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The US has put its boot on the scale

by Natasha Iskander, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, NYU. 10:42 pm Saturday February 5. Professor Iskander is Egyptian-American and works on development in the Middle East and North Africa.

The millions of protestors have been clear: “The people want the fall of the regime! Mubarak leave!”  The responses of the US to unambiguous calls from the Egyptian people for the right to determine their own future have not only been deeply condescending, but also represent a dangerous collusion with the regime.

Omar Suleiman, spy-chief turned VP, has pledged to steward an “orderly transition,” but has refused to begin dismantling a political system that has for thirty years bolstered kleptocracy and oppression.  He has postponed meeting with a group of prominent intellectuals, businessmen, and analysts who have reached out to negotiate a transition.

Instead, he has told the protestors to go home; even more disdainfully, he has told the parents of protestors to tell their children to go home.  In other words, the massive protests that are a revolution unfolding should not be taken seriously; they are merely instances of adolescent acting-out.  Obama, perhaps unwittingly, has fed that spin: “To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices” he said on February 1.   We hear your voices, but we will not listen.  Instead, the US government will continue to back a dictatorship and the security apparatus that has made it possible. “Transition takes some time… There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare,” said Clinton today, presenting her recommendations as so eminently reasonable, so adult and measured in contrast to the protestors’ demands for Mubarak to resign immediately, now spun as rash and destabilizing.

Meanwhile, Suleiman refused today to repeal the Emergency Law that has been in force in Egypt since 1981 and which gives the authorities legal right to hold anyone without cause, to detain those arrested indefinitely, and to prevent public assembly (protests!).  “At a time like this?” responded Suleiman when Abdel-Nour, the secretary general of the meek opposition Wafd Party, suggested its repeal.  Yes, time is precisely what is at stake. There are seven months between now and the elections that Suleiman still maintains will be held in September, and that is plenty of time to detain, torture, and disappear anyone who has defended this revolution.  It is more than enough time to recast the millions who flooded the streets of all of Egypt’s major cities to demand an end to dictatorship and the right to elect their leaders as enemies of the people who need to be eliminated.

If the US continues to feign naivite and argue that transition is indeed happening, it will — under the guise of adult reasonableness — have gifted the regime with the time to brutalize citizens who have peacefully and respectfully voiced their demands to be treated as adults with the right to determine their own futures in a country that has consistently and strategically infantilized them.

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  1. Stephen Smith wrote:

    And yet, we keep hearing from Obama’s spokesmen, “We are not in control of the situation – ultimately it is up to the Egyptians.” Absolutely disgusting.

    Posted February 6, 2011 at 2:02 am | Permalink
  2. Stephen Smith wrote:

    BTW – do you have a source on that “At a time like this?” quote and his position on ending emergency rule? I looked on Google News but couldn’t find anything


    Posted February 6, 2011 at 2:08 am | Permalink
  3. Don Stoll wrote:

    As Prof. Iskander knows, for the United States to give an oppressive and thieving regime “time to brutalize citizens who have peacefully and respectfully voiced their demands to be treated as adults” is nothing new. But time and repetition cannot throw a veil over the ugliness of the hypocrisy, so her elegant formulation of a point already made countless times is appreciated.

    Posted February 6, 2011 at 5:46 am | Permalink
  4. Natasha Iskander wrote:

    here’s the source For Omar Suleiman’s comment:

    Posted February 6, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  5. Jacob AG wrote:

    The comments section is sometimes a whole lot of people agreeing with each other (and the author), so in the spirit of J.S. Mill and indeed our own Bill Easterly, I’ll try to express a dissenting view, hoping that maybe it will sharpen the author’s argument by being refuted (or refute the author’s argument by being irrefutable).

    It’s hard to think of a worse leader for Egypt than Suleiman, even if it’s (supposed to be) for just 9 months. He might well be just another dictator.

    But here is why it might be worth it to work with Suleiman, and not with whatever emerges from the protests organically:

    a) there aren’t many (any?) alternative figureheads to negotiate with,
    b) Suleiman COULD run free and fair elections, if he could be convinced that some comfortable degree of power would be ensured, and most importantly
    c) freedom-fighters make for good dictators. In fact history (and the present) is positively crawling with dictators who came to power on the wings of what was thought to have been liberation.

    So working with Suleiman is a pretty bad option, but what is the alternative? Laissez-faire? I’m not completely convinced.

