The Limits of Social Movements
The mass movements which forced the removal of Mubarak reveal both the strength and weaknesses of spontaneous uprisings. On the one hand, the social movements demonstrated their capacity to mobilize hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in a successful sustained struggle culminating in the overthrow of the dictator in a way that pre-existent opposition parties and personalities were unable or unwilling to do.
On the other hand, lacking any national political leadership, the movements were not able to take political power and realize their demands, allowing the Mubarak military high command to seize power and define the “post-Mubarak” process, ensuring the continuation of Egypt’s subordination to the US, the protection of the illicit wealth of the Mubarak clan ($70 billion), and the military elite’s numerous corporations and the protection of the upper class. The millions mobilized by the social movements to overthrow the dictatorship were effectively excluded by the new self-styled “revolutionary” military junta in defining the political institutions and policies, let alone the socio-economic reforms needed to address the basic needs of the population (40% live on less than $2 USD a day, youth unemployment runs over 30%).
Egypt, as in the case of the student and popular social movements against the dictatorships of South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, and Indonesia, demonstrates that the lack of a national political organization allows neo-liberal and conservative “opposition” personalities and parties to replace the regime. They proceed to set up an electoral regime which continues to serve imperial interests and to depend on and defend the existing state apparatus. In some cases they replace old crony capitalists with new ones.
It is no accident that the mass media praise the ‘spontaneous’ nature of the struggles (not the socio-economic demands) and put a favorable spin on the role of military (slighting its 30 years as a bulwark of the dictatorship). The masses are praised for their “heroism”, the youth for their “idealism”, but are never proposed as central political actors in the new regime. Once the dictatorship fell, the military and the opposition electoralists “celebrated” the success of the revolution and moved swiftly to demobilize and dismantle the spontaneous movement in order to make way for negotiations between the liberal electoral politicians, Washington and the ruling military elite.
While the White House may tolerate or even promote social movements in ousting (“sacrificing”) dictatorships, they have every intention in preserving the state. In the case of Egypt the main strategic ally of US imperialism was not Mubarak. It is the military, with whom Washington was in constant collaboration before, during and after the ouster of Mubarak, ensuring that the “transition” to democracy (sic) guarantees the continued subordination of Egypt to US and Israeli Middle East policy and interests.
The Revolt of the People: The Failures of the CIA and Mossad
The Arab revolt demonstrates once again several strategic failures in the much vaunted secret police, special forces and intelligence agencies of the US and Israeli state apparatus none of which anticipated, let along intervened, to preclude successful mobilization and influence their government’s policy toward the client rulers under attack.
The image which most writers, academics, and journalists project of the invincibility of the Israeli Mossad and of the omnipotent CIA have been severely tested by their admitted failure to recognize the scope, depth and intensity of the multi-million member movement to oust the Mubarak dictatorship. The Mossad, pride and joy of Hollywood producers, presented as a ‘model of efficiency’ by their organized Zionist colleagues, were not able to detect the growth of a mass movement in a country right next door. The Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was shocked (and dismayed) by the precarious situation of Mubarak and the collapse of his most prominent Arab client – because of Mossad’s faulty intelligence. Likewise, Washington was totally unprepared by the 27 US intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, with their hundreds of thousands of paid operatives and multi-billion dollar budgets, of the forthcoming massive popular uprisings and emerging movements.
Several theoretical observations are in order. The notion that highly repressive rulers receiving billions of dollars of US military aid and with close to a million police, military, and paramilitary forces are the best guarantors of imperial hegemony has been demonstrated to be false. The assumption that large scale, long-term links with such dictatorial rulers, safeguards US imperial interests has been disproven.
Israeli arrogance and presumption of Jewish organizational, strategic, and political superiority over “the Arabs”, has been severely deflated. The Israeli state, its experts, undercover operatives and Ivy League academics were blind to the unfolding realities, ignorant of the depth of disaffection and impotent to prevent the mass opposition to their most valued client. Israel’s publicists in the US, who scarcely resist the opportunity to promote the “brilliance” of Israel’s security forces, whether it’s assassinating an Arab leader in Lebanon or Dubai, or bombing a military facility in Syria, were temporarily speechless.
