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Egypt Demonstrates for Democracy; Americans Contemplate PATRIOT Act Extension

Egypt Shames America In spite of our own interests, Americans and the US government are supplying the boots that rest on the necks of citizens of Egypt and dictatorships around the world. Meanwhile, we remain silent as the impending reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act threatens to speed the momentum of repression in our own country.

Egypt Shames America

In spite of our own interests, Americans and the US government are supplying the boots that rest on the necks of citizens of Egypt and dictatorships around the world. Meanwhile, we remain silent as the impending reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act threatens to speed the momentum of repression in our own country.

The uprisings across the Middle East expose how long America has impeded democracy abroad, rather than supporting it. And the contrast between Arabs mobilizing to obtain freedom, while we in America sit idly by as our elected leaders undermine our rights, is a sobering reminder of our own democracy’s faults.

The Boot That Rests on Their Necks …

The Egyptian uprising has exposed to many Americans for the first time how our taxes have funded dictatorships that oppress people around the world. The fact that tear gas canisters used to bully peaceful crowds in Cairo were famously shown to have been “made in the USA” shouldn’t surprise anyone. As I argued shortly after the Obama administration took office two years ago:

The US gives billions of dollars each year to proxy powers across the globe governed by dictators. This “aid” largely takes the form of US taxpayer-funded purchases from US corporate weapons dealers to supply arms ultimately used to oppress freedom-seeking people abroad. Our willingness to place corporate welfare above democracy abroad at once both reveals our nation’s hypocrisy and antagonizes the very same populations whose hearts & minds we need to win.

The three countries in which established US foreign policy continues to most undermine our long-term security interests are not Iraq, Afghanistan, or Israel – but rather Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. While the US maintains a more subtle military presence in the latter three countries, our support for authoritarian regimes there has supported militants by undermining US claims to support democracy abroad….

Put simply, while the US claims to its own citizens to support democracy abroad, that claim is a charade transparent to people in other countries. It’s not “our freedoms” that “they hate,” but rather our weapons – and our longstanding penchant of giving them to regimes that deny freedoms and oppress their own people. Even conservative foreign policy experts have argued that, well before 9-11, the “presence [of US troops in Saudi Arabia wa]s known to contribute to anti-American sentiment.”

After Obama’s four meetings with Mubarak, the White House has publicly mentioned concerns about “vibrant civil society, open political competition, and credible and transparent elections in Egypt” only once. Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post sums up the facts:

“the public message sent by the Obama administration over the past two years was that democracy and human rights in Egypt was not a top priority. When given the opportunity to use the biggest megaphone in the world – the voice of the president of the United States – the words were whispered, if said at all.”

The administration thankfully shifted its stance last week, calling for an “orderly transition” while still stopping short of “advocating any specific outcome.” But tolerating any continuing role for Mubarak is simply a catastrophic mistake, a futile grasp at a stability that would undermine the revolution, leave its leaders in detention (or worse) and deepen America’s regional reputation as a kingmaker less interested in democracy than in ensuring its own patronage. Already, Mubarak has begun rounding up dissidents, journalists, and invoking a dangerous nationalism through a propaganda campaign blaming the uprising on foreign influences – when, in fact, foreign support from the US is the only reason he has held power for so long. Don’t forget: this is a regime to which both President Bush and Obama have outsourced torture.

The interests of US defense contractors in supplying a brutal dictatorship have driven our foreign policy long enough. Letting Mubarak fall, in contrast, could help restore America’s image in the Arab world by replacing empty rhetoric about supporting freedom with meaningful action. Abandoning the dictator immediately could also undermine violent extremists, by denying militant recruiters their principal talking point: that America prevents self-determination for Arab peoples.

Supporting Egyptian self-determination would also be savvy real politik. A leaked diplomatic cable from February 2010 discussed Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, an Egyptian defense official. According to the cable, Al-Assar “noted that the Egyptian military preferred to purchase its weapons and armaments from the United States, but that … they could go elsewhere if they had to.” Meanwhile, Egyptian officials prompted concerns from American counterparts by violating military agreements and allowing Chinese officers to visit an F-16 base. Mubarak’s dictatorship is neither a principled ally, nor one on which its US handlers can rely.

… and Ours

It’s not merely that Americans generally remain blind to our role in denying freedom to people in the Middle East and elsewhere (like Latin America, where the US Army has trained torturers for a generation). Equally disturbing is the domestic cost of our support for dictators.

The $1.3 billion in military aid lavished on Egypt in 2010 alone could pay for over 28,000 teachers desperately needed in overcrowded US schools. Taxpayer dollars that we currently squander propping up ailing despots could instead be shifted to supporting the international competitiveness of America’s next generation – which the president named as paramount during his State of the Union address.

Our role in denying freedom to others is shameful. But even more shameful is our need in America to look elsewhere for instruction about how to defend our own rights. While Egyptians and Tunisians risk life and limb for democracy, we stand largely silent as we allow our rights to slip through our fingers.

As Congress readies to reauthorize the PATRIOT Act, we Americans appear far more sheepish than our counterparts in Egypt. Egypt flirts with democracy today for the first time, while America – after 200 proud years of a tradition that inspired the rest of the world to follow suit – now enters the tenth year of both major parties actively expanding executive power.

