The Toxic Residue of Colonialism: Protecting Interests, Disregarding Rights

8 Feb

At least, overtly, there has been no talk from either Washington or Tel Aviv, the governments with most to lose as the Egyptian Revolution unfolds, of military intervention. Such restraint is more expressive of geopolitical sanity than postcolonial morality, but still it enables some measure of change to take place that unsettles, temporarily at least, the established political order. And yet, by means seen and unseen, external actors, especially the United States, with a distinct American blend of presumed imperial and paternal prerogatives are seeking to shape and limits the outcome of this extraordinary uprising  of the Egyptian people long held in subsidized bondage by the cruel and corrupt Mubarak dictatorship. What is the most defining feature of this American-led diplomacy-from-without is the seeming propriety of managing the turmoil so that the regime survives and the demonstrators return to what is perversely being called ‘normalcy.’ I find most astonishing that President Obama so openly claims the authority to instruct the Mubarak regime about how it is supposed to respond to the revolutionary uprising. I am not surprised at the effort, and would be surprised by its absence, but merely by the lack of any signs of imperial shyness in a world order that is supposedly built around the legitimacy of self-determination, national sovereignty, and democracy. And almost as surprising, is the failure of Mubarak to pretend in public that such interference in the guise of guidance is unacceptable, even if behind closed doors he listens submissively and acts accordingly. This geopolitical theater performance of master and servant suggests the persistence of the colonial mentality on the part of both colonizer and their national collaborators.

The only genuine post-colonial message would be one of deference: ‘stand aside, and applaud.’ The great transformative struggles of the last century involved a series of challenges throughout the global south to get rid of the European colonial empires. But political independence did not bring an end to the more indirect, but still insidious, methods of indirect control designed to protect economic and strategic interests. Such a dynamic meant reliance on political leaders that would sacrifice the wellbeing of their own people to serve the wishes of their unacknowledged former colonial masters, or their Western successors (the United States largely displacing France and the United Kingdom in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis of 1956). And these post-colonial servants of the West would be well-paid autocrats vested with virtual ownership rights in relation to the indigenous wealth of their country provided they remained receptive to foreign capital.  In this regard the Mubarak regime was (and remains) a poster child of post-colonial success. Western liberal eyes were long accustomed not to notice the internal patterns of abuse that were integral to this foreign policy success, and if occasionally noticed by some intrepid journalist, who would then be ignored or if necessary discredited as some sort of ‘leftist,’ and if this failed to deflect criticism than point out, usually with an accompanying condescending smile, that torture and the like came with Arab cultural territory, a reality that savvy outsiders adapted to without any discomfort. Actually, in this instance, such practices were quite convenient, Egypt serving as one of the interrogation sites for the insidious practice of ‘extreme rendition,’ by which the CIA transports terrorist suspects to accommodating foreign countries that willingly provide torture tools and facilities. Is this what is meant by ‘a human rights presidency’? The irony should not be overlooked that President Obama’s special envoy to the Mubarak government in the crisis was none other than Frank Wisner, an American with a most notable CIA lineage.

There should be clarity about the relationship between this kind of post-colonial state, serving American regional interests (oil, Israel, containment of Islam, avoidance of unwanted proliferation of nuclear weapons) in exchange for power, privilege, and wealth vested in a tiny corrupt national elite that sacrifices the wellbeing and dignity of the national populace in the process. Such a structure in the post-colonial era where national sovereignty and human rights infuse popular consciousness can only be maintained by erecting high barriers of fear reinforced by state terror that are designed to intimidate the populace from pursuing their goals and values. When these barriers are breached, as recently in Tunisia and Egypt, then the fragility of the oppressive regime glows in the dark. The dictator either runs for the nearest exit, as did Tunisia’s Ben Ali, or is dumped by his entourage and foreign friends so that the revolutionary challenge can be tricked into a premature accommodation. This latter process seems to represent the latest maneuvering of the palace elite in Cairo and their backers in the White House. Only time will tell whether the furies of counterrevolution will win the day, possibly by gunfire and whip, and possibly through mollifying gestures of reform that become unfulfillable promises in due course if the old regime is not totally reconstructed. Unfulfillable because corruption and gross disparities of wealth amid mass impoverishment can only be sustained, post-Tahrir Square, through the reimposition of oppressive rule. And if it is not oppressive, then it will not be able for very long to withstand demands for rights, for social and economic justice, and due course for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