The fall of Mubarak and the possible emergence of an independent and democratic government would mean that Israel could lose its major ‘cop on the beat’. A democratic public will not cooperate with Israel in maintaining the blockade of Gaza – starving Palestinians to break their will to resist. Israel will not be able to count on a democratic government to back its violent land seizures in the West Bank and its stooge Palestinian regime. Nor can the US count on a democratic Egypt to back its intrigues in Lebanon, its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its sanctions against Iran. Moreover, the Egyptian uprising has served as an example for popular movements against other US client dictatorships in Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. For all these reasons,Washington backed the military takeover in order to shape a political transition according to its liking and imperial interests.
The weakening of the principle pillar of US imperial and Israeli colonial power in North Africa and the Middle East reveals the essential role of imperial collaborator regimes. The dictatorial character of these regimes is a direct result of the role they play in upholding imperial interests. And the major military aid packages which corrupt and enrich the ruling elites are the rewards for being willing collaborators of imperial and colonial states. Given the strategic importance of the Egyptian dictatorship, how do we explain the failure of the US and Israeli intelligence agencies to anticipate the uprisings?
Both the CIA and the Mossad worked closely with the Egyptian intelligence agencies and relied on them for their information, confiding in their self-serving reports that “everything was under control”: the opposition parties were weak, decimated by repression and infiltration, their militants languishing in jail, or suffering fatal “heart attacks” because of harsh “interrogation techniques”. The elections were rigged to elect US and Israeli clients – no democratic surprises in the immediate or medium term horizon.
Egyptian intelligence agencies are trained and financed by Israeli and US operatives and are amenable to pursuing their masters will. They were so compliant in turning in reports which pleased their mentors that they ignored any accounts of growing popular unrest or of internet agitation. The CIA and Mossad were so embedded in Mubarak’s vast security apparatus that they were incapable of securing any other information from the grassroots, decentralized, burgeoning movements which were independent of the “controlled” traditional electoral opposition.
When the extra-parliamentary mass movements burst forward, the Mossad and the CIA counted on the Mubarak state apparatus to take control via the typical carrot and stick operation: transient token concessions and calling out the army, police and death squads. As the movement grew from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, to millions, the Mossad and leading US Congressional backers of Israel urged Mubarak to “hold on”. The CIA was reduced to presenting the White House with political profiles of reliable military officials and pliable “transitional” political personages, willing to follow in Mubarak’s footsteps. Once again the CIA and Mossad demonstrated their dependence on the Mubarak apparatus for intelligence of who might be a “viable” (pro-US/Israel) alternative, ignoring the elementary demands of the masses. The attempt to co-opt the old guard electoralist Muslim Brotherhood via negotiations with Vice-President Suleiman failed, in part because the Brotherhood was not in control of the movement and because Israel and their US backers objected. Moreover, the youth wing of the Brotherhood pressured them to withdraw from the negotiations.
The intelligence failure complicated Washington and Tel Aviv’s efforts to sacrifice the dictatorial regime to save the state: the CIA and MOSSAD did not develop ties to any of the new emerging leaders. The Israeli’s could not find any ‘new face’ with a popular following willing to serve as a crass collaborator to colonial oppression. The CIA had been entirely engaged in using the Egyptian secret police for torturing terror suspects (“exceptional rendition”) and in policing neighboring Arab countries. As a result both Washington and Israel looked to and promoted the military takeover to preempt further radicalization.
Ultimately the failure of the CIA and MOSSAD to detect and prevent the rise of the popular democratic movement reveals the precarious bases of imperial and colonial power. Over the long-run it is not arms, billions of dollars, secret police and torture chambers that decide history. Democratic revolutions occur when the vast majority of a people arise and say “enough”, take the streets, paralyze the economy, dismantle the authoritarian state and demand freedom and democratic institutions without imperial tutelage and colonial subservience.