How much repression can we buy for $1.55 billion?

Egyptian Defence Minister Abdelfatah al-Sissi on May 22, 2013 (Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP//Getty Images.) General Sissi's position is somewhat more enhanced these days, as a result of what everyone knows was a military coup in July.

Egyptian Defence Minister Abdelfatah al-Sissi on May 22, 2013 (Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP//Getty Images.) General Sissi’s position is somewhat more enhanced these days, as a result of what everyone knows was a military coup in July.

Those who have long memories may recall a dilemma the U.S. State Department faced last summer. The Egyptian military under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi removed from power the democratically elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, and suspended the Egyptian constitution. Morsi was held incommunicado by the military, a text-book tactic by militaries who are engaged in what is called in English “a military takeover,” in Spanish a “golpe de estado” and in French a “coup d’etat.”  Not to put too fine a point on it, the military of Egypt engineered a military coup against a government democratically elected by constitutional means. There is no doubt what happened. The name for what the military did is so apparent, that the Wikipedia entry for the event is called “2013 Egyptian coup d’état.” You’ll forgive my beating an obviously dead horse over what might be considered an exercise in the self-evident, but the point is at the center of the dilemma faced by the State Department.

That dilemma was the result of the conflict between a fairly simple provision of the Foreign Assistance Act and what our deep state wanted to do. The provision, part of the statute which regulates the use of tax dollars given to foreign countries, provides, in Section 508:

None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree: Provided, That assistance may be resumed to such country if the President determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office. (Emphasis added for those short of time.)

This seems clear enough. Based on what the Egyptian military did in July 2013, the U.S. is prohibited from providing “any assistance to” Egypt until “a democratically elected government has taken office.” This is not a mere technically. It codifies what our leaders are constantly prattling about: their devotion to democracy, the thing that makes our country, and more importantly, them, “exceptional.”

We are so devoted to democracy that we go to great lengths to provide it to others. Iraq doesn’t have democracy? Well, we can fabricate an excuse to invade it and deliver it to them. We have reason to enter Afghanistan to locate and capture a band of international criminals? Good, while we’re there we might as well give them democracy. We used to mainly give democracy to countries in the Americas, which we felt an especial fondness for.

Of course, just like our country, our definition of democracy is “exceptional.” We subscribe to a democracy that is deeply suspicious of the demos. Often the “people” are insufficiently attuned to the correct forms of social organizations to be permitted to govern themselves. We believe that the best form of polity is one where the plutocrats rule over the rest of us, creating jobs for us, organizing our financial, military and medical delivery systems, and selecting our nominal rulers for us. Ours is the perfect democracy in this sense, because it is self-correcting. If our government becomes too populist, the courts will open the spigot of money to drown out any concept “of the people, by the people and for the people” that might have remained in either of our corrupted political parties.

And because we have devised the perfect democracy, that is, one that minimizes any sovereignty in the people, we are especially jealous of other democracies that veer too close to anything popular. If Chile makes the mistake of electing a president who believes that milk prices should be lowered or the profits of the extraction industries in the country should not be owned by foreign capitalists, then we will not only topple that government, but also install a brutally repressive regime and give them Milton Friedman to boot. If a Central American country interferes with how an American monopoly holds down labor costs to provide us with cheap bananas and itself with large profits, well death squads are easy enough to recruit to define the limits of a healthy democracy.

And that brings us back to the State Department’s problem. The Egyptian democracy in question had elected a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. That is an organization that had developed largely as a result of years of repression by secular governments of all sorts—socialist, nationalist, military. Jail, torture and repression could not snuff out a movement that relied on religious inspiration to withstand brutal onslaughts of Western styled non-sectarianism. But when Arab Spring bloomed in Cairo, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that largely watered it. And though that party and its philosophy of religious politics was once nurtured by the Saudis, the current members of the House of Saud has recently discovered that the movement is not conducive to the “stability” of the region, a condition that we have long come to accept as a prerequisite to democracy anywhere in the world. And so when President Morsi was deposed, there was undoubtedly more than one cork popped in the devout mansions of the Sauds, a group especially wary of the people that they rule with such disinterested spirituality. The belief that what’s good for the Saud family is good for America is so central to the worldview of our deep state that it nearly forgot recently that what’s good for General Motors is also good for America.

Iraqi citizens had been recently schooled in American democracy. Perhaps this is why these viewers in Kerbala smoked hookahs while watching the President lecture Cairo University on democracy. (Biyokulule Online.)

Iraqi citizens had been recently schooled in American democracy. Perhaps this is why these viewers in Kerbala smoked hookahs while watching the President lecture Cairo University on democracy. (Biyokulule Online.)