Here is the crux of the ethical irony. Washington is respectful of the logic of self-determination so long as it converges with American grand strategy, and oblivious to the will of the people whenever its expression is seen as posing a threat to the neoliberal overlords of the globalized world economy or to strategic alignments that seem so dear to State Department or Pentagon planners. As a result there is an inevitable to-ing and fro-ing as the United States tries to bob and weave, celebrating the advent of democracy in Egypt, complaining about the violence and torture of the tottering regime, while doing what it can to manage the process from outside, which means preventing genuine change, much less a democratic transformation of the Egyptian state. Anointing the main CIA contact person and a Mubarak loyalist, Omar Suleiman, to preside over the transition process on behalf of Egypt seems a thinly disguised plan to throw Mubarak to the crowd while stabilizing the regime he presided over for more than 30 years.  I would expected more subtlety on the part of the geopolitical managers, but perhaps its absence is one more sign of imperial myopia that so often accompanies the decline of great empires.

It is notable that most protesters when asked by the media about their reasons for risking death and violence by being in the Egyptian streets respond with variations on the phrases “We want our rights” or “We want freedom and dignity.”  Of course, joblessness, poverty, food security, anger at the corruption, abuses, and dynastic pretensions of the Mubarak regime offer an understandable infrastructure of rage that undoubtedly fuels the revolutionary fires, but it is rights and dignity that seems to float on the surface of this awakened political consciousness. These ideas, to a large extent nurtured in the hothouse of Western consciousness and then innocently exported as a sign of good will, like ‘nationalism’ a century earlier, might originally be intended only as public relations moves, but over time such ideas gave rise to the dreams of the oppressed and victimized, and when the unexpected historical moment finally arrived, burst into flame. I remember talking a decade or so ago to Indonesian radicals in Jakarta who talked of the extent to which their initial involvement in anti-colonial struggle was stimulated to what they had learned from their Dutch colonial teachers about the rise of nationalism as a political ideology in the West.

Ideas may be disseminated with conservative intent, but if they later become appropriated on behalf of the struggles of oppressed peoples such ideas are reborn, and serve as the underpinnings of a new emancipatory politics. Nothing better illustrates this Hegelian journey than the idea of ‘self-determination,’ initially proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson after World War I. Wilson was a leader who sought above all to maintain order, believed in satisfying the aims of foreign investors and corporations,  and had no complaints about the European colonial empires. For him, self-determination was merely a convenient means to arrange the permanent breakup of the Ottoman Empire through the formation of a series of ethnic states. Little did Wilson imagine, despite warnings from his Secretary of State, that self-determination could serve other gods, and become a powerful mobilizing tool to overthrow colonial rule. In our time, human rights has followed a similarly winding path, sometimes being no more than a propaganda banner used to taunt enemies during the Cold War, sometimes as a convenient hedge against imperial identity, and sometimes as the foundations of revolutionary zeal as seems to be the case in the unfinished and ongoing struggles for rights and dignity taking place throughout the Arab world in a variety of forms.

It is impossible to predict how this future will play out. There are too many forces at play in circumstances of radical uncertainty. In Egypt, for instance, it is widely believed that the army holds most of the cards, and that where it finally decides to put its weight will determine the outcome. But is such conventional wisdom not just one more sign that hard power realism dominates our imagination, and that historical agency belongs in the end to the generals and their weapons, and not to the people in the streets. Of course, there is blurring of pressures as the army could be merely trying to go with the flow, siding with the winner once the outcome seems clear. Is there any reason to rely on the wisdom, judgment, and good will of armies, not just in Egypt whose commanders owe their positions to Mubarak, but throughout the world? In Iran the army did stand aside, and a revolutionary process transformed the Shah’s edifice of corrupt and brutal governance, the people momentarily prevailed, only to have their extraordinary nonviolent victory snatch away in a subsequent counterrevolutionary move that substituted theocracy for democracy.  There are few instances of revolutionary victory, and in those few instances, it is rarer still to carry forward the revolutionary mission without disruption. The challenge is to sustain the revolution in the face of almost inevitable counterrevolutionary projects, some launched by those who were part of the earlier movement unified against the old order but now determined to hijack the victory for its own ends. The complexities of the revolutionary moment require utmost vigilance on the part of those who view emancipation, justice, and democracy as their animating ideals because there will be enemies who seek to seize power at the expense of humane politics. One of the most impressive features of the Egyptian Revolution up to this point has been the extraordinary ethos of nonviolence and solidarity exhibited by the massed demonstrators even in the face of repeated bloody provocations of the baltagiyya dispatched by the regime. This ethos has so far refused to be diverted by these provocations, and we can only hope against hope that the provocations will cease, and that counterrevolutionary tides will subside, sensing either the futility of assaulting history or imploding at long last from the build up of corrosive effects from a long embrace of an encompassing illegitimacy.

