As world leaders meet in New York this month to negotiate a first-ever international arms trade treaty, many human rights activists are focusing on the deteriorating situation in Syria and continued arms sales by Russia to the brutal Assad regime as examples of why this treaty so urgently needs to be passed. Considering the egregious use of state violence and the scale of human suffering, it is understandable that Syria is taking center stage in discussions around developing a regulatory framework with human rights conditions for world arms sales. However, we must not forget the numerous other regimes in the region – many of which have been challenged by the Arab “revolutions” – the durable rule of which has, in large part, depended upon their ability to purchase lethal weapons from states and companies – many based in the United States and Europe – willing to sell.
This April, we joined a National Lawyers Guild delegation of US lawyers, activists and scholars to investigate another uncomfortable case of an authoritarian regime that benefited from Western weapons sales and aid, to the detriment of the people. Our delegation’s aim was to examine the role and responsibility of the US government and American corporations in human rights abuses in Egypt, as well as the ways in which over 30 years of US military and economic intervention has violated Egypt’s popular sovereignty and locked the country in a web of debt.
The delegation met with a broad range of activists, including human rights advocates, youth leaders, Islamists, leftist intellectuals and trade unionists. We also met with several civil society organizations that provide vital legal and social services to poor and working-class Egyptians who have been targeted by the state for their activism.
Through these meetings, we came to understand the various ways in which state institutions and repressive apparatuses have been used to quell political dissent and limit the more radical demands of the Egyptian revolution. We also came to develop a better understanding of the ways in which US military, financial and diplomatic aid helps to sustain many of the corrupt and illegal practices of the state. The information shared with us by the various individuals and groups with whom we met implicates the US-backed military, police and state security forces in the most palpable forms of state violence practiced throughout the Mubarak era, some of which continues today. This includes violent attacks on protesters, unlawful detention of activists, and use of torture.
However, the picture painted for us by activists also revealed a less noticeable, and in some ways more nefarious, form of violence – structural violence – which impacts the lives of millions of Egyptian citizens today and is perpetrated by a whole range of domestic and international actors, including state institutions, private corporations, financial institutions and foreign governments, most importantly the United States and its Gulf allies. As a result, many of the popular civil society campaigns in Egypt have focused not only on challenging the most visible forms of repression, but also overcoming many of the less tangible pathologies associated with the neoliberal authoritarian state, including flagrant corruption, inequality, injustice in the workplace, and the accumulation of odious debt, or debt incurred by a regime without proper consultation and with little or no consideration to the best interests of the nation.
The delegation’s work takes on added importance in light of a series of decrees issued by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) over the last few months that are designed to further entrench the military’s power. These decrees, in conjunction with a recent Supreme Constitutional Court ruling dissolving the five-month-old elected parliament, have the effect of constraining the power of the winner of recent presidential elections, leading Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Morsi. Despite the fact that the controversy surrounding the elections has now subsided, it is clear that the power struggle between the executive and the SCAF is ongoing, and unless concrete action is taken, the real winner will continue to be the SCAF, which stands to maintain legislative, executive and judicial control over all of Egypt.
Representing one of the most significant uprisings of our time, Egypt’s revolution still holds the potential to lead us into a new era of equality, direct democracy, and human rights, and it has already inspired grassroots movements around the world, including the Occupy movement. It is more important than ever that we understand, expose and challenge the ways in which the US government’s policies may have contributed to underwriting the violence of the Egyptian state and may now be acting as an obstacle to the realization of the revolution’s aims.
With political and economic support of the US government, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s regime established a pervasive and omnipresent state security apparatus to control and suppress opposition to the government and its foreign and domestic policies. Although Mubarak has been deposed, it is clear that his repressive security apparatuses continue to maintain significant influence over the government, the economy and civil society. Today’s military regime, led by the SCAF and various state security institutions associated with the Interior Ministry, serves as a counterrevolutionary force bent on maintaining the very state structures against which the Egyptian people revolted in early 2011.
