Monday, 14 February 2011

Was It Just a Dream? Egypt's Revolution: 'People Power' or Military Coup?

“Now our nightmare is over. Now it is time to dream.”

Wael Ghonim (New York Times – 13th February, 2011)

“I'm still trying to untangle the emotions and impact of the Egyptian revolution
in my own mind… For me, the contagious euphoria of Friday and Saturday has
been replaced by a Sunday morning letdown. Last night, as I made my way
through "liberated" Tahrir Square in Cairo, I was o vercome by sadness… It
oddly felt like an era is over.”

Dan Murphy (Christian Science Monitor – 13th February, 2011)

Was it all a beautiful dream? The Western world's broadcasters and print-journalists repeatedly characterised the celebratory atmosphere in Cairo and other Egyptian cities after Hosni Mubarak's resignation late on 11th February as like a rock festival or a big party. It was the happy ending to die for - or was it the end?

On Monday, the crowds who had defied the feared Mukhabarat of Mubarak melted away when told to go by the new ruling junta. When red-capped military policemen cleared away the remaining revellers or protestors, as you prefer, and the detritus of their Glastonbury-style camp, with them it was clear that People Power Egyptian-style was not what it had been all cracked up to be. But when or where in the last twenty years has the hype been followed by the fuflillment of the people's hopes?

While the world's media was focussed on the crowd scenes in Tahrir Square, regime-change as an inside-job was under way. Only Sky News Tim Marshall predicted from Day One of the protests that the most likely outcome of the protests was that the Egyptian Army would take power. Other on-the-spot reporters were whipped up by the exuberance of their own partisan reporting into insisting that the momentum of the People was unstoppable.

Now the spontaneity of the events is being called into question. The New York Times has a track record of raining on the People Power parade - when it is all done and dusted - and setting the record straight, but only once its editorial line has won. Until the object of popular derision, who happens also to have outlived his usefulness to the White House, has been toppled, the New York Times leads the pack of sententious insistence that only the People are involved. No suggestion of external political forces or internal power-plays is allowed to detract from the purity of the morality play on the streets of captal city X. From Belgrade to Tbilisi with a sidestep to Bishkek, the Times has always told the full story only once the telling cannot influence events.

Already it has begun to name the people forming international links with training centres and cash and technical aid from outside Egypt. Before long as with the Serbs or Georgians who thought they had played the decisive role, the celebration of the backroom cadre of People Power veterans who guide the spontaneous steps of each infant democracy will be "all the news that's fit to print." Instead of Arabic names our old favourites, Collonel Gene Sharp, the "Clausewitz of People Power," George Soros, "the Paymaster-General of People Power" and the various goatee-bearded NGO activists will get their commendations from the very media which decried any suggestion that a foreign hand might be in play. (In the meantime, for starters, see David D. Kirkpatrick & David E. Sanger, "A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History" in the New York Times - 13th February, 2011.)

But what of the generals? Surely their patriotism and professionalism puts them above suspicion of having any interest except Egypt's own at heart?

In realty it seems Mubarak and the generals were engaged in a wrestling match - with Washington acting as a hardly impartial umpire. Remember the demonstrations kicked off while the Egyptian Defence Minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and the chief of staff, Sami Enan were in the Pentagon.

Washington has been concerned about the succession to the aging autocrat. Mubarak falls in a long line of former favourites who stayed on too long and risked destabilising their own regimes by putting family interests ahead of the ruling military group as a whole.

From Romania in 1989 to Egypt today, the people who go out on the streets - however well justified their grievances and whatever their courage in risking the first steps of public defiance - in practice seem to act as stage extras while a coup d'etat is carried through while the world watches their defiance not realising it is a popular pageant rather than People Power.

Just as Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu offended Communist sensitivities and the ambitions of better-qualified apparatchiks by promoting his son, Nicu, as well as his wife, Elena, so Mubarak - an old friend by the way of the Ceausescus - offended key elements in his regime by letting his son, Gamel, and other family members and cronies not only look set to succeed to the most prestigious job but also he let them get too much of the economic pie.

The military takeover after Mubarak's resignation was not a break with Egyptian political tradition but a continuation of it.

Inside the miltary regime which has ruled Egypt since 1952, there was tension between the generals with ambitions to succeed Mubarak and his grooming of his son, Gamel, as successor. Even the generals who did not imagine themselves as president, resented the growing intrusion of Mubarak fils and his cronies into areas of business traditionally reserved for the military.