20 Responses to “The Toxic Residue of Colonialism: Protecting Interests, Disregarding Rights”

  1. Heidi Morrison February 8, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    This captures the heart of what is going on. Thank you.

    I paused when I saw the word “pray” in the last line. I’ve heard Obama say we need to “pray for peace” in Egypt. Any clarifications what significance your article is attributing to the word “pray”?

    • Richard Falk February 8, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

      Heidi: Thanks for letting me know. I agree that ‘pray’ is not the right word, especially without more explanation, and I shall delete. I wanted to express hope beyond hope, and too facilely chose a familiar religious reflex.

  2. mark selden February 8, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

    So much wisdom distilled here.
    Mohammed Bamyeh has provided the best inside-the-movement perspective on what motivates many of the demonstrators who have maintained non-violent resistance in the face of heavy provocation.

    The Egyptian Revolution: First Impressions from the Field

    But how to get beyond this to understanding the composition of the semi-organized forces that fuel the demonstrators?

    • Richard Falk February 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm #

      Mark, I agree that Bamyeh has given us the best account of the existential reality of this brand of revolutionary politics, but to go further in understanding the organization and momentum and leadership will depend on further accounts from within. With greetings..

  3. Doaa Nabil Embabi February 9, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Professor Falk, I really appreciate your analysis of the game of interests involved. However, after feeling quite euphoric about the potential ouctome of the revolution, I am also worried about the uncertainty you have expressed concrning the results. There is extensive debate now among all Egyptians, those who are well-versed in politics and those who aren’t, around the possible impact the departure of Mubarak may have, the dissolution of the legislative bodies, and VP, and many other issues. I would like to know what would you invsage as a “safe” turn of events that would also help us head towards a calmer harbor.

  4. Simon Kulberg February 10, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    Interesting thoughts on the turmoil in Egypt. I would just add that while Mubarak`s regime is certainly an oppressive one, it has been perfectly fine for both Europe, Israel and the US for more than 30 years, and only now is this topic being adressed in various media sources.
    While I would be careful of dismissing the merits of the popular uprising, which are no doubt well-funded, it strikes me as suspicious that its progress matches very closely the strategy of tension, with its people-power coup and dignity outlined by Zbigniew Brezinsky in his book The Grand Chessboard. In his version the word dignity signifies a situation of micro-states, as seen in the former Yugoslavia, which will presumably be easier to push around for the imperial power. And he is after all Obamas foreign advisor so his views on world affairs should be taken seriously. He is also a board member of the World Crisis Group alongside among others El Baradei and George Soros, which should make more people than I highly suspicious of El Baradei`s role in the current situation.
    Furthermore, similar coups have been happening over large parts of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa for decades, likely to be and in some cases revealed to be guided by NATO.

    I would not hazard a guess as to whether the current unrest in Egypt and Tunisia is directly controlled or not, but I think the presence of El Baradei suggests that it is at the very least being taken advantage of; perhaps to create instability; perhaps to muster public support for further globalization. Whatever the case, Mubarak and the US government are certainly not the only ones we need to treat with suspicion in this matter.

  5. notexactlyhuman February 11, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    I think this article might make Chris Hedges blush, sir. Fantastic writing! I’ll be spreading this one about pronto!

    I’ve been in a trance watching Egypt for the past several days; on the edge of my seat fearing that the hammer was about to fall. Fearing that at any moment the wretches of war would turn their American made artillery on those brave, beautiful human beings populating the streets of Cairo and beyond. If the international media would have folded, sir, I firmly believe a massacre would have taken place.

    But a massacre was avoided, Mubarak and Sulieman are history with at least their Swiss bank accounts frozen, and the cleanup is in progress . . . in Egypt.

    Now, will other dictators begin an even rougher beat-down of dissenters, or seize this moment as their cue to turn hightail and run? I’ve read rumors of the Saudi royal family being urged to pack their riches and get out with their heads as far back as seven months ago. Seems they’re not nearly as proficient with censorship as China, and the ruse perpetrated on their manufactured, boxed in society is waning.

    If the Saudi family falls, and given the USG’s perpetual mistreatment of Venezuela and its unfavorable posture toward the now newly freed people Egypt, the prospects for the American economy become considerably gloomier. Perhaps now would be a good time for the USG to begin fessing up to poorly played diplomatic strategy and making rounds of apologies?

    Anyway, great piece, sir. Thank you. Looking forward to your next entry.

    • notexactlyhuman February 13, 2011 at 7:28 am #

      If I may share another great piece recently penned by another compassionate author, William A. Cook:

      One particular trend I can’t help but notice is that America’s best and brightest reside far from Washington DC.

