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For Egypt, Bread Is As Important As Freedom

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Total confusion would be a polite way of describing official Washington's reaction to the revolts and protests now flaring across the Arab world. Neither the US government or the mainstream media knows how to respond.

President Barack Obama has just suffered the second humiliation in a row from the Mideast. First, he demanded Israel cease building illegal settlements on Arab land. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, backed by the US Congress, laughed in Obama's face and kept on building.

Now, after demanding Egypt's President Husni Mubarak resign "now," the Egyptian strongman scorned the demand and grimly hugs on to power, backed by the security organs and business oligarchy.

Obama has again been openly scorned by a Mideast leader.

This writer reported last April that the US had selected Egypt's then intelligence chief, Gen. Omar Suleiman, to replace President Mubarak. Washington's hope was for an orderly transition, but the popular intifada
derailed that plan.

While unsure which way to move for the time being, Washington is hoping that General and now Vice President Suleiman will assume full leadership of Egypt with the backing of the ministers of defense and interior, and senior army generals. While the US clearly wants this outcome, most Egyptians just as clearly do not.

Now that the initial shock over Egypt's uprising has subsided, powerful special interests here in the United States are preparing to throw their support behind VP Suleiman or even continuation of President Mubarak's rule.

The Israel lobby, the most powerful in Washington, is trumpeting exaggerated fears, fanned by neoconservatives and Israel, that Egypt is about to turn into a second Iran. Behind these wild claims is the real concern that the US-brokered phony "peace" engineered by the US between Egypt and Israel will be rejected by Egyptians, who regard it as treason and betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

The military-industrial complex, which sells Egypt $1.5 billion worth of arms each year - money that comes from US aid - worry that a popular, democratic Egyptian government will divert military spending into urgent social needs. America's powerful farm lobby frets that tens of millions of US wheat sales to Egypt, again paid for by US aid, may be jeopardized.

Finally, the imperial-minded national security complex in Washington and New York is very worried that its most important Mideast ally may be on the way out. If Egypt's current US-backed and financed regime goes, America's entire security architecture for the Mideast will be in peril. Also throw Pakistan into the equation as most Pakistanis are watching events in Egypt and other Arab autocratic states with avid interest and envy.

Overlooked so far in the reporting over the crisis in Egypt is the fact that no matter how much Egyptians would like to loosen pervasive American influence over their nation, Egypt remains dependant on the US for food, as do many other Arab nations.

For the past forty years, US foreign aid programs have provided at least half or more of Egypt's grain imports. Egypt's limited fertile land cannot feed its growing population of 84 million. So Egypt must import grain to provide its people subsidized bread. The US supplied Egypt, the world's leading grain importer, with some 3 million tons last year.

Since Egypt cannot pay for these imports, it must rely on aid authorized each year by the US Congress. But Congress is under the influence of the Israel lobby. If Cairo angers the US or Israel, it always faces the threat of a cutoff of essential food aid as well as spare parts and munitions for its 500,000-man military.

These considerations will weigh heavily on any new government in Cairo. Everyone remembers Egypt's violent food riots during the 1970's. In a sense, Egypt is linked to America by golden handcuffs -- unless it can find a new food benefactor in Russia, the European Union or China.

Back in the late 1960's, Egypt's then leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, wanted to break his nation's growing dependence on the Soviet Union. He was stopped from doing so by anguished pleas from his defense minister, Marshall Amer: 'spare parts, Gamal, spare parts! We can't live without Soviet spare parts.'

Sixty years later, Egypt's basic problems remain the same.
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Contributing Foreign Editor/Syndicated Foreign Affairs Columinist -
Sun Media Group
(Pakistan's leading English language Newspaper)
Gulf Times (Qatar)
Khaleej Times (Dubai)

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