How Money Has Framed the Egypt Debate

The question of why the American government has been so hesitant to push dictator Hosni Mubarak from power is typically answered in our media through the construct of "pragmatism." If Mubarak leaves, the talking point goes, there could be a new government in Egypt that could threaten "regional stability" with an Iranian-style revolution. This talking point is both bigoted and imperial: It assumes that all Muslims and revolutions are monolithically the same (despite Egypt being Sunni and Arab and Iran being Shiite and Persian), and it assumes that "regional stability" is automatically threatened if a nation exists in the Mideast that isn't under our thumb.

Nonetheless, the "pragmatism" talking point persists, and thus our government continues to deal with the dictator with kid gloves. But here's the thing: We're playing footsie with Mubarak not just because of the self-serving neoconservative construct of "pragmatism" -- but also because of cold, hard cash. Check this dispatch out from the Politico:

Two of the biggest lobbying firms representing the Egyptian government made more than $400,000 during the last six months of 2010 lobbying lawmakers, military officials and their staffs on behalf of the embattled government, according to newly filed disclosure reports. In the period ending just weeks before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's dramatic announcement Tuesday, Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta's firm, the Podesta Group, brought in $279,000 and made about 30 contacts, largely with Senate staffers, according to the report.

It's boring saying again what I so often say (to the point of writing an entire 2006 book about it called Hostile Takeover), but it's worth repeating right now: Most issues that enter our political arena are influenced by our system of legalized corruption and bribery.

The Egyptian crisis, though far away and though about our own (supposed) democratic ideals, is no exception. Power brokers in both parties are making huge money backing a brutal dictatorship -- and the government officials those power brokers influence are consequently backing away from their own purported commitment to democracy. It's cause and effect in a simple political machine -- money goes in, behavior comes out. And as I argued in my book, money doesn't just buy legislative favors. It buys the very language and postures that confine our political debate within very narrow parameters -- in this case, it frames the Egyptian situation as a choice between "pragmatism" (i.e. backing the dictator) and potential terrorism (i.e. allowing Egyptians to democratically elect their own government). Indeed, look at how Toby Moffett, a Democratic congressman turned high-paid Mubarak lobbyist, put it:

"This is a very important strategic ally of the United States and it's about the country not flipping over into the hands of somebody who wants to make it anything other than a secular state," he said.

This "Stick with Mubarak or Get Terrorists" bumper sticker slogan is exactly the same thing you are hearing from so many high-profile American politicians these days as they attempt to pretend they support democracy, while cautioning against removing the despot. Those politicians are framing the debate in exactly the terms the lobbyists want them to. That artificial framing may be somewhat expensive to achieve, but it is quite effective. And while it's not complicated -- it is destructive.