From the start of the revolution, state repression and attacks against the Egyptian people rapidly increased and in some ways became more violent and pervasive. In 2011, military courts tried over 12,000 civilians and convicted at least 9,000. Those convicted included hundreds of political activists. In addition, at least 54 children have been interrogated and detained, with some handed sentences of up to 15 years in length. Though Egypt’s newly elected President Morsi has recently issued an order to pardon 572 people, hundreds of civilians convicted by military tribunals remain in prison.
Frequent arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters before and after the revolution are well documented. Delegation participants met with several Egyptians who have experienced targeted and arbitrary arrests by the police and military during and in connection with peaceful assemblies. These interviews produced harrowing accounts of the widespread use of torture against youth, women and men of all ages.
Egyptian security forces have also engaged in brutal attacks on demonstrators, employing vicious physical beatings and the use of small arms – such as rubber bullets, birdshots, hand grenades, live ammunitions and tear gas. Despite extensive evidence of the military’s use of excessive violence against peaceful, pro-democracy protesters in the post-revolution period, the United States has continued to provide Egypt’s military with economic aid and weapons, helping to secure its political and economic interests and hence limit the potential for a meaningful democratic transition to succeed. Taking into consideration Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Egypt, where she met with high SCAF officials, it appears likely that the United States is determined to maintain its partnership with the new power structure regardless of the human rights implications.
Even at the height of the regime crackdown and with full knowledge of the increasing use of mainly US-made small arms to terrorize peaceful demonstrators, the Obama administration continued to issue export licenses to US corporations selling these supplies to the Egyptian government. One of the companies that continued to sell weapons during the period immediately following the brutal crackdown on the January 25 uprisings was Combined Systems Inc. (CSI), based in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. CSI manufactures a range of munitions for military forces and law enforcement agencies, including impact munitions such as rubber batons and irritant munitions such as CS tear gas. On November 26, 2011 – days after Egyptian security forces attacked protesters with tear gas, leading to several serious injuries and deaths – a shipment for the Egyptian Ministry of Interior arrived from the United States carrying at least seven tons of “ammunition smoke” – which includes chemical irritants and riot control agents such as tear gas.
Additionally, the United States has for almost 15 years delayed the passage of the UN Small Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which could have been a tool in preventing the Egyptian regime from using these weapons against the people. Recently, the Obama administration had the opportunity to support the ATT but failed to do so. An online movement of Americans supported by lawmakers delivered a petition, signed by more than 5,200 Americans, to Clinton prior to UN discussions on the matter, asking the administration to “strongly support” a treaty that “blocks arms transfers to nations that violate human rights.”
Another challenge in the ATT movement is that tear gas is not considered a “lethal” weapon and is thus excluded. Egyptian activists and their allies are putting pressure on the international community to include tear gas in the treaty, not only because of the increasingly lethal nature of the gas, but because of the prevalent use of tear gas by security forces worldwide in suppressing peaceful demonstrations.
Often overlooked in discussions of state violence in Egypt is the type of structural violence that results from the violation of social and economic rights. The type of flagrant structural violence that now exists in Egypt, and which has entailed the substantial weakening of the middle class and concomitant expansion of the ‘precariate’ class, comprised of temporary and low paid workers, can be traced to the Mubarak era.. Accepting his first International Monetary Fund (IMF) package in 1991, Mubarak established a neoliberal order which flouted several international economic rights conventions on unionization, child labor, gendered wage discrimination and migrant labor.
Despite the Obama administration’s belated rhetorical support for the Egyptian revolution and more recent claims that it desires to see the government’s “full transition to civilian rule,” protests of Clinton’s recent visit to Cairo show that show that many Egyptian people have yet to be convinced that the US government is on the side of democracy. This skepticism does not seem to have been allayed by Clinton’s comments following her meeting with the head of SCAF, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, in which she praised Egypt’s military council for its interim leadership and “for representing the Egyptian people in the revolution.”
It is not surprising that the Egyptian people remain wary of the American role, considering that the potential for realizing at least two, if not all, of the key, interlinked demands of the revolution – Aish, Hurriyah, ‘Adaalah ijtimaa’yya (Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice) – is seriously limited by the intervention of the United States and various international financial institutions with whom the United States is closely associated, including the IMF and the World Bank.