Despite all the huffing and puffing about Egyptians' pride in their armed forces, Field Marshal Tantawi's exploits in 1973, in reality the Egyptian army has long been much less effective at defending the country than defending the interests of the officer corps. Like many other African armies, Egypt's is better understood as a protection racket rather than the protectors of the nation.

As a study prepared at Fort Leavenworth for the US military from as long as 14 years ago showed, the Egyptian Army was engaged in an offensive to control the rapidly privatizing Egyptian economy - rather as China's People's Liberation Army has its fingers in many private business pies. Ironically, Mubarak's nepotism was a threat to the military's own insider-deals.

Of course, dynastic succession was very unpopular with ordinary Egyptians who have been squeezed between the rapacious demands of the competing factions within the regime as well as by the impact of rapid inflation pushing up food and fuel prices. Mubarak loyally followed the Washington consensus in reducing subsidies to the poor, but not fast enough to keep in favour there, but more than fast enough to alienate ordinary people, even ordinary policemen. (Don't hold your breath for a "populist" candidate proposing more social protection in the promised elections. Free marketeers from micro-parties are already the favoured candidates with the people who decide such matters.)

Mubarak, however, had antagonised the Americans - not because he only went to Israel once or let anti-Israeli television shows run on state TV - but because he was beginning to let Chinese businesses into Egypt. He was also talking about energy deals with the Russians. No doubt, he would take his cut but Washington did not like to see Egypt less dependent on its largesse. The generals still got a huge handout from America and knew that Chinese businessmen, even with a PLA background, would be much better at business than them.

US geopolitics and the self-interest of the Egyptian general-managers ran together. Mubarak was becoming a threat to the mutual longterm interests of Washington and his generals.

Having asserted their authority and sent the demonstrators packing with the backing of the self-appointed leaders of the Facebook generation, the generals can now get down to what they do best: their business is running Egypt's business.

Although the generals doled out some food on Monday in poor parts of the big cities to reinforce the message that people who stayed away from public meetings would get a pat on the head.

What of the indomitabe proponents of People Power?

The Google executive whose spontaneous twitterings we were told set the whole thing in motion suddenly sent out a very different message once the generals had issued their orders. According to CNN on Sunday, Wael Ghonim told the People to get off the streets and forget about politics: "Dear Egyptians, go back to your work on Sunday, work like never before and help Egypt become a developed country." But neither Mr Ghonim nor CNN mentioned that 25% of Egyptians would be going back to work for the generals in one way or another. Mubarak's corruptioon, cronyism and skimming of contracts was an intolerable affront to the Egyptian People, but their patriotism enables them to see the Army's businesses as all for the good of the nation.

Maybe the generals will keep their promise to hold elections in six months. But will they be really any freer and fairer than those under Mubarak? After all the people counting the votes and controlling the streets look set to be very similar to those in place for past elections. Like so many other states which have undergone the excitement of People Power as a response to corruption and election fraud, in Egypt the fall of the old boss does not seem to have shatterd the old regime.

Back in France in 1789, Louis XVI's government was dispersed long before he was decapitated in 1793: none of his ministers or provincial governors were in office six months after the fall of the Bastille. Real revolutions tend to become more radical, and that it is not necessarily a good thing., but they are more than one-act teasers like our post-modern dramas. Nowadays, revolution seems to be an inverted fairy story with a happy ending at the beginning: it is all over so quickly that most of the old regime's loyal servants hardly have time to turn their coats before they resume work in the same office.

Dream or nightmare?

Who can say for certain, but don't ask the Egyptian generals, they are just busy getting Egypt back to business.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Ghost of Regime-Change Past: Enron’s Frank Wisner Jr does Dad’s Job in Egypt

Barak Obama’s slogan in 2008 was “Yes, we can.” By choosing as his point-man to guide Egypt’s future, the son of one of the CIA most famous “can do” covert operatives , Obama has shown once again that his promise of “Change We Can Believe in” did not rule out changes which turn the clock back.

On 31st January, the U.S. State Department admitted that Frank Wisner Jr was in Cairo but did not disclose when he arrived. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt, 1986-91, Mr Wisner is Washington’s special representative for the crisis facing the Egyptian regime. But for any historian of regime change, the name Frank Wisner is a familiar one. It conjures up a ghost from the CIA’s past covert role in “revolutions” and regime change in Iran, Central America and South-East Asia. Sometimes Papa Wisner’s boys toppled opponents of the United States, sometimes the victims were old friends who had lost their usefulness.

