Democracy Now's Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Amy Goodman talked to professor Juan Cole about the protests in Egypt and the position the US government now finds itself in with having to choose between human rights and a government that they've thrown their hat in with that supports Israel.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re talking today about Egypt, the unprecedented protests in the streets right now. We just got a report from Egypt from Ahmad Shokr in Cairo. We’re going to turn right now to Juan Cole, to Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s a professor of history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He blogs at the very popular blog "Informed Comment." It’s online at juancole.com. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World.
Thank you very much for joining us, Juan Cole. We just had this breaking news from the Al Jazeera reporter on Twitter. He’s saying that the prominent Egyptian opposition politician Ayman Nour was struck in the head by a rock. He’s been hospitalized, and he’s semi-conscious. And also, the son of Ayman Nour was struck in the back of the head by a rock and is also now in the hospital. Can you talk about what is happening right now in Egypt? And put it in context of the greater Arab world, of what’s happening in Tunisia.
JUAN COLE: The Arab world has seen, in the last three decades, a series of Arab nationalist regimes, relatively secular, which have become increasingly sclerotic. These were postcolonial societies, societies that had been under Western dominance often, which—and that dominance was opposed by nationalist movements, led by legends like Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia or Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. And they were wildly popular in their day, because they were throwing off the West. But as time went on, the regimes that were set up became dominated by a kind of state elite, a relatively small group of people that benefited from state power, from the large public sector, from the throwing of contracts to particular individuals in the private sector. And they proved themselves unable to adapt over time to a globalizing world.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: One correction, it’s just Ayman Nour who was struck in the back of the head. His son reported to Al Jazeera what happened. His son has not been injured. But, Juan Cole, can you talk about the Mubarak regime, who is Hosni Mubarak, how did he come to power, and his reign for—well, this year marks the 30th anniversary of his coming to power?
JUAN COLE: Hosni Mubarak is a former air force chief of staff and general. He was trained in Moscow. He speaks good Russian. And he is the third in the series of military leaders of Egypt since 1952, or you could say the fourth, in some ways. In any case, they’ve all been military men. They’ve all come out of the military. They’re backed by the existing military. And that’s—so Egypt is a Praetorian regime, and this is sometimes forgotten now because Mubarak wears business suits and there’s an elected parliament, although the elections are widely believed not to be on the up and up.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, I wanted to ask you about the U.S. role in the shoring up of Mubarak over these 30 years, the same question that I put to Ahmad Shokr, the more than $2 billion, second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid next to Israel, and what that means—President Obama’s speech there, what the U.S. relationship is, and if the U.S. said to Mubarak that they would withdraw aid, what you think he would do.
JUAN COLE: Well, I think the U.S. aid is nice for the Egyptian elite to have. I don’t think it’s essential to them. It should be remembered that the U.S. aid is a little bit of a shell game, because Congress typically directs that all of the matériel come from the United States. So it’s actually aid to U.S. corporations, and then the Egyptians get some of it in the form of goods and so forth, military weaponry, which they mostly don’t need.
I think the U.S. aid was initiated because Egypt made a peace treaty with Israel. It’s Congress’s way of more or less bribing Egypt to remain on good terms with Israel. A lot of it is military aid, so that the Egyptian military remains relatively strong. But that military has taken itself out of the game of Middle East politics. In some ways, it’s been absent from the great struggles—the Gaza war, the Lebanon war. Egypt kind of stands off and says, "Well, that’s really too bad. They shouldn’t be fighting like that."
