Phyllis Bennis: US supported states and regional domination shaken by people’s uprisings
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And across the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of people are shaking the very foundations of 65 years of US foreign policy–Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and who knows where else. Now joining us to talk about the significance of the events today in Egypt is Phyllis Bennis. She’s a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, focusing on the Middle East. Thanks for joining us.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, DIR., NEW INTERNATIONALISM PROJECT, IPS: Good to be with you.
JAY: So you’ve been glued to the TV, watching what’s been going on. What have you seen, and what does it all mean?
BENNIS: It’s an extraordinary moment, Paul. Now, whether this is the beginning of something entirely new in the Middle East we don’t know yet, but it certainly is the beginning of the end of what exists. It’s the end of an unchallengeable level of US support, military, political, economic support for a host of Arab dictators across the region. For the first time, they are really threatened with being overthrown, the first, of course, in Tunisia. Ben Ali has been overthrown. He’s gone into exile (interestingly, in Saudi Arabia). And in Egypt, the most important US Arab ally, there are protests going on around the country, in every major city and in small villages. It’s unstoppable from what it looks like. There were incredible moments this morning when, as you say, I was glued to the television coverage, despite the fact that the Egyptian authorities had shut down the Internet, shut down Facebook and Twitter, shut down all cell phone networks. All that was left were landlines. I think their theory was keep people in their houses, but it didn’t work. People still poured into the streets. In the 6th October Bridge, one of the major bridges across Cairo, there was a moment I kept thinking it was like the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the Selma to Montgomery march in the US civil rights movement. You had a bridge covered with people, with protesters, and suddenly there was an armored personnel carrier driving onto the bridge, trying to force the protesters out, and they began to move. And then suddenly they turned on the armored personnel carrier, began to confront it, taunting the driver, throwing stones–obviously, that couldn’t hurt anything, but coming in in front of it so it could no longer move forward unless it was prepared to absolutely drive over the protesters, which it was not prepared to do. It turned around and at a very high speed drove off the bridge, with people filling in behind it. In other cities, in Alexandria and other parts of Egypt, you had instances of the police joining the protesters and saying, I’m not going to shoot. And this becomes very crucial. This is what made the difference in Tunisia, where the historically apolitical military refused to engage. The police were divided. I don’t know if it was half and half, but there certainly were not enough, there wasn’t enough of a critical mass of police who were prepared to go after the protesters, and the protesters won as a result. They took the streets, they kept the streets. In Egypt right now, that’s one of the big questions: where will the police go and where will the military go? The military in Egypt is not like the military in Tunisia. It’s a big, powerful military armed by $1.5 billion worth of US military aid every year–for a country that has no external enemies. By treaty with the US it can’t attack Israel. There’s nobody else for it to attack. What does that mean? It means it’s going after its own people.
JAY: Now, these regimes–the Egyptian regime was a product of the Cold War. This Mubarak regime was going to be the–and before it, Sadat–and this modern Egyptian elite was a bulwark against communism.
JAY: Same thing in many of the other parts of the Middle East, especially the Sauds and others. So the issue of this–all this financial and military support was, first of all, Cold War directed, and then anti-Islamic directed: this is against terrorism; we’ve got to keep these regimes in power.
BENNIS: Well, but there is something in between those two. Certainly, the Cold War drive was what really started this. This was at a period in the early ’50s when Gamal Abdel Nasser was the leader of Egypt and one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, which, according to the US, put it in the pocket of the Soviet Union. So going after Nasser was a key aspect of this. When Nasser was overthrown, when first Sadat and then Mubarak came to power, this was exactly what the US wanted, a government in Egypt that could prevent Egypt from being pulled into what was now the nationalist camp. During the Cold War it was the socialist camp. Either one was anathema, of course, to the United States. But before then, we get to the antiterrorism side.
JAY: And they tried to conflate those things.
BENNIS: And of course they tried to conflate them. Then, later, we get to the antiterrorism side. But in between that we have the issue of Israel. The Egyptian government under Sadat was the first Arab government to be willing to sign a peace deal with Israel after the ’67 War to get back control of part of the Sinai. They didn’t even get the entire Sinai, but they got most of it. In doing so, of course, they abandoned the Palestinians, and this is what led to enormous antagonism toward Sadat, and ultimately was responsible for his assassination. In the later period, you then have the shift to what we’re seeing now, where Egypt becomes our great ally in the struggle against terrorism, you know, the same with all the other leaders in the region. But what we’re hearing a little bit differently now for the first time, we’re hearing from the Obama administration, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, particularly from President Obama himself, something other than an absolute embrace of these dictators. We’re hearing, yes, Egypt is an important ally, and they have played an important role vis-a-vis peace with Israel, but we would caution the Egyptian regime that they must allow for the expression of dissent, and–well, I don’t think he said “dissent”, but the expression of views of the population to make their needs known.
JAY: Well, of course, in US interest it would be okay to have Mubarak without Mubarak. If you could have some replacement but continue with the same policy, they don’t care whether the Mubarak family was on the outs.
BENNIS: No, that’s of course true. That’s a personal issue. Hillary Clinton went out of her way to talk about how Mubarak and his wife Suzanne Mubarak are personal friends of hers. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what’s ahead. Are they talking about giving them asylum here in the United States, perhaps? I don’t think they’d be too comfortable finding asylum in Saudi Arabia like Ben Ali did, but who knows? But I think your point is absolutely right. The US wants that system in place. Who is at the top of it is not that important. What’s different now is that what the Egyptian people are demanding is not simply getting rid of those at the top. They don’t want to just replace Hosni Mubarak, or even Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal Mubarak, who’s the heir apparent at the moment. They want a new system. This is a demand for the kind of fundamental (if I can use that term) change, the structural change that people have been looking for in these sclerotic regimes that have not needed to change because repression was all they needed to keep things down, to keep things from getting out of control.
