When I wrote my latest book on the way America dominates the Mideast, I chose the title, "American Raj," because this modern US imperium so closely resembled the famed Indian Raj way the British Empire ruled India.
As I predicted in this book, and in a column last April, Egypt was headed for a major explosion. America's Mideast Raj is now on fire. Whether it survives or not remains to be seen.
One cannot escape a sense that we may be looking at a Mideast version of the 1989 uprisings across Eastern Europe that brought down its Communist regimes and then the Soviet Union. Americans should be uneasy seeing crowds of Egyptians pleading for freedom and justice watched over by US-supplied tanks.
There are indeed certainly strong similarities between the old Soviet East Bloc and the spreading intifada across the police states of America's Mideast Raj. Corrupt, repressive governments; rapacious oligarchies; high youth unemployment and economic stagnation; widespread feelings of fear, frustration, hopelessness and fury.
But there is also a big difference. The principled Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Communist rulers of Eastern Europe, refused to turn their army's guns against the rebelling people.
In Tunisia, where the current Arab uprising began, the army has so far stayed admirably neutral.
But in other Arab states now seething with rebellion -- Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Morocco, Libya, Jordan -- there may be no such reservations. Their ruthless security forces and military could quickly crush the uprisings unless the soldiers refuse to shoot down their own people -- as happened in Moscow in 1991.
As of this writing, Egypt's 450,000-man US-equipped and financed armed forces are poised for action against that nation's popular uprising, but its generals are undecided whether to shoot down their own people and earn universal hatred, overthrow President Mubarak's regime, or openly seize power. Mubarak's newly named vice president, Gen. Suleiman, controls the hated and feared secret police, or mukhabarat, but is unloved by the army.
Somewhere in the ranks of Egypt's armed forces must be a group of officers like Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Young Officers who seized power in 1952 to end foreign control of Egypt. Nasser, adored by most Egyptians was the first authentic native-born leader in 2,000 years. Look for a resurgence of Nasserism.
Washington is watching this growing intifada in its Mideast Raj with alarm and confusion. Ignore the Obama administration's hypocritical platitudes urging "democracy." All of the authoritarian Arab rulers now under siege by their people have been armed, financed and supported for decades by the US. The US has given Egypt $2 billion annually, $1.4 billion of which goes to the military. Almost all the tanks and armored vehicles deployed in Cairo's streets came from the US.
Washington has previously lauded Mubarak for "moderation" and "stability". These are code words for faithfully following US policies and crushing all opposition. Moderate opposition groups across the Mideast have been jailed and tortured, leaving only outlawed underground movements. The same thing happened in Iran.
Egypt's armed forces were configured to keep Mubarak's military regime in power, not to defend the nation's borders. The US keeps Egypt's armed forces short on munitions and spare parts so it cannot fight a war against Israel for more than a few days.
The brutal, sadistic secret police and other security forces of Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen were all trained and equipped by the US or France. The CIA taught them "interrogation techniques," just as it did to the Shah of Iran's secret police, Savak. We have reaped the whirlwind in bitter US-Iranian relations.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urges "restraint" on both sides. One supposes she means those being beaten by clubs, raped, or tortured by electric drills must show proper restraint. Washington simply does not understand that this kind of hypocrisy turns even more people in the Muslim world against the United States.
Egypt, as this column has long said, has long been a ticking bomb. Half of 85 million Egyptians subsist below the UN's $2 daily poverty level. A third of all the Arab World's people are Egyptian. A well-connected oligarchy grows rich while the rest of the country struggles for basic food.
In fact, the US Congress still supplies Egypt with large amounts of wheat and other foodstuffs. Israel thus holds a whip hand over Egypt by being able to get its supporters in Congress to shut off food aid to Egypt, an act that would provoke massive food riots as occurred
in the 1970's. Small wonder Hosni Mubarak is Israel's closet ally in the Arab world.
Mubarak has ruled Egypt with an iron fist since the assassination of another US-installed leader, Anwar Sadat, in 1981. All violent and peaceful opposition to Mubarak's regime has been crushed. But now Mubarak's time is running out. Nobel-Prize Laureate Mohammed al-Baradei has agreed to lead a resistance coalition that includes the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized movement in Egypt.
The Brotherhood is not an Iranian-style extreme Islamic movement, contrary to alarms being spread by neocons and the often poorly-informed US media.
In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood has long eschewed politics to concentrate on social, religious and educational issues. If anything, it has been ultra-conservative, even stodgy and timid. But it also represents Washington's best potential ally if Egypt's military regime falls. We should not be misled by self-serving warnings about Islamic bogeymen.
So far, none of the intifadas across the Arab world have produced effective leadership. But this could soon change. The most important North African Islamic movement leader and theorist, Rashid Gannouchi, just returned from exile to Tunisia, where the intifada began.
Further inflaming Arab opinion, the bombshell "Palestinian Papers" leaked to al-Jazeera has exposed Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority as an eager collaborator with Israel and its West Bank occupation. The endless Israeli-Palestinian "peace talks" are shown to be a fraud. Israel's Mossad and its Palestinian Quislings have worked closely to destroy the militant but democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza.
We also learn from these papers that in 2008, US State Secretary Condoleeza Rice actually proposed shipping millions of Palestinian refugees to Latin America. This after Israel, financed by the US, imported one million Russian settlers, many of them not even Jewish. One is reminded of British proposals in the 1930's to move Germany's endangered Jews to Kenya.
The Mideast uprisings are poorly understood by most North Americans. The US media frame news of the regional intifada in terms of the faux war on terror, and a false choice between dictatorial "stability" and Islamic political extremism. Much of what's happening is seen through Israel's eyes, and is distorted. Burning Cairo should show how misguided we have been in our understanding of the Arab world.
Platitudes aside, there is little concern in the US about bringing real democracy and modern society in the Arab world. Washington still wants obedience, not pluralism, in its Mideast Raj, and primacy for Israel in the Levant. As with the British Empire, democracy at home is fine - but it's not right for the nations of the Arab world.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011