Hillary Clinton: Clueless About Egypt
This past March 15-16, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was dispatched on a highly-publicized visit to post-Mubarak Egypt. During her two-day visit, Mrs. Clinton met with the Egyptian Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In each of her separate meetings, she proclaimed the US Administration's unwavering and constant support for democracy and democratic transformation in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East.
Did she really think her words could erase the actual record? No one will ever cross-examine Mrs. Clinton on her sincerity. But, even if she believed her own spin, it would not take much insight to acknowledge that US policies in past decades had repeatedly negated their proclaimed noble intentions. In a better world, an apology rather than dissembling spin would be offered the Egyptians. None seemed to cross Mrs. Clinton's mind.
More than anyone else in the Obama Administration, including President Obama himself, Mrs. Clinton represents continuity in American policies in the Middle East and foreign affairs in general. She had a warm personal relationship with Hosni Mubarak and his family stretching back to the days when she was First Lady nearly two decades ago.
In a 2009 interview, Mrs. Clinton said, "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States." On January 25 of this year, on the same day that millions in Egypt exploded in anger against the Mubarak dictatorship, she insisted that "our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." Shutting up would have been less embarrassing -- and damaging in Egyptian eyes.
No visit by a foreign dignitary or media celebrity in post-Mubarak Egypt is now complete without a pilgrimage to Tahrir Square. Mrs. Clinton took her own ten-minute walking tour of Tahrir Square on March 15. At one point, she posed to talk to accompanying journalists and waxed lyrical with an outpour of seemingly heartfelt emotions: "To see where this revolution happened and all that it has meant to the world is extraordinary for me. It's just a great reminder of the power of the human spirit and desire for human rights and democracy. It's just thrilling to see where this happened."
From dear friend of the Mubaraks to instant cheerleader of the revolution, the metamorphosis was truly extraordinary, duly noted in the Egyptian and wider Arab press. It took aback even hardened commentators on the left, impressed by Mrs. Clinton's shamelessly crass opportunism, just as it instilled deep anxiety and anger among "America's Arabs" on the right.
But no matter. The NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other major news outlets in the US saw to it that nothing negative would mar their rosy accounts of Mrs. Clinton's March visit. Thus, other than a few progressive websites, the mainstream media all but ignored the very public way in which the youth leaders of the uprising snubbed the visiting US Secretary of State.
The leaders of the Coalition of Youth Revolution -- consisting of several youth groups that had played a pivotal role in organizing the demonstrations in Tahrir Square -- turned down formal invitations to meet with Mrs. Clinton on March 15. In a telling statement on the coalition's Facebook page, they did not welcome Clinton's visit to Egypt and demanded that the US Administration make a formal apology to Egypt's people for its foreign policy towards the country in past decades. Significantly, making a distinction between peoples and governments, they pointedly added that "the Egyptian people are the masters of their own land and destiny and will only accept equal relations of friendship and respect between the people of Egypt and the people of America." In other words, their hostility to the American government does not extend to the American people.
Had Mrs. Clinton paid close attention to an earlier encounter with Egyptian youth, on February 22, she would have known better not to request a meeting with the youth leaders on March 15. She should have known that antagonism to US policies is very raw and runs very deep, and that she risked the embarrassment of being cold-shouldered by the youth leaders (as she was indeed).
On February 22, more than 6,500 questions were submitted by Egyptian youth to the Cairo-based news website Masrawy.com for an interview with Hillary Clinton. The interview lasted 30 minutes and was transmitted live by video from Washington. The interviewer, Ahmad Ghanim, selected a tiny fraction of the submitted questions, a total of 9, and added his own 3 questions which he presented as summarizing recurrent themes from the remaining batch.
The very few that were selected, and the interviewer's own, were more deferential towards Mrs. Clinton than many of the discarded questions. Nevertheless, even among the selected, not much was necessary to detect a distinctly inimical tone behind the polite restraint. Could Mrs. Clinton hear it, at least this once, and avoid a hackneyed response? No such expectation from a remarkably tone-deaf person.
Reacting to the claim that the US government worked behind the scene to help Egyptian opposition groups and promote democracy in Egypt, one of the questions aired in the Masrawy.com interview asked, "Were there any connections or meetings between the US Administration and the youth of Egypt that called for the revolution supporting their effort before, during, or even after the revolution?" It was a rhetorical question, taunting Mrs. Clinton and implying that the Egyptian protest movement owed nothing to the US government for its success.
