From the belly of the beast: Washington scrambles to retain control

The Arab upsurge has left Washington reeling, scrambling to maintain its control of the region as best it can. The contradictory statements coming out of the White House, State Department and the US military as the events in Egypt unfolded illustrate the imperialists’ dilemma.

When the first massive outpouring in Tahrir Square occurred on January 25, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said approvingly that the Mubarak regime was “stable”. Vice President Joseph Biden went on TV to say that Mubarak was “not a dictator”. Robert Gates, the US war secretary, was reported to be in “close contact” with the Egyptian generals, who receive $1.4 billion each year from the US.

Washington had similar trepidations about the earlier uprising in Tunisia that deposed the US-backed dictator, inspiring the Egyptians. The New York Times had an article recently about the prior contacts over two years between Tunisian young people and Egyptian youth who called for the January 25 protest in Tahrir.

As the protests grew, and the Egyptian political police launched murderous attacks, President Obama decried violence from “both sides”. The White House held its breath when Mubarak unleashed a massive attack by pro-regime thugs organised by the security forces and swelled by criminals who were suddenly freed from prison, armed and paid to wreak havoc. Washington hoped this would turn the tide against the rebellion.

But the opposite happened. The killings spurred more people to join the actions. Neighbourhood defence committees formed to beat back the marauders. Strikes by workers put more muscle into the protests. The tide was turning, and Washington began to talk about the “just demands” of the people for democracy, but still clung to Mubarak, saying he should outline an “orderly path” to a more democratic facade.

The talking heads in the mass media bombarded us with the line that the administration had to “walk a fine line” between verbal support for democratic reforms and preserving Egypt as a staunch “ally” and “force for peace” in the Middle East — that is, as a bulwark of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and its US-backed wars in Lebanon and Gaza, as well as its support to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some were worried that a democratic Egypt might not continue to do its part in the blockade of Gaza.

But the massive demonstrations and the justice of the people’s demands moved even the bourgeois reporters on the scene. It came through that it was not the demonstrators who were initiating the violence, but the regime. This was underlined when the reporters themselves became the target of the thugs. In such situations, the forces of repression often go too far; in this case, their desire to stop reporting of the uprising boomeranged.

White House at sea

The White House lurched back and forth from day to day. Obama would say that democratic change had to come “now” and the following day say that “orderly change” from the top was slowly in the works. One thing was constant: Obama’s adamant refusal to support the Egyptian people’s demand that Mubarak had to go. He said that it was not the place of the US to interfere in Egyptian politics!

Obama sent a special envoy, Frank Wisner, to Egypt for direct talks with Mubarak. He came back and said quite forcefully on TV that Mubarak had to stay. His bluntness was an embarrassment to Obama, but did serve to bring out the dilemma confronting the administration and its internal debates on what to do.

Finally, after Mubarak’s last-ditch attempt to cling to power only infuriated the people and spurred them into more determined action the next day, targeting the Presidential Palace and the state TV, and the danger was that the whole regime would be swept away, Washington intervened to force Mubarak out and set up the military high command as the head of the government.

Washington hopes this military council can put a lid on the situation. But the people know it was they who threw Mubarak out. They have the conviction that if they fight, and prove they can stand up to repression even to the point of being willing to die, they can win. Now the hundreds who were killed are revered across the country as martyrs for democracy. Their struggle continues in the form of mass outpourings and the burgeoning of the strikes.

The military council is weak in the face of the new-found confidence of the masses. It has called for an end to the strikes, but to no avail. As of this writing (February 20), it has not ordered the army to smash the strikes. If it tried to do so, it fears the response of the rank-and-file soldiers, who are conscripts, young men with many ties to the impoverished workers and peasants, as well as to the educated unemployed youth who helped spark the uprising.

Events have shown that the imperialists were correct, from their point of view, in trying to keep Mubarak in power to the bitter end. He was a keystone in the whole structure of capitalist subservience to Washington. His removal by the “forcible entry into history” of the masses, as Trotsky described revolution, has dealt a major blow to imperialism and Israel. Egypt itself is central to the Arab world, as we have seen in the spread of the uprising to Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Jordan and elsewhere.

21st century tsarism

US support to the dictators, kings and emirs and their respective militaries, as well as its support to the Israeli apartheid state’s oppression of the Palestinians, has stained Washington’s reputation among the Arab masses. Now the White House is scrambling to appear to support democracy in order to salvage as much control of the region as it can. With its puppets in grave danger, it is emphasising the need for “law and order” in the “transition to democracy”.

In the face of the revolutions of the 19th century, tsarist Russia emerged as the major bastion of reaction. Now it is the US which has assumed this role. The battle taking place throughout the Arab world and the wider region should be viewed as one between the peoples, especially the workers and peasants, on one side, and imperialism, headed by the US, and its puppets on the other.

The US hates revolution throughout the region, including in Libya and Iran. Libya has become a US client regime ever since its rule Muammar Gaddafi made his peace with imperialism in the 1990s. His repression of the uprising in his own country has been particularly brutal. What Washington wants in Iran is not democracy, but a regime under its control, and more democracy there is unlikely to produce that. The problem with revolution from the imperialists’ standpoint is that you never know what the masses, especially the exploited and oppressed, will do once they taste their own power.

[“From the belly of the beast” was how the great Cuban fighter against US imperialism, Jose Marti, signed his letters to friends back in Cuba when he was in the US.]