Obama and Egypt: Some History

The recent remarkable and revolutionary unrest in the Arab world and particularly in Egypt has created an awkward dilemma for the Obama administration. Despite his campaign rhetoric of “change,” Barack Obama has continued the basic George W. Bush policy of encouraging an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and so-called moderate Arab states. These “moderate” states include Egypt’s atrocious police-state dictatorship and Saudi Arabia’s misogynist theocracy, which is perhaps the most reactionary government on earth. All of these states have continued to be lavishly funded by the United States under Obama—ironically enough given Obama’s following comment in his (not-so) anti-Iraq war speech in Chicago in the fall of 2002: “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope…” Six and a half years later, Obama as U.S. president refused even to call Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak “authoritarian” (much less a dictator). He praised the Egyptian government as “a force for stability and good in the region.” He claimed to have been “struck” by the “wisdom and graciousness” of Saudi king Abdullah, the head of state in a nation that regularly practiced public beheadings. These comments amounted to a clear endorsement of torture, martial law, secret police, and worse in the Middle East.1

As feared and predicted by many Middle Eastern democracy activists, Obama’s much ballyhooed trip to the Middle East in early June of 2009 blessed repression in the Middle East. Obama used his high-profile diplomatic visit to Cairo, the heart of the Arab world, to call for a cooperative era of ambitious regional diplomacy. He made no far-reaching calls for political reform, reflecting his determination to tolerate repression on the part of Middle East allies willing to assist the U.S. on “regional issues” (the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the general U.S. support for Israel and its vicious oppression of the Palestinians, and the U.S. campaign against Iran). President Mubarak and other Middle Eastern authorities naturally interpreted Obama’s reluctance to raise questions of democracy as a green light to crack down on regime critics.

It was depressing for many who sought peace in the Middle East to hear Obama’s Cairo speech buy heavily into the language of an epic global conflict between the Judeo-Christian world and the Muslim world. As left Middle East scholar Gilbert Achcar noted the day after the address:

[Obama’s] speech was lamentably constrained within the parameters of the “clash of civilizations” paradigm—whose main theoretician, the late Samuel Huntington, did not advocate the clash, as his non-readers believe, but warned of it. The paradigm was one of a world divided into blocs, the majority of which are constituted around a single religious criterion. Thus, Obama in Cairo exclusively addressed the “Muslims,” scattering his speech with quotes from the Koran, expressing a view of the world dominated by religion—and only Abrahamic religions at that, forgetting that in his own country there are millions who do not belong to any [sects] of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, not to mention those who refuse to belong to any religion at all. In doing so, he paid an unintended tribute to the man whom he mentioned at the beginning of his speech and built up as its main target: Osama bin Laden.2

Jon Alterman, a State Department Middle East advisor under George W. Bush, offered an interesting perspective on the unchanged bipartisan and imperial continuities beneath and beyond Obama’s trip to the Arab world. “Our policies,” Alterman explained at a forum in Washington, “are a reflection of our interests and our alliances and while they may change moderately from administration to administration, the underlying interests are simply not allied with the policies that many Muslims around the world would like to see the United States pursue. We’re going to have to agree to disagree, and that’s the first task for the President—to frame U.S. policy in a way that takes some of the passion out of the widespread hostility for the United States [emphasis added].”3 Obama’s real task, Alterman felt, wasn’t to change actual U.S. policy in the Middle East; it was rather to take the dangerous sting out of how those policies were perceived across the predominantly Muslim and Arab region. It was about public relations and re-branding.