Since the 1979 Camp David accords, when Egypt became firmly entrenched within the US sphere of influence, the country has been caught in an aid-loans-debt web in which its popular sovereignty has been violated. Following the signing of the accords, Egypt has received $1.3 billion per year in military aid, often referred to as a “peace dividend,” designed to help Egypt purchase American equipment like tanks and tear gas canisters, which have often been used to suppress internal dissent while also subsidizing the US military-industrial complex.
The reasons for the prominent role of the military in Egyptian life are numerous and complex, linked to the state’s historical development, including its colonial past and the important role the military performed in achieving Egypt’s independence and protecting her borders – at least until the signing of Camp David – from an aggressive and expansionist neighbor. In fact, the country has been ruled by generals ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s assent to power in the aftermath of the Free Officers movement that succeeded in overthrowing Egypt’s British-backed monarchy.
The military’s power has been consolidated and expanded over the years, though exercised largely behind the scenes. As the academic expert on the Egyptian military Zeinab Abul-Magd has demonstrated, although the executive has been dominated by military men, very few officers have been appointed to ministerial positions in order to maintain a “civilian face for the state.” Instead, retired senior military officers tended to be concentrated in “upper bureaucratic positions and economic enterprises owned by the military.” The US-backed military controls anywhere between 15 and 40 percent of the Egyptian economy and “senior military officers are everywhere, from the Suez Canal to the national sewerage company.”
The United States also dispenses an average of $815 million per year in economic assistance to Egypt, distributed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with the purpose of promoting “market freedom,” thereby reinforcing the neoliberal policies adopted by the state at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank. Far from helping to develop a strong and independent Egyptian economy, this so-called “aid” has resulted in the Egyptian state’s greater indebtedness and Egyptian society’s greater levels of poverty and inequality. Egypt’s external debt currently runs at around $35 billion USD, requiring the government to pay close to $3 billion a year in debt service, seriously curtailing its ability to implement an economic development plan that could meet the needs and aspirations of the Egyptian people.
In return for these loans, the Egyptian government has been forced to adopt a set of structural adjustment policies, laying the groundwork for a massive wave of deregulations and privatizations over the last two decades that have benefited a handful of Egyptian elite as well as many foreign (including US) corporations and financial interests. These policies include: privatization, liberalization of ownership laws, lower tariffs, and opening of the economy to international finance and investment, as well as ending subsidies to the poor for food and other necessities.
Relatively high Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates in the 2000s, which were hailed by external actors as a sign that structural adjustment and market liberalization were working, masked the reality that these policies were not benefiting average Egyptians. During the “neoliberal” period, following the 1991 adoption of IMF-mandated policies, average per capita GDP growth plummeted from 4.1 percent to 2.7 percent. Close to a half of all Egyptians now live below the poverty line. Unemployment is rising, and for those who can find work, it is largely of a temporary and informal nature, with more than 3 million workers in this precariously situated new proletariat- or “precariat” – class.
“This Isn’t Investment; It’s Imperialism!”
One of the most deleterious impacts of these policies has been in the agricultural realm. Whereas Egypt was once celebrated as the breadbasket of the Middle East, it now spends billions a year on importing grain from the United States, helping to subsidize the US agricultural industry while undercutting Egypt’s own. This all occurs under the auspices of USAID’s Food for Peace program. Far from producing the type of agricultural reform they promised, these programs have instead contributed to the poverty-inducing rise in food prices and increasingly precarious living conditions that led many Egyptians to risk their lives by taking to the streets to demand the downfall of the repressive Mubarak regime. In this context, it is not surprising that a recent chant at a protest organized by the Egyptian Independent Workers’ Union claimed, “This isn’t investment; it’s imperialism!“
As development studies scholar and author Adam Hanieh has argued, these figures demonstrate “the striking reality of Egypt’s financial relationship with the global economy – Western loans act to extract wealth from Egypt’s poor and redistribute it to the richest banks in North America and Europe.” Egypt’s consequent induced dependency on foreign loans and aid, and the violations of sovereignty that dependency entails, is tantamount to the unequal political and economic relations that existed during the colonial era. In 1882, the British government used the excuse of Egypt’s unpaid debt as a pretext for direct military intervention.
