Last Act in Cairo: Did U.S. Help the Egyptian Military Stage a Coup?

Last Act in Cairo: Did U.S. Help the Egyptian Military Stage a Coup?

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While television cameras focused on Cairo these last few weeks, the U.S. military was busy redeploying four Navy carrier strike forces and sending Marine landing assault crafts into the Red Sea—thus reinforcing what was, in fact, a military coup in Egypt.

The redeployments were ostensibly for the rescue of American citizens if the protests in Cairo were to turn violent. But the actual objectives were quite different: first, to back up the White House's unsubtle hints for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak and his budding nuclear program, and second, to seize the Egyptian military's chemical and biological weapons in the event of a general uprising.

After the overthrow of Tunisian leader Ben Ali, the USS Enterprise moved away from Carthaginian waters, past the shores of Tripoli and toward the Suez Canal. But as protests spread to Cairo, this behemoth of the 5th Fleet halted its progress to stay in the Mediterranean off Alexandria.

Meanwhile, the nuclear supercarriers Carl Vinson and George Washington broke away from the 7th Fleet's exercises with Japanese destroyers against North Korea and rushed to the Gulf of Aden. The USS Abraham Lincoln pulled back from the Iranian coast and moved into the Arabian Sea. Marine landing assault craft—each carrying dozens of helicopters—headed into the Red Sea.

This significant deployment of U.S. military might wasn't just a response to the recent demonstrations. It was rooted in the long relationship between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries — a relationship whose true nature has been obscured by Western media representations of Mubarak as a despot and cooperative underling to the U.S. government's demands.

In reality, Mubarak was a nationalist who pursued investment in civilian infrastructure and economic development projects. His son Gamal was behind a drive to liberalize the Egyptian economy. And the rampant corruption in Egyptian military circles was rooted in U.S. aid stipulations that all military investment in Egypt be in American defense contractors, rather than homegrown industries.

Nuclear Fishing

President Hosni Mubarak was never comfortable with chemical or biological weapons, according to an Egyptian nuclear physicist who served as a technical adviser to him.

"Chemical weapons are a poor man's deterrent, " the physicist explained recently over lunch in Dubai. "Mubarak wanted nothing to do with these, since he strongly believed that Egypt should be second to none when it comes to technology." Another, more practical problem is that nerve gas must be periodically replenished. This gives rise to the temptation to either sell the stuff or to use it, as happened in Saddam Hussein's wars with Iran. As "an Air Force manMubarak considered a nuclear capability and ballistic missile program as the only appropriate deterrence between equall.

Mubarak's nuclear quest was kindled at the end of the 1990s by the NATO drive to partition the Balkans. "The president had a premonition that the Western powers would soon do the same to the Arab world," spurring destabilization to gain control of the region's oil resources, the scientist explained. Mubarak's instincts were soon proven correct by the U.S. effort to partition Iraq into weak Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni nations.

Mubarak approached leaders in Moscow and Beijing but was met with gloomy silence. "The president smoldered inside from those rebuffs; he took things personally," the physicist said. Russia and China were preoccupied by NATO's eastward expansion into the oil-rich Caspian Sea region, and neither wanted to give Washington a pretext for a second invasion of Iraq.

Contrary to the Western media's Orientalist cliche of Mubarak as a despot, the physicist's portrait revealed a technocrat who aimed to reform and modernize a stagnant economy and overhaul a backward social outlook. Mubarak’s early commitment to technological innovation, quite unorthodox in a bureaucratic military, won favor from President Anwar Sadat. The mainstream army's Frontier Corps, in contrast, is firmly based on the now-conventional desert-warfare tactics pioneered by the German general Arwin Rommel in North Africa. The romance of battle tanks whirling in the sand was, in turn, rooted in the long tradition of cavalry.

Chemical Trails

The chemical weapons in Egypt are among the stockpiles the Pentagon secretly provided to Arab states to counter Iran, as told to me by a Marine who uncovered a trove of American-made nerve gas bombs during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

On the first platoon to enter the gigantic warehouses at an Iraqi military base north of Baghdad, he discovered "20-foot-long rectangular bombs, each with three flaps." The contents, he recalled, were identified as "VX" produced by "ConocoPhillips." VX is an organophosphate nerve gas similar to sarin but longer lasting.

The bomb casings bore a delivery date soon after the first Gulf War of 1991-92, indicating their role in a covert deal between the administration of George H.W. Bush and a defeated Saddam Hussein. Hussein was to resume his role as guardian of American petroleum interests in the Arabian Peninsula against Iranian expansionism.

The missing VX payload was mentioned in a 2003 report by the UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. The Marine inspector said that an Army disposal team eventually arrived to load the chemicals weapons onto trucks for air shipment to "another Mideast country." The only trustworthy ally with sufficient technical expertise outside of the immediate Iraqi theater was Egypt.

Colin Powell and his critics were therefore both correct: There were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; and then there were none. The American origins of the weapons of mass destruction prevented disclosure to Congress, much less to the press. George W. Bush was put into serious jeopardy by his father's sins.

