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“The Great Tragedy is Obama Chose Not to Hold Out His Hand”: Robert Fisk on the Gap Between U.S. Rhetoric and Action in the Egyptian Uprising

StoryFebruary 09, 2011
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The longtime Middle East correspondent of The Independent newspaper in London joins us from Cairo to talk about the popular uprising ongoing across Egypt, its regional implications, and how Obama should respond. “[The protesters] are asking for nothing less than Americans accept in their own lives,” Fisk says. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Robert Fisk of The Independent newspaper. He, too, is in Cairo. I asked him about the U.S. role in Egypt and the Middle East.

ROBERT FISK: What they’re calling out for are everything which ordinary Americans would agree with: multi-party democracy; a new constitution which gives equal rights to everyone; an end to fraudulent elections, which have allowed, of course, Mubarak to carry on year after year for three decades until the age of 83, based on elections that gave 97.8, 97.9 percent of the victory; and an end, in fact, to long presidential periods of six years in office, bringing it down to four years; and they want a maximum two terms for a president, rather than indefinite presidency or presidency for life, which is effectively what Mubarak got. These people are therefore asking for nothing less than Americans accept in their own lives.

And the great tragedy is that at this critical moment, Obama chose not to hold out his hand to the democrats and to say, “We support you, and Mubarak must go.” He chose to support, effectively, Mubarak by saying orderly transition. You know, he wants another general — he’s already got one, Omar Suleiman, the Vice President — to take over. The army, which receives $1.3 billions of American taxpayers’ money every year, is going to be called upon to try and make this transition, even though Mubarak himself, of course, was the head of the air force. He was a general, too. Omar Suleiman, the Vice President, is a general, head of intelligence, a very ruthless man. His people carried out a lot of tortures in the past against Islamist uprisings in Egypt. And for many of the people on the street, there was deep disappointment that at this critical moment the President of the United States, who came here to Cairo just under 18 months ago to tell the Muslim world — he held up their hand, and he said, “Do not clench your fists in response.” When the democrats came onto the streets of Cairo and wanted what Obama had advertised to them, it was Obama who clenched his fist and Hillary Clinton who said that it’s a stable regime.

Only now, when they realize that perhaps Mubarak is going to go, mainly because the army want to get rid of him, not the protesters — and another part of the tragedy — are they beginning to say, “Well, we’ve got to get rid of this old man,” but not, of course, to replace him with real democrats but to replace him with an army-backed regime, which is effectively Mubarak part two.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about the U.S. relationship with the military? I was talking to someone in a government agency in Washington, and they were deeply concerned, saying, “How do we counter the image that we’ve actually been supporting this despot for 30 years?” And someone else replied, “We can’t, because we have been supporting him.”

ROBERT FISK: Yeah, and I think, in a way, you see, what happens is it becomes a sort of osmotic relationship. First of all, the Egyptians are wooed from the Soviet side under Sadat, who basically left the Soviet Union to the American side. Then the Americans arm them, feed them, clothe them, uniform them, after which, however independent they want to be, in order to feed, they’ve got to go to Washington.

It was interesting that when Tantawi, the commander-in-chief of the army, was coping with this crisis here, the Pentagon snapped its fingers, and he flew straight away to Washington for the serious consultations at the Pentagon — in other words, to get his instructions. I mean, he wouldn’t say that. It’ll be “advise,” “Where are things going, General? You know, fill this out here. Give us a briefing,” etc. But at the end of the day, he’d be left in no doubt that if he wanted to get more Abrams tanks and extra missiles, he’s got to do what America wants, which primarily now is get rid of Mubarak, but don’t make it look as if it’s our fault.

You see, American — the problem with the Americans is that when you — the moral values of the United States become disentangled from the national interest at critical moments like this. You know, we all want democracy, but not if we lose Mubarak, who is Israel’s man, etc., etc. And this, of course, doesn’t come as a great surprise to the Arabs, although, as I wrote in the paper, had Obama decided to say, “Look, I’m with the democrats; they’re doing what I talked about in Cairo 18 months ago, 17 months ago,” there would have been American flags all over Cairo, all over Egypt. And indeed, it would have solved, in many Arab minds, all the wounds that the Arab and Muslim world has sustained from the United States, and particularly Britain as well, over the last 10 years.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, there’s the current U.S. ambassador to Egypt, right? Margaret Scobey.

ROBERT FISK: Yeah. Well, I mean, there is, although she doesn’t seem to move around very much. One of the interesting things is that the one group of people you do not see on the streets of Cairo are American diplomats. Presumably they get their information from Egyptians who come and tell them what’s going on.