That Mohamed Morsi was no George Washington was not the reason the State Department gave him over so quickly. For quite some time the State Department has usually been opposed any fledgling government headed by anyone with the faintest resemblance to George Washington. The ostensible opposition to Morsi was his “power grab.” His sin was in attempting to uproot the Egyptian deep state, one which we and the Saudis had paid good cash to install. And so when the Egyptian military toppled him, the State Department was not about to cavil about coups and the like. After all, our Nobel Peace Laureate President had been very explicit to the intelligentsia of Egypt about the limits of our tolerance for an overly expanded definition of democracy. In Cairo itself during his to lecture at Cairo University, he explained his view of American democracy:

“[t]here are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. (Applause.) So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”

As a recent initiate to the American Foreign Policy Deep State, Senator Joe Biden greets Anwar Al-Sadat (with the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Frank Church) on March 27, 1979. (U.S. Senate Photo Gallery.)

As a recent initiate to the American Foreign Policy Deep State, Senator Joe Biden greets Anwar Al-Sadat (with the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Frank Church) on March 27, 1979. (U.S. Senate Photo Gallery.)

Democracy has very definite limits, you see, and sometimes the limits must so circumscribe the rule that it really isn’t one. The President didn’t even list all the limitations that his Administration would come to value above all, among which are secrecy, military necessity, national security, loyalty to superiors, antiterrorism, and government free of whistle-blowers and unauthorized leaks. In fact the limitations on democracy loom so large that when Arab Spring came to Cairo, Vice President Joe Biden (who was one time Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, in other words, a man deeply nested in our deep state) denied that Hosni Mubarak was a dictator and opined that he shouldn’t step down. The very next day our democratic ally shut down the internet in Egypt and much of the country’s phone service, and he ordered a national curfew, in order to quell protests in the streets.

The United States was so comfortable with the military strong man tradition in Egyptian politics, at least since Sadat threw over the undemocratic Soviets and installed the democratic United States as Egypt’s great power sponsor of choice. The Egyptian military has been a great beneficiary of American promotion of democracy Egyptian style. We have provided since 1973 an average of $2 billion annually in aid to Egypt. Only in Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq do we spend more to foster democracy, with limits. And almost all of that money goes to the Egyptian military.

During the entire time of our friendship with Egypt’s military (except for an 18 month period that ended with Sadat’s assassination) until the overthrow of Mubarak, Egypt had been under the iron fist of a purported “Emergency Law.” This law gave the government the right to imprison any person for any length of time without trial or even charge. President Mubarak took liberal advantage of this law, imprisoning up to 30,000 political prisoners. The law also provided for government censorship. It banned unauthorized political parties. It allowed the president to bar public assemblies, close shops, repudiate debts, relocate people and confiscate property. Mubarak operated a secret police, whose standard investigative procedure consisted of torture. The Egyptian system of torture was so refined and brutal the the CIA handed over prisoners to Egypt when it didn’t have the stomach to go beyond water boarding. The reign of Mubarak became such an embarrassment to our Shiny City on the Hill that the George W. Bush Administration persuaded Mubarak to permit the semblance of elections. When someone had the audacity to actually run against the military leader, he was arrested on the preposterous changer that he had forged the 50 signatures on his nomination petition, including the signatures of his wife and father-in-law! And the candidate, Ayman Nour, was sentenced on December 24, 2006 to five years hard labor for his audacity. Needless to say, this had a chilling effect on democracy in Egypt. It is safe to say that after 30 years of this kind of rule, few aside from Joe Biden could say with a straight face that Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator.

When the democratically elected president was deposed in a military coup last summer, it was a time of great rejoicing in Washington, Riyyad. and Jerusalem. The limits to democracy were back. Not the ones in the lecture at Cairo University, but the ones that really matter: security, secrecy, swift action against threats to our way of life. But Washington had this problem, Section 508. The debate must have been agonizing at Foggy Bottom, because it took them forever to decide if the military coup was actually what the word “coup” in Section 508 was about. How could this law possibly be directed at the reunion of friends? Surely coup was not the right word for the return to Emergency Law that we had grown so familiar with.

And then some unknown lawyer had an intellectual breakthrough, the kind you read about in history that turns the way people think in a completely different direction. We don’t have to decide if it was a coup! Someone said. In fact, the law doesn’t require use to decide anything at all! There is no mandate to make us in that statute! The lawyer who make this discovery will never be widely known. But the law firms who will offer him guaranteed profits of millions of dollars will all know it, and will vie in showering him with cash.