    • Richard Falk February 14, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

      Thanks for this perceptive comment. It is an exciting historical moment filled with uncertainties that will
      either complete the process or erect obstacles. The next several months are crucial for Egypt, Tunisia, and
      the region. Thanks also for the encouragement!

      • notexactlyhuman February 14, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

        Mr. Cook, whom I linked to above, says that you contributed to “The Plight of the Palestinians”, which he edited. Small world.

  6. Dave Canada February 13, 2011 at 7:16 am #

    Another great piece. A situation painfully obvious for so many years and sadly avoidable.

    US is now the USSR of the new millenium as it can no longer afford to finance its interests with violence anywhere in the world. As with the collapse of the Soviet Union the world will be a better place because of this, unfortunately it will take generations for the damage done to be repaired. The capital flight that has decimated these economies and prevented them from having the basic needs such as schools and medical care will never be returned. Sadly they are starting from scratch as did other countries where the colonialists left and power was returned to indigenous people.

    Your reference to the world wars and what took place after I find compelling. Most of the occupied countries {or as Britain’s case the threat of such} seemed to see the irony remaining occupiers. This void that was filled by the US covertly and now should be viewed as the largest injustice of the modern world. The very fact that we defend so strongly our freedoms, in some cases to extreme levels{gun control?}, yet allow and fund the violent oppression else where is undoubtedly criminal.

    While we have always heard that we are lucky to be born in the west but living an affluent life as a blind puppet master is something we should be ashamed of.

  7. fahrrad elektromotor February 21, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Hierdie blog is great. Ek was nogal seker dat mense vind dit interessant, want ek is seker doen.

  8. sudhan March 3, 2011 at 5:04 am #

    In this masterly survey Richard Falk has shown the close relationship that existed between America and Egypt under the Mubarak regime. To understand the impact and direction of the present uprising of the Arab masses, the role of the hegemon will continue to be decisive; the neo-colonial masters will not allow any change that challenges their geopolitical and economic interests. Dictator Mubarak is off the political scene but his corrupt system of dictatorship is still intact. Well-entrenched local interests and America will ensure that no meaningful alternative leadership emerges that could mobilise the popular mood and expectations of the Egyptian masses towards democracy.

    Under the master-slave relationship, equality is an illusion. And in this relationship, any move towards a genuine democracy is a direct threat to the global American empire. Democracy and imperialism represent contradictory objectives. A democratic Egypt or any other Arab state will be perceived a threat to American and Zionist interests locally and globally.

    • Richard Falk March 3, 2011 at 7:31 am #

      Thanks, Sudhan, for your appreciative words and perceptive comment, which I fear will turn out to be an accurate assessment of the near term outcome in Egypt, and probably elsewhere in the region.

  9. Shawnda Garbarini March 5, 2011 at 6:20 am #

    i bookmarked this! looking for updates…

  10. Tom Soldan March 8, 2011 at 2:12 am #

    Hello Richard,

    I was wondering if i could get your opinion on something that has been bothering me for a while?
    I ask this because I am currently reading the book ‘The Terror Conspiracy: Deception, 9/11, and the Loss of Liberty’ by Jim Marrs where the topic of the events of 9/11 and the events that followed 9/11 such as “The war on Terror” and the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan have come up. Marrs refers to the notion/idea that 9/11 has played out in favor for the United States Government (or how it was deemed to benefit the USA) in relation to its quest oil and its foreign policy.
    This suggestion brought to mind the events from 1950’s onwards in Korea, Vietnam and many of the countries in South America where coups and revolutions played out and have now been shown with evidence to have had US backing.
    And so i ask…
    Is the notion that the United States is behind the recent revolutionary movement in middle east viable? That it is all a set up, a plan.
    I have to ask this because of the revolutions and coups backed by the USA in recent history. Surely the idea of all these oil rich nations being ruled by ‘ Tyrants’ and its people now wanting nothing more than the freedom of democracy can not be a coincidence in so many nations.
    The media’s coverage of these revolts and revolutions portrayed (seemingly to me at least) as a ‘romantic’, honest and just struggle for freedom all tend to be completely one sided with no explanation of the counter perspective of the nations situation.
    The push for a no flight zone above Libya although is in one sense to stop the violence and bombings, however i feel that it could also be possibly to preserve the infrastructure of the ports and oil fields owned by the ‘rebels’ which the US’ (if there was a transition of power or a military intervention) could eventually use for the transportation of their new oil suppliers.

    I would appreciate it if I could have your views on my perspective.
    I understand that it is simply my ‘thought’ backing my ideas yet i cannot feel that it could be possible. Any articles or journals appreciated.



  11. cialis March 8, 2011 at 5:46 am #

    Awesome share! Thank you very much


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