While Vice-President Joe Biden insisted that Mubarak is not a dictator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama lamely condemned "violence" and voiced moral support for the right to protest. The slightly muted response is understandable. For the last 30 years, the U.S. has supported Mubarak's brutal reign with economic and military assistance -- currently providing $1.3 billion a year in Foreign Military Financing (FMF). The U.S. Congressional Research Service reports that additionally:
"Egypt benefits from certain aid provisions that are available to only a few other countries. Since 2000, Egypt's FMF funds have been deposited in an interest bearing account in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and have remained there until they are obligated... Egypt is allowed to set aside FMF funds for current year payments only, rather than set aside the full amount needed to meet the full cost of multi-year purchases. Cash flow financing allows Egypt to negotiate major arms purchases with U.S. defense suppliers."
The U.S. also happens to be Egypt's largest bilateral trading partner. It is "one of the largest single markets worldwide for American wheat and corn and is a significant importer of other agricultural commodities, machinery, and equipment." The U.S. is also the second largest foreign investor in the country, "primarily in the oil and gas sector."
Perhaps Biden's denial of Mubarak's dictatorial qualities are not that difficult to understand. Since the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981, Egypt has officially been in a continuous "state of emergency," which under a 1958 law permits Mubarak to oversee measures unnervingly similar to the USA Patriot Act -- indefinite detention; torture; secret courts; special authority for police interventions; complete absence of privacy; and so on, ad nauseum. Not to mention the fact that inequality in the U.S. is actually higher than in Egypt.
Friends of the Family
Yet ultimately, the U.S. administration cannot absolve itself. Successive State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Egypt, while still conservative, catalogue the litany of routine police-state repression inflicted on the civilian population over the last decade by Mubarak's security forces. When asked about the shocking findings of the 2009 report, Clinton herself downplayed the implications, describing Mubarak and his wife as "friends of my family." So it is not that we do not know. It is that we did not care until the terror became so unbearable, that it exploded onto the streets of Cairo.
Egypt is central among a network of repressive Arab regimes which the British and Americans have actively supported since the early twentieth century to sustain control of cheap oil "at all costs", as Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd noted in 1956, as well as to protect Israel. Declassified British Foreign Office files reviewed by historian Mark Curtis show that the Gulf sheikhdoms were largely created by Britain to "retain our influence," while police and military assistance would help "counter hostile influence and propaganda within the countries themselves" -- particularly from "ultra-nationalist maladies". The real danger, warned the Foreign Office in 1957, was of dictators "losing their authority to reformist or revolutionary movements which might reject the connexion with the United Kingdom."
No wonder then that the chief fear of Western intelligence agencies and corporate risk consultants is not that mass resistance might fail to generate vibrant and viable democracies, but simply the prospect of a regional "contagion" that could destabilize "Saudi oil fields." Such conventional analyses, of course, entirely miss the point: The American Empire, and the global political economy it has spawned, is unravelling -- not because of some far-flung external danger, but under the weight of its own internal contradictions. It is unsustainable --- already in overshoot of the earth's natural systems, exhausting its own resource base, alienating the vast majority of the human and planetary population.
The solution in Tunisia, in Egypt, in the entire Middle East, and beyond, does not lay merely in aspirations for democracy. Hope can only spring from a fundamental re-evaluation of the entire structure of our civilization in its current form. If we do not use the opportunities presented by these crises to push for fundamental structural change, then the "contagion" will engulf us all.
Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London. He is author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), which inspired the forthcoming documentary film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011).