On February 8, 2011 Secretary of Defense and ex-CIA chief Robert Gates urged “ governments in the region” to “take measures to begin moving in a positive direction toward addressing the political and economic grievances of their people." The mantra has droned out of Obama administration corridors for weeks including Hilary Clinton’s now infamous and indeed racist admonition of Arab regimes to reform in early January. In Doha, the Secretary of State criticizes the “corrupt institutions and stagnant political order,” which are “sinking into the sands.” For anyone vaguely familiar with the modern history of the Middle East, the rhetoric of reform espoused by Gates, Clinton and Obama among others smacks of a grotesque hybrid of arrogant superpower paternalism and selective memory.
If the rhetoric that enabled the “war on terror” and Mubarak’s “security state” has taught us anything, it has taught us that its idioms are regularized by, translated and disseminated to the mainstream by a slew of media voices, opportunist academics, pundits and ideological hacks. The success of imperial US policies in the Middle East relies less on fringe voices such as Glenn Beck and Pamela Geller than on mainstream “pragmatists,” who speak a common language with policy makers, politicians and economic elites. While the phosphoric, incendiary light of Bernard Lewis burned out with Bush’s Freedom Agenda, Fareed Zakaria has successfully transformed himself in recent years into cable television’s most visible pragmatist voice, serving to mainstream the analysis of Belt-Line foreign policy circles, business interests, and White House and State Department officials.
Since the 1990s, as well as being editor of Newsweek International and now Time, he has been a member of prominent policy organizations including the Trilateral Committee, the Aspen Strategy Group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and, most prominently, a leading member of the New America Foundation and the Council for Foreign Relations. Indeed, Zakaria has worked to regain journalistic integrity after fervently arguing for the invasion of Iraq and maintaining close relations with so many of Bush’s war cabinet. His last book, The Post-American World re-tooled him to speak to the shift in policy under the Obama administration and to a mainstream public weary of Bush and Cheney’s bellicose war drums. Consistent with his mission to reposition himself as an influential policy wonk of the Middle East, but this time without relying on the démodé neocon coterie, Zakaria wrote Time’s cover story “How Democracy Can Work in the Middle East.” The article may likely become a centerpiece for “understanding” and digesting the events in the Arab world but also as an ideological primer for recovering political capital and economic control in a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Salvaging Neoliberal Ideology: Expectations Rise Not People
The “democracy” and “freedom deficit” tropes have been Zakaria’s livelihood since the 1990s. The revolution in Egypt (and Tunisia) presents him not only with a “Why They Hate Us” opportunity, but also a redemptive moment for him and his re-fashioned pragmatist discourse. Indeed, he has worked hard to recuperate and integrate his “realism” into Obama’s (and concomitantly Joseph Nye’s and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s) pragmatist strategy of “smart power.”
Time’s cover story revisits many of the operative assertions found in the author’s Future of Freedom but spins them into narrative appropriate for Post-American World Obamaism. Zakaria’s analysis vacillates between invoking dystopic tropes of Egypt’s dictatorship, its moribund civil society and the threat of a Muslim republic and a “hope” filled celebration of economic progress brought on by neoliberal “reforms.” On the one hand, he repeats his now putative assertion (taken from a controversial and now discredited UNDP report) that “over the past three decades Egypt became a place where few serious books were written, universities were monitored, newspapers carefully followed a bland party line and people watched what they said in public.” On the other hand, over same decade of intellectual and civil stagnation, “Egypt has been reforming its economy.” Boasting 7% of growth per year, “ long isolated behind protectionist walls, with media in the regime`s grip, Egypt also became more connected with the world through the new communication technologies.”
Zakaria wilfully ignores major indices that testify to the decline in real wages and standards of living in Egypt since neoliberal reforms were introduced in the 1990s. When he states that “Egypt found that in order to get loans from the IMF and the World Bank, it had to dismantle the most inefficient parts of its somewhat socialist economic system,” he overlooks the glaring facts that such loans were accompanied by a crippling debt, increased unemployment, and a decrease in GDP that contrasted, and indeed underwrote the country’s private “economic growth.”
Zakaria casts the Egyptian insurrection as a product of a “revolution of rising expectations” generated by economic prosperity. Rather than acknowledge increased state surveillance, crack down on dissent, suppression of the judiciary, arrests of journalists, activists and bloggers, prosecution of opposition leaders (“Islamist” and secular liberals alike), he interprets Egypt’s economic liberalization as expanding and stimulating Egypt’s middle class. As a result, “growth stirs things up, upsets the settled, stagnant order and produces inequalities and uncertainties.” The Egyptian revolution is robbed of its human capacity, potential and origins. In its place, promise of liberty are made by free flows of capital that have allegedly enfranchised the aspirant, discontented bourgeoisie.
