“As we have said from the beginning of this unrest, the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people. But the United States has also been clear that we stand for a set of core principles. We believe that the universal rights of the Egyptian people must be respected, and their aspirations must be met. We believe that this transition must immediately demonstrate irreversible political change, and a negotiated path to democracy.”
— Barack Obama, Feb. 10, 2011
One of the iconic images from the political upheavals that have taken place in Egypt this year is that of protestors holding up tear gas cannisters with the markings “Made in USA.” Indeed, photos of many protestors displaying these cannisters have been disseminated widely on the internet and other media.
This issue of the “Made in USA” tear gas is politically apt in that it reveals the broader relationship between America and Egypt: an empire and its client state.
For 30 some years, the United States propped up Hosni Mubarak’s government with billions of dollars in US military “aid,” some of which was employed for the political repression necessary to keep this pro-US dictator in power.
The tear gas cannisters used by Egyptian police was thus manufactured by the Combined Systems International of Jamestown, Pennsylvania and approved by the US State Department for export to Egypt.
As documented by security analyst William Hartung on an edition of the Democracy Now! program, US military aid to Egypt is not limited to tear gas but also includes F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 tanks, helicopters, missiles and similar armaments manufactured by leading US corporations like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Boeing. All told, the United States has delivered about $40 billion in military aid to the Mubarak government during its tenure.
The relationship between Egypt and America goes beyond that of military sales to the War on Terrorism in general. For instance, the United States has used Mubarak’s Egypt as a primary destination to carry out what is euphemistically called extraordinary rendition (aka kidnapping), where prisoners captured by the US are dispatched to allied nations and tortured for information.
A key liason for the United States in this rendition program was Omar Suleiman, who acted as intelligence chief and Vice President under Mubarak and now serves on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that rules the country after Mubarak.
Yet, despite these enduring political and military connections between the United States and Mubarak, the US government insists that it is a supporter of democratic rights in Egypt.
Not to be completely outdone, other Western democracies have also supported the Mubarak government; for example, France trained Egyptian police officers in crowd control.
These relationships raise the larger issue of the West’s pretensions to champion freedom and democracy throughout the globe.
Though forgotten down the memory hole by many people, one of the most interesting facts of the Cold War was that the US and its Free World allies supported pro-Western dictators to act as their sock puppets in countless Third World countries like Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Manuel Noriega of Panama, Ferdinand Marcos of the Phillipines, General Suharto of Indonesia, Syngman Rhee of South Korea, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, and the Shah of Iran.
This happened at the very same time that the US claimed to be defending democracy against “Communist totalitarianism” no less.
But if that weren’t bad enough, the US and other liberal democracies have often “regime changed” democratically elected leaders like Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran (1953), Patrice Lumumba of Congo (1961) Salvador Allende of Chile (1973), Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti (2004), and many others in coup d’etats.
Franklin Roosevelt perhaps best expressed the true nature of American democracy promotion around the world when he commented about Nicaragua dictator Anastasio Somoza: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Even in the current case of Egypt and the Middle East, one must question whether a “path to democracy” is really being promoted, as the mainstream and even progressive or alternative media have touted.
If one examines the political facts on the ground, what has actually changed?
In Egypt, a US-backed client regime headed by Hosni Mubarak has been replaced by a US-backed military junta composed of figures from the old Mubarak government.
Is this “change that you can believe in”?
All of these issues ultimately prompt a question that many people would rather not ask: does the American Empire and the West in general truly represent freedom, democracy, and human rights, as they insist? Or does the West in reality represent something much more sinister– like the manipulation of freedom, democracy, or human rights as a propaganda mask and geopolitical weapon?