And there was, by the way, slightly to tangent, a very odd episode on the 28th of January, when a vehicle identified by the crowds as a U.S. armored limousine crashed through anti-Mubarak demonstrators, running many of them down, and went out the end of the street. They identified it as an American embassy vehicle. And the embassy then came out, unattributably, as saying, “Our diplomats don’t go out in the streets in such circumstances,” which is clearly true. And then they suddenly said, “Several of our vehicles were stolen that day.” They didn’t tell us that on the 28th of January; they waited until February to tell us. Well, how did they get those vehicles stolen? Did they lend them to the Mubarak government, perhaps? Or did they know the police had taken them and therefore chose to keep silent about it? There are many things like that.

I mean, another example is when the first M1 Abrams tanks came into the square on the Friday. I’m talking about when they were ordered to attack the crowds. I noticed that the coding on the front of the vehicle — it had Egyptian codings for the brigades and parachute units on the side, in Arabic and Arabic numerals. But on the front of the vehicle was a coding, which began MFR and then a series of numbers of each vehicle. And I actually took it down, and a parachute officer started shouting at me and told two soldiers to arrest me. And I actually ran away into the crowd to get away from them. And they chased me and then stopped, and obviously, confronted by about 10,000 demonstrators, decided better of it. And it seems that MFR stands for Mobile Force Reserve. And these are American-owned vehicles. These are American tactical deployment matériel, which is stored in Egypt, as it is also stored of course in Kuwait and now in Iraq for use in emergencies in the Gulf. Now, these vehicles, these tanks, which were threatening at that point the demonstrators, appear to have been vehicles that actually belong to the American military, not to the Egyptian military, but which were obviously used by the Egyptians in this instance. The Egyptians do make the Abrams tank and also have some of their own, but these vehicles appear to be vehicles that effectively belong to you or the Pentagon or whatever. The question is, did the Americans know they were being taken? Did they give permission for this? But none of the soldiers minded pictures being taken of their vehicles or the coding on the side in Arabic, but the moment I took down letters in the Roman letters and the Roman numeral, or rather, modern numerals, they didn’t like it at all. So I have a feeling these were actually reserve vehicles belonging to your country which were being used by Mubarak’s government.

So there’s a whole series of unanswered questions that we don’t really know the answer to, and I don’t suppose we’ll find out yet. But like the tortures in police stations, which are now coming to light, I think that if this regime does crumble — and I think it is steadily crumbling; I mean, the whole National Democratic Party is now just a cardboard facade, especially since the burning of its headquarters — we’re going to learn a lot more of what went on behind the scenes. And it won’t be nice, and it won’t be something that U.S. governments will want to associate themselves with.

AMY GOODMAN: The implications of this for other countries, for a kind of pan-Arab rebellion? Of course, Tunisia, then Egypt. What do you see happening in Israel, Palestine, in Jordan?

ROBERT FISK: Clearly, we have maintained — first the British and the French, and then after the Second World War, with the Americans — we have maintained a system of patronage for ruthless, anti-democratic dictators across the region. We’ve called them kings, we’ve called them emirs, we’ve called them princes, we’ve called them generals, we’ve called them all kinds of presidents, and in Bahrain, for example, you’ve got His Supreme Majesty the King, who rules over an island about half the size of, I suppose, Detroit, if that. But because of this, you know, inevitably, when you have one country suddenly breaking through to freedom, through watching Al Jazeera, for example, the other people in the region, in Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Mauritania, then begin — Algeria, especially — then begin to say, “Well, you know, we demand the same rights. We have a right to live. We have a right to oxygen.”

But, you know, I think that in some ways the uprising here has more in common with the revolt of Iranians against the results of the Iranian elections in 2009, which, remember, the opposition was crushed after, than it does with sort of the Iranian Revolution or something on a bigger scale. And I’m not entirely certain — you know, these may be tribes with flags, as a Crusader historian or historian of the Crusades once described the Arab world, but these are not all the same people. For example, the opposition to King Abdullah in Jordan actually really comes from elements of the army who feel the Palestinians have become too strong in Jordan. The opposition in Syria would be Sunnis who object to the Alawite minority leadership of the country, where it becomes a more sectarian issue rather than an issue of democracy, which is the case in Egypt, because [inaudible] virtually everybody here is a Sunni Muslim, including of course our dear President Mubarak — or their dear President Mubarak. So I think that, you know, I’m a bit suspicious of the idea that just because the Tunisians have a revolution and it spreads to Egypt, therefore, you know — true, there are food demonstrations or high-price demonstrations and protests against the economy in Jordan and certainly protests against Saleh, the president of Yemen, but I’m not sure it’s all the same.

