The aim is not to promote an organic Arab democracy ‘of the people, and for the people,’ but rather to promote an evolutionary “democratization” in which the old despots of American strategic support are removed in favour of a neoliberal democratic system, in which the outward visible institutions of democracy are present (multi-party elections, private media, parliaments, constitutions, active civil society, etc); yet, the power-holders within that domestic political system remain subservient to U.S. economic and strategic interests, continuing to follow the dictates of the IMF and World Bank, supporting America’s military hegemony in the region, and “opening up” the Arab economies to be “integrated” into the world economy. Thus, “democratization” becomes an incredibly valuable strategy for maintaining hegemony; a modern re-hash of “Let them eat cake!” Give the people the ‘image’ of democracy and establish and maintain a co-dependent relationship with the new elite. Thus, democracy for the people becomes an exercise in futility, where people’s ‘participation’ becomes about voting between rival factions of elites, who all ultimately follow the orders of Washington.
This strategy also has its benefit for the maintenance of American power in the region. While dictators have their uses in geopolitical strategy, they can often become too independent of the imperial power and seek to determine the course of their country separate from U.S. interests, and are subsequently much more challenging to remove from power (i.e., Saddam Hussein). With a “democratized” system, changing ruling parties and leaders becomes much easier, by simply calling elections and supporting opposition parties. Bringing down a dictator is always a more precarious situation than “changing the guard” in a liberal democratic system.
The fever pitch excitement and elation on February 11th echoed another event in recent history: the Obama election. The power of the people was hailed and a new chapter in history emerged. After the disastrous upset of a false success the night before, when Mubarak appeared on television and called the Egyptian people his children, a pallid Omar Suleiman appeared the next night and said he was gone. Rejoice! Television presenters wiped tears from their eyes. The people danced in the streets. Finally – justice prevailed. Egypt was free! But what did that mean?
I was called a cynic immediately for not joining the rejoicing masses. Yet I’d been led on before. The election of Obama was supposed to herald a new age in progress and democracy and it has done nearly the opposite. Likewise, the day after Mubarak left office and the television cameras began to be shipped back home, the Egyptian military began a quiet bust-up of the few hundred protesters remaining in Tahrir Square who insisted with some confusion that their demands for democracy and a free society had not yet been made! The promises of the army to hold elections in September nearly echoed the ones made by Mubarak. Yet the people had cried for his resignation. Well, give the people what they want – but not what they really want. With so many slogans centered around one man, the dangerous possibility of the entire movement being co-opted by his name became a reality. With Mubarak gone, what was there left to complain about? You got what you asked for – now get back to work!
I still plan on traveling to Egypt in the coming weeks and will report back what I see, if these steps towards democracy – this outrageous show of the people’s power – have gained any wins towards alleviating the day-to-day situation of the Egyptian people. I sincerely hope things have improved, yet it remains to be seen if the conditions of over 20 million living in slums on less than a dollar a day will have changed much. A social movement is only gauged in how it uplifts the lowest members in that society. I would hate for Mubarak to be right on this point. I sincerely hope the protesters were not simply the petit-bourgeois reacting to satellite television. I hope history sees February 11th as the first battle won in a broad people’s movement for actual change.