The Washington Post revealed a “top secret America” so vast and unaccountable that even its leaders have confessed, on the record, that they do not control it. It drives our national policy debate, enables abuses despite repeated electoral repudiation and has essentially seized control over both major parties. American democracy has descended into a parody of choice, masking an underlying consensus among the governing elite that our Constitution is less important than a race to extend our government’s influence into all corners of the globe…and all corners of our lives.

We were warned of precisely this problem, by an American president wielding a worldwide military reputation, twice. President Washington famously declined monarchical power in the interest of building an institutional Republic. And President Eisenhower, who witnessed the early beginnings of the military-industrial complex after WWII, was explicit: “[W]e must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

Here in the US, we sing anthems at baseball games about living in “the land of the free.” But as the Framers of our Constitution were quick to note, democracy means more than simply waving a flag and praising our leaders. And by most of those measures, the US is much less a democracy than we think.

Beyond the procedural formality of fair elections, democracy also relies on meaningful choices among electoral alternatives, as well as a robust separation of powers among the branches of government, ideally involving an independent judiciary able to protect individual rights.

We have none of those things in the US

All likely major candidates for the presidency, and both major political parties, agree (for instance) on placing the financial interests of defense contractors above both the national security of the United States, as well as the constitutional rights of its people. We have lost the right to speak, advocate or dissent without fear of government retribution, as demonstrated by political surveillance and infiltration by state and federal authorities around the country.

Reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act prompted little debate until this week’s surprise vote, in which a bipartisan populist coalition managed to derail “fast track” reauthorization, rejecting continued deferrence to the executive branch. Originally billed as an emergency measure so arcane that few members of Congress even read the proposal before voting to approve it, earlier rounds of PATRIOT reauthorization prompted resistance across the country and across the political spectrum by millions of grassroots constitutionalists who mobilized to oppose it. And with good reason:

  • The Justice Department’s inspector general has repeatedly identified thousands of FBI abuses, as recently as last year, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation just documented hundreds more (at least).
  • The FBI, whose powers may have been most directly expanded by the PATIOT Act, has endured a recent fusillade of criticism for reviving its political spying operations of the COINTELPRO era, dragging peace activists before secret grand juries and subjecting Muslim Americans to a regime of presumptive suspicion and pervasive infiltration.
  • Since the PATRIOT Act was first enacted, the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping scheme was exposed, although parts of the program remain secret and no one knows the full extent of its assault on constitutional rights.
  • Even the secretary of defense and the director of the CIA have said – on the record – that the vast federal intelligence apparatus lies beyond their control and oversight.
  • Expanding upon the federal government’s formidable capacity, state and local police departments around the country have begun tracking lawful activities, such as drawing, or taking notes, photos or videos in public. Many, like state police in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York and Washington, have been caught monitoring lawful dissent.
  • Private corporations are deeply intertwined in this enterprise. Monsanto has commissioned domestic intelligence gathering on its critics. Drilling companies have gained access to constitutionally offensive intelligence information from state agencies. And defense contractors have sold every conceivable manner of high-tech surveillance equipment to local police, sometimes after developing it for use in Afghanistan or Iraq.
  • Beyond surveillance, executive power has multiplied in other disturbing ways. The Obama White House asserts the authority to arbitrarily disregard court orders to release detainees found to pose no national security threat. It openly flaunts international human rights treaties that require the investigation of officials complicit in abuses such as torture. And it claims the astounding authority to assassinate US citizens without due process.

Despite campaigning against the PATRIOT Act in 2008, President Obama pushed Congress, in relative secret, to reauthorize it last year, signing the extension bill into law on a Saturday in late February 2010 amid little fanfare. The charade is poised for repetition this week until populists in each party banded together on Tuesday night to defeat the 2/3 vote required to reauthorize the Act without permitting amendments. That victory was temporary and the Constitution remains on the chopping block: the Patriot Act will come back before Congress again next week.

And whereas Egypt has taken to the streets to demand its rights from an autocratic despot, America remains in a stupor, distracted by reality television as our elected government writes our rights into relics of the past.

We enjoy many of the freedoms for which Egypt clamors, yet we don’t mobilize to defend them – even though many of our needs, ironically, are the same. According to 33-year-old Egyptian engineer Farouk Hanafy, “The resources of this country all go to a few businessmen with connections to the government, not to the people….We want justice.”

Sound familiar?

Choose Your Own Adventure

Hope springs eternal. Egypt should teach us that, if nothing else.

With parts of the PATRIOT Act set to expire at the end of Black History Month during the tenure of the nation’s first African-American president and attorney general, it is an ironic time to witness civil rights in America fading. But although both major parties in Congress are marching in lockstep with the White House to reauthorize unchecked government spying, dissenters have raised their voices among both Republicans and Democrats.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) has proposed a bill that would impose some minimal, but wholly inadequate, protections for civil liberties. Meanwhile, members of Congress from both parties – such as Tom McClintock (R-California) and Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) – have announced their opposition to reauthorizing PATRIOT without amendments to address civil liberties. Their agreement across the partisan aisle illustrates how surveillance divides not the left from right, but rather a broad consensus among Americans (about the need for limits on executive authority) from an attitude most visible in China, and before that, the Soviet Union.

This is a time to raise our voices, from every corner and through every channel. We enjoy far broader rights than did our predecessors, whose sacrifices compel us to speak out today. The people of Egypt took on much greater risks in raising their voices, for much less, than we do. Here in America, the least we can do is join our voices to their chorus, and lift our government’s boot from our own necks, if not the billions around the world (and 83 million Egyptians) who yearn to share the freedom we so passively resign.

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