In case the 1979 example of the Shah of Iran being deserted by the United States and West Europe – after having been their security surrogate in the region for fifteen years – was not sufficient to educate West Asia’s rulers about the fair-weather nature of the relationship with these chancelleries, Egypt has provided fresh evidence of this reality.
To promote its geopolitical interests, the West finds champions in-country. In Sri Lanka, it encouraged General Sarath Fonseka to stand against Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2010 Presidential polls in Sri Lanka. At the time, Fonseca had direct command of the Sri Lankan military – the force which the same global community believed had committed grave violations of human rights in the final stage of the campaign against the Tamil Tigers. This time around, in Egypt it is Mohammad El Baradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Laureate, seen as the white knight riding to the rescue of US-European Union interests. This, in a country where both Iran as well as the Muslim Brotherhood have been at work for years cultivating the underclass that had been ignored by the Egyptian elite and their international backers.
This time, though, there are more than Western interests at play and the outcomes could be more unpredictable than anticipated.
First, there is the regional activity of Iran. For the Khameini regime in Iran (which the West mistakenly calls the “Ahmadinejad” government when it is the Supreme Leader who controls key swathes of the administration, including foreign, security, education and economic policy), events in Egypt are a comeuppance for the US and the EU, which backed the losing side in protesting against what was once again a rigged election in Iran in 2009.
Since that time, Teheran has greatly boosted its clandestine capabilities and activities in the region, with the intention of promoting chaos, should there be an attack on the regional Shia superpower by the US, the EU or Israel. Most of the effort has gone into assisting those in favour of the collapse of regimes that side with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) against Iran, and which have most recently been outed in Wikileaks.
In a way, this effort by Iran is akin to the Central Intelligence Agency’s boosting of the military capabilities of religious extremists across the western half of Asia in the jihad against the former Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Just as there has been a huge blowback for the US from that particular adventure, there is likely to be blowback across Iran from the current policy of giving clandestine support to “pro-democracy” forces.
US President Barack Obama and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo in 2009.
Then there are the actions and policies of the other regimes of West Asia. Within the region, both the Saudi Arabian as well as the Qataris ruling structures have adopted a policy of hedging their bets, backing both NATO as well as the opposition to NATO.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, this is represented by Wahabbi International, which has turned “multiculturism” on its head by using the freedom of belief, lifestyle and speech in modern democratic societies to enforce a clear separation between its own followers and the rest of the community in countries such as Germany, France and even the UK. These days, such exclusivist (self-ghettoizing) trends are also becoming evident in Canada and in parts of the US. Of course, within the countries where it is dominant, such as Saudi Arabia, North Sudan or Yemen, the Wahabbi International makes short shrift of the freedoms that it demands for its practitioners in democracies. In such a double-faced reaction, it shares several characteristics with its Khomeinist twin in Iran.
In Qatar, this duality is represented by the Al Jazeera news channel, which despite the huge presence of British nationals within its newsrooms, has made no secret of its being a vehicle for the promotion of “Muslim” interests. In the case of Egypt, the channel has been a key force multiplier for the manifestations of public discontent against the moribund regime of the 83-year old Hosni Mubarak. The latter is increasingly looking like the ancient Indian King Dhritharashtra in the Mahabharata, who placed the interests of his own family at the core of governance, a failing that is not uncommon in the “democracies” of South Asia.
Given the loyalty shown by President Mubarak to the strategic and other interests of NATO over the decades, it would have been reasonable for him to expect support from the US and the EU for his refusal to flee Egypt the way Tunisia’s Ben-Ali did. Instead, influenced by the sophisticated Cairo diaspora within their boundaries (the way Bush-Cheney had been seduced by the Iraqi diaspora during 2002-2003, before launching the war that has cost the US the global primacy that it enjoyed since 1945), the Clintonistas within what ought to have been a Barack Obama administration, had their way.
Playing to “liberal” and other galleries, the Clintonistas once again followed what may be termed the “NGO route” in foreign policy, relying more on the glands than on the brain in crafting a response to a situation. Similar episodes included siding with former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif against current President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan and bringing back Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhury in 2009, at a time when President Zardari was readying himself to act against Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani. Had the Pakistan military come under civilian control, it would have been feasible to begin denuding it of the jihadi elements that are strangling NATO in Afghanistan. However, this chance was lost, and the Army has once again established its complete supremacy over the civilian establishment – but this time with a difference: unlike Musharraf, Kayani is far more loyal to Beijing than to Washington.
