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Noam Chomsky: “This is the Most Remarkable Regional Uprising that I Can Remember”

StoryFebruary 02, 2011
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In recent weeks, popular uprisings in the Arab world have led to the ouster of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the imminent end of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, a new Jordanian government, and a pledge by Yemen’s longtime dictator to leave office at the end of his term. We speak to MIT Professor Noam Chomsky about what this means for the future of the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy in the region. When asked about President Obama’s remarks last night on Mubarak, Chomsky said: “Obama very carefully didn’t say anything… He’s doing what U.S. leaders regularly do. As I said, there is a playbook: whenever a favored dictator is in trouble, try to sustain him, hold on; if at some point it becomes impossible, switch sides.” We continued the interview with Chomsky for 50 minutes after the live show. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: For analysis of the Egyptian uprising and its implications for the Middle East and beyond, we’re joined now by the world-renowned political dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of over a hundred books, including his latest, Hopes and Prospects.

Noam, welcome to Democracy Now! Your analysis of what’s happening now in Egypt and what it means for the Middle East?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, first of all, what’s happening is absolutely spectacular. The courage and determination and commitment of the demonstrators is remarkable. And whatever happens, these are moments that won’t be forgotten and are sure to have long-term consequences, as the fact that they overwhelmed the police, took Tahrir Square, are staying there in the face of organized pro-Mubarak mobs, organized by the government to try to either drive them out or to set up a situation in which the army will claim to have to move in to restore order and then to maybe install some kind of military rule, whatever. It’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen. But the events have been truly spectacular. And, of course, it’s all over the Middle East. In Yemen, in Jordan, just about everywhere, there are the major consequences.

The United States, so far, is essentially following the usual playbook. I mean, there have been many times when some favored dictator has lost control or is in danger of losing control. There’s a kind of a standard routine — Marcos, Duvalier, Ceausescu, strongly supported by the United States and Britain, Suharto: keep supporting them as long as possible; then, when it becomes unsustainable — typically, say, if the army shifts sides — switch 180 degrees, claim to have been on the side of the people all along, erase the past, and then make whatever moves are possible to restore the old system under new names. That succeeds or fails depending on the circumstances.

And I presume that’s what’s happening now. They’re waiting to see whether Mubarak can hang on, as it appears he’s intending to do, and as long as he can, say, “Well, we have to support law and order, regular constitutional change,” and so on. If he cannot hang on, if the army, say, turns against him, then we’ll see the usual routine played out. Actually, the only leader who has been really forthright and is becoming the most — maybe already is — the most popular figure in the region is the Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, who’s been very straight and outspoken.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam, I wanted to play for you what President Obama had to say yesterday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have spoken out on behalf of the need for change. After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak. He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place. Indeed, all of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people. Through thousands of years, Egypt has known many moments of transformation. The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments, this is one of those times. Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders. Only the Egyptian people can do that. What is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak, is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama speaking yesterday in the White House. Noam Chomsky, your response to what President Obama said, the disappointment of many that he didn’t demand that Mubarak leave immediately? More importantly, the role of the United States, why the U.S. would have any say here, when it comes to how much it has supported the regime?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, Obama very carefully didn’t say anything. Mubarak would agree that there should be an orderly transition, but to what? A new cabinet, some minor rearrangement of the constitutional order — it’s empty. So he’s doing what U.S. leaders regularly do. As I said, there is a playbook: whenever a favored dictator is in trouble, try to sustain him, hold on; if at some point it becomes impossible, switch sides.

The U.S. has an overwhelmingly powerful role there. Egypt is the second-largest recipient over a long period of U.S. military and economic aid. Israel is first. Obama himself has been highly supportive of Mubarak. It’s worth remembering that on his way to that famous speech in Cairo, which was supposed to be a conciliatory speech towards the Arab world, he was asked by the press — I think it was the BBC — whether he was going to say anything about what they called Mubarak’s authoritarian government. And Obama said, no, he wouldn’t. He said, “I don’t like to use labels for folks. Mubarak is a good man. He has done good things. He has maintained stability. We will continue to support him. He is a friend.” And so on. This is one of the most brutal dictators of the region, and how anyone could have taken Obama’s comments about human rights seriously after that is a bit of a mystery. But the support has been very powerful in diplomatic dimensions. Military — the planes flying over Tahrir Square are, of course, U.S. planes. The U.S. is the — has been the strongest, most solid, most important supporter of the regime. It’s not like Tunisia, where the main supporter was France. They’re the primary guilty party there. But in Egypt, it’s clearly the United States, and of course Israel. Israel is — of all the countries in the region, Israel, and I suppose Saudi Arabia, have been the most outspoken and supportive of the Mubarak regime. In fact, Israeli leaders were angry, at least expressed anger, that Obama hadn’t taken a stronger stand in support of their friend Mubarak.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what this means for the Middle East, Noam Chomsky. I mean, we’re talking about the massive protests that have taken place in Jordan, to the point where King Abdullah has now dismissed his cabinet, appointed a new prime minister. In Yemen there are major protests. There is a major protest called for Syria. What are the implications of this, the uprising from Tunisia to Egypt now?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, this is the most remarkable regional uprising that I can remember. I mean, it’s sometimes compared with Eastern Europe, but that’s not much of a comparison. For one thing, in this case, there’s no counterpart to Gorbachev among the — in the United States or other great powers supporting the dictatorships. That’s a huge difference. Another is that in the case of Eastern Europe, the United States and its allies followed the timeworn principle that democracy is fine, at least up to a point, if it accords with strategic and economic objectives, so therefore acceptable in enemy domains, but not in our own. That’s a well-established principle, and of course that sharply differentiates these two cases. In fact, about the only moderately reasonable comparison would be to Romania, where Ceausescu, the most vicious of the dictators of the region, was very strongly supported by the United States right up ’til the end. And then, when he — the last days, when he was overthrown and killed, the first Bush administration followed the usual rules: postured about being on the side of the people, opposed to dictatorship, tried to arrange for a continuation of close relations.

But this is completely different. Where it’s going to lead, nobody knows. I mean, the problems that the protesters are trying to address are extremely deep-seated, and they’re not going to be solved easily. There is a tremendous poverty, repression, a lack of not just democracy, but serious development. Egypt and other countries of the region have just been through a neoliberal period, which has led to growth on paper, but with the usual consequences: high concentration of extreme wealth and privilege, tremendous impoverishment and dismay for most of the population. And that’s not easily changed. We should also remember that, as far as the United States is concerned, what’s happening is a very old story. As far back as the 1950s, President Eisenhower was —

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds in the segment, Noam.


AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds left in the segment.


AMY GOODMAN: Make your point on Eisenhower.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah, shall I go on?

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds. If you could — we’ll save that for our web exclusive right afterwards. We’ve been speaking with Noam Chomsky. You can go to our website at, and we’ll play more of our interview with him tomorrow on Democracy Now!

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