Mubarakism Lives

Last week, deposed president Hosni Mubarak and his two sons faced arrest and judicial interrogation. Egyptians are jubilant. Few Egyptians ever believed the man they called "Pharaoh" would ever face justice for his decades of torture, repression, and massive corruption.

The armed forces were loathe to see former air force general Mubarak face arrest, but they finally threw him and his two sons to the wolves to placate mounting public demands for retribution against former leaders of the hated old regime. The junta bought some time for itself.

But the fact remains, in spite of Mubarak's fall, not much has changed in Egypt. In spite of a few other token arrests of former high officials, the Old Guard of generals and bureaucrats still rules Egypt. An intensifying struggle goes on behind the scenes between the military and the fragmented democratic opposition. So far, the military retains an iron grip on Egypt in spite of noisy street demonstrations.

Mubarak is gone but Mubarakism still lives.

No one yet knows what September's planned parliamentary elections will bring, or if they will be fair and open. One uneasily recalls Algeria's first free parliamentary vote in 1991. Islamists won a landslide. Algeria's reactionary military annulled the vote and arrested democratic leaders. Egypt's generals may do the same. The result in Algeria was a decade of nightmarish civil war that left over 200,000 dead -- and that may reignite any day.

Suspicions are growing that the Obama administration has decided to take advantage of Mideast unrest by overthrowing regimes considered disobedient or hostile, exhibit A being Libya. For the past two weeks, this column has reported intensifying covert efforts by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia to overthrow Syria's Ba'ath regime. This new active policy bodes ill for genuine democracy in Egypt.

A fair vote in Egypt would likely produce victory for parties advocating Islamist political and social principles -- anathema for Washington which likes to work through pro-US dictators.

The influential Muslim Brotherhood just formed a new party, Freedom and Justice, patterned after Turkey's successful Islamist Lite party, AK, and predicts it will win 75% of the vote. Far from being revolutionary, the Brotherhood is very conservative, old-fashioned and cautious. It took months for the Brotherhood to decide to enter the political fray.

Much of what happens this fall in Egypt will depend on decisions made in Washington. US influence over Egypt still remains paramount.

Egypt's 468,000-man military is joined at the hip to the US military establishment, much as Latin American armies were in the 1970's.

Tellingly, during Egypt's February uprising, Washington rushed Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon's top officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, to meet Egyptian counterparts Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi and Gen. Sami Enan. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stayed home.

The Pentagon channels much of the annual US $2 billion aid directly to Egypt's armed forces and senior generals. This is a huge amount for so poor a nation.

Egypt's ruling military establishment is a kingdom within the nation. Like their Pakistani counterparts, Egyptian generals own tourist hotels, apartments, factories, telecommunications and drug firms. They are tied in with a coterie of businessmen grown rich on state patronage and sweetheart deals. Call it Egypt Inc.

According to a WikiLeak cable from the US Embassy in Cairo, Mubarak's regime termed billions in US aid "untouchable compensation" for keeping peace with Israel and jailing the Palestinians in Gaza.

Egypt has also received billions worth of US food aid since 1979, including 50% of its wheat sold at subsidized prices and involving massive kickbacks and payoffs. Other US funding streams include secret "black" payments to high officials by CIA, the US Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and favorable trade accords.

Egypt's armed forces are totally dependent on the US for arms, spare parts, and munitions, the latter two kept in very tight supply so that Egypt could not sustain a war for more than a few days. US defense contractors are linked to Egypt by a network of sweetheart contracts, much as Turkey was before its AK Party ousted Turkey's rightwing generals from power.

Much of America's Mideast security architecture has been designed to benefit Israel, with Egypt playing the key role.

As September elections approach, Washington is struggling to define a new policy towards Egypt that will appear to support the democratic process and deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, while keeping firm control over Egypt's military and security organs and sustaining the Egyptian-Israeli peace arrangement -- which most Egyptians detest and consider deeply shameful.

This nuanced approach will be very difficult. Mere mention of "Muslim" or "Islamic" in the United States produces reflex fear and anger, much as "communist" did in the 1950's. The Israel lobby is issuing dire warnings about any US dealings with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, insisting this staid organization is a hotbed of potential terrorism. Republicans, much influenced by Israel and America's anti-Islamic, evangelical Christians, are deeply alarmed over alleged "dangers" of Egypt's democratization.

If real change comes to Egypt, the first signs may be ending the siege of Gaza and terminating Egypt's supply of gas to Israel. Next, a major shakeup in Egypt's high command, with promotions of younger nationalist officers, demands for a Palestinian state, ending torture, and sharp curtailment of US political, military, economic and intelligence influence in Cairo.

A majority of Egyptians want such changes. But if the angry Americans cut off aid, who will then feed Egypt and pay its bills? Independence is a luxury that few poor nations can afford.

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011