Monday, July 03, 2006

The value of hating America

Blaming America for everything is a favorite past time in the Middle East. But in Egypt, vilifying the US can earn you more political capital than anywhere else in the region. The regime of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has close ties with the US. In fact, we have a better, tighter relationship with Egypt than we do with Michael Moore's favorite target Saudi Arabia. But you don't hear all that much about Egypt in the US. Why?

Perhaps its because Egypt has been such a good ally in so many ways. Terror suspects captured abroad have often been taken to Egypt for 'interrogations' before being transported to secret prisons in Europe, Afghanistan or our facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Since the 1980s, Egypt has also been Israel's closest friend in the region. The largest Arab state in the world, Egypt has had diplomatic ties with Israel since 1981. The accord cost the Egyptian president at the time, Anwar Sadat, his life. In the last few years Egypt has opened up several free trade areas with Israel. In the most recent crisis between Israel and Hamas (Hamas has kidnapped an Israeli soldier, and Israel has responded by invading Gaza and kidnapping half the members of Israeli's parliament), Egypt has been putting heavy pressure on Hamas to go along with Israeli demands.

Still, one would think the country of the pharaohs would get a little more scrutiny in the western press - after all, we do give them more financial assistance than any other country in the world, save Israel. Every year, over 2 billion dollars goes from American coffers to the Egyptian treasury. More than half of that is earmarked for military spending.

But while the American-Egyptian relationship provides Mubarak with more guns to control his citizens and more jobs to placate them, the relationship also poses potential problems for the Cairo-based regime. Any group that challenges Mubarak and his National Democratic Party can instantly gain points by arguing, regardless of its other political ideas, that Mubarak is too close to America, too close to the murdering of innocent Israeli civilians, too close to the war in Iraq. Ordinary Egyptians think the US government is essentially a terrorist organization. Having such a tight relationship with the US creates quite the PR problem.

During the run up to elections last spring, one of the largest opposition groups was the Egyptian Movement for Change, popularly known as Kifaya (Enough). In the States, the organization got huge press. The group made its position clear: it wanted Mubarak out. It was willing to talk to any journalist who would listen. While the group is an umbrella organization that includes nationalists, Islamists and pan-Arabists, most members come from the more western school of thought: The group has called for freedom of speech, assembly, fair elections, and all the other components that make up a liberal's wet dream. To the casual observer, it seemed that Kifaya and Washington would be natural partners.

Such a partnership has never materialized. Perhaps the first step in understanding why is to check out Kifaya's manifesto. It begins this way:

We are Egyptian citizens, in agreement, despite our different political perspectives, opinions and jobs, that our country faces dangers and enormous challenges. For example, the American occupation of Iraq, the continuing Zionist aggression against the Palestinian people and the plans to redraw the map of the Arab people including a plan for the Greater Middle East, which threatens our nationality and our identity and which requires the gathering of all effort to completely face on all levels...political, cultural and civilizational.

Kifaya talks about democracy and judicial independence later on in the document. Much later. The next several paragraphs continue to talk about the crimes of the west. You can find out more on Kifaya on their website. It's in Arabic, but they have their manifesto in English (the above is a translation from the Arabic. I imagine they have more freedom to be strident in English).

The reality is that any group that wants to challenge the government on anything hear immediately gains credibility by distancing itself from the US and Israel. One person I spoke with who works with a democracy promoting NGO here said that the reality of the situation is that only home grown organizations independent of the West can change anything.

It makes you wonder where those 2 billion dollars are going. On Thursday I'm having dinner with an employee of USAID, an organization that is responsible for disbursing about 500 million of the 800 million dollars earmarked for nonmilitary aid to Egypt. Maybe I'll have a better idea where all that money is going after dinner.


At 8:47 AM, Blogger just.a.comment said...

read this first

At 12:15 PM, Blogger CML said...

maybe it's just a matter of telling the egyptians that are receiving the money that it actually comes from the american people and not some egyptian politician?


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