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Egypt’s Lessons for Americans, Part 2

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The ambivalent reaction of the U.S. government to the Egyptian coup should not have surprised anyone. While U.S. law requires a termination of U.S. foreign aid to Egypt in the event of a coup, the Obama administration ignored the law by simply refusing to declare that the coup was actually a coup.

Keep in mind the primary purpose of the $1.3 billion in weaponry that the U.S. government annually delivers dictly to the Egyptian military: to ensure that the military is fully able to protect “national security” and to maintain “order and stability” within the nation.

When the Egyptian people went to the polls to vote for a new president, after they had succeeded in ousting military strongman Hosni Mubarak from power, they deluded themselves into thinking that they had established a democratic system. They failed to recognize that the fundamental problem was never Mubarak himself but rather the military dictatorship that he headed.

Because the military continued to be the foundation of the Egyptian government, democracy was doomed before it even got started. A prerequisite for a truly democratic system is the dismantling of the vast military-intelligence establishment that has formed the basis of Egyptian life for decades, or at the very least, its subordination to civilian rule.

The Egyptian people were forewarned. Throughout the protests that led up to Mubarak’s ouster, the Egyptian military made it clear that it would never relinquish its omnipotent position in Egyptian society.

When Mubarak resigned from office, the Egyptian military establishment didn’t go anywhere. It continued being the foundation of Egypt’s government. When national elections were held, they were necessarily conducted with the permission and under the auspices of the military.

Mohamed Morsi’s administration was doomed from the start. Rather than confront the military system itself and call for its dismantling or at least its subordination to civilian rule, Morsi made a pact with the devil. He agreed that under Egypt’s new constitution, the supreme, omnipotent position of the military as the foundation of Egypt’s government would not be altered.

U.S. support

There are two important things to keep in mind about the Egyptian military system: First, it has long been one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. Second, it is a dictatorship that the U.S. government has long believed in and supported.

The brutality of the Egyptian military dictatorship was attested to by the massive demonstrations that led up to Mubarak’s ouster. Why did millions of Egyptian people take to the streets and risk their lives in opposition to Mubarak’s regime? Because they had grown tired of suffering under his horrific tyranny. When people objected to the tyranny, they were subject to being arbitrarily arrested without charges, carted away to prison, brutally tortured, and even executed, all without due process of law.

How did the Egyptian military justify such extraordinary powers? When the country’s president, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981 the military regime declared an “emergency,” one that necessarily required, it said, the assumption of extraordinary powers to confront the ongoing threat of “terrorism.” Egyptian officials assured people, however, that the extraordinary powers would only be temporary. They would last only as long as the emergency lasted. Once the terrorist crisis was over, the powers would be lifted.

More than 30 years later, those extraordinary emergency powers were still in existence. The threat of terrorism had not receded, Egyptian officials said. In fact, it had only grown larger.

Throughout those three decades, the military dictatorship became ever more powerful, thanks in large part to the constant, annual supply of billions of dollars in U.S.-provided rifles, bullets, tear gas, grenades, tanks, planes, and other weaponry, all designed to fortify the supreme position of the military in Egyptian life.

The ongoing supply of military aid to Egypt was not a reluctant act on the part of the U.S. government. U.S. officials, especially those in the national-security state apparatus (i.e., the military and the CIA) believed in the Egyptian system. Like their Egyptian counterparts, they fully embraced the concept of a vast military-intelligence establishment as useful to their interests.

After all, that concept had itself become an important component of American life with the adoption of the national-security state after World War II. Justified as a necessary measure to preserve “national security” and to keep America safe from the communists (and, later, the terrorists), the military and intelligence establishment — i.e., the military, the CIA, and the NSA — became a vast, permanent part of America’s government, one whose operations were oftentimes conducted in secrecy and with deception.

The danger to freedom

In addition to the Founding Fathers, who had expressed a deep antipathy to this way of life, there were three presidents who openly expressed concerns about the danger that this type of system posed to democracy: Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.

Eisenhower expressed his concerns in his Farewell Address in 1960:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.  

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Kennedy expressed his concerns about the possibility of a military coup: “It’s possible. It could happen in this country,” he declared. He also encouraged making the novel Seven Days in May, which was about a military coup in America, into a movie to serve as a warning to the American people. In the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, Robert Kennedy said to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, “We are under very severe stress. In fact we are under pressure from our military to use force against Cuba…. If the situation continues much longer, the president is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power.”

Thirty days after the Kennedy assassination, former president Harry Truman published an op-ed in the Washington Post that stated in part,

For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas.

I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue —and a subject for cold war enemy propaganda.

