Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Aaron Jakes explains Tahrir Square as part of Egypt's ongoing struggle against colonialism

A very important opinion piece to read over at Al Jazeera English. Written by Aaron Jakes, a doctoral candidate in the departments of History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.
Given the extraordinary eventfulness of the present, it is hardly surprising that few, if any, commentators have thought to dwell on so banal a matter as the name of a street. But doing so begins to disclose a bitter and potentially instructive irony in the current moment. The Mohammad Mahmoud in question was one of the four members of the original wafd or "delegation" that sought to represent Egypt at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and thereby to argue before the international community for Egypt's independence from British colonial rule. On March 8, 1919, in an effort to forestall any threat to their Egyptian Protectorate, British authorities arrested all four men and exiled them to Malta. The following day, groups of students began organising demonstrations in the major streets and squares of Cairo; within a week, protests against British rule had spread to Egypt's other major cities as well as hundreds of towns and villages throughout the countryside.

From the earliest days of the January 25 uprising onwards, political analysts both in Egypt and abroad have expressed an eagerness to adduce comparative cases as lenses through which to view the present and, perhaps, glimpse the future. At various points in the last 10 months, we have heard that Egypt today could become Turkey after 1961, France after 1968, Iran after 1979, or Poland after 1989. Lost in the face of this compulsive yearning to conjure the ideal model are the possibilities both that what we are now witnessing might be genuinely new, and that Egypt's own history might in some way help us to understand the significance of the present.

Greater attention to that history reveals that Egypt's current military rulers are the inheritors not merely of the Mubarak regime but also of the colonial order that the events of 1919 failed to fully overturn. Throughout the long decades following the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, colonial rule rested on a rigid logic of security that rejected the very notion that Egyptians themselves might be capable of serious political thought. As a budding nationalist movement mounted its first vocal challenges to colonial occupation in the early decades of the twentieth century, the Interior Ministry became the central node in an increasingly dense network of surveillance and repression. So confident were British officials in the effectiveness of this security apparatus and the superficiality of calls for popular mobilisation that they dismissed the first protests in March 1919 as limited to a mere clique of disgruntled and unemployed youth with no better use for their time.

Unfinished business

The unprecedented movement of Egyptians all across the country that ensued from those early demonstrations quickly overwhelmed British expectations. When at last the combined forces of the occupying army and the Interior Ministry were able to quell months of strikes and protests, the British were compelled to reconsider their position towards Egypt. The eventual outcome of that process was the unilateral decision in March 1922 to grant Egypt a qualified independence. Although the country would be governed thereafter as a constitutional monarchy, the British retained the right to intervene in any matters seen to affect the security of imperial communications, the interests and safety of foreigners on Egyptian soil, the threat of foreign invasion, or the status of Egypt's relationship with the Sudan.
Following the discussion of the Arab Spring in the West, there is a constant and insistent refrain from the the Western Middle East policy establishment. That this is not about the United States and not about Israel. It is kind of defensive and I've always thought mildly wrong being that the US hasn't been randomly supporting these dictatorships for generations. But recent events in Egypt shine new light on exactly what that refrain means.

Hillary Clinton and the Barack Obama administration, even before the Arab Spring began, had begun to claim that the US wants "reform" in its colonies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE, Kuwait and others. That formulation has always been consistent with a veneer of political participation without government being fully accountable to the people governed.

That would be, of course, the most recent echo of "constitutional monarchy, the British retained the right to intervene in any matters seen to affect the security of imperial communications, the interests and safety of foreigners on Egyptian soil, the threat of foreign invasion, or the status of Egypt's relationship with the Sudan." In Clinton's version, the US would retain the right to intervene in matters seen to affect especially the security of Israel and other possible US regional interests.

Mubarak's successor as Egypt's pro-US dictator, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, proposed to the people of Egypt to stall any transfer of power to civilians until 2013, after the US presidential election is over, to reserve a right for the military to overturn decisions of the civil government and to withhold the military's budget from civilian scrutiny.

Juan Cole presented this stalling and limitation of the power of elected officials as situation as steps that may prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from making Egypt more religious. This was, to him, "co-existence" between the military and civilian government, as opposed to what Cole claimed the Muslim Brotherhood wanted, which is also what the United States has, which is the subordination of the military to civilian rule.

Underlying this, when we hear this refrain from Tom Friedman, or Hillary Clinton, or Charlie Rose or Barack Obama is the idea that the people of Egypt don't really want to control Egypt's policy with respect to Israel. That is not what the Arab Spring is "about". The people of Egypt will be happy, or satisfied with an elected body with some nominal control over purely domestic issues but limited in its authority in the area the US cares about.

That's good enough for them.

This is the US vision for all of its colonies and the people of Egypt this week are saying that the limited authority Egypt's current pro-US dictator has offered is not enough. Once again, the military's proposal did not become unacceptable when people died opposing it. By the values the US claims to uphold, this suggestion never should have been made.

Juan Cole more recently points out that Leon Panetta publicly called for Tantawi to lift the state of emergency. Tantawi seems to have said no. Tantawi did not say no to the US order to maintain the siege on Gaza. He did not say no to the US order to restore the unpopular gas pipeline to Israel that Egyptians have destroyed many times. He did not say no to the order to use special forces to free the Israeli embassy. But in Cole's story, Tantawi suddenly grows an independent spirit when the US suggests he lift the state of emergency. Cole's story is not believable. The same pressure that the US applies to help Israel keep Gaza on a diet, or to ensure that children in Gaza go hungry for their parents' voting for the wrong party, could and by the US' professed values, should have been applied to ensure that Tantawi kept his earlier commitment to elections by September earlier this year.

Instead Egyptians are dying in protest. There is no indication that the predictable and preventable deaths of Egyptians matters to Cole or Obama in the least. There was an explicit attempt by the Tantawi dictatorship to retain for the US, in the spirit of Imperial Great Britain in 1922, the right to override the decisions of any Egyptian elected officials on matters that concern the US.

When Westerners say the Arab Spring is not about Israel, that statement is superficially true, but it is leading in a false, dangerous and condescending direction. The suggestion it makes is that the people of the Arab world should be happy with a different, limited, 1922, form of "democracy". The kind of "democracy" that could see the government of 80 million Egyptians, regardless of the views or sensibilities of those Egyptians, cooperate with a siege on over a million fellow Arabs and fellow Muslims for the sake of the US and Israel.

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