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Egypt's Criminal Status Quo: Street Says "Show Me the Money"

Egypt's Criminal Status Quo: Street Says "Show Me the Money"Revolutions are heady affairs–walls of workers surging through Moscow to the tune of the Internationale, a single lonely protestor facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square, and now, thousands of Egyptian workers and students daring to challenge three decades of despotic rule under Hosni Mubarak, a US ally and the only man in the Middle East who has reached out to Israel in reliable ways.

Supporters of the global proletariat hail the ‘unstoppability’ of the protests in Cairo, where 90,000 of the nation’s 8 million citizens continue to shout for Mubarak’s ouster and, the media tells us, the establishment of a government sensitive to the ‘rights of the people’–freedom of speech and assembly, an independent judiciary, economic opportunity, and open and free elections.

So far, so good.

But what’s missing in this rush to an ideal society are the lessons of history, especially the stories that end with with descriptions of guillotines, icepicks, death squads, gulags, and mass graves.

Changing governments doesn’t always mean improving governance.

Honor Among Thieves?

The chaos in Egypt may in fact signal opportunity, but the big question is whether the Egyptian people (or their fellow protestors in neighboring countries) will end up with ‘reform’ or merely a different gang of corrupt officials who’ve agreed, under pressure, to cut more (or different) people in on ‘the take.’

The irony in this latest tale of revolution is that, during Mubarak’s administration, the crime rate in Egypt has been among the lowest in the world– achieved, we admit, via a blatant disregard for fair judicial process and  basic human rights, but for millions of free-spending tourists, expats, and well-to-do nationals, a comfort all the same.

In Egypt, might has made right–as it continues to do in so many parts of the Arab world.

For the ordinary guy on the streets of Cairo, however, justice has too often been a terrible swift sword, and commentators who cite the propensity of authorities to humiliate, degrade and abuse the common folk in Egypt and across the Middle East tell us nothing new.

It is understandable that these same downtrodden masses, now equipped with alternate visions via the internet and other social media, are determined to breathe free.

The situation, however, defies a simple “good guy-bad guy” solution.

Despite Egypt’s low crime rate, official corruption has always been in play: the nation’s government, its “well-paid” military, and the bureaucratic/corporate satellites that orbit Egypt’s center of power are the beneficiaries of scams, schemes, and strategies that would make Bernie Madoff blush.

Whether the kind of cooperative relationship the US maintains with Egypt can be  interpreted as tacit approval of Mubarak’s repressive domestic policies is a frequently asked question. The US gives Egypt 1.3 billion per year in military aid, quid pro quo for US access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace, and for Egypt’s promise to maintain a peaceful relationship with Israel, sufficient distance from Iran, and security in Gaza.

Over the past 36 years, the US has given Egypt 28 billion via USAID, money ostensibly dedicated to economic development and the elimination of corruption–28 billion for reform that never happened.

US Proposes–Egypt Disposes

The problem hasn’t gone unnoticed. For years, both Republican and Democratic Administrations have been counseling Mubarak’s government about the need for social and economic reform and the dangers of ignoring the voices of millions struggling to survive on less than $2 per day.

The motivation behind this advice has not been wholly altruistic or humanitarian: US interest in the region is engendered by hard political realities, and a regime, even a corrupt one, en route to capsizing a vital strategic alliance with the US via its own obdurate, willful blindness to the social and economic needs of its citizens invites repeated lectures about wisdom of ‘trickle-down economics’ and the benefits gained when governments allow the angry and aggrieved ‘space’ to vent.

Mubarak didn’t listen, and the US didn’t press.

And so now what we have is the old apple and barrel dilemma, the hard place that sends so many reformists and revolutionaries scrambling back to the rock: for the US,  for the Egyptian military, and for the robber barons inside and outside of Mubarak’s government, the best and most practical solution (short of keeping the President in power) is to jettison the ‘single rotten apple,’ so to speak,  and leave the barrel alone.

