The toxic residue of colonialism

The overt age of grand empires gave way to the age of covert imperial hegemony, but now the edifice is crumbling.

Troops link hands in Tahrir
As traffic returns to Tahrir Square, Egyptians are left to wonder if they’ve been sold out – like so many revolutionaries before them – and if the demands of the revolution will survive the perils of governance [GALLO/GETTY]

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 limit the outcome of this extraordinary uprising of the Egyptian people, long held in subsidised 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 claimed the authority to instruct the Mubarak regime about how it was 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 sign 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 theatre performance of master and servant suggests the persistence of the colonial mentality on the part of both coloniser – 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 past 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 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 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, they would 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 US 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, 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 Zine El Abidine 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 seemed to represent the one of latest maneuverings 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 cause 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 the US grand strategy, and is oblivious to the will of the people whenever its expression is seen as posing a threat to the neoliberal overlords of the globalised 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 and 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 stabilising the regime he presided over for more than 30 years.  

I would have 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, responded with variations on the phrases: “We want our rights” or: “We want freedom and dignity”. Of course, joblessness, poverty, food security – and 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 seem 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 move, but over time, such ideas gave rise to the dreams of the oppressed and victimised – 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 by 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 mobilising 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 foundation 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 a blurring of pressures as the army could have been merely trying to go with the flow, siding with the winner once the outcome was 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 snatched away in a subsequent counter-revolutionary 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 counter-revolutionary 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 refused to be diverted by these provocations, and we can only hope against hope that the provocations will cease, and that counter-revolutionary 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.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. 

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