    I’m also not convinced of the whole “infantilized” idea. Maybe Suleiman, Obama, et al are not calling the protests “merely an instance of adolescent acting-out,” but instead mean to address a specific and important constituent of the opposition: Egypt’s young, educated males with no job, not enough work, and/or over-qualification for the work they do. Youth unemployment is among Egypt’s most politically sensitive problems, made worse by rising food prices. Perhaps a return to normalcy (however horrible that normalcy may be) and some clever diplomacy will set the stage for a legitimate Egyptian democracy. Perhaps we don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors.

    Give it two weeks. Maybe Suleiman will meet with those intellectuals. Maybe the U.S. and the Egyptian government will lay the groundwork for a democracy, including lifting the 1981 Emergency Law. It hasn’t even been two weeks since this crisis started, and Mubarak only agreed to step down (in fall) just the other day. It’s too early to lose hope.

    Posted February 6, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  6. fh wrote:

    Jacob AG: Now you grudgingly concede that Suleiman is “a pretty bad option”, but still maintain that he is the best option available. As you scramble for new rhetorical cover in your bid to legitimize giving the imperial regime time to quell dissent by any and every means, you should be called out for what it is that you’re endorsing here. This isn’t a rhetorical game. The devil’s advocate works for the devil. You would have us deny the right of freedom and self-determination to the Egyptian people in their quest to end decades of brutal dictatorship because you are afraid of what might happen? How could it be any worse than what we know will happen under Suleiman, a man with a long track record as a torturer and agent of American imperialism? The internal contradictions of your position are truly mind-boggling. Suleiman is somehow acceptable to you even though he “might well be just another dictator” but the Egyptian people don’t have the right to freedom and self-determination because (“most importantly”) “freedom-fighters make for good dictators”. Supporting Suleiman is quite simply to endorse total continuity with the Mubarak regime and American imperialism, to side with oppression, torture, and murder against freedom. The people of Egypt have so far shown the admirable good sense not to fall for this charade.

    Posted February 6, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Permalink
  7. wes jones wrote:

    When looking at the situation in Egypt foreign influences such as the US cannot ignore the fact that Suleiman has repeatedly failed the people. When electing new leaders for a country that is in blatant outrage towards their own government you don’t replace them with other dictators within that government. These leaders have shown time and time again that they are not acting in the best interest of their people. To ensure that the people are given the opportunity to succeed under a unified and stable government outside aid must be implemented. Obviously the Egyptian Government can’t handle the situation so immediate action is called for. This aid would come in the form of policing the people and reordering the structure of the government. Also promising that within a certain amount of time and cooperation from the citizens a new form of government will be established. When I say a new form of government that doesn’t mean the government has to be totally revamped but needs to allow open trade and equality for the people. Only then can this country free itself of self destructive tendencies.

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  8. Jacob AG wrote:

    @fh Please re-read the first line of my comment, and remember that I am not actually arguing my own position (as far as you know, anyway). I’m simply providing a dissenting opinion, so that people have something to contrast with the “shut up” policy advocated by Easterly et al. If that’s the right policy, then we can become more secure in our belief in it by refuting the dissenting opinion I have provided. But have you refuted it?

    No. You’ve only stamped your feet and insisted that Suleiman is this terrible guy, which is true, but you haven’t provided an alternative policy to working with him. He is extremely powerful, don’t forget, and as I argued above he COULD be coaxed, as wes jones put it, into “reordering the structure of the government” along democratic lines, IF some comfortable degree of power could be ensured for him. Democracy for amnesty, in other words. Would that be a bad deal? And are you SURE that it’s not on the negotiating table? I said give it a few weeks; it’s too early to lose hope.

    Or should, as Bill would have it, the U.S. opt for the policy of silence, and hope that something more democratic emerges than, say, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, or Zimbabwe? (Those countries, and countless others, are ruled by erstwhile freedom fighters, tyrants once revered for replacing someone like Suleiman.) If so, WHY should we expect something more like 21st-century France than early 19th-century France?

    Posted February 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by William Easterly, Mona Nicoara, (Victor) Ben Turner, Philip Auerswald, Martha Weaver and others. Martha Weaver said: RT @bill_easterly: Anguished commentary by Egyptian NYU Professor who works on development in Middle East […]

  2. […] The US has put its boot on the scale AKPC_IDS += "11510,";Popularity: 50% […]

  3. […] President Hosni Mubarak step down immediately — which now makes the Muslim organization about as popular as the U.S. government with the democracy […]

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