Here we are a year and a half later. The alienated, drastically under-employed and hopeless Arab and Egyptian youth that Obama claimed to care for in 2002 have led an epic outpouring of protest that challenges the power of the arch-authoritarian governments the U.S. continues to bankroll under Obama. Contrary to the president’s religious-civilization-clash rhetoric, the struggles in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere are not being waged by and for Muslim extremism but in the name of the modern, secular- democratic values that Washington claims to support and embody (notwithstanding its captivity to its own unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire). Insofar as Obama now appears to be cautiously willing to appear to side with the people in the streets in Cairo and Alexandria, the primary administration motive is clearly imperial-strategic. It arises from the fear that the American and Obama brand will be irrevocably poisoned in Egypt and the Middle East if the U.S. appears to have stayed to the end with a doomed dictator. But then, American foreign policy has never supported democracy overseas for other than contingent and highly qualified reasons. Beneath its claim to represent and advance universal democratic values, Washington has long sponsored, protected, and equipped authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that it has seen as favorable to the U.S. corporate sector’s economic interests and the American military’s related global designs. When those regimes collapse under the weight of popular rebellion the U.S. never wanted to see, Washington does the best it can to identify itself with and control the opposition

  1. Michael Brull, “Obama Just Updated U.S. Double-Speak,” New Matilida, June 11, 2009; U.S. Liberals, “Barack Obama’s Stirring 2002 Speech Against the Iraq War,” October 2002. []
  2. Gilbert Achcar, “Obama’s Cairo Speech,” ZNet, June 6, 2009. []
  3. Jon Alterman quoted in Michael Scherer, “Obama Seeks to Win Muslim Hearts and Minds,” Time, June 3, 2009. []

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007). Street's new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics can now be ordered. Read other articles by Paul.

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  1. Deadbeat said on February 1st, 2011 at 11:50am #

    What WRONG with this picture …

    Paul Street (moc.oohaynull@99teertsluap) is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007). Street’s new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics can now be ordered. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul’s website.

    Yet not a word about Zionism!

    The analysis coming from the Left is rather disconcerting and IMO a distraction and deflection. Mr. Street profile indicates that he is a “professional” analysis of racism yet see none whatsoever in the retardation of the Arab world by Zionism. Clearly a racist regime would not tolerate ANY economic rivals and the Arab world has a history of resistance against Zionism. Therefore for the United States to carry out Zionist policies in the Middle East would clearly support Arab regimes willing to SUPPRESS her own people. Obama is just yet another U.S. President who knows his political fortunes is based on subservience to the power of Zionism in the United States. Clearly this article coming from Mr. Street is a disappointment since his profile indicates that he posses an understanding of how racism affect societies.

    There seem to be a narrative coming from the pseudo-Left on the uprising in Egypt and that is to find any other scapegoat to divert attention away from Zionist influence.

  2. shabnam said on February 1st, 2011 at 8:25pm #

    Now that Mubarak is going to be forced out any minute by brave Egyptian people, suddenly Tayyip Erdogan appears on the scene to buy more ‘credits’ for himself and Turkey as empire’s servant to become the power of the region.

    Erdogan has been chosen by the US imperialism to act on her behalf because US has NO CREDIBILITY. Turkey is trying to use the events in the Arab street to capture Arab minds and hearts to act as a mediator for US imperialism to gain more concessions.
    What had happened to Erdogan’s empty slogan regarding Palestinians when he said: Gaza blockade must be broken? He NEVER followed on that empty slogan. Instead, Erdogan rewarded Israelis war criminals by voting YES to admission of Israel to OECD, although Salaam Fayad begged Turkey not to do it.
    Finally, Turkey was satisfied with an ‘apology’ in private from Israel so they can resume their relations of 50 years and more. Turkey’s relation with Israel became shaky after the massacre of Turkish citizens at sea by Israelis, but was not cut off completly. Turkey resumed her relation with Israel when was asked to help them to put off the fire, but Turkey never called her ambassador home from Israel when the judeofascists killed more than 1400 Gazan, many of whom were toddlers, in 2008-2009.

    Arab population are not going to be fooled by empty slogans. They look at actions not slogans. That’s why they are FED UP with the US hypocrisy and their puppet Mubarak.