Zakaria’s omissions of the economic and political realities of Egypt’s economic growth are not coincidental. Nor are they a result of ignorance or even the author’s rather sloppy if not dilettantish and inaccurate understanding of Egyptian history. The narrative that Zakaria provides is an explicit and much needed ideological primer that gives a language to future US policy in Egypt. It is intended to rehabilitate the failed and discredited political analysis of the Bush era into a reconstituted mission statement for the post-Mubarak Obama administration. Such a primer is needed not only for the White House but also for the American people who were so taken by the President’s largesse towards Muslims in his famous Cairo speech.
In other words, Zakaria’s piece in Time is a critical intervention to save neo-liberal discourses and US foreign policy, which is currently haemorrhaging in Cairo’s streets. The growing pains of an open economy cause expectations but also discontent and “inequalities,” not corporate bribes from Western multinationals or US support of a repressive dictator. Credit for the mass actions and collectivism that the world has witnessed cannot be assigned to the organization, determination and fortitude of the demonstrators in the streets who come from all strata of life, across class, gender and confessional boundaries. Rather, “rising expectations,” “economic growth,” and the Egyptian’s desire to spend more time in shopping malls must be credited in order to justify past policies and, more important, to establish the ideological platform for subsequent US economic and foreign policy in Egypt.
Democracy Can Work (When Democracy Means Economic Liberalization)
To give credit where due, Zakaria has held tightly to the often contradictory precepts espoused in Future of Freedom and seamlessly re-tweaked them for the Obama era in Post-American World. While not original, the books are key ideological tracts that give voice to the pragmatics of 21st century American economic and political power. His show GPS on CNN is the venue whereby neoliberal ideology is continually reworked into the challenges facing US economic and political hegemony, packaged into bite sized morsels for the mainstream viewer.
On January 23, Zakaria claimed on his show that the “sprouts of democracy” in the Arab world are a result of Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” His need to give Bush’s willingness to put “moral might” of the US behind “the great cause of Arab reform” its “due” provides an analytical bridge that connects Bush’s and Obama’s identical policies toward Egypt. In this respect, Zakaria’s selective amnesia regarding the Bush’s regime’s tract record in the Middle East disowns and disavows any responsibility of the Western governments from the violence and corruption of Egypt’s political and economic oligarchy.
Moreover, Zakaria’s article starts with the putative Islamophobic stereotype that “Egypt has long been seen as a society deferential to authority, with a powerful state and a bureaucracy that might have been backward and corrupt but nonetheless kept the peace.” That the statement is chock full of Islamophobic and Orientalists suppositions is relevant only in as much as these assumptions provide an ideological structure that binds, justifies and exonerates Bush’s and Obama’s steadfast support of Mubarak. Zakaria, in fact, starts his article with an imagined account of Obama’s envoy Frank Wisner pleading with Mubarak to politically reform, only to be rebutted by the dictator with the threat of Egypt becoming an Islamic republic. In effect, this account places the onus of a failed state on Mubarak’s shoulders because he failed to take US suggestions on how to properly engineer political reforms and thereby manage the discontent and “rising expectations” of new aspirant classes.
Of course, the binary between economic liberalization and political reform in the Muslim world—between freeing of markets and freeing from Arab authoritarianism-- is itself an ideologically laden, Islamophobic trope. It recalls Zakaria’s own post-2001 diagnosis of modernity in the Arab world, stating that it has only adopted the external trappings of modernity (i.e., consumerism) and failed to internalize the “real” esprit of modernity including civil liberties, women’s rights and open market of thought (i.e., political reform). The Islamophobic tropes—tropes quite particular to the age of globalized neoliberalism— must be perennially reactivated and disseminated if the Obama administration is to “guide” a transition government to a new democratic era. The racist binary underlies Zakaria’s pseudointellectual and pedantic desire to now “test the theory…Will a more democratic Egypt become a radical Islamic state? Can democracy work in the Arab world?”
The desire to test the theory of whether Arabs are, in effect, capable of self-governance reaches beyond paternalism or a selective forgetting of the anti-colonial struggles of so many Arab countries and the subsequent establishment of independent, and indeed progressive nation-states. Zakaria’s analytical line, rather, is intended to shore up those very binaries that are being controverted in the “Arab street” today. In other words, his analysis serves to interpolate discredited paradigms and policies for his post-American world, a post-Bush world governed by Obama’s smart power strategy.