Today’s arbiter of Egypt’s future, Frank Wisner Jr has “regime change” in his DNA.

Although Washington is busily dispensing with the services of allied gerontocrats like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak, it is an irony of the age of “People Power” that the White House chooses men with a careers stretching back deep into the Cold War-era of dirty tricks and covert operations as its representatives to guide young democracies in their wobbly infancy.

Now 73 years old, Frank Wisner Jr’s childhood was marked by extensive separation from his father because Frank Wisner Sr. was a wartime OSS agent. Wisner Sr. made the transition to the newly-established CIA in 1947. As head of operations and deputy director, he played a key role in countering Communism. To Wisner Sr. anything which he thought might tend to Communism if only by not bending Washington’s way was to be sabotaged and destroyed. From the Philippines in the early 1950s, Iran in 1953 via Guatemala in 1954 to South Vietnam in 1963, Frank Wisner’s fingers were in every regime-change pie. But he was more than just the advocate of manipulating the politics of foreign states.

Like several other key CIA officials in the first two decades of the Agency’s existence, Wisner was fascinated by mind-control. He encouraged research on brain-washing of individuals, something which the democracies had to learn to counter sinister Chinese and North Korean practices on U.S. PoWs in Korea. He encouraged the use of drugs like LSD in experiments on unwitting American civilians. (He may even have experimented on himself – as several other privileged U.S. insiders did.)

But controlling the minds of the Western public was his key goal. Wisner controlled unregistered funds with which he paid journalists and media proprietors. In the 1950s for the first time, young American journalists working for obscure newspapers or Mid-Western outlets with no obvious appetite for news from beyond the Prairies appeared able to live in exotic and expensive locations. Swarms of goatee-bearded civil society activists and new media specialists have followed in their footsteps in the last two decades.

Frank Wisner Sr is most famous for his indiscrete claim that he had so many agents and assets in the American and Western media that he could play the press like a “mighty Wurlitzer.” In the age of coordinated Twitter, Facebook and blogging campaigns, old man Wisner’s image of a cinema organ making the world’s mood music in a crisis might seem old-fashioned, but its essence - a coordinated campaign within the supposedly free media by strategically-placed intelligence assets – seems less anachronistic today than ever as countless breathless journalists for innumerable outlets seem to recite from the same script.

Frank Wisner Sr’s frenzy of subversive activity was liberally fuelled with booze. Nervous breakdowns rarely kept him long from his Langley desk but his erratic behaviour worried the more sober-suited spooks. Instead of sinking into an embarrassing alcohol-soaked retirement, he did the Agency a final favour in 1965 and shot himself – a tragic hero of the undercover world.

But should the son be judged in the light of his father’s career or habits?

The official line is that after a classic upper class[1] education at St. Albans and Princeton, Wisner Jr passed up the chance to serve his country in the CIA but took on the more open and honourable profession of diplomat instead. But, like several of his contemporaries, Wisner has mixed diplomacy, business and backstage influence in ways which have been very successful – but not explored by a free media as tame as in his father’s heyday when it comes to querying Washington’s power elite’s modus operandi.

Like Richard Holbrooke, Frank Wisner Jr cut his teeth in South Vietnam in the early 1960s as the U.S.-backed Diem regime came to a bloody end with Washington’s connivance but the rhetoric of democratization U.S.-style carried on. A generation later Holbrooke would denounce Serbs as “war criminals” for participating in the kind of pacification programme - targeted assassination, village clearances, and so on - which he helped advise on back then. Frank Wisner Jr was closer to the heart of the action in Saigon. Eight years earlier his father had played a key role in installing President Diem as President of South Vietnam. He was awarded an über-Mubarak 98.2% of the vote in the election called to confirm his installation in office. (Afficionados of CIA-sponsored Cold War film propaganda will remember the end of Joseph Mankiewicz’s cynically-twisted version of Greene’s Quiet American with its thanks to “the elected president of Vietnam”.) By the time young Frank’s membership of an obscure State Department-Pentagon overlap-unit in the U.S. embassy in Saigon was listed Diem’s star had waned in Washington and he was murdered in October, 1963, in a CIA-sponsored coup while his brother achieved what Robert Kennedy called the “unique feat” of committing suicide in custody with his hands tied behind his back! Young Frank learned how to stabilise a “nascent democracy” in tough conditions back then.