In her response, Mrs. Clinton resisted the implication, advancing the notion that the US helped labor unions and civil society: "Well, as many people know, the United States supported civil society inside Egypt. We gave grants that the [Egyptian] government did not like, to support union organizing, to support organizing on behalf of political opposition to the regime...." Perhaps realizing her claim stretched credulity a little too far, she quickly backtracked, "The United States had nothing to do with the uprising, the revolution that we are now witnessing in Egypt. That was led by, organized by, run by Egyptians themselves, starting with young people." Then, in a second about-face, trying to take what credit she could for the uprising: "We have, of course, provided many of the tools. I mean, Facebook and Twitter, even the Internet, are American inventions, and we are proud that these American inventions are helping to connect people up around democracy and human rights and freedom and an agenda that will lead to a better life in Egypt."
If anything, Mrs. Clinton revealed her glib ignorance of what makes the Internet and the people behind it. Computer scientists, including those based in the US, do not say or think that the Internet (any more than bicycling or heart-surgery) is any country's or any government's invention. Perhaps being Internet savvy is not a prerequisite in politics, but Mrs. Clinton was also advancing the peculiar "Facebook theory of Arab uprisings" that much of the mainstream media has been endlessly praising. Yes, Internet-based social networks were used to mobilize the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, but the overwhelming majority of those who rebelled throughout Egypt's cities and towns were not users of Facebook and Twitter. More crucially, such explanations completely ignore the role of those who can make such uprisings succeed (or fail).
The great unsung heroes of the Egyptian uprising were the workers, who had for many years practiced wildcat strikes and resistance to government policies, nearly unnoticed by the Western media. They did not need Facebook and Twitter to organize and to flex their collective power, without which the battle of nerves between demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the government would likely have petered out in favor of the latter. "The entry of the working class as an independent social force with its independent general strikes, that's what ended the regime of Hosni Mubarak," observed an Egyptian journalist and long-time democracy activist.
The one question that seemed to trigger Mrs. Clinton's most enthusiastic response was the most inane among those selected by the Masrawy.com interviewer: "Do you think that the scenes from Tahrir Square of the young Middle Easterners protesting in peace will help change the stereotype of Muslims and Arabs in America?" It gave Mrs. Clinton her chance to respond with relish: "That is a great question. I think the answer is absolutely yes. We all live with stereotypes, and I admit and accept that many Americans have stereotypes of Egyptians or of Muslims, and I believe that many Egyptians and Muslims have stereotypes about the United States." Another yawn-inducing outpour of virtuous platitudes.
There is a lot to extract about the mood of young Egyptians from the thousands of questions that were submitted to Masrawy.com and never reached Mrs. Clinton's ears. Most infectious in many is perhaps their boisterous spirit of rebellion and irreverence. To conclude, I list below three, picked somewhat at random from those thousands, which combine political wisdom with an impish sense of humor. We may laugh a little by imagining Mrs. Clinton fumbling and fudging through her answers, although -- given what is at stake for the rest of the world from the person entrusted with the foreign policy of the foremost imperial power -- this is no laughing matter:
– In America, when one of the Americans kill[s] a lot of people, the government calls him crazy. When the same happens in Egypt or in any Arab country, why do you call them terrorists?
– Do "human rights" and "democracy" differ according to a country's name?
– Don't you have something better to do?
1. Glenn Greenwald, "Hillary Clinton gets tough with military dictatorships," Salon, February 17, 2010.
2. David E. Sanger, "As Mubarak Digs In, U.S. Policy in Egypt Is Complicated," NY Times, February 5, 2011.
3. Mrs. Clinton's statement is posted on the website of the Department of State, by itself with no commentary, as an iconic statement of profound wisdom. Compare this with the rather acerbic account by the ABC News stringer in Cairo, Kirit Radia, "Clinton Tours Egypt's Tahrir Square," Jake Tapper's Blog, Political Punch, ABC News, March 16, 2011, which is closer in tone to accounts in the Arab press, some outright sarcastic about Mrs. Clinton.
4. A sample of left-of-center reactions to Mrs. Clinton's visit can be collected from commentaries during the second half of March in the Egyptian dailies al-Shorouk, al-Ahaly, al Masry al Youm, and al Masry al Youm (English edition), and the Lebanese dailies as-Safir and al-Akhbar.
5. "America's Arabs" (in Arabic), very different from "Arab Americans", is a derogatory expression often used by Arab commentators to refer to regional US allies of all sorts, from despotic presidents and reactionary monarchs to hirelings in the media and cultural institutions. Among America's Arabs, none were angrier than the Saudi king and other Gulf royals, who took the Obama Administration's somersault as callous betrayal of loyal friends. Although typically most secretive about their back-room dealings with the US, the Saudis aired their anger openly this time. David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, "U.S.-Saudi Tensions with Mideast Turmoil," NY Times, March 14, 2011.
