Egypt: test of US policy of supporting dictators

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS
Friday, February 11, 2011

The Egyptian crisis has exposed American hypocrisy more starkly than ever before. In a classical case of a confrontation between autocracy and freedom, which the upsurge in Egypt represents, the dithering of the land of the free and home of the brave on which side to support is yet another confirmation about how the US has always been equivocal about democracy outside its own shores.

It is supportive of the concept, but only if it was in consonance with its global policies. Otherwise, Washington had no compunctions about trashing it and even undermining it to install a despot, as in Iran in 1953 when the autocratic Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi replaced the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in a coup which was suspected to have been engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In pursuing this cynical line, the Americans never had any dearth of excuses. Throughout the Cold War, it propped up totalitarian regimes wherever it could on the plea of countering Soviet communism. Although the US was aware that these dictatorships were the obverse side of the oppressive Communist regimes it was supposed to be fighting, American presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt justified them by the celebrated explanation in favour of an America stooge: he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.

This succinct and, to be fair, candid elucidation of American double-speak was in reference to Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza Garcia. But it applied virtually to all the tyrants who were in the US anti-Communist camp - the Pakistani military rulers Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul Haq, Syngman Rhee of South Korea, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Saddam Hussein during his war against the Iran of the Ayatollahs, the Saudi Arabian potentates, the apartheid regime of South Africa, the tin pot dictators of North Africa, including Egypt, the Latin American despots, of whom Augusto Pinochet of Chile and the Duvaliers of Haiti, “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” were the most notorious.

But it isn’t only the support for the authoritarian rulers which is noteworthy. What is even more significant is that the Americans did not confine themselves only to favouring them but at the same time castigated democracies such as India’s as functioning anarchies, to quote John Kenneth Galbraith who was the US ambassador in New Delhi in the early 1960s.

The explanation for criticising Indian democracy while singing paeans of praise for Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan was American anger against India’s pursuit of non-alignment to maintain equidistance from Washington and Moscow. This policy of Jawaharlal Nehru’s was anathema to the US secretary of state John Foster Dulles because of his belief that “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” - a milder version of the “sons of bitches” theory.

Yet, America and the West (and also India) are now paying the price of this blinkered outlook because the transformation of Pakistan into the epicentre of Islamic terrorism can only be explained by the fact that the years of US-backed dictatorships there stifled the middle class and helped the mullahs to flourish.

George W. Bush was the first US president to note that there was not a single Indian Muslim in Al Qaeda because Indian democracy gave the minorities the hope and opportunity of faring well in the country’s social, political, commercial, academic and entertainment fields and helped the Muslim middle class to grow.

It might have been expected that the Soviet Union’s demise would persuade Washington to abandon its policy of mollycoddling tyrants. But the rise of Islamic fundamentalism gave the US yet another excuse for continuing to adhere to the old policy. What is more, it even assisted in the growth of this menacing medievalism by using it against the Soviets in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was America’s ally during the anti-Soviet offensive.

Islamic bigotry also proved to be a useful tool in the hands of the autocrats, who could afford to ignore the half-hearted American appeals in favour of democracy by presenting the “after me, the deluge” theory. By arguing that only they are the bulwark against the takeover of their countries by the mullahs, the tyrants ensured that their thrones would not be disturbed.

However, the Egyptian successful uprising against Mubarak’s three-dccade hard-fisted rule has disproved this self-serving assumption to America’s discomfiture. For once, it is as pure an expression of popular discontent against decades of oppression as can be expected, with the middle class playing a seminal role.

The Islamic fundamentalists have no part in it and must have been bewildered by an upsurge, which, if it succeeds in introducing genuine democracy, may ring the death knell for them by marginalising the clerics.

It is clear that the Egyptian revolution deserves the wholehearted support of all genuine democracies. But if America continues to vacillate, it is because it prefers to deal with those who kowtow to them rather than those who have their own views, as democrats usually do.

Evidence of this attitude was available during the Iraq war when France earned Washington’s displeasure for its contrary stance. Even more telling was the US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s dissatisfaction with the Turkish army for not negating the Turkish parliament’s opposition to allowing American troops to enter Iraq from Turkey.

The ouster of an American-backed dictator in Egypt will be the moment of truth for the US and the world, for it will show whether Barack Obama meant what he said in Cairo in 2009 about “a new beginning”.

(12.02.2011-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

Filed under: Diplomacy

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