Today, instead of direct military intervention, Egyptian sovereignty is limited in more subtle ways – with US influence exercised over important domestic economic and national security decisions, as well as foreign policy decisions, especially in areas of geostrategic importance to the United States, such as Israel, and decisions affecting national security and intelligence cooperation in the context of the war on terror. Many of the activists we met with in Egypt expressed the belief that US aid has been used in ways that further the interests of external actors, as well as of a handful of Egyptian elite, to the detriment of the majority of the Egyptian population. As Abdel Rahman Fares, a spokesperson from the Tayar el-Masri (Egyptian Current) party put it, “US aid has generally been given with conditions approved by Israel and with the interests of the US and Israel, rather than the Egyptian people, in mind.”
Tamir Wageeh, a journalist and left-wing activist with the Socialist Renewal Current, explained how a similar privileging of external interests was at play in the context of the “war on terror”, when Mubarak justified his ongoing repression of the Islamist opposition as a contribution to the US “war.” This claim, Wageeh maintained, allowed the United States to continue diplomatic and economic support for the regime while turning a blind eye to its increasingly repressive practices, so long as the Egyptians continued to “cooperate in the US rendition programme” and make “tactical arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members,” producing the terrorist numbers needed to justify high levels of spending on the growing the US national security complex.
Shift in US Tactics, Though Aims Remain the Same
Despite the revolution, it seems little has changed in relation to the policies of external actors. The United States continues to provide military aid despite the SCAF’s role in undermining the democratic transition as a means of securing the transitional government’s adherence to the Camp David accords and the continued protection of Israel’s interests, and despite the fact that Israel itself seems to be violating the terms of these accords with its recent posting of an air defense system battery on the border with Egypt.
US economic aid also continues to be offered with neoliberal conditions, which is why it is perhaps not surprising that a majority of Egyptians (82 percent) are opposed to US aid today. Furthermore, Egypt is currently in discussions with the IMF and the World Bank for more than £3 billion in future loans. Although these institutions claim to respect Egypt’s sovereignty and prerogative to use the money in ways the government deems most useful for economic development, there are always conditions implicit in these loans, and there are no signs that lessons have been learned regarding their detrimental impact on social inequality in the past.
Current budgetary and fiscal proposals being considered to gain access to external financial assistance seem designed to advance the same neoliberal policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many implemented under the Mubarak regime. Some activists we spoke with felt that a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government would continue with similar policies, which is why the US government is willing to work with the party that for so many years was considered a threat to US national interests.
As the journalist and academic Mohamed Waked explained, this change of heart is in part due to colossal strategic failures experienced by the United States in the Middle East over the past decade, in particular the Iraq war. “The idea that cowboys can come in and rule the region would never work,” he said. Realization of the limits to US power has led to a return to cold war era policies in which client regimes, as opposed to direct military intervention, are relied upon for protecting US interests. As Waked argued: “The Americans made a huge mistake in Iraq. Now they need to find new clients, with a wider base.” This is necessary, said Waked, to provide the United States with at least the façade of popular legitimacy to avoid accusations of outside interference.
In order to ensure the post-revolution government does not become a mere extension of the ancien regime with a friendlier face, activists like Waked are pushing for social and economic justice and anti-imperialist demands to be embedded in Egypt’s new constitution. Waked believes that such principles enshrined in the constitution would safeguard against the possibility of future governments, be they Islamist or secular, violating the aims of the revolution. Like other Egyptian activists with whom we met, Waked remains hopeful about the future of the revolution so long as the Egyptian people remain mobilized and continue to challenge state power through the occupation of public space, protests and sit-ins, street theater, “popular conferences” (such as street discussions and debates) and other innovative forms of popular contestation.
US economic and military intervention in Egypt continues to be an obstacle to the realization of the aims of the revolution. Contrary to the claims of the Obama administration, current US policies vis-à-vis Egypt actually limit the type of popular democratic participation that Waked and other Egyptian activists hope will one day lead to a more equal and just future for the Egyptian people. It is for this reason that the delegation is supporting the demand of many popular civil society campaigns in Egypt that any future US support provided to the Egyptian government be based on consideration of the real needs and aspirations of the Egyptian people, rather than on promoting and protecting the interests of a small handful of local and foreign elite.