The career profiles of the man Obama sent to Egypt, and of Mubarak’s pick as his vice president give a useful mini-portrait of U.S.-Egyptian realities, shorn of happy talk about democracy and the will of the people.
The 72-year-old Frank Wisner is a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and a senior fixer in Washington. He has secure footholds in government and corporate America. Until recently, he was vice chairman of AIG, which he left to become a foreign policy adviser at the politically powerful law firm and lobby shop, Patton Boggs. We’re talking the permanent government here.
As ambassador, Wisner formed a closed relationship with Mubarak and, long after leaving Cairo, continued to nourish it. In 2005, he celebrated the Egyptian election [Mubarak “won” with 88.6% of the vote] as a “historic day.”
Wisner promptly headed further into egregious falsehood. “There were no instances of repression; there wasn’t heavy police presence on the streets. The atmosphere was not one of police intimidation.”
By sending Wisner, Obama did an end run around the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Ambassador Margaret Scobey – a career official, who supposedly took a dim view of the renditions that sent the CIA’s captives to Egypt to be tortured, and had spoken on behalf of Ayman Nour and others.
Well known to Wisner was the first vice president Mubarak had just appointed in his three-decade-plus rule, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. This urbane fellow has played a pivotal role in the U.S. rendition-to-torture program. Shortly after 9/11, Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib was captured by Pakistani security forces and, under U.S. pressure, torture by Pakistanis. He was then rendered [with an Australian diplomats watching] by CIA operatives to Egypt, a not-uncommon practice. In Egypt, Habib merited Suleiman’s personal attention. As Richard Neville, described Habib’s memoir, My Story:
“Habib was interrogated by the country’s Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman. … Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion. Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks. That treatment wasn’t enough for Suleiman, so to loosen Habib’s tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib – and he did, with a vicious karate kick.”
After Suleiman’s men extracted Habib’s confession, he was transferred back to U.S. custody, where he eventually was imprisoned at Guantanamo. His “confession” was then used as evidence in his Guantanamo trial. Here is the heir apparent.
Wisner passed on to the Egyptian president the view of Obama and Secretary of State Clinton that he move in measured but reasonably brisk fashion toward retirement, with grave talk about “continuity” and advice against moving down Egyptian demonstrators by the hundreds.
The realities for the White House start with [a] international credibility and [b] the Israel lobby. After two years, the pledge of a new era of respect and understanding toward the Arab world and Islam, proclaimed by Obama in Cairo, is viewed with derision across the region, since Obama is seen as Netanyahu’s errand boy, just as Mubarak is despised as having the role of enabling the myth of the “peace process.”
As Daniel Levy writes on the Foreign Policy website:
“The truth is that American administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, have provided cover, support, aid, and weapons to repressive Arab regimes, and with increasingly counterproductive results. … Egypt’s heavy-handed security and intelligence apparatus probably created more terrorists than it intercepted. Egypt ended up being a not particularly useful ally to have in the region.”
On the other hand, the White House is being besieged by the Israel lobby, which is following the script being hysterically written in the press in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with headlines such as “We’re on our own,” “Obama’s betrayal of Mubarak” and “A bullet in the back from Uncle Sam.”
Aside from the spirit of disinterested patriotism, it’s amazing that anyone would want to job of running Egypt. You’d have to be over 60 at least to remember clearly how Egypt was once honored across the Arab world.
Politically, it’s a particularly vicious police state. The army – on which the U.S. has lavished billions – should not be oversold as a relatively benign force, even though the wretchedly poor conscripts would think twice before shooting their fellow villagers or relatives in the cities. Mubarak is despised, as he has been throughout his entire career. These days, mutilated by neoliberal policies forced on it by the usual international agencies, the country is an economic disaster zone that can only feed its exploding population nine months of the year. The current political explosion has sharply aggravated the economic crisis.
As the Egyptian-American film director Suzy Kassem writes:
“A human being can only take so much when their basic rights as a citizen of the earth are being denied to them – or sold at a high cost. When you have to pay for clean water, a sustainable roof that won’t collapse, a C-class car that costs double because of duty taxes, and have to tolerate bribes and corruption on every level just to get your mail, pay a bill, get a document, buy your bread, or open a business – eventually steaming water starts boiling and whistling loudly. And Egypt has finally whistled to their captain that they’ve had enough.”
The custodians of the American Empire are right to be perturbed. Those crowds in Tunis and Cairo, facing projectiles “made in America,” know well enough the ultimate sponsor of the tyrannies against which they have risen. A belated chirp for “democracy” from Obama or Secretary of State Clinton will not purge that record.
– Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, available through www.counterpunch.com.