And remember that Tunisia, the famous Jasmine Revolution — this, I gather, is going to be called the Papyrus Revolution, heaven help us, in Egypt — in Tunisia, the revolution has actually only replaced so far Ben Ali with his mates. I mean, Ghannouchi is a friend of Ben Ali. He was one of his schoolmates, I believe. And here, you’ve got to remember that Omar Suleiman, the new savior of Egypt, with whom all these people are supposed to negotiate, he is a very close, personal, lifelong friend of Mubarak, and he was a general. So, while at the same time on the surface you’ve got this democratic uprising, and suddenly we’re going to have all these new countries, and they’re all going to be lovely and believe in our secular values, at the end of the day, the fear is not the Muslim Brotherhood Islamicism; it’s the fear that more generals will be appointed to work for the West. And that is basically what is happening. And, you know, if, say, King Abdullah were in some way persuaded to leave his country, the Jordanian army will be persuaded to find another member of the royal family to take over the job, but perhaps more constitutionally. So the idea that there’s going to be this massive sort of overthrow of dictators, yes, there might be, but there will be more dictators ready to take the role, but playing a sort of softer role and then gently introducing more emergency laws and restrictions on crowds gathering, and so on and so forth, and you’re back to square one.

Corruption has become so much part of the economy, the oil that makes the economy work — and corruption, of course, is the way in which dictators control their people — that the whole system, the whole functioning of society in the Middle East, has been almost irreparably damaged over the decades by the way in which we in the West have encouraged it to function and which the dictators are very happy to function, either on our behalf and of course financially on their own.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think President Obama should do?

ROBERT FISK: Well, it’s always the same case when you or anyone else asks me about U.S. policy. The question is what he should have done.

You know, I never really believed quite in Obama. I was very struck by his reference in the Cairo speech, the famous reach-out-my-hand-to-the-Muslims speech, when he referred to the relocation of the Palestinians in 1948, as if the Palestinians suddenly got up and said, “Oh, let’s all go skiing in Lebanon today and never quite go home again,” rather than being driven from their homes or fleeing in terror from the new Israeli army at the time. And I think that, you know, because of his weakness vis-à-vis the Republicans and of course the recent midterm elections and because of his vanity — I mean, Obama should never have taken the Nobel Prize; Nobel Prize of Public Speaking, maybe, but, I mean, he should have said, “Look, I’m not worthy of it, but thank you” — he’s missed so many steps he could have taken to show that the moral values which he claimed to espouse in that famous Cairo speech, which I attended at Cairo University a few — just about a mile from where I’m talking to you now, and only two miles from Tahrir Square, actually. You know, if only he had stuck to those moral values in the Arab world, the warmth of the Arab world towards America, which was there in the '50s and ’60s even after the establishment of Israel and was certainly there in the ’20s and ’30s, might have been reestablished. But it was a critical moment. And because of Israel's wishes — you know, the Israelis have made it fairly clear they don’t think, you know, these Arabs really should have these elections; I mean, keep Mubarak, you know? or keep some version of Mubarak — and because of his domestic critics — you know, “Are you going to lose Egypt now, Mr. President?” — I know that’s already coming up in editorials — he did blew it. He blinked. He was weak. He was vain. He chose not to support the good guys.

People say, well, you know — someone said to me on a radio show in Ireland yesterday, “Oh, come on, Robert, you’re always saying America should keep its nose out of other countries. Now you want it to interfere.” But the fact is, it does interfere. It’s paying $1.3 billion to the regime every year. Therefore, it is time for it to take the right side in Egypt, and it failed to do so. And that failure will cost America yet again. It’s a tragedy in many ways. You know, here was an opportunity suddenly to get it right, and he flunked it. And he’s seen as being a very weak man in the Arab world. You know, Bush was seen as — in a sense, people preferred Bush, because they saw him as an intemperate bully, which is pretty much what he was out here, whereas Obama came forward with — you know, as a man who seemed to have something to offer of moral value. And at the end of the day, the moral values have gone out of the window, and we’re back with “Oh, the Egyptian people must decide, but it must be an orderly transition,” where “orderly” can mean another six or seven months of Mubarak.

And, of course, the nightmare here is that if the demonstrators go home — whether they get arrested or not, and beaten and tortured afterwards is not the point — then there will be more stability, tourists will come back, the army will be happy, and then Mubarak will suddenly discover that, for the good of Egypt, he would like another six-year term starting in September this year. That, I think, is probably the nightmare scenario and not one that’s entirely, you know, without credibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, speaking to us from Cairo, the longtime Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper of London, author of a number of books, including The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.

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