We greet the revolution in Egypt against the backdrop of rising oil and gas prices, possibly leading to another recession, and the scramble for hegemonic power and influence across Asia and the Arab world. It will be an interesting century indeed, but perhaps no longer America’s, observes Farish Noor.
And so President Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak has fallen, and with that millions, if not billions, of American dollars spent on Egypt – as one of the most important Arab states from the point of view of American geo-strategic calculations – has been lost as well. And as President Obama continues to lecture the Arab world on democracy and the rule of law, it has been pointed out by countless others that at present the United States’ army is engaged in six other countries, and continues to deal with governments and states whose own standards of human rights and democracy would not be acceptable in the US. And yet, despite this, America continues to assume the role of a global teacher and standard-bearer to all. Hubris? Or necessary self-deception while standing on the edge of decline and fall?
I recall an incident more than two decades ago, when I was working for the first time as an intern at a think-tank that was presided over by the late Tun Hussein Onn. One day a foreign delegation had arrived to explain how and why there needed to be more American military bases across Southeast Asia. As the discussion grew more convoluted, one of the foreign delegates said: “Please don’t be alarmed, its only a small American base”. To which Tun Hussein Onn replied: “No, that is a contradiction in terms. The word ‘small’ doesn’t exist in their vocabulary. There is no such thing as a ‘small’ American military base and there will never be one.”
More than two decades later we are witnessing what may well mark the end of the American century, which began in the wake of World War Two with America stepping into the shoes of the former West European colonial powers in Asia, Africa and the Arab world, only to take on the lead during the Cold War and to eventually rise as the sole superpower in a unipolar world order after the fall of the Soviet Union.
It is a long and twisted history that has seen how the image and standing of America has changed, from the benefactor of the developing world and the defender of the rights of the fledgling postcolonial states, to its present image as military hegemon and supporter of autocrats, dictators and tyrants across the globe. Even more so than the former West European colonial powers, America’s image and reputation has taken a battering as the hypocrisy and double-standards of successive American governments were laid bare.
Since the days of the Helsinki Accord in 1975, America’s trump-card has been the issues of human rights and democracy, which were used as its instruments of soft power and diplomacy against the Soviet bloc. Yet many critics have pointed out that even then America was already supporting a stable of dictatorial regimes across Asia that were hardly models of democracy or human rights themselves: across the Asean region, it was America that propped up the oppressive and ailing regimes of Bao Dai, Ferdinand Marcos and President Suharto. And while American leaders were berating the Soviets for their abuses of human rights, successive American leaders were turning a blind eye to the abuses that were taking place across the rest of the ‘free world’: from the killings during the state of martial law in the Philippines to the annexation of East Timor.
It is astounding, to say the least, that successive American governments never learned their lesson even after the fall of the American-backed Shah of Iran – dubbed the ‘suitcase monarch’ as he was always ready to flee his own kingdom at the drop of a hat. America’s support for Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq was an instance of realpolitik and geo-strategic concerns overriding all else, as has been its support for the governments of the Arab world. For three decades Egypt has lived under a state of emergency law, and America begins to talk about human rights and democracy just as its leader was packing his bags to leave? As President Obama now assumes the role as mentor and teacher to the democratisation process across the Arab world, have we forgotten the manifold instances of detainees and prisoners from Iraq and Afghanistan being surreptitiously transferred in the dead of night to some of the very same countries he is lecturing to now, to be tortured and forced to make confessions?
And as the developed states of the world welcome what they see as a ‘peaceful transition’ of power to the military in Egypt, have they forgotten the role that has been played by the state security apparatus in Egypt and other Arab countries, in the persecution of their own people?
Two important considerations come to mind now: firstly, it has to be noted that the relatively uninterrupted transfer of natural resources from the Arab world to the developed industrialised countries has been secured through the propping up of the dictatorships that have been in power for so long. The last time any oil-rich country attempted to nationalise its oil production capabilities was the case of Iran during the time of Mossadeq, which only led to the overthrow of its government. It is almost a banal observation to note that international capital has no problem dealing with dictatorial regimes, and perhaps even prefers it that way: for the oil and gas resources of the Arab world were not being sold by democracies but rather by a handful of ruling corrupt families who exploited their own nations and looted their own people.
The fall of Mubarak, and the fear that this may lead to the fall of other Arab leaders, has already sent shivers down the spine of the world’s corporate giants who rely on oil and gas to keep their respective economies going; and no doubt nothing will be spared to ensure that whoever takes control of Egypt after this will ensure the stability of the Arab world and the Washington consensus. And despite all the frothy rhetoric we have heard thus far, the record of the oil and gas industry has shown that it is more than happy to work with some of the most brutal dictators the world has ever seen, for the simple reason that it makes things easier.
Secondly, the relative weakening of American power and influence in the Arab world and Asia has opened the way for the newly emerging Asian powers – notably China and India – to step into the vacuum and to play a bigger role there. And it ought to be noted that many Asian states – where democracy is weak, if not non-existent – are quite happy to deal with a China that is less inclined to lecture them about human rights and democracy too, as China’s own human rights record is nothing to write home about.
And so, with the prospect of rising oil and gas prices leading the way to another recession, and the scramble for hegemonic power and influence across Asia and the Arab world, we greet the revolution in Egypt and the second decade of the new century. It will be an interesting century indeed. But perhaps no longer America’s.
Aliran member Farish Ahmad-Noor is a researcher and academic based in Singapore.