It did not solve the Administration’s problems, however. For the Republican Party has vowed to prove that anything that this Administration does is wrong. This may be a fairly immature position for a national political party, but it has one advantage. On every issues, at least either Mr. Obama or the Republicans are “correct.” We are thus blessed with a political system where truth is spoken by someone, much like a broken clock speaks truth twice a day. So the two Republicans who fashion themselves the foreign policy opponents of the Administration, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, began to publicly state the what happened in Egypt was a “coup,” pure and simple. They even went to Cairo to say that it was a coup. But these oddly coup-adverse Senators, not in the least revolutionaries themselves, were merely trying to score a debating point against the President, whom they have never understood how he has continued to get away with saying things they themselves would have said, but from a white perspective. The fact that he said them, makes them per se objectionable by the leaders of the “responsible” right, regardless of their similarities to their own views.

So all of this had to be reconciled in the traditional way Washington disputes are decided: by some meaningless wrangle for the hearts and minds of Sunday morning viewers. To put an end to this debate the Administration in this year’s budget has decided to take the military dictatorship of Egypt out of Section 508. That way we don’t have to worry about things like coups any more because frankly that never was anything we were actually interested in. And that, my friends, is how a world class, imperial power disposes of legal technicalities.

This is how a modern state ought to treat journalists. The Al-Jezeera and BBC journalists (in the cage) on trial in Cairo (Photo: AFP).

This is how a modern state ought to treat journalists. The Al-Jezeera and BBC journalists (in the cage) on trial in Cairo (Photo: AFP).

Or not. The Egyptians, despite our fervent hope that secularism equals democracy, never have gotten the whole Greek concept down despite the fact that the Alexandria Library was actually located in Egypt. So seeing that Saudi Arabia, for its part desperately against anything that might smack of anti-oligarchy, was going to write a blank check, and given that Saudi Arabia (together with Israel) owns Washington, Egypt had no reason to let up. So they made the Muslim Brotherhood illegal. Then they cracked down on everything and everybody. Once you make a group illegal it takes very little to convict whomever you want. (We did that with the Communist Party for much of the twentieth century.)  After all, if breaking heads and shooting protestors caused bad press, then just get rid of the press. Egypt brought charges against 20 journalists who interviewed (or participated in interviews of) Muslim Brotherhood figures. That’s enough for a terrorism charge to stick in a government whose main public policy is internal terror. What the public shouldn’t know can’t hurt them, unless they find out, then someone must be sent to jail (at least).

That was a test. If the world’s greatest talker about democracy and human rights doesn’t get upset about simple press freedom, then what will it get upset about? It seems nothing.

How about this? In late March, a court in Egypt “tried” a case involving 529 defendants for the killing of one policeman. None were given benefit of counsel. But why should they? There was no evidence submitted. Like the Queen of Hearts the court went directly to the sentence. Why waste time when the outcome was determined ahead of time? They were all sentenced to death. Our President was doing obeisance to the Sauds in their home tent around the same time, but this outrage in the neighborhood, by a very close friend of the Sauds, was not a high priority.

So, this week, an Egyptian court sentenced 683 more to death in the same arbitrary way. And to put a cherry on the cake another court made illegal the April 6 Youth Movement—the movement that overthrew Mubarak and to which, after some flubbed steps, the most advanced pro-democratic oligarchy ever (i.e., us) gave its blessing.

Yes, we have heard Jay Carney mouth the words of Washington outrage. But let’s consider. He is the mouthpiece of the Executive who innovated the concept of the Commander-in-Chief’s right to kill Americans on his own say-so. And then fought in court against disclosure of the “legal opinion” which it relied upon to create this innovation. This is not really about inheriting the wind for troubling our own house. That would be far more literary than what we have become: people governed by elites who have no discernible devotion to the rule of law, human dignity or even a sense of their own shame. Our political discourse has been reduced to trading charges over Cliven Bundy (who claims he’s Rosa Parks) and Donald Sterling. It won’t end with either a bang or a whimper, but rather senseless name-calling in internet comments. We have commodified “democracy” and therefore don’t have to practice it anymore. Or care if any of our clients do.


  1. I’ve read Hidden Cause tonight on the chemistries of trees and evolutionary plants, on John Milton and his friend Marvell, on why liberals manage to stick up for Obama no matter what, a guy “in the desert of centrism,” Thomas Frank has said, but probably your center-right designation is the right one — for a man flirting stupidly now in Ukraine with a new Cold War or worse. Maybe he’ll get a proper “legacy” out of it! I’ve looked at Sargent’s water colors, and I thank you for all this and worlds more. My own blog is just a little toy compared to yours. I will Follow, though I don’t see how you do all this, and I’m sure it will continue to puzzle me.

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