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Sharif Abdel Kouddous: U.S. strategic interests in Egypt have more to do with security of the Gulf than democracy, human rights, or rule of law

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: This is The Real News, and I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our discussion with Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He’s an independent journalist based in Cairo, Democracy Now! correspondent, fellow at The Nation Institute.

So, Sharif, you reported from the front lines of the third anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution two Saturdays ago, and you have been reporting from Cairo since the beginning, really, of the beginning of the revolution. Talk about what has changed and what remains the same. We’ve seen how the military’s back in power now. Human rights groups describe an unprecedented scale of crackdown against dissent and opposition groups, and we talked about that in the first part of the interview. But what has really changed in Egypt, besides perhaps the discrediting of a democratic leader and the democratic process?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS, INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST, CAIRO: Well, I think Egypt is not the same as it was on January 24, 2011, the day before the Revolution began. There’s a very–the state itself is much weaker. The state institutions are more Balkanized and operate as separate fiefdoms. But in more of a revolutionary sense, I think there’s a greater awareness, a political and social and economic awareness that people have about, you know, what problems there are in the country. The problem is finding solutions.

There certainly is, as you described, a resurgent security state and a very heavy crackdown that we’re experiencing right now. You know, on 25 January 2011 there was this great uprising and movement that was confronting a very abusive police force, that was confronting economic inequality, that was confronting social justice, and that exploded into this mass uprising, centered in Tahrir Square, that eventually overthrew a 30-year autocrat and reverberated around the world and really inspired a lot of movements elsewhere.

Three years later, Tahrir Square was, you know, an epicenter of nationalism and army worship. And this speaks to the fact that the army and the security state really learned how to co-opt and to piggyback onto mass mobilizations. And I think that’s the biggest danger.

We have to be very clear here. The Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi were democratically elected. That’s correct. I would not call them democrats. They very clearly displayed, during their time in power, that they merely wanted to, you know, control the reins of the state, rather than reform it. So we saw Morsi appoint the current interior minister, the man who’s cracking down on them now. He appointed him in January 2013. And when there was a very vicious weeks-long campaign against protesters opposed to Morsi’s rule, where 800 people were arrested, many of them tortured–a third of them were children–sent to police camps, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi applauded the police at the time and thanked them for their efforts.

So this was the problem, that we found this revolution and this uprising stuck between these two juggernauts of the Egyptian body politic, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, neither of which is a progressive force and neither of which is a democratic force. And they kept forcing the general public to choose one or the other. And it was this old binary that was always sold to Egyptians, that Mubarak sold: it’s either militarism or Islamism. And I think the whole point of the Revolution was to break apart these binaries that are imposed from above.

And I still think that, while it’s a very difficult time right now and a very hard time, that that seed to break that binary between those two regressive forces is still there, that we have a very fickle general public that can turn on the military at any moment and turn on General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who’s enjoying a lot of popularity right now, and that the state itself is a weaker system that can be brought to its knees and, hopefully, get some change.

But there was, you know, a lot of mistakes created. A lot of people have been imprisoned. A lot of people have died. A lot of people have been wounded. And thus far we haven’t seen any real change.

NOOR: So General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, he’s taking the title of field marshal now. He’s been cleared to run in the upcoming presidential election. It seems like on all accounts he’s likely going to win and we’ll have another military leader now being voted back into power. What are your thoughts about that?

KOUDDOUS: Well, as you mentioned, yeah, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, you know, he was appointed by Morsi to be the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He was the youngest member of the military council. He was the head of military intelligence prior to that. He is now enjoying a lot of popularity based on his move to overthrow Mohamed Morsi, who was deeply unpopular last year at that time by wide segments of the population. So, you know, his whole reason, the raison d’être, or reason of being is as a bulwark against the Islamists.

But the question remains is: how much–you know, once that enemy is vanquished, what else has he offered to the public? And if he does run for president (and it looks increasingly likely like he will; and if he does run, almost certainly he’ll win), he’ll have to shoulder the very deep economic and social problems that Egypt has been facing and has not resolved for the last three years, and he’ll implicate the entire military in these problems as well. And currently we haven’t seen this regime offer any new solutions to these problems.

And people rose up because of these issues, because of social inequality and a repressive security state and so forth. And so, if those elements haven’t changed, then we can see people possibly turn against the military or turn against the system and start to try and change it.

On the other hand, we may see a strongman rule Egypt for a very long time. It’s very hard to tell.

NOOR: And again worth mentioning that the Egyptian military receives massive amounts of aid from the U.S. government. And they also control massive amounts of the Egyptian economy as well.

KOUDDOUS: Right. So the Egyptian military receives $1.3 billion in military aid every year. It’s the second-largest recipient of aid–second only to Israel–in the world.

It must be mentioned that, you know, most of this aid has to be spent on purchasing U.S. weapons. So in one way, it’s a large kickback to big defense contractors in the United States.

But another way, it maintains the strategic relationship that the U.S. has with Egypt. The United States has deep strategic interests in Egypt that have a lot to do with the security of the Gulf. So this includes things like easy access to the Suez Canal for U.S. warships, overflight rights for military planes, the security along the border with Gaza and Israel, things that have to do with security of the Gulf but very little to do with democracy or human rights or the rule of law in Egypt. And we’ve seen successive U.S. administrations pursue the same strategy for 30 years–Mubarak through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, with Mohamed Morsi when they turned a blind eye to very undemocratic moves, and currently again with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

So I think people here are nonplussed about what the U.S. role is. People are very politically aware. They don’t expect much from the United States. And, you know, I don’t think anyone has any–everyone knows that big governments move for their own interests.

But this relationship has kept on going. And so you have this, you know, rhetoric from the State Department–that is one thing–talking about human rights and democracy. But you have the actual relationship that flows through the Pentagon, and that’s the one that it has maintained and has not changed at all for decades.

NOOR: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, thank you so much for joining us.

KOUDDOUS: Thank you, Jaisal.

NOOR: You can watch both parts of our interview with Sharif at Follow us on Twitter @therealnews. And you can Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He is a Democracy Now! correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute.