Americans were led to believe the U.S. political class was on the side of democracy in Egypt. Nope.
It is, of course, very difficult to choose the single most extreme episode of misleading American media propaganda, but if forced to do so, coverage of the February, 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrations in Egypt would be an excellent candidate. For weeks, U.S. media outlets openly positioned themselves on the side of the demonstrators, depicting the upheaval as a Manichean battle between the evil despot Hosni Mubarak’s “three decades of iron rule” and the hordes of ordinary, oppressed Egyptians inspirationally yearning for American-style freedom and democracy.
Almost completely missing from this feel-good morality play was the terribly unpleasant fact that Mubarak was one of the U.S. Government’s longest and closest allies and that his “three decades of iron rule” — featuring murder, torture and indefinite detention for dissidents — were enabled in multiple ways by American support.
Throughout Mubarak’s rule, the U.S. fed his regime an average of $2 billion each year, most of which was military aid. The tear gas cannisters shot at protesters by Mubarak’s police bore “Made in U.S.A.” labels. A 2009 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks noted that “Egyptian democracy and human rights efforts … are being stymied” but described the benefits received by U.S. from support for the regime: “Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the U.S. military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace.” Another 2009 cable put it more bluntly: “the Egyptians appear more willing to confront the Iranian surrogates and to work closely with Israel.”
That same year, Hillary Clinton pronounced: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” Another WikiLeaks cable, anticipating the first meeting between Obama and Mubarak in 2009, emphasized that “the Administration wants to restore the sense of warmth that has traditionally characterized the U.S.-Egyptian partnership” and that “the Egyptians want the visit to demonstrate that Egypt remains America’s ‘indispensible [sic] Arab ally.'” The cable dryly noted that “[intelligence] Chief Omar Soliman and Interior Minister al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics.” The Obama administration supported Mubarak right up to the point where his demise was inevitable, and even then, plotted to replace him with Soliman: an equally loyal and even more brutal autocrat, most appreciated in Washington circles for helpfully torturing people on behalf of the Americans.
During the gushing coverage of the Tahrir protests, Americans were told almost none of this (just as most Arab Spring coverage generally omitted long-standing U.S. support for most of the targeted tyrants in the region). Instead, they were led to believe that the U.S. political class was squarely on the side of democracy and freedom in Egypt, heralding Obama’s statement that Egyptians have made clear that “nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.”
That pro-democracy script is long forgotten, as though it never existed. The U.S. political and media class are right back to openly supporting military autocracy in Egypt as enthusiastically as they supported the Mubarak regime. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who last year led the military coup against the democratically elected Egyptian government of the Muslim Brotherhood, is now a Washington favorite, despite (or because of) his merciless killing and imprisonment of dissidents, including Al Jazeera journalists. In June, Human Rights Watch noted the post-coup era has included the “worst incident of mass unlawful killings in Egypt’s recent history” and that “judicial authorities have handed down unprecedented large-scale death sentences and security forces have carried out mass arrests and torture that harken back to the darkest days of former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.” The group documented just last week:
Egyptian authorities have, by their own count, detained 22,000 people since the July 2013 military-backed ouster of the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsy. The broad arrest sweep has caught up many people who were peacefully expressing political opposition to Morsy’s overthrow and to the al-Sisi government. The actual number of arrests is probably higher. . . . There are credible accounts that a large number of detainees are being held incommunicado in military facilities, and that dozens have died in custody under circumstances of mistreatment or negligence that warrant investigation.
None of that has deterred U.S. support for the coup leaders. Months after the coup, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo and praised the military regime, actions The New York Times said “reflected the Obama administration’s determination to work with a military leadership that ruthlessly put down protesters from the Muslim Brotherhood.” In July of this year, the U.S. released $550 million to the regime. In August, Kerry seemed to praise the coup itself; as The New York Times put it: he “offered an unexpected lift to Egypt’s military leaders . . . saying they had been ‘restoring democracy’ when they deposed the country’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi.” In mid-September, the Pentagon announced “that the U.S. plans to deliver 10 AH-64 Apache helicopters to Egypt.”
That was the background for Sisi’s meeting with Bill and Hillary Clinton in New York last week (pictured above). He also met with U.S. business leaders and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. Sisi then met with Obama himself (photo below), where the U.S. President “touted the longstanding relationship between the United States and Egypt as a cornerstone of American security policy in the Middle East.”
Perhaps nothing demonstrates the U.S. commitment to autocracy in Egypt as vividly as the new, coordinated attack in U.S. media and political circles on former U.S. darling Qatar. As The Intercept reported last week, much of that anti-Qatar campaign is driven by Israeli (along with Saudi, UAE and American neocon) anger over Doha’s alleged support for Hamas. But at least as significant is Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that won the post-Mubarak election; that has put Doha squarely at odds with the Saudis, the Emirates, and the U.S., all of whom strongly support the military coup. A widely cited anti-Qatar article this week in Foreign Policy — entitled “The Case Against Qatar” — made this division clear:
For years, U.S. officials have been willing to shrug off Doha’s proxy network — or even take advantage of it from time to time. Qatar’s neighbors, however, have not. Over the past year, fellow Gulf countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain have publicly rebuked Qatar for its support of political Islamists across the region. These countries have threatened to close land borders or suspend Qatar’s membership in the regional Gulf Cooperation Council unless the country backs down. After nearly a year of pressure, the first sign of a Qatari concession came on Sept. 13, when seven senior Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figures left Doha at the request of the Qatari government. . . .
Qatar’s Arab Spring strategy began to fail in the same place it was conceived, amid the masses of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. On July 3, 2013, demonstrators cheered on the Egyptian military’s ouster of Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi, whose government Qatar had backed to the tune of $5 billion. Within days, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait welcomed the new military-backed government with combined pledges of $13 billion in aid.
In what universe is it morally preferable to support the Egyptian military coup regime (US/Saudi/UAE) rather than the democratically elected faction (Qatar)? That Qatar is now depicted in D.C. foreign policy circles as the Bad Actors in Cairo, while the UAE and the Saudis are the Good and Responsible Parties for Stability, underscores how deeply committed Washington is to Egyptian despotism.
That is not a new development. The Obama administration has long viewed Egypt and the Saudis as the “moderates” in the region. The 2009 cable preparing for Mubarak’s visit put it this way: “The ongoing intra-Arab dispute, which pits Egypt and Saudi Arabia against Syria and Qatar and is primarily driven by Iran’s regional influence, is the current test for Mubarak. For the moment the Egyptian-Saudi moderate camp is holding.”
The U.S. has long been devoted to tyranny in the region precisely to ensure that the widespread views of the public — which overwhelmingly view the U.S. and Israel as the greatest threats to peace — remain suppressed by U.S.-loyal tyrants. That’s what made the U.S. media coverage of the Arab Spring generally and Tarhir specifically such an astounding feat of propaganda: it successfully let Americans feel good about cheering for democracy in the region while ignoring their government’s central role in suppressing it for decades. The way the U.S. political class so seamlessly and shamelessly shifted from pretending to support democracy in Egypt to reverting back to its decades-long pro-tyranny posture is equally impressive.
Correction: This post originally gave an incorrect month for when the Department of Defense announced it would deliver Apache helicopters to Egypt. The announcement was in September. Oct. 6 11:30 am ET.
Photos: Clintons with Sisi: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Obama with Sisi: Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images