Not coincidentally, then, Zakaria’s tenor in “How Democracy Can Work in the Middle East” shifts from panegyrics of Bush’s bellicose “forward strategy” to an endorsement of Obama’s more measured pull “back from an overbearing, aggressive American role” in Egypt that allowed “Egyptian liberals and democrats to find their voices.” Yet, while Zakaria “remains convinced that fears of an Egyptian theocracy are vastly overblown,” he activates the fear of fundamentalism inherent to US public discourse on the Middle East. Harking back, again, to Future of Freedom, Zakaria expects that Egyptians will erect an “illiberal democracy,” reminiscent of post-Soviet Union Russia. The illiberal democracy is the boogeyman he constructs in Future of Freedom, where Arabs may be democratically empowered to run their own lives but, in the process, potentially revert to what seems like their primal cultural and religious impulses (restricting women’s rights, civil liberties, and dare we say the unhampered flow of capital).
The irony is, of course, that the United States is doing its best to work with what it sees as salvageable members of the NDP and military like Hussam al-Badrawi, Omar Suleiman and Ahmad Shafiq, to engineer a “transition” to “liberal democracy.” Following his exhortations of the “guided democracies” of Turkey and Indonesia in Future of Freedom, an enlightened military will help establish a liberal democracy where new middle class, entrepreneurs and “business elites” have a healthy stake. Of course, abrogating Emergency Law or instituting constitutional amendments are absent from Zakaria’s discussion of political reform. Likewise, while Zakaria’s moral Bush had the wisdom to dismantle the Ba’thist regime, the notion of dismantling an equally discredited and far more oligarchic NDP is also omitted from his or anyone else’s discussion in the mainstream press. This is not an oversight but a measured omission because the goal of the United States should be to protect the economic reforms and liberalization of the past two decades not to mention normalization with Israel.
Zakaria rehabilitates the discourses of Bush’s Freedom Agenda because it pointedly anticipates the installation of a new military-business alliance that can maintain Egypt on its political and economic team. That is, if Mubarak failed to match enfranchising the new middle class with a modicum of political power as to placate them in their pursuit of commodities and capital, “The recent moves toward a more open and market-based economy have also created a new business elite that has some stake in a liberal, constitutional order.” Zakaria’s ideological tract sets the placemat for these business elite at the transitional table.
In the tradition of “Why They Hate Us,” Zakaria uses yet one more rhetorical question to beg the answer. “Can democracy work in the Arab world?” The excited answer that Zakaria is setting up is: Yes, democracy can work in the Arab world but only with the guidance of United States’ paternalism and multinational corporate finance. Or perhaps, more accurately, Egypt can maintain a liberal democracy in the “post-American world” if its new covetous middle class, benevolent military and enlightened “business elites” can establish a government whose interests dovetails with that of the United States, European Union, World Trade Organization, IMF, World Bank and, of course, Israel.
Arab Volcanoes and Perfect Storms
“It has been fascinating to watch as the legendary "Arab street" finally erupted spontaneously and freely,” Zakaria states. The language, fascination, and indeed anxiety has been echoed through US media and political circles. Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon correspondent, spoke of “tsunami of protests across the Middle East.” Most infamously, Hillary Clinton warned of a “perfect storm” in the making. Her voice resonates with Zakaria’s selective memory and paternalism, saying the “transition can backslide into just another authoritarian regime. Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the political process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception, and rigged elections to stay in power, or to advance an agenda of extremism.”
The mass “eruption” in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan (Zakaria’s liberal Arab darling) is precisely that: an eruption. The eruption did not, however, originate in the unrealized desires spurned on by “rising expectations.” The eruption arose from long- standing sentiment, action and organizing. It bubbled up from many years of smaller demonstrations and confrontations with security forces, from innumerable mass actions and interventions by labor unions, youth groups, women’s organizations and environmentalists not to mention the Muslim Brotherhood. The eruption is a consequence of articles, books, analysis, films and public art. To accept the eruptions as spontaneous and as an aberration is to accept the Islamophobic discourses that both Washington and the Mubarak regime deployed to maintain their repressive rule over Egypt.
These eruptions are not small fissures in the street that allowed steam to finally blow off. Like in Tunisia, Midan al-Tahrir along with Corniche of Alexandria and the streets and squares of Suez, al-Mahallah al-Kubra, and elsewhere are volcanoes that spew molten truth to melt Zakaria’s repeated denials of modernity and a vibrant civil society in the Arab world. These volcanoes are a result of the tectonic shifts and pressures pushing upward since the end of the 1990s and early 2000s from the labor actions in al-Mahallah to the mass actions for free and fair elections by al-Kifayah. Pressures from the Egyptian street arose from a history of the demonstrations of the Egyptian judiciary to the environmental demonstrations against E-Agrium in Damietta to conferences on American imperialism, Zionism and neoliberalism.
