11 July 2004
NEW YORK - A slipped spinal disk is certainly painful, but it’s hardly an important international event – unless the disk belongs to the 76-year old absolute ruler of the Mideast’s most populous and important nation, Egypt.
Last week, President Husni Mubarak returned to Egypt after 17 days in a German clinic. His unprecedented absence from Egypt raised two important questions: why was Mubarak unable to find capable doctors in Egypt for what was described as `minor surgery;’ and who will succeed him when he dies?
For the Arab world’s leading nation, which spends US $3.3 billion annually on its 450,000-man military, not to have a decent back surgeon, sounds incredible and shameful. Or else, Mubarak was secretly treated by German specialists for cancer or another grave disease.
In 1800, Egypt had 3 million people. When I lived in Egypt in 1957, its population was 24 million. Today, its 71-73 million impoverished people are crammed into the 2.8% of Egypt’s land that is arable. Cairo has nearly 10 million inhabitants.
Per capita income in Egypt is a scant $1,200. Egypt’s sole sources of revenue are tourism, premium cotton, a little oil and Suez Canal tolls. These earnings are not enough to cover rising bills for imports, particularly food. So Egypt has long had to go begging for foreign aid, first from America, then the Soviet union, and, again, America.
Egypt’s growing food dependency on the US is mirrored across the Mideast: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, the Gulf emirates, Morocco, Tunisia (and soon Libya) are all dependent to varying degrees on US food imports.
Egypt comprises 30% of the Arab World’s total population and 40% of the non-North African Mideast, or `Mashraq.’ When the back of the man who rules four out of ten Arabs aches, all need pay attention.
While eyes are fixed on the bloody mess in Iraq and Saudi Arabia’s growing instability, Egypt is beginning to tremble as its people worry who will succeed Mubarak’s unchallenged 22-year rule. There is no clear line of succession; Mubarak has never even named a vice president. Officially, the Speaker of the powerless make-believe parliament is next in line, but in any post-Mubarak power struggle, he would be quickly swept away. In the Mideast, the men with the guns make the rules.
Mubarak, an able air force general, was engineered into power by the US after the 1981 assassination of Egypt’s ruler, Anwar Sadat, who became a CIA `asset’ around 1952. My mother, Nedji Zaimi, a journalist and author, interviewed Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Sadat in the mid-1950’s. I remember her calling Nasser a `person of character’ and `a true man,’ (her supreme accolade) while she dismissed Sadat as a `phony,’ and `a poseur.’ Egyptians heartily shared this view.
The great Nasser, whom Egyptians adored, died in 1970 of a heart attack, or was poisoned, as many believe. Former CIA Cairo station chief Miles Copeland confirmed in his memories at least one failed US assassination attempt against Nasser.
After Nasser’s untimely death, the US quickly maneuvered Sadat into power as military dictator. The 1978 Camp David Accords soon followed, history’s biggest bribe in which Sadat took Egypt out of the pan-Arab confrontation with Israel and abandoned the Palestinians in exchange for a huge increase in annual aid to $2.2 billion, some of which went into the pockets of Sadat’s family, generals, and cronies.
In the 20 years before Camp David, total US aid to Egypt amounted to some $4.7 billion; in the 20 years after, close to $49 billion. In short, Egypt was being bought off with American `baksheesh’ to make peace with Israel. Once Camp David gave Israel a free hand, it quickly invaded Lebanon in any attempt to turn that small nation into an Israeli protectorate.
In sharp contrast to President George Bush’s sermons about bringing democracy to the Arab World, America’s most important Arab ally, Egypt, remains a old-fashioned military dictatorship behind a fig-leaf of fake democracy. One must ask: if the Bush Administration is so intent on bringing the balm of democracy to the benighted Arabs, why did it not start in Egypt, where the US wields paramount influence?
Egypt’s press, the Arab World’s media center, is heavily censored; its judiciary a punitive organ of the regime. Egypt remains a repressive state with a brutal secret police where the use of torture against political opponents and Islamic militants is routine. In fact, the US has been secretly sending captured Islamic militant suspects to Egypt to be tortured.
$ 1.3 billion in annual US military aid keeps the armed forces and security apparatus loyal to Mubarak. CIA, DIA, FBI and NSA run major operations in Egypt to protect Mubarak’s regime from domestic opponents. The US tightly controls the military’s communications and limits stocks of spare parts and munitions. Since Egypt’s armed forces have largely re-equipped with US arms, this means that Washington can quickly rein in Egypt’s military and prevent it from threatening Israel.
Sadat’s Faustian Camp David deal left Washington and, curiously, Israel, gripping Egypt’s food jugular. The US supplies Egypt 4 million tons of wheat annually, mostly under various aid programs that must be approved by Israel’s friends in the US Congress. Without this wheat, Egypt, which cannot feed its surging population, would starve. So Israel, thanks to its powerful Washington lobby, has managed to obtain indirect control of Egypt’s food supply – another potent factor that keeps Egypt on its `good behavior.’
Now, as Egypt faces a succession crisis, Mubarak has been grooming son Gamal to be leader, but Egyptians strongly oppose this idea as unworthy and medieval.
When Mubarak goes, Washington will discreetly install a new leader from the pro-US elite - unless there is a massive uprising against foreign domination by nationalist-Nasserites and Islamists (`terrorists’ in Bush-talk). But if nationalists somehow oust US influence, how will they feed Egyptians?
The Bush Administration’s `crusade for freedom’ in the Mideast has reportedly already selected intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Defense Minister Muhamed Tantawi, or another senior army general, to be Egypt’s next `democratic’ ruler. But, as Iraq shows, things can go terribly wrong.