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Gilbert Achcar Pt.7: US concerned Mubarak dictatorship would spark popular movement, preferred Turkish model

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re carrying on with our history of modern Egypt. We’re now up to the most recent events, as we lead into the mass protests. The elections that took place in October and December in Egypt were universally discredited, candidates not allowed to run, many people simply not allowed into the polling booths to even vote if they weren’t going to vote for pro-Mubarak candidates. Now joining us to continue our story is Gilbert Achcar. Gilbert is a professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England. He’s the author of the book The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. Thanks for joining us again, Gilbert.


JAY: Why don’t we pick up from this last election was essentially a fraud and enormous discreditation, even globally? Hardly anybody could recognize the results of the election. That takes place not long before the events in Tunisia. So perhaps give us a–pick up the narrative there.

ACHCAR: The last parliamentary election created huge frustration and huge resentment against Mubarak. I mean, the resentment has been building up for quite some time before the election, and the election came to increase it. And everybody understood that one of the reasons why Mubarak was just closing every possible door was that he wanted to secure his succession in the presidency for the next presidential election. He had the project of having his son elected. And that’s why also you had a movement building up in Egypt against this hereditary succession that he was preparing. So, I mean, it is on the background of, therefore, social, economic conditions over the whole region, with a very sharp inflation, prices of basic necessities like food, fuel, electricity, and the rest sharply on the rise, creating social resentment, it is on this background that you have this further dimension of political frustration, and it was Mubarak just thinking that, you know, you can just shut the safety valve and you will keep the boiler under control. I mean, that was a complete miscalculation. And as you said, the Tunisian events started in the aftermath of those Egyptian elections in late December, and led on January 14 to the victory represented by the downfall of the Tunisian president. And, of course, this emboldened the mass movement and protest movement not only in Egypt but over the whole region.

JAY: Now, the differences between the US and Mubarak over the last couple of years, were they primarily about the Americans being concerned that the Mubarak presidency turning into a monarchy was going to alienate people so much from the regime and the military that what they wanted was the military regime without Mubarak? I mean, had it gotten to that point?

ACHCAR: They felt the need for reform. We know that from the WikiLeaks also, which gave us an insight into how–I mean, the kind of reports that they used to get in Washington. And no doubt about the fact that they were conscious of the fact that this regime was creating a dangerous situation in Egypt, that the situation could explode at any moment. I think they had a sense of the fact that it couldn’t continue like that. And so they wanted some forms of opening, controlled opening by the military, as we have seen in other countries, other US clients. Pakistan, Turkey, for instance, here are two countries where the military were in power, are still in power, actually, are still the main backbone of power, and they let some degree of free political election. So Washington was contemplating some kind of development in that direction, at least for the presidential election. They didn’t like the way Mohamed ElBaradei was treated by the Mubarak regime. And before him, in 2005, the only man who was allowed to contest the election against Mubarak was Ayman Nour, and just after the election, he was sentenced to five years’ jail on completely phony accusations. This of course is seen from Washington with–I mean, they are not completely stupid in Washington; they understand that sooner or later this will create big problems.

JAY: There was a report in Reuters, an interview with a military strategist that teaches at one of the American military colleges. There’s been other speculation that especially after the events in Tunisia there was a lot of back-and-forth between the Pentagon and the Egyptian military. There were senior Egyptian military people in Washington just days before the big protests in Cairo. According to this analyst, there was a discussion going on then about how do we get rid of Mubarak and keep the military regime. To what extent do you think this collaboration was going on? And what do we know about it?

ACHCAR: The movement that unfolded now over the last couple of weeks is basically the result of this accumulation of resentment at the popular level. And although it was less spontaneous than what you had in Tunisia, with the difference being that in Egypt, the beginning, the initial movement was coordinated by movements in the opposition who called to the demonstrations. This is a result of the conditions that we mentioned. Now, Washington was trying to get the regime to devise some form of succession which would be more credible and therefore lead to some legitimacy, at least in the successor of Mubarak. They understood that the scheme of having Mubarak’s son succeed him would be disastrous for the stability of the country. And they had talks with the military. And the military themselves, the rest of the military, were not very happy, because, I mean, had Mubarak’s son been elected, that would have been the first nonmilitary–actually, I mean, the first man who is not originating in the military to become president. And so the military themselves were not happy with this prospective. And long ago it was said that Omar Suleiman would be the likely candidate of the military apparatus as–for the succession of Mubarak. But basically Washington was trying, I mean, not to overthrow Mubarak, but to convince Mubarak. I mean, they considered Mubarak as an ally. And the talks were just asking people to put pressure on Mubarak in order to bring him to the kind of reforms that Washington felt were needed.

JAY: The contention between Suleiman and Mubarak’s son, then, is not so much Suleiman worried about or the Armed Forces worried about whether there’s a inherited hand-off as it is about keeping it within the military leadership family.

ACHCAR: On the one hand. But on the other hand, also, they–I mean, I think they–it was clear to everybody that Mubarak himself had some and still has some degree of social constituency, especially in the rural–in the countryside in Egypt. But his son doesn’t have and wouldn’t have had any kind of popularity, so that would have been a problem, and I think the military were aware of that. And that’s why, as a consequence of that, Mubarak was hinting at the fact that he might represent himself to one more mandate in the presidential election which are supposed to take place in the fall of this year. And so that, I mean, seen from Washington, appeared as even more absurd, I mean, given his age and all that. And so that’s why I think they were trying to push for some degree of reform, at least for the presidential election.

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Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.