The language of eruptions, perfect storms, and earthquakes, in the language of the newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, may not be coincidental. While Zakaria rejects that “an Iranian-style theocracy” is likely in Egypt and reprimands Israelis for conflating all forms of Muslim conservatism and jihad, Zakaria echoes of Gates, Clinton and Obama, that the seismic shock waves of self-empowering Muslims will create a perfect storm of illiberal democracies. Yet, this seems a pretense to the urgency of reform. Zakaria speaks to the necessity of establishing the right sort of post-Mubarak government just as Clinton and Gates speak of ushering in continued economic and political reform. The tenor seems to be an attempt to keep focus less on the historic events underway or even a means to contain the revolutionary potential of “people power” in the Middle East than to be preparing to push yet another round of liberalization onto Egypt after it is stabilized.
That is, the talk of reform inspired by the “eruption” and illiberal democracy resonates with the political and economic problems in post-Soviet Russia as highlighted by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine.
The language of catastrophe and natural disaster betrays the intent of Washington and its public intellectuals to further push an Obamized Chicago School down the throats of a new self-empowered Egyptian electorate regardless of who leads the country. Indeed, Clinton’s Doha speech effectively calls on Arab leadership and Washington to engineer “firmer ground if [the new and dynamic Middle East] is to take root and grow everywhere.” One can posit Gate’s and Clinton’s emphasis on reform as less advice to besieged oligarchs as not-so-subliminal messages to the new awakened, erupting masses (“the new dynamic,” to paraphrase). Clinton and Gates are speaking to those future power-brokers (the people, the middle classes, unions, business elites, etc.), assuring them that while their future may not lay with authoritarian pro-American leaders (that failed to heed Washington’s warnings to politically reform), it does lay in these regimes’ neo-liberal policies of the past decade (policies “encouraged” by Washington itself).
In this regards, Zakaria’s hopeful memo to the American people stands as more than an opportunity to re-insert himself into the discussion of democracy in the Middle East. His article gives an esprit de corp of policies that will most likely follow the frequently mentioned “transitional government.”
When Zakaria suggests that the “challenge” of the United States (like Israel) is to convince the Egyptian people of its good intentions (despite its unquestioning support for Israel and its unwavering support for pro-American despotic Arab regimes), he means that the United States’ challenge is to convince the Egyptians to take a route that is congruent with Washington’s political and economic policies that created the tectonic pressures that led to the eruptions in the first place. Zakaria’s work however clearly demonstrates the ideological mechanisms waiting to re-harness the “new economic winds, connected to a wider world.
“First Post-American Revolutions”: The Necessity of Keeping The US Relevant
What makes Zakaria’s voice important is that it is elastic enough to stretch between different sides of the isle and between administrations. He deploys Arab stereotypes of deference to authority only to retreat and reassure the reader that “Egyptians were never as docile as their reputation suggested” (a reputation that his post-9/11 Newsweek articles amplified). He selectively analyses the cost benefits of neoliberalism and American power in the unipolar world while omitting basic key human development indices. However, these contradictions and the slipperiness of analysis is less about Zakaria’s opportunism than it is about insight into anticipating the ideological and discursive needs of American foreign and economic policy. Zakaria once stated that only in the Arab Middle East “do you see in lurid color all the dysfunctions that people conjure up when they think of Islam today.” Today, he jubilantly congratulates Bush in one breath and then closes his Time article, stating, “these might be the Middle East`s first post-American revolutions.”
Zakaria’s narrative diligently works to repair previous discourses that keep the United States relevant in the Middle East. This is not only a matter of ego but an ideological necessity as Zakaria’s force is his ability to simply give voice to America’s longevity in the region. In other words, his currency lays in providing to the American people a platform of keeping America relevant in the Middle East and the necessities of continued economic liberalization. Hence, he ponders how Mubarak’s “reputation will depend in large part on what sort of regime succeeds him.” In other words, he ponders how the United States will fit into the narrative without completely disclosing that it is Washington’s pathology not the Egyptian street’s that has made the “dysfunctions” of the region.
But since Zakaria selectively uses the historical record and key economic and social indices in his analysis for the American people, let him be reassured that the reputation of Mubarak and his nizham will not rely on any subsequent US administration or Egyptian government, no matter if it is NDP, reformist, “Islamist,” or revolutionary. The verdict on Mubarak and his whole regime has been passed by general consensus years ago by the Egyptian people. Furthermore, no new government (except the most democratically inclusive which does not include the old order, the military, the security apparatus, the new effendiya and “business elites”) can take credit for toppling the putrescent Mubarak regime. His reputation is in the hands of those in Tahrir Square and many other streets in Egyptian cities. It lays in the judgment of those thousands who have spent time in the Ministry of Interior’s jails, prisons and torture cells. It is in the hands of those like Khalid Said, Imad Kabir and Karim Amr. It is also in the hands of those who have suffered poverty and hunger due to privatization, cleptocracy, environmental neglect, and structure adjustments. And if the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt might be the “first post-American revolutions,” they will likely not be the last in these same countries if those like Fareed Zakaria are unable to adjust their narcissistic projection of US interests so seamlessly onto the world.