6. See their Facebook page, Coalition Of Youth Revolution. See also the news website, Youth Liberation Network (in Arabic).
7. Ahram-on-line, "Revolution Youth Coalition refuses to meet Clinton," March 15, 2011. Kirit Radia and Alex Marquardt, "Young Leaders of Egypt's Revolt Snub Clinton in Cairo," Jake Tapper's Blog, Political Punch, ABC News, March 15, 2011. A more detailed statement (in Arabic) is posted at Masrawy.com, "Coalition of the Revolution Youth Refuses to Meet Hillary Clinton," March 14, 2011.
8. She should have known, or been told, that on the day she still insisted that "the Egyptian government is stable," protesters in Tahrir Square were venting their anger at the US for propping up the reviled Mubarak regime. One of their recurrent chants was "oh Mubarak, oh coward, oh agent of the Americans" (it rhymes in Arabic).
9. The video recording of the interview (Arabic dubbed) is available from the Masrawy.com website. The more than 6,500 questions (the vast majority in Arabic, very few in English), in addition to some 500 commentaries of various lengths (all in Arabic) posted on the days following the interview, can be downloaded from the same webpage by clicking on the white, left-hand tab labeled (in Arabic) "The Questions." The audience was overwhelmingly young people, between the ages of 20 and 35, as questioners identified themselves by name, age, and geographic location. The whole collection, 6,500+ questions and 500+ commentaries, makes for a very interesting read, revealing much about the mood and aspirations of young Egyptians. The English transcript of the interview is posted on the Department of State website. Without the rest of the questions and post-interview commentaries, the English transcript is a little misleading, giving the impression of a neutral, if not sometimes friendly, audience. Twenty-five of the more provocative and irreverent questions, none selected by the interviewer, were translated and published in Harper's Magazine, June 2011, p. 24.
10. No doubt, Mrs. Clinton was referring to such groups as the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House -- see Ron Nixon, "U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings," NY Times, April 14, 2011. The NED and FH are known to have ties to the CIA and have at best a very checkered record. Consider, for example, the NED. Notwithstanding its stated intention of promoting democracy ("the birthright of every person in every nation" on the homepage of its website), many of its publications make clear that its notion of democracy derives from neoliberal economic policies and from taking the US as a reference for acceptable democratic practices. The Egyptian uprising was as much against neoliberalism, which wreaked havoc on the working class and an independent labor movement, as it was against an aging despot and the kleptocracy he headed -- see Walter Armbrust, "The Revolution Against Neoliberalism," Jadaliyya, February 23, 2011.
11. Or perhaps, because the Wright brothers were the first to fly an airplane, Mrs. Clinton believes that aviation is an American invention and she can therefore take credit for the toppling of the Mubarak regime, since Wael Ghonim needed an airplane to fly back to Egypt at the beginning of the Egyptian uprising. This is reminiscent of another politician's fatuous pretense. In an interview with CNN in March 1999, during the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vice President Al Gore claimed that he "took the initiative in creating the Internet." For months after, Gore's remark was something of a running joke among computer scientists.
12. Available polls are remarkable in showing the very limited reach of Internet-based social networks: "Nearly a quarter of Egyptians (23%) say they have used social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to obtain news about their country's political situation; 6% access these sites but have not used it as a source of political news. About two-thirds (65%) do not use the internet or email" -- quoted in Egyptians Embrace Revolt Leaders, Religious Parties and Military, As Well, Pew Research Center, April 25, 2011, p. 12. The pdf file of the full report, for many other relevant statistics, can be downloaded from the website of the Pew Research Center. See also, David D. Kirkpatrick and Mona el-Naggar, "Poll Finds Egyptians Full of Hope About the Future," NY Times, April 25, 2011.
13. Joel Beinin, one of the best informed historians in the US on the Egyptian labor movement, could not get his articles published other than in specialized or academic journals. It took the events of this past January and February to get some magazines to pay attention. Joel Beinin, "Egypt's Workers Rise Up," The Nation, February 17, 2011.
14. Bassam Haddad, "English Translation of Interview with Hossam el-Hamalawy on the Role of Labor Unions in the Egyptian Revolution," Jadaliyya, April 30, 2011.
Assaf Kfoury is an Arab-American political activist and Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. He grew up in Beirut and Cairo, and returns frequently to the Middle East.