Another young member of the U.S. team in Vietnam then was Kenneth Lay. Mr Lay would leave public service – a Pentagon liaison team – to join the energy industry, but never lost contact with his comrades in the battle for democracy in Vietnam.

Although Frank Wisner Jr. carried on in the underpaid US diplomatic service, his path just kept crossing Ken Lay’s growing energy empire. His ambassadorship in the Philippines was devoted to promoting US investment – to be precise the purchase of Subic Bay power stations by Lay.

It was during his time in India that the Wisner-Lay axis reached its apogee and began to unravel the U.S. economy.

At the end of October, 1997, Wisner joined the board of Enron. He had just finished his stint as ambassador in India where he had represented U.S. interests since 1994. He had done much to promote the Texas-based energy giant’s activities in India. It was in India that Enron’s complex web of financial fraud began to unravel. No doubt the State Department took the line that what was good for Enron was good for America – certainly it was good for certain American diplomats.

Enron was desperate to get the Dabhol power project in Maharashta state. The U.S. embassy fought hard, some say dirty, to get the Indians to sign up to a deal which required the state to guarantee the profits of the foreign private investor. It was emblematic of the new world order: profits would be private but any losses, environmental costs and so on would be borne by the people. But without Wisner on hand and with turbulent local democracy electing officials who were not take with Socialism for the Foreign Rich, things began to go wrong. By 2001, Enron was both India’s biggest foreign investor and losing money there hand over fist. Sucheta Dalal noted that February, “The fact that Frank Wisner, the aggressive and high profile former US ambassador to India, promptly joined the Enron Corporation board of directors after leaving the country, has done nothing to enhance the power company's credibility. If that were not enough, Wisner's successor Richard Celeste chose to emulate his predecessor and used a farewell visit to Bombay to openly lobby for Enron and threaten the state government.” [2]

As in California at the same time, Enron was reaping the whirlwind of its successful lobbying to weaken state regulation of electricity prices and hike them, but as in California its early super-profits had soured into soaring losses. Indians could not and would not pay Enron’s inflated prices – but Enron needed their cash to flow through its complicated fraudulent financial system to keep it afloat.

Like the other members of the Teflon Texas political elite, Wisner Jr walked untainted from the wreckage of Enron. A guardian angel hovered over his career and reputation – maybe Dad put in a good word with the patron saint of greed for him. American newspapers always call him “respected” but never mention Enron and his name in the same column.

After the Enron debacle, Wisner went on to bigger and better bankruptcies. He became a member of the board of AIG, but though it went belly-up in 2008 taking umpteen billions of U.S. taxpayers dollars, Frank Wisner Jr’s unblemished reputation lives on.

Contrary to the “idiot leftists” who see capitalism as the determinant of politics, the careers of a Wisner or his fellow late AIG director Richard Holbrooke compared with the humiliating fate of Enron’s Ken Lay show it is political insider-status that enables a power-broker to survive insider-dealing admissions as Holbrooke himself made in 1999 on the eve of the Kosovo War which he did so much to promote.

To sit on the board of one economic Titanic without noticing the icebergs looming ahead might seem unlucky, but to grace two capsized engines of capitalism like Wisner looks careless – except when you have his aura. Money might buy influence, even protection. Power guarantees it.

Promoting Kosovo’s independence, despite the evidence of unsavoury criminal activities by the politicians whom Washington backed was Frank Wisner’s main “diplomatic” activity in retirement. Just as Dad had turned a blind eye to the drugs smuggler from Marseilles to the Mekong Delta who helped the anti-Communist fight after 1947, so his boy seems to have been unconcerned about evidence in the possession of the US government and its European allies that the KLA had a profitable sideline in corruption, drug smuggling to Western Europe, people trafficking and – it is alleged by the Council of Europe – even organ trafficking.

Just as his father’s CIA saw exotic micro-peoples in South-East Asia – Hongs and Karens – as valuable allies in the main struggle despite their involvement in the heroin trade, so promoting weak, criminalised micro-states has been part of his son’s “foreign policy.” Such entities are dependent on protection by a great power. Being Mafioso-states, they understand and respect power.

Egypt is a very big state with 80 million people, but its internal regime based on intertwining family and corporate interests with the mechanisms of state power to guarantee them is not essentially different from other U.S. allies of convenience.