JAY: And if that change, to begin with, is opening up a space for some real democratic engagement by the population, and then a fight over what that policy will be, that will be a big step.
BENNIS: That’s huge. What we’re hearing now is that what people are demanding is not simply new elections that are not corrupt. I mean, Egypt sort of takes the prize, I would say, around the world in global recognition of corrupt elections, where Mubarak gets elected with 96 percent of the vote, that sort of thing. It’s really preposterous. But that’s not what they’re asking for. They’re asking for a different kind of democracy, for people’s democracy, for participatory democracy, not simply electoral democracy. Those are very different concepts. And the sophistication of the Egyptian protest movement is that they’re making very clear that this isn’t just about getting somebody else from the elite in there, the question, for example, of Mohamed ElBaradei, who played a very important role when he was the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. The US excoriated him for those years, claiming that he was supporting Iran’s nuclear weapons, which they don’t have, of course, etc., etc.
JAY: And he stood up on Iraq in a way no one expected.
BENNIS: And he stood up on Iraq in a way that nobody did. Exactly. He stood up to the US on numerous occasions. The question now is: does he have the kind of credibility at home, given that he has spent these last 20 years as an international civil servant? He has enormous credibility globally. Does he have enough credibility at home? But what’s impressive about it, I think, and what’s encouraging is that he’s not coming back saying, I’m the new leader. He’s coming back saying, I will be in the streets with the people; if they want me to play a role, I will play that role. He’s open to it. He’s not demanding it. He’s not claiming that he has been the leader of this incredible movement that we see now in the streets.
JAY: So I guess it’s still hard to tell how this is going to go. I mean, a lot has to do with just how big are the splits within the army and the police force and–.
BENNIS: Absolutely. And we also see there’s a very different scenario, in terms of civil society, than if we compare it, for example, to the period of the late ’80s into the ’90s in Latin America, where you had, one after another, a kind of reverse domino effect of military dictatorships backed by the US collapsing one after another and being replaced, some by US-backed neoliberal “democracies”, quote, and others by organizational shifts that really allowed room for new progressive parties, like the Workers’ Party in Brazil that brought Lula to power in the wake of the overthrow of the dictatorship. What’s different in the Middle East, you don’t have the same level of very sophisticated ties between political parties, civil society, trade unions, this kind of mobilization that had been going on for years, challenging power in that immediate way. Now these–we have a very rich civil society, but they’ve never had the opportunity to have this chance to challenge power. How they come together will be key.
JAY: Now, the other thing, I think, that took everybody, watchers, everybody from the outside, perhaps not Egyptians, from–by surprise, though, is that this was not led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Everyone thought the only people with the sort of backbone to stand up to Mubarak were the Islamists. But this didn’t come from them.
BENNIS: Well, interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is known to be a very cautious, moderate kind of organization that has rarely challenged Mubarak. They have a kind of–they’re officially outlawed, but they’re officially tolerated. They’re in a kind of in-between position. But they have never launched a full-scale public mobilization like this. Their leaders have not wanted to see people going into the streets. They feared (and it turns out they’re right) they would not control that kind of mobilization. It was only reluctantly, last night, Thursday night, they finally announced, yes, on Friday we will join the demonstrations. And they did, but they did not try (as far as I can tell) and certainly did not succeed (we know that) at taking over those demonstrations. You heard a few random calls of Allahu Akbar, but basically there was no one who could say this was an Islamist-led demonstration or a demonstration where the religious demands were primary. There were no one set of demands that were primary. There were political demands around human rights, release of political prisoners, the end to torture, the right to assemble. There were economic–.
JAY: And “Mubarak out”.
BENNIS: And “Mubarak out”. There were economic demands about jobs, about opportunities. There were demands about education, ending the escalation of fees for schools. There was a host of demands, people coming to it with all kinds of their own personal issues. But what came out as a whole was the demand for fundamental change in the entire system.
JAY: Now, if you’re looking at what’s going on from Israel, what might be the implications, starting with the siege of Gaza?
BENNIS: Well, I think there’s not likely to be any big change in the relationship with Israel right away. A new government that might come in, I think, is unlikely to, for example, unsign the Camp David Treaty that–with Israel.
JAY: But might they be less cooperative on the siege of Gaza?
BENNIS: On Gaza I think you will see an immediate shift. I think whoever comes into power is likely to take a position on Gaza that is far more open, that says, we are not going to do Israel’s bidding, that we’ll widen and open, perhaps permanently, the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt and allow full access for Palestinians and Egyptians and internationals to move freely in and out of that border. That will put enormous pressure on Israel, because it will mean, number one, that the tunnels under the Gaza border that have been the only way that Gazans have survived economically will no longer be necessary. They–everything, goods and services, as well as people, can come and go freely through a new Egyptian crossing. It will put Israel in this incredible position of imposing this blockade, which has no meaning on the ground, because people just go through Egypt, and it will isolate Israel and show the political nature of this blockade.
JAY: Thank you. And for people hearing a siren, we’re in Washington, and you hear a lot of sirens. Thanks very much for joining us.
BENNIS: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And, of course, we’ll be continuing to cover the events in Egypt and across the Middle East.
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