Another instance was the constant sniping against Afghan President Hamid Karzai throughout 2009, thereby weakening him and in the process, strengthening not the (largely inconsequential) “liberals” so beloved by the Afghan diaspora in the US and the EU, but those demanding a return to a Wahabbised society in Afghanistan. Of course, such policies – although disastrous for longer-term US security interests – played well in the Op-ed pages of the Western press, which seems to be the primary cockpit of interest for the Clintonistas. The public severing of ties with Mubarak is only the latest in this March of Follies – with disastrous consequences.
The Obama administration followed the major European powers in jettisoning Mubarak for El Baradei. While the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief has much to commend him, his naïveté in (for example) accepting the promises of good behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood would ensure that they enter a system that is so riddled with rot that within years, the Brotherhood would become the sole master of what has been a broadly secular country for millennia.
Post-Mubarak, although an effort may be made to cobble together an administration under vice president Omar Suleiman, such a regime is likely to be rendered ineffectual by those elements of the Muslim Brotherhood within the middle and lower rungs of the Egyptian bureaucracy. Once the ranks of the military get fully infused with the belief that only a Wahabbi state can rescue Egypt from its current state, Suleiman ( or El Baradei) would disappear. Instead, would begin an Iran or Pakistan-style era, where the army and the religious elements band together.
Only a 1989 Tiananmen Square type of action against the protestors in Tahrir Square, followed by the effective handover of powers by Mubarak to his deputy and his taking of leave until the September polls “on health grounds”, would have staved off what seems to be an Iran-style march of the religious establishment towards formal authority.
The diaspora elements now so visible on television screens can be expected to flee back to their nests in Europe and North America, once the religious establishment begins to call the shots in Cairo. Rather than abandon Mubarak in indecent haste, the way it has happened these past two weeks, the NATO powers would have been best advised to have adopted a policy of public neutrality during the current manifestations, stating simply that the governance of Egypt is entirely a matter for Egyptians to decide, and that foreigners have no role in it. Instead, by pandering to the fantasies of the diaspora, the way it did in Iraq, the Obama administration has invited ridicule on the U.S.
Those who have been fed for years on a diet of anti-Americanism are not going to change their minds because of a few remarks made by Presidential Spokespersons, the Secretary of State, or even President Obama himself. Ironically, while the 2009 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to him may have boosted his cachet with the Egyptian diaspora, such an honour may be toxic to the Arab underclass, which sees the Nobel Committee (however improbably) as yet another face of the “International Zionist Conspiracy”. The award of a Nobel Prize to President Obama would therefore have vindicated those who regard his country’s first African-American President as being just a face behind which the usual suspects continue their depredations.
As this essayist has pointed out for more than a decade, there is a difference between the Arab “street” and what may be called the Arab “supermarket”, and all too often, media outlets in the NATO countries have mistaken the second for the first.
And lastly, a major factor behind the present unrest has gone wholly unreported in the media – even by those outlets located in West Asia which are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood or to the Khameinists. This is the fact that commodity speculation in Chicago, New York and London has resulted in sharp spikes in the prices of items of common consumption, including food grains and meat products. Because they have been given a second life by the post-recession largesse doled out to them first by US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and then by his successor, Timothy Geithner, the bigger commodity speculators have been active in driving up the prices of a miscellany of items that are critical to mass consumption, including petro products and food items. Since the later years of the Clinton administration, successive US presidents have given a license to large-scale speculation that has unsettled commodity markets worldwide and sharply increased societal instability across the globe.
Rather than deciding on whether El Baradei or Omar Suleiman or some unnamed general would be the best ruler for Egypt, both Barack Obama as well as British Prime Minister David Cameron need to assist German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy in criminalizing the sort of speculation that has led to worldwide price spikes. The activities of the few who were bailed out during 2008-2009 have brought the international financial system to the point of collapse. Their resumption of such activity is playing the lead role in the generation of anger within populations worldwide.
Dr M.D. Nalapat is the Director, Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University
This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.
For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2011 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.