Wisner Jr. did not drop his interest in Egypt after he had served there as ambassador during the painful period, 1986-91, when Mubarak began “reforms” cutting living standards and privatizing. This process has gone on until now with good GDP figures which pleased foreign investors but masked the reality of growing poverty for the many while a relative few profited from the “growth.” Mubarak was a poster boy for economic reform in the Arab world and took no nonsense from whinging populists.

In recent years, Wisner has worked for the Washington lobbyist firm, Patton Boggs, which has lucrative contracts on behalf of the Egyptian government, including the military. Polishing Egypt’s public image has been one of Patton Boggs’ tasks. Maybe, today, President Mubarak will be asking whether he got his money’s worth.

In 2005, Wisner endorsed Mubarak’s decision to stand for re-election as President of Egypt and suggested that in a free and fair election 65% of Egyptians would endorse their president since 1981. But there was a sting in the tail of his endorsement: All of these are factors, plus the fact that this is clearly the last time President Mubarak will stand for re-election. His age is such that [Egypt] is clearly in a transition period, with something else to follow.”[3] However, as we anticipate a post-Mubarak regime, Wisner also had a s sting in the tail for naïve democrats who believe that Mubarak’s slow motion resignation means that someone entirely new and untainted by service in the Mubarak camp will be his successor. Wisner remarked, “The political culture of Egypt is to vote for stability.”

On 1st February, an anonymous US official – possibly Wisner himself – told AP, Wisner and Mubarak are friends and the official said the retired ambassador made clear that it was the U.S ‘view that his tenure as president is coming to close.’”[4]

Frank Wisner Jr has been director of the appropriately-named Pharaonic American Life Insurance Company (ALICO) in Egypt since 2007. He also serves on the board of Hakluyt, the British “investigative” company which may employee a higher proportion of ex-spooks than any other company on either side of the Atlantic. Along with Pentagon’s Ken Bacon, Wisner has shown his charitable side serving on the board of Refugees International. Cynics will be unkind enough to recall his father’s involvement, along with Allen Dulles, in infiltrating charities aiding so many refugees in Europe after 1939. America needed agents and information, refugees need help – for them it is a matter of life or death. But association with an intelligence service via a charity could be fatal too as some of those who got help from the proto-CIA ended up shot by Hitler or later by Stalin as spies, real or imagined.

But it is Wisner’s role today as the pivot of America’s regime-change agenda in Egypt which makes him so important despite his invisibility. The man in the shadows has strings to pull which are anchored at the Archimidean point of world politics in Washington.

It is not just a case of easing out Mubarak but of making sure that all of what Tony Blair would call the “good he has been doing” is carried forward. Not only must Egypt’s next president be a reliable ally in the Middle East peace process, but under the guise of democratic legitimacy, real or media-hyped, he must also pursue the economic agenda which has undermined Mubarak’s regime.

When American officials from Obama downwards repeatedly couple their calls for democratisation in Egypt with demands for market reforms, the old Enron devil inside Frank Wisner knows what that must mean for Egypt’s impoverished masses. If tens of millions of Egyptians are angry with Mubarak about getting poorer already, what will they make of the final abolition of any subsidies on food and energy?

Mr Wisner is such a “respected” diplomat that no-one in the official media has queried possible conflicts of interest arising from his business activities in the country whose political system he is reshaping so selflessly. Future privatizations are part of the reform agenda being pressed on Egypt. Could it possible have occurred to the former director of Enron and AIG as well as of the Pharaonic American Life Insurance Company that a privatization on the epic scale worthy of the land of the Pharaohs is looming: the Suez Canal was nationalised by Mubarak’s first patron, Gamel Abdul Nasser, won’t it be a neat sign that People Power has truly triumphed in Egypt when ownership of the Suez Canal is returned to private, preferably international owners? And then of course, the Aswan dam’s electricity generating capacity can only improve if foreigners with expertise in the energy field give a helping hand….

Asking who has the power to profit from People Power is an undiplomatic question. Maybe it is wiser to leave it in the shadows where Wisners prefer to remain.

[1] Married to the French President’s stepmother, the former Christine Sarkozy, Wisner is bi-lingual in French which helps in North Africa especially where French culture lingers among the elites.

[2] See Sacheta Dalal, “The Enron crisis reaches a crisis point” (8th February, 2001):

[4] See Matthew Lee, “AP source: Obama envoy tells Mubarak time is up” AP (1st February, 2011):