Those admonitions were issued more than 50 years ago. Since then, the power, influence, and position of the military, the CIA, and the NSA in America’s government have grown infinitely larger, owing first to the Cold War and later to the war on terrorism, with nary a peep of protest by any U.S. president or, for that matter, from nearly any mainstream public officials.

One of the most revealing aspects of the Mubarak era was the U.S. government’s longtime, strong support of the Egyptian military, motivated in large part by the U.S. hope of maintaining Egypt’s commitment to the 1978 Camp David Accord with Israel. Not only did the U.S. government continually furnish billions of dollars in weaponry to the Egyptian dictatorship, notwithstanding its manifest tyranny and oppression of the Egyptian people, it also trained Egyptian troops and engaged in joint military exercises with Egypt’s military.

Becoming more like Egypt

People who resisted the Egyptian military regime were considered terrorists, not only by Egyptian officials but also by U.S. officials. The best example of this phenomenon here in the United States involves the case of Lynne Stewart, a noted criminal-defense attorney in New York City. She undertook the defense of the “blind sheik,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted of terrorism in a U.S. federal district court.

In what can only be considered one of the most bizarre criminal prosecutions during the U.S. “war on terrorism,” in 2002 U.S. officials charged Stewart with supporting terrorism because she read a message from Abdel-Rahman to the press, a message that supposedly called on radical Muslim supporters to take up arms against Egypt’s military dictatorship. I say “supposedly” because here is what the message stated, with my capitalization added for emphasis:

I [Omar Abdel-Rahman] am NOT withdrawing my support of the cease-fire; I am merely questioning it and I am urging you, who are on the ground there to discuss it and to include everyone in your discussions as we always have done.

The feds construed that message to mean the exact opposite of what it said: that Abdel-Rahman was in fact withdrawing his support of the cease-fire and calling on his supporters to use force against the Egyptian regime. When they convicted Stewart for supporting terrorism, the feds concluded that she had to have understood that the message meant precisely the opposite of what it stated when she read it to the press.

Yet everyone knows that the Declaration of Independence holds that people have the fundamental right to violently overthrow a tyrannical regime. And doesn’t the First Amendment guarantee the right to free expression, including exhorting people who are suffering under tyranny to exercise the fundamental rights enunciated in the Declaration of Independence?

As the Stewart case affirms, however, such is not the case when the tyrannical regime happens to be a longtime, loyal ally of the United States, an ally whose governmental system finds favor with officials of the U.S. national-security state and one that has long been a recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. military largess and cash. In that case, anyone who tries to violently overthrow the Egyptian military tyranny — or who exhorts others to do so, as Stewart was accused of doing — is going to be considered a “terrorist” by both the Egyptian and the U.S. regimes.

By the way, the 74-year-old Stewart was convicted of supporting terrorism and is now serving a 10-year sentence. Given that she has terminal cancer, there is little likelihood that she will serve her entire sentence.

We should also bear in mind that after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. officials selected Egypt’s military dictatorship to be one of its premier rendition-torture partners, precisely owing to its expertise in brutality and torture, and to its longtime loyalty to the United States.

In fact, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. military and the CIA adopted the same types of temporary emergency powers that the Egyptian military establishment had adopted after the Sadat assassination. Those included the power of the military to take people into custody as suspected terrorists, incarcerate them indefinitely, torture them, and even execute them after some sort of kangaroo tribunal, all without trial by jury and due process of law. It also shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the NSA would use the 9/11 attacks to extend its vast secret surveillance schemes over the American people and the people of the world. Surveillance over the citizenry has long been a hallmark of the U.S.-supported military dictatorship in Egypt, too.

One hopes that the Egyptian people have learned that democracy is not freedom. Democracy is simply a means by which people can peacefully change political officials. Freedom turns on external (i.e., constitutional) limits on the powers of governmental officials. As long as the Egyptian people are unwilling to question the fundamental paradigm under which they live — one in which the military and its omnipotent power form the foundation of the government — they will continue to suffer under tyranny and privation.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government, continuing to strongly believe in the Egyptian military dictatorship, continues to furnish it with U.S. taxpayer-funded weaponry and cash. American interventionists say that the United States has no effective choice. The coup is now a fait accompli, they say, and therefore the United States should stand with and support the Egyptian military government in the hope that it will begin a “transition” to democracy.

But there is another choice: to cease all foreign aid to this tyrannical regime and, in fact, to cease all foreign aid to every regime in the world. In fact, the best thing the American people could do is question the legitimacy of their own national-security state system, including its own vast military-intelligence establishment and its ardent support of brutal military dictatorships around the world.

This article was originally published in the November 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.