Power, jobs, income (legal, illegal, and extra-legal), influence, and US foreign policy are all on the line. Getting rid of the President is one  thing; deep-sixing the entire ruling (military) apparatus is another.

The Mubarak administration, of late referred to as the Mubarak ‘regime,’ operates as both a political hierarchy and an opportunity for ‘insiders’  to pad their incomes through all the usual forms of official corruption: bribes, kick-backs, pay-offs, protection rackets, nepotism, fraud, and preferential treatment from any and all government agencies.

The military and other favored stakeholders enjoy benefits that will disappear quickly if the current political machine–even without Mubarak–or a US-friendly government does not survive. The hope, naturally, is to replace Mubarak with a successor (Vice President Suleiman?) who mirrors his predecessor’s foreign policy leanings but also understands the importance of giving more bread/less cake to the Egyptians in the street.

The dilemma, of course, is that you don’t have to be protesting in Tahrir Square to know that the contents of this particular barrel are as far past their ‘use by’ date as the big apple on top.

For the US, this is disconcerting, but not a deal-breaker: a US alliance with Egypt, no matter how much its leaders misuse their power to line their own pockets, is first and foremost about our own security and clout in a dangerous world.Yes,Virginia, we do business with despots.

The last thing either the US or the beneficiaries of the status quo in Egypt wants, albeit for different reasons, is a hasty replacement of the devil we know with one we don’t, a coup that is as likely to fail at rooting out systemic corruption as it is to succeed at installing a new assembly of rascals (probably Islamic and anti-American) at the top.

Islamic Institutions Step In

While USAID  money funneled to the Mubarak government has consistently gone missing, it has, more often than not, been Islamic charities across Egypt that have stepped in to fill the gap, providing aid and opportunities to poor communities. Simple logic tells us the US is right to anticipate an Islamic usurpation, in the form of a coup or, even more problematically, as the result of ‘free and fair elections’ in September–think Palestine and Hamas.

Will a Islamic government be ‘cleaner’ that the current administration? Look to Afghanistan and Pakistan for an answer. To the authoritarian antics of the Taliban and al Qaeda’s respect for human rights.

Egypt ain’t Germany, and the wall separating the haves from the have-nots in the  Middle East will not be torn down overnight. The kind of thinking that rationalizes corruption in Egypt as well as the grinding poverty and social injustice we see  across the Arab world, is embedded in the culture–fed by notions that are comfortable with class and gender distinctions, and clear as to which populations, sects, and factions ‘deserve’ (for a long and ancient list of reasons) wildly disparate portions of the economic pie.

Corruption Flows Downhill

As a result, the difficult task of stamping out corruption in the Middle East isn’t just about getting the leadership right. In Egypt and neighboring countries, there’s a matter-of-factness about corruption that may not be wholly  incompatible with global capitalism, but which is clearly antithetical to democracy and its foundation in the rule of law.

It could make you wonder, in fact, which the average Egyptian wants more: economic justice over the long term, or merely a ‘more equitable opportunity’ to grab bigger handfuls of whatever booty happen to be lying on the table right now?

Wanting justice is different from just wanting to get in on the action.

We’ve seen corruption in Egypt trickle down steadily during the past two weeks, at airports where low-level authorities have demanded bribes from US citizens and other Westerners trying to catch a flight out of Cairo. Cabdrivers and checkpoint guards have also had their hands extended, and it’s a sure bet that a lot of other Egyptians, suddenly finding themselves of service to thousands of  foreigners in flight, have cashed in on the panic.

The bribe, the payoff, the “little bite” (what the Mexicans call the ‘Mordita’) is an fact of everyday life across the Middle East, just as it is in Latin America and in poor countries everywhere.

