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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine.
It's time for Obama to say Kefaya!
He took the White House armed with hope and promise of change, but has Obama already been beaten down by Washington?
Last Modified: 25 Jan 2011 18:55
Obama ended last year's State of the Union address by vowing not to quit in the face of challenges [GALLO/GETTY] 

Please read the second update (2/2/11) at the end of this article.

The democracy protests that swept Tunisian President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali from power are going viral, but sadly President Obama and other Western leaders seem immune.

Indeed, it is quite likely that the president and his colleagues in Europe are as frightened of the potential explosion of people power across the Middle East and North Africa as are the sclerotic autocratic leaders of the region against whom the protests are being directed.

The question is, why?

Why would Obama, who worked so hard to reach out to the Muslim world with his famous 2009 speech in Cairo, be standing back quietly while young people across the region finally take their fate into their own hands and push for real democracy?

Shouldn't the president of the United States be out in front, supporting non-violent democratic change across the world's most volatile region?

The known knowns

The answer, as is increasingly the case, comes from the ever-growing cache of leaked documents from WikiLeaks and other sources that are providing inside evidence of America's true interests and intentions in the Middle East.

Specifically, as The Palestine Papers revealed by al Jazeera demonstrate (and which I will analyse in more detail in my next column), the US under Obama-as much if not more so than under his predecessor-demands that leaders remain in place who will do its bidding even if it means subverting the will of the citizens of a country and maintaining a system that manifestly harms their interests.

Thus the administration at least twice threatened to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority if elections were called and anyone other than Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad remained in power.

And it actively works with Israeli and Palestinian security services to deny the democratic will of Palestinians.

What is clear, then, is that Obama not only prefers the status quo, but the United States will actively subvert democracy in order to ensure that governments that will follow its policies remain in power.

If the administration has taken such an anti-democratic line with Palestinians, imagine how it must feel about the protests that have just exploded in Egypt, where substantive democratic change and a truly representative government would no doubt be far less amenable to US policies and strategic objectives regarding Israel and the war on terror than is Mubarak's.

Such a position is as tragic as it is stupid, as the president has been offered an unprecedented and until a few weeks ago unimaginable opportunity to back radical but peaceful change that is not stained by Western intervention in a region that everyone believes must undergo such change in order to prevent it becoming even more of a hotbed for terrorism and anti-Western sentiments.

There is no one in the intelligence community who does not know this, and as the numerous diplomatic cables brought to light by WikiLeaks have revealed, our diplomats across the region are equally aware of the corrosive effects of rampant government corruption, violence and authoritarianism on their societies as well.

The tyranny of the status quo

So the question really needs to be asked - whose interests is President Obama serving by remaining silently supportive of the status quo when he could, and by any measure, should, be lending vocal, public support for the peoples of the Arab world as they finally rise up against their leaders?

Is it companies like Lockheed Martin, the massive defence contractor whose tentacles reach deep into every part of the fabric of governance (as revealed by William Hartung's powerful new book, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military Industrial Complex)?

Is it the superbanks who continue to rake in profits from an economy that is barely sputtering along, and who have joined with the military industrial complex's two principal axes-the arms and the oil industries-to form an impregnable triangle of corrupt economic and political power?

It's hard to think of any other candidates at the present time.

Tonight in his State of the Union address the world will learn whether President Obama has any of his once celebrated vision, courage and audacity left in him, or if he's been so thoroughly beaten down by the forces that actually run Washington that he can barely muster support for the young people around the Arab world who are increasingly saying "Kefaya", Enough!, to their governments, and the larger global system that has kept them in power for so long.

It's probably too much to ask the President to say "Kefaya" to the forces that have so circumscribed his once progressive vision.

But it would be nice if he could at least offer a few words of support to the people of Tunisia, and now Egypt and other countries across the region, who are actually following the example of the United States and fighting for their freedom.

Update: In his State of the Union speech, the President did not mention Egypt at all. He did mention Tunisia, declaring "we saw the desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.

"That is a nice sentiment, but it's both a "day late," since the revolution has already succeeded, and glaring in its omission of Egypt, whose capitol was burning as he made the speech. Indeed, earlier in the day Secretary of State Clinton declared, "Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." If this is Obama's official policy, then the intifada in Egypt risks becoming  a revolution against the US as much as against Mubarak, with far reaching consequences across the Muslim world.

Update II (2/2/11): As I write this, the curfew in in Cairo has prevented my flight from arriving there. For the last week President Obama has apparently worked with the leadership of Egypt to formulate a plant to ease Mubarak out while retaining the existing political-military-security structure in place. It must be remembered here that the tanks in Egypt's streets are American made Abrams; the planes that buzzed Tahrir square are paid for by American tax dollars. The newly appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, isn't just the former intelligence chief, but is someone who personally supervised the detention and torture of victims of CIA-rendition. He is, as much as Mubarak, "America's man."

The evidence strongly points to the attacks on protesters as being regime-authorised and organised-- Unorganised mobs don't truck in camels and horses from the pyramids or arrive by the busload. The frightening part is, it is highly unlikely that US intelligence officials weren't aware of Mubarak's and Soliman's plans to foment chaos and violence, order the army to stand by while it unfolded, and then have them call for protesters to leave, thus providing a pretext for further violence against protesters. And yet Obama has continued to resist endorsing the protesters' call for his immediate resignation.

These are the wages of Obama's unwillingness to take a direct, early, public and forceful stand in full support of the pro-democracy movement. His wavering and sending back-door diplomats only gives the impression that the US is either working with the regime to help quash the protests and enable Mubarak to stay on long enough to ensure a new government continues to follow American policies, or at the very least has done nothing to stop this process from unfolding. 

But Egyptians will remember this, and whether or not Mubarak succeeds in holding on to power till the fall, it is likely that the Egyptian people will hold President Obama and the United States at least partly responsible for the bloodshed that is threatening to destroy their revolution.


Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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