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Gilbert Achcar: More democracy in Egypt will mean more opposition to Israeli and US policy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And on Friday, President Obama responded to the fall of President Mubarak. Here’s a little bit of what he had to say.


BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: The military has served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people. That means protecting the rights of Egypt’s citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the Constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free.


JAY: Now joining us from London to talk about President Obama’s speech and what US policy might be going forward, with a sort of new Egypt, is Gilbert Achcar. He’s a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His many books include The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. Thanks for joining us again, Gilbert.


JAY: So, first of all, what was your first reaction to Obama’s speech or statement?

ACHCAR: Yeah. Well, he was very obviously trying to make the best of what actually is a severe blow to the US influence in the region, because it affects a major ally of the United States, a major strategic ally of the United States. That’s what Egypt has been since the early ’70s in the region. So what Obama basically has been trying is to recuperate this whole event as a confirmation of the adherence of people to US values, to Jeffersonian democracy in some way, and adding the Obama dimension, you know, Martin Luther King, the nonviolent movement, and all the rest. Well, that’s fine. I mean, in a sense it’s not wrong that this is indeed an accurate description of one dimension of the movement. Now, it’s funny to compare that to the reaction of the Syrian media. The Syrian television interrupted its broadcast to mention what was happening in Egypt, and presented that as, you know, the downfall of the Camp David regime, meaning by that that this was an end to a regime which had this peace treaty with Israel sponsored by Washington. But, of course, the Syrian dictatorship is trying in this way to deflect from itself this–the shock wave of democracy and say that’s about that. But it’s another attempt at recuperating another dimension of the movement, because if we get to real democratic elections and the people of Egypt have really derived through their say in the political direction of events and the foreign policy of their country, you can be sure that the choice won’t be friendly to either Israel, the state of Israel, or the United States of America as a hegemonic power.

JAY: This is certainly the critical question facing US foreign policy in the short term, whether the military government, do you think, would change anything on the siege of Gaza. In the months going forward, you have people like–[Mohamed] ElBaradei has–I believe, has said that he would not abrogate the treaty with Egypt, but he has said he would break the siege on Gaza. How serious a challenge is this?

ACHCAR: Well, I believe that the military themselves won’t do anything of the kind unless the mass pressure is there. And that’s why, again, the key, decisive point in the days and weeks and months ahead is the ability of the movement to carry on, to keep fighting as they have been. Of course, they can’t remain in a state of perpetual mobilization of the kind that they were on for the last several days, but it is absolutely necessary for the movement to organize itself and be able to come through further stages of struggle–rallies, demonstrations, whatever–and exert the pressure for the implementation of all the demands of the movement, whether the democratic demands or the demands in solidarity with the Palestinian people, the demands of an anti-imperialist character, and the rest–and the social demands, of course.

JAY: The question of ending the siege of Gaza opens up a question which maybe Egyptian people aren’t quite so unified about, which is: how does Egyptian society, in the more broader sections of society, feel about a free-flowing border with Gaza?

ACHCAR: It’s undisputable that there’s a major empathy of the Egyptians with the people in Gaza. I mean, after all, these people have been even part of Egypt for a long while. There’s empathy with the suffering, with everything that they have endured. There is a very strong animosity in Egypt against the state of Israel and its political behavior, its intransigence, and the kind of oppression that it is inflicting on the Palestinians–and the Lebanese also, from time to time, as we have seen. There’s no doubt now about where the real feelings of the Egyptian people are and which direction they are. And this is a further illustration of the extent to which the Mubarak regime was completely in contradiction with the real aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people.

JAY: From a US foreign policy interest, it’s critical, I assume, for them, for the military, Egyptian military, to maintain this dominant position. But what’s been happening on the streets the last few weeks is quite unprecedented. How much do you think the US can manage this situation?

ACHCAR: The US can’t do anything about managing the situation. They will, you know, bring their advice to the military command. They will provide the military command with whatever form of help it needs, material, financial, or whatever. That’s the only thing they can do. But beyond that, there can’t be a direct interference of Washington in the–I mean, a visible one in the ongoing process. They can’t manage it. I mean, this is something that will be very much decided on the spot by the balance of forces. And we have seen, actually, that the military have been even reluctant for the last few days to abide by US pressure, until finally they–I mean, Mubarak accepted to leave the scene. So I think the ability of Washington to influence what is going on is rather limited.

JAY: Do you think the Egyptian young people and, you know, broadly, the Egyptians that have been on the streets for the last weeks, how do they view the American position in all of this?

ACHCAR: No. There has been–I mean, during the movement, criticism of Washington was quite obvious. Now, it’s true that the movement’s key message, key demand, was not about issues related to foreign policy. People remark that there weren’t US flags or Israeli flags being burned or such political gestures. They weren’t very present in the movement. There were a few, a few posters here and there, a few statements. But overall the very critical attitude toward Washington and the feeling that Washington was behind the Mubarak regime from the start was there, and people could see the contradictory statements that came out from Washington, especially during the first days, like Joe Biden’s statement about Mubarak not being a dictator and the like, and also the problem of this envoy of the Obama administration to Cairo. So all that was quite visible. And for the–I mean, except for a part of the liberal forces who look at Washington as a potential ally and will–and it’s certainly–I mean, it’s certain that Washington will try to talk to everybody that might be willing to consider Washington as a friend. But it’s clear that beyond these liberal forces, there’s a majority of the mass movement which is quite opposed to the–everything that is–that represent US foreign policy in the region. I mean, what has been US foreign policy in the region looking like over the last few years? You’ve got the invasion, occupation of Iraq. You’ve got the continuous support for an ever more intransigent Israeli government and ever more oppressive Israeli government. And the Obama administration did not change much to this reality. And unless this changes, the feelings of the overwhelming majority of the Egyptians will be very much against US policy.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Gilbert.

ACHCAR: You’re welcome.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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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.