In places where people know that their government is stealing, and stealing big, there are few moral prohibitions to keep the victims of official corruption from following suit, opportunistically and on a smaller scale. We see it in Mexico, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eastern Europe, and across Africa–in developing countries where the government, military, police, multinational corporations, and criminal cartels grow richer even as the people become more impoverished.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t leaders and intellectuals in Eqypt who envision and aspire to the installation of a corruption-free democracy, but even they admit that it will take time for the thinking and the political patterns we see now in the Middle East to change.

None of this, of course, will affect the Twitterati, the thousands of people  frenetically texting  “Freedom Now” to like-minded idealists across the world, or prevent the ongoing Facebook analyses that predict the victory, finally, of ‘the masses’ over ‘the man.’

But the bottom line remains: you cannot introduce democracy to a country lacking the prerequisite framework–a real constitution, strong civil institutions, and an independent judiciary. Don’t expect to see this in Cairo anytime soon, and certainly not before the upcoming elections in the fall–when theater (and ‘pro-democracy’ banners) will once more trump reality and grab the big media lens. Remember this when the time comes–it’s important to know who’s really waving which flags.

Right now, Egypt is overflowing with intelligence types from every corner of the world–actors whose big bosses all have big dogs in this fight. Their job, I’m betting, isn’t as much about bringing reform to Egypt as it is about preserving or grabbing (in the case of regime change) critical strategic advantages in this part of the world. Both Washington and Egypt are also worried about destabilization of Egypt’s monetary system and capital flight.

The Egyptian military, which holds the real balance of power, is almost certainly fielding huge numbers of offers and counter-offers from the strangest of political bedfellows, while the US, not blind to the writing on the wall, counsels slow, deliberate moves and orderly transition.

Chaos, violence and haste favors the opposition–hence the inevitable finger pointing at “foreign agitators.’ Time allows the US the opportunity it needs to reposition and realign with its interests intact. Right now, on February 7, Mubarak’s ability to hang on suggests that the military remains wedded to a US-Egypt partnership.

The Egyptian Street

That leaves the “Egyptian street’ (as it is now being called): what does it really want or expect?

It seems likely that the Tunesian fruit-seller who set fire to himself to protest police brutality represents the passions of millions of down-trodden workers across the Middle East who simply want a fair deal–the economic basics minus ongoing intimidation and insecurity. There are also ideologues (including those ‘foreign agitators’) in the crowd–players intent on seizing the  moment, getting the  US out and the Muslim Brotherhood in. And of course, there are intelligence agents, pros whose job it is to  direct the herd and harness its energy in ways that benefit would-be powers behind the throne.

It’s safe to assume the middle-class, who don’t generally rock the boat, wants stability, not extremism, and, on top of that, maybe a chance to move up and become bigger players themselves. They work hard, they save, they wait.

And then there are the ‘insiders,’ the wheeler-dealers, the fat cats who want what everyone on top wants–more.

And that ‘more’ is what grows a criminal empire and what topples it. Then the cycle begins again.

But I could be wrong.

My favorite film about revolution, in this case the Russian Revolution, is “Reds,” produced by and starring Warren Beatty as Jack Reed (Ten Days that Shook the World), Diane Keaton as his companion, Louise Bryant, and Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill, the odd-artist out in this tale.

My favorite scene from “Reds” is the one in which Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) visits O’Neill in his studio in Manhattan to talk about Reed (out-of-pocket, as usual) and the couple’s uplifting experiences in Bolshevik Russia.

“Ah, yes,” says O’Neill, “Russia has been good for you and Jack, hasn’t it? It’s given you something to talk about, the dream, and Jack an opportunity to hustle the American worker, whose only dream is to become rich enough not to work.”

I’m thinking that as stellar as straight-up reform in Egypt might be, actors close to the scene, including Egypt’s new cabinet, also understand that ‘reform’ or any kind of change which does not quickly reroute the flow of cash (not all of it, but enough) into the streets may not be sufficient to convince millions of working-class Egyptians that their dream is finally coming true.

POSTSCRIPT (Feb 7) This morning the Mubarak/Suleiman government and its new cabinet voted a 15% pay increase to workers…..



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.