Peaceful change or pointless tragedy? - Dr Muzaffar Iqbal - Friday, February 04, 2011

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It is too late for euphoric jubilation; the time is ripe for a down-to-earth, realistic and clear understanding of what has suddenly appeared in certain parts of the Arab world. This must be done even at the expense of losing the elation one naturally feels at the shaking of tyrants who have held a very large segment of the Muslim world in their fists for over five decades now. To be sure, what erupted in Tunisia is proving contagious, but even in Tunisia, the ultimate goal of change of a repressive system is still far from visible. There has been change, for sure, but it is a change of faces, not of system. This is more apparent in Egypt, where the euphoric declarations of victory before victory are still hanging in the air.

First there was the surprise, then the shock and blood, with over 130 people dead. During the surprise phase, Hillary Clinton declared the unequivocal support of her country for the regime which has acted as US surrogate in the region for over thirty years. When blood was spilled and people were able to overcome the fear which has oppressed them for a generation, the United States of America started to shift gears.

The vice president wrote an article in The New York Times, asking for change. A vague, almost meaningless article in which he hinted at withdrawal of the large amount of “aid” that has been going to Egypt. Then came the lull and euphoria: for four days, the crowds were not attacked. They were given the impression that the army is on their side. Young men stood on tanks and danced and gave flowers, water and food to the soldiers. The victory was almost at hand, or so they thought.

In their light hearted jubilance, the blow struck by the old and experienced hand that Mubarak is, was also taken lightly: the man who was appointed as vice president was none other than the chief spy and Israeli negotiator, Omar Suleiman. A cunning man who attempted to change the mood by calling for dialogue with all factions. But everyone knows who he is, and how deeply entrenched Mubarak is with his repressive generals and police – all enjoying the benefits of a $1.3bn roll out from Washington. Egyptians misread the silence of the military. Mubarak had used this time to get over the shock and fortify his position. However, this does not mean that he will be able to put the genie back in the bottle.

Although the soldiers did not attack the crowds, no one should have any illusion about the role of the Egyptian military – the main beneficiary of American money. For all practical purposes, Egyptian military is a useless force which has not fought a war for almost 38 years. It is an under-trained, over-armed army, with largely obsolete equipment. It is good for business, but not for fighting. Its top brass is deeply embedded in the corporate segment, running big business, hotels, and housing complexes. Mubarak knows well that loyalty comes with a price and he has been paying that price regularly, though not from his own pocket. He merely rolls down the line what comes from above.

The worst American response, however, came from the US president himself who claimed the high moral ground on February 1, when he declared that “my administration has been in close contact with our Egyptian counterparts and a broad range of the Egyptian people, as well as others across the region and across the globe. And throughout this period, we’ve stood for a set of core principles.” A core set of principles! One wonders if there is any limit for hypocrisy.

The set of four core principles that Obama mentioned in his speech betray, once more, that American leadership is either morally bankrupt or utterly blind. Everyone knows that the core principles of American foreign policy are duplicity, deceit, and deception. This is especially true with regard to the Muslim world where the Americans have supported, and continue to support repressive regimes.

The three principles of American foreign policy that Obama mentioned are: (i) opposition to violence; (ii) universal values, including the rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the freedom to access information; and (iii) the need for change.

None of these principles can be shown to exist; in fact, it is the opposite of these principles which has governed the American foreign policy. Violence has been the means through which Americans installed dictators throughout Latin America and the Muslim world in the late 1950s and 1960s. These dictators and their American supporters have suppressed freedom and the legitimate rights of people in these countries. And the need for change that Obama recognised is a recognition that has come too late. Was he not aware of the need for change when he gave his speech in Cairo almost two years ago?

What has Obama done since then to bring change? Did he act on any of the high-sounding moralising phrases he uttered in his speech? Did he tell the Hosni Mubaraks of the Middle East that their time is up and they should pack up and go? No, there is no indication of any of these principles in the American foreign policy. What we have, instead, is continuous support of oppressive dictators and continuous floundering of human rights even in America. All of this in the name of an open-ended war on terror, which is, in fact, a war of terror.

Egypt, sadly, is not a place one can hope to see transformed in the coming days. A populace which been literally fed on American largess for a whole generation cannot be expected to bite the hand that has been feeding it. The Egyptian state is beholden to the Americans down to the last man and hence no matter how loud the shouts are from the Tahrir Square, the best result one can hope for is a peaceful change of faces, not of the system. The worst, of course, is a pointless tragedy in which no one will be a winner.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email:

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