    {http://pulsemedia.org/2011/02/01/erdogan-reminds-mubarak-that-presidents-die-too/}

    {Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has finally weighed in on the situation in Egypt, issuing the latest in a sequence of recommendations to preferred U.S. allies in the region.
    Last year’s post-flotilla advice to the Israeli regime consisted of an excerpt from the Ten Commandments, delivered in both English and Hebrew: “Thou shalt not kill”.

    This year’s advice to Mubarak covers the same themes of religion and death. Reminding the Egyptian leader of the plot in the ground that is inevitably awaiting him, Erdoğan has instructed Mubarak to listen to the wishes of the Egyptian citizenry, given the irrelevance of political rank when “the only thing that will come with you when you die is your burial shroud”.}

  3. mary said on February 3rd, 2011 at 3:28am #

    Only in the Land of the Free……

    Al Jazeera English Blacked Out Across Most Of U.S.

    Canadian television viewers looking for the most thorough and in-depth coverage of the uprising in Egypt have the option of tuning into Al Jazeera English, whose on-the-ground coverage of the turmoil is unmatched by any other outlet.

    American viewers, meanwhile, have little choice but to wait until one of the U.S. cable-company-approved networks broadcasts footage from AJE, which the company makes publicly available. What they can’t do is watch the network directly.

    Other than in a handful of pockets across the U.S. – including Ohio, Vermont and Washington, D.C. – cable carriers do not give viewers the choice of watching Al Jazeera. That corporate censorship comes as American diplomats harshly criticize the Egyptian government for blocking Internet communication inside the country and as Egypt attempts to block Al Jazeera from broadcasting.

    The result of the Al Jazeera English blackout in the United States has been a surge in traffic to the media outlet’s website, where footage can be seen streaming live. The last 24 hours have seen a two-and-a-half thousand percent increase in web traffic, Tony Burman, head of North American strategies for Al Jazeera English, told HuffPost. Sixty percent of that traffic, he said, has come from the United States.

    Al Jazeera English launched in the fall of 2006, opening a large bureau on K Street in downtown Washington, but has made little progress in persuading cable companies to offer the channel to its customers.

    /….
    {http://www.loonwatch.com/2011/01/al-jazeera-english-blacked-out-across-most-of-u-s/ }

  4. Deadbeat said on February 3rd, 2011 at 3:50am #

    Check out PressTV. If you have have hi-speed bandwidth you can watch PressTV on Livestation. It’s refreshing to get perspective from Arabs who are not located in the United States. They are much freer to express their views about Zionist influence and her stooges upon the Arab world. This is a perspective you won’t get from Democracy Now! and other pseudo-Left outlets.

  5. mary said on February 3rd, 2011 at 8:32am #

    Hear hear Deadbeat. Not one of the UK mainstream newpapers printed anything about the provenance (paid thugs, police out of their uniform and criminals) of the pro-Mubarak supporters who wrecked the peaceful protest yesterday. Eight people died and 890 were injured.

    Radio 4 ‘Today’ has 6.6 million listeners. Here the senior presenter, John Humphrys, smears Islam this morning and speaks for Israel. Listen to the lies esp the repeat of the phrase ‘wiping Israel off the face of the earth’. Mr El-Bahawy was a match for him.

    {http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9385000/9385930.stm}
    Muslim Brotherhood: ‘We need freedom’
    The US has expressed deep concerns about the violent protests on the streets of Cairo. North America editor Mark Mardell reports on the view of the unfolding events in Washington.

    And Kamal El-Helbawy, a member and former spokesman of opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, discusses the group’s political position.

    I was impressed by Angela Kilby’s homily. She talks about our day to day preoccupations which seem petty in comparison with what the Egyptians are striving for.