So, in contrast to the kind of muscular nationalism of the 1960s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser made Egypt the center of the Arab world and in some ways also of Africa, now Egypt is—you know, its regime really has been taking a quiet bribe to turn inward, to concentrate on building up its tourist industry. And it has had some success in fostering economic growth in the past 10 years, although it’s the kind of growth such that a lot of the increased revenue is going to the elites, in any case.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Juan Cole, I want to play what President Obama had to say yesterday about the situation in Egypt. He made his first comments in response to a question about Egypt during a live YouTube interview. Take a listen.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s my main hope right now is, is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt. So the government has to be careful about not resorting to violence, and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence. And I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances. As I said in my State of the Union speech, there are certain core values that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal—freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns. And that, I think, is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That was President Obama speaking yesterday. Vice President Joe Biden also yesterday said that President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 30 years, since 1981, was not a dictator. He made the comment in an interview on the PBS NewsHour.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things that he’s been very responsible on relative to geopolitical interests in the region, Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with Israel. And I think that it would be—I would not refer to him as a dictator.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That was Vice President Joe Biden. Juan Cole, your response?
JUAN COLE: Well, Vice President Biden seems to be wanting to define a dictator not with regard to domestic policy, but with regard to the responsible role the regime plays in the international world system, you know, from Washington’s point of view. But certainly, from the point of view of human rights activists in Egypt, there are strong dictatorial tendencies in the Egyptian government. It’s seen a lot of phony elections. It’s used repressive techniques.
In some instances, those repressive techniques have been directed against radical movements. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad of Ayman al-Zawahiri was active in Egypt in the 1980s and ’90s, blowing up things, shooting down tourists and others. And these same secret police were deployed at that time to track them down, arrest them, and really to eradicate them from the scene in Egypt.
And this is one of the things that drives this regime’s repressiveness, is that it is afraid of Muslim fundamentalist movements. Whether they are radical—and there have been a number of important radical movements in Egypt that have resorted to violence—or whether they are social and political, as with the large and important Muslim Brotherhood movement, the regime is very afraid—and this comes out from U.S. cables that have been released by WikiLeaks—that the Muslim Brotherhood will find a way to take over. And, you know, when Khomeini overthrew the Shah in Iran in 1979, the first thing they did was execute a lot of the generals. And the generals in Egypt are bound and determined that a similar fate does not await them.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cole, a confidential diplomatic cable, that was released by WikiLeaks in the latest release, was signed by the American ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, advising Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to avoid mentioning the name of the opposition leader Ayman Nour during her 2009 meeting with Mubarak, even though Nour’s imprisonment in 2005 had been condemned worldwide, not least by the Bush administration. Sharif just reported that Al Jazeera is saying that Ayman Nour was just attacked, hit in the head with a rock and now in hospital. Can you talk about the significance of this leaked memo and the significance of Ayman Nour himself?
JUAN COLE: Well, Nour, at that time that the memo was written, had just been released from prison by Mubarak, and he leads a relatively small middle-class reform movement. And he did dare to challenge Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections. And as you say, the Bush administration put pressure on Hosni Mubarak to open up those elections. The elections for president in Egypt prior to that had been largely symbolic. They had been a kind of referendum. And of course, in a referendum, you can’t really lose. So, Mubarak responded to this pressure by having the constitution changed so that a number of people could run for president, not just him. And Ayman Nour was one of the ones who ran, but he had been in prison. And Mubarak let him out of prison, let him run. He got seven percent of the vote. And then Mubarak promptly jailed him again after he lost the election. So, Mubarak’s response to American pressure at that time really made a mockery of it. And so, when he let Ayman Nour out of prison shortly before Hillary Clinton’s visit, he was concerned that the Americans not draw attention to this opposition figure, and he requested that no mention be made.
And the Americans, you know, are in a difficult position in some ways in Egypt. On the one hand, you know, the State Department does do human rights reports. It does support a widening of civil liberties in these countries. On the other hand, Egypt is a central ally of the United States, and the U.S. would certainly be very unhappy to see it replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood regime that would abrogate the Camp David Accords, would adopt a hostile posture towards Israel possibly, would cease military cooperation with the United States. So, the U.S. is trying to navigate between the shoals of these various dilemmas.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Professor Juan Cole, thank you very much for joining us. Professor Juan Cole is a history—a professor of history at the University of Michigan. He blogs at "Informed Comment." It’s online at juancole.com. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World.