely observed, democracy is "process, not goal."


This is an updated, revised version of an article posted at japanfocus.org on Feb. 15, 2011; updated Feb. 20. My thanks to Noam Chomsky, James Petras, and Mark Selden for information, perspective and editorial suggestions.

1. Michael Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Petroleum Dependency (Metropolitan Books, 2004), pp. 26-55; Alfred E. Eckes, Jr. and Thomas W. Zeiler, Globalization and the American Century (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 114-5.

2. Chris McGreal, "Army and protesters disagree over Egypt's path to democracy," posted Feb. 12, 2011, at guardian.co.uk.

3. Michael Slackman and J. David Goodman, "Unrest Grows in Bahrain as Police Kill a 2nd Protestor," New York Times, Feb. 15, 2011.

4. Martin Chukov, "Algerian protestors clash with police as Egypt fervour spreads," posted Feb. 12, 2011 at guardian.co.uk.

5. See Defense Industry Daily and Des Carney for ISN Security Watch, "Arming the Maghreb," Nov. 17, 2009.

6. The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict, with an Introduction by Naomi Klein, ed. by Adam Horowitz, Lizzy Ratner, and Philip Weiss (The Nation Books, 2011). The editors of this abridged version of the much longer report focus on the background to and the main events of the December 2008-January 2009 assault. The entire report is online here.

7. Gilbert Achcar interviewed by Farooq Sulehira, Socialist Project, Bulletin No 459, Feb. 7, 2011.

8. Nada Matta, "The Egyptian Uprising and Workers' Grievances," ZNet, Feb. 17, 2011.

9. Matta, ibid.

10. On the web here.

11. Pepe Escobar, "'Sheik al-Torture' is now a democrat," posted Feb. 9, 2011.

12. Liam Stack, "Among Egypt's Missing, Tales of Torture and Prison," New York Times, posted Feb. 17, 2011.

13. Anthony Shadid, "Discontented Within Egypt Face Power of Old Elites," New York Times, Feb. 4, 2011.

14. Republic of Korea armed forces statistics are taken from Wikipedia, based on official ROK sources.

15. Georgy Katsiaficas and Na Khan-chae, eds., South Korean Democracy: Legacy of the Gwangju Uprising (Routledge, 2006), p. 3.

16. Hosei daigaku Ohara Shakai mondai kenkyujo, ed., Shakai, rodo undo dai nenpyo, san kan, 1965-1985 (Rodo Junposha, 1986), p. 279.

17. Mikyung Chin, "Civil Society in South Korean Democratization," in David Arase, ed., The Challenge of Change: East Asia in the New Millennium (Institute of East Asian Studies, Univ. of California, Berkeley, 2003), p. 202.

18. Clement Moore Henry and Robert Springborg, Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East (Cambridge Univ. Press), p. 195.

19. Daniel Levy, "Israel's Options After Mubarak," Al Jazeera, posted Feb. 13, 2011.

Herbert Bix writes on war and foreign policy and is the author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan.

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