    Thought For The Day.
    {http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/b006qj9z/console} 1 hr 50 mins in

  6. Paul Street said on February 3rd, 2011 at 9:06am #

    Holy shit “deadbeat” — that personal assault is a new low. Really unimpressive. This brief and modest essay does not require a statement on Zionism and its role…it leaves you free to argue that Zionism is the root cause of U.S./Obama foreign policy in the ME is that’s what you want to do. And of course the notion that my position on that issue would somehow taint the sincerity of my writings against white supremacy and anti-black racism in the U.S. is…..well, bizarre. For what its worth (with ain’t much with your wild cyber entity self), I have long beenn on the record against Isreal’s racist occupation and apartheid policies vis a vis Palestinians…

  7. Deadbeat said on February 7th, 2011 at 7:28pm #

    Paul Street writes …

    Holy shit “deadbeat” — that personal assault is a new low. Really unimpressive. This brief and modest essay does not require a statement on Zionism and its role…it leaves you free to argue that Zionism is the root cause of U.S./Obama foreign policy in the ME [if] that’s what you want to do. And of course the notion that my position on that issue would somehow taint the sincerity of my writings against white supremacy and anti-black racism in the U.S. is…..well, bizarre. For what its worth (with ain’t much with your wild cyber entity self), I have long beenn on the record against Isreal’s racist occupation and apartheid policies vis a vis Palestinians…

    Thank you for your impressively revealing response Mr. Street. Apparently my critique struck a chord. Perhaps you should take a stroll over to Information Clearing House and listen to the interview by Press TV of Mark Bruzonsky, Jewish, American Scholar and Journalist. Here’s the link …

    How Zionism infiltrated the US [http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article27425.htm]

    In the interview Mr. Bruzonsky says that 50% of the donations to the Democratic Party are from Zionists donors. Amazingly were here a lot about the Tea Party money but NOTHING about Zionist money.

    Obama policies, as the “Left” constantly reminds us, are due to his backers. The Democrats are OWNED by the Zionists and you want us to believe that Obama formulates his policies on his own. No sir. Obama is OWNED just like Mubarak to render services for Zionism.

    You present yourself as an expert on racism yet there is NO MENTION WHATSOEVER of how Zionism has retarded Arab aspiration with the same vigor that you’ve inform us how White supremacy underdeveloped Blacks in the U.S. There is a disjoint in your analysis Mr. Street which I’ve honed in on and you react to that as a “personal assault”.

    I sir didn’t assault you. I EXPOSED you.

  8. Paul Street said on February 8th, 2011 at 9:17am #

    “Deadbeat,” you are exposing your own madness. How would you feel about maybe getting some counseling? (Not with me, but on your own :). It would do you (whoever you are) some good perhaps.

  9. Deadbeat said on February 10th, 2011 at 4:57am #

    Paul Street writes …

    “Deadbeat,” you are exposing your own madness. How would you feel about maybe getting some counseling? (Not with me, but on your own :). It would do you (whoever you are) some good perhaps.

    I’ve gotten my “counseling” from my experience of betrayal by the “Left”. I now choose to get my information from alternatives of the pseudo-Left so-called “alternative” sources thanks to the Internet.

    However I find it fascinating that you who accuse me of launching a “personal attack” is now throwing out one yourself. And if anyone requires what I assume you meant to be an insulting “psychological” counseling I leave that to members of the pseudo-Left who are having conniption fits over the possibility of an anti-Zionist revolution in Egypt.

    Like I said Mr. Street your profile indicates that you are a “professional” analysis of racism. Therefore it is only expected from such an “esteemed professional” to at least provide Egypt’s situation insight of the effect racism had on Egypt. That means calling out Zionism and how it was able to use U.S. policy to carry out its agenda in the Middle East.

    I gather you didn’t enter the link and watch the interview from Press TV of Mark Bruzonsky. I guess you’d dismiss him as “madness” and “needing of counseling” as well.

    Your response Mr. Street is a disappointment.

  10. Max Shields said on February 10th, 2011 at 7:40am #

    Good luck Paul!!!