A Desert Fox

Mohamad Hussein Tantawai, the general who deposed Mubarak and is now the acting head of state, is quite the opposite in temperament from his former commander, according to an embassy cable from then Ambassador Francis Ricciardone. Dated March 16, 2008, and titled "Tantawi resistant to change in Egypt," the U.S. envoy asserts: "He is frozen in the Camp David paradigm and uncomfortable with our shift to the post-9/11 GWOT [global war on terror]."

Following Anwar Sadat's near-victory in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Washington brokered the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The Egyptian tank corps shifted from deep-penetration mobile warfare into dug-in positions to defend the recaptured Sinai Peninsula. Sadat and later Mubarak pursued a policy of limited military expenditures, investing instead in civilian infrastructure and economic development projects.

Ricciardone, who has a background in foreign intelligence, then discussed a major shift away from peacekeeping. "We nonetheless should urge Minister Tantawi towards a broader and more flexible partnership based on shared strategic objectives, including border security, counter-terrorism…. Egyptian effectiveness in preventing arms smuggling into Gaza is essential to stopping Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. When the Secretary (of State Condaleeza Rice) pushed hard on smuggling in October 2007, the Egyptians finally got serious…."

Brother Against Brother


The cable indicates that the United States was quietly supplying the Egyptian military with seismic monitors and acoustic receivers to detect cross-border tunnel-boring. The U.S. insistence on proactive Egyptian intervention against fellow Arabs was obviously grating the nerves of the Frontier Corpsmen, whose sole priority was holding their own territory of Sinai. The prevalent attitudes, besides sympathy for the beleaguered residents, was: "What happens in Gaza stays in Gaza." Palestinian matters are ultimately up to the Palestinians.

"EGIS Chief Omar Suleiman has the lead on negotiations with Hamas but Tantawi will also likely urge that Rafah [border crossing] be opened to ease humanitarian pressures in Gaza," the cable continued.

Ricciardone expressed concern that Tantawi's emotionalism was putting civilian lives in Gaza ahead of suppressing Hamas. In contrast, the intelligence service boss Suleiman— later to become Mubarak's vice president—is presented as a hard-nosed professional. As disclosed by Seymour Hersh, Suleiman's special operations team in 1998-99 provided home addresses in Gaza of the more radical Hamas executives to the CIA, which in turn targeted the buildings for Israeli air strikes.

The U.S. envoy's conception of "reforming" the Egyptian military, then, was to prod it away from peacekeeping and toward becoming spotters and assassins for Israel.

"We should broaden the discussion to maritime interdiction efforts and also addressing the weapons trail, which starts in Yemen and Sudan," the cable continues. A year later, Israeli drones bombed a truck caravan in northeast Sudan, apparently to interdict rockets being smuggled to Gaza. Among the hundred victims killed were some 60 migrant workers from Ethiopia and Somalia.

The embassy cable also suggests a covert American role in the ongoing clashes inside Yemen.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised


"On economic reform, Tantawi believes that Egypt's economic reform plan fosters social instability by lessening GOE [Government of Egypt] controls over prices and production," the cable continues.

Herein lies the dilemma for Washington's Egypt policy: The so-called "revolution" was actually a reaction against market reforms.

The drive to liberalize the Egyptian economy was led by Gamal Mubarak, a Western-educated investment banker. His coterie of upstart capitalists pushed to privatize and upgrade state-owned and military-run factories. The young tycoons were motivated by the dramatic modernizing efforts of the Gulf States, Lebanon and even Saudi Arabia. Gamal Mubarak urged an end to consumer subsidies to fight inflation and prompt Egyptians to adapt to a market-based price system, which then would stimulate farmers and industries to raise efficiency, output and quality.

The reformers, as is so often the case in the developing world, angered consumers who had grown soft on subsidies, workers accustomed to wages delinked from profit, military officers protective of their privileges, and mullahs intent on preserving the old ways. The whirlwind of globalization has been stopped cold by the sheer weight of tradition.

As for corruption on a large scale, it arose from a U.S. aid package that requires Cairo to purchase solely from American defense contractors, including GE, Lockheed Martin, L3 and Raytheon.

Kickbacks are nothing exceptional when it comes to defense contracts. In the private sector, “consulting fees” for telecoms and Internet-providers to obtain licenses are also an omnipresent feature of global operations, regardless of Google's posturing as the political spark for the youth movement.

What about the youth movement and its demands for change? A couple of young activists, along with a spokesman for the Kefiya party, which is favored by Washington, stated flatly to Al Jazeera that an independent youth movement never really existed.

The initial protesters on Tahrir Square mostly came from the youth wings of long-established political parties. Now that the protests are winding down, the politicians are back in the smoke-filled rooms, haggling over thumb-sized cups of coffee. The media myths out of Cairo were as humongous as the towering statues of Ramses.

The Last Act

As his enemies gathered like foxes around a wounded gazelle, Mubarak was thrown a lifeline from Riyadh on day 17. In counter-thrust to a congressional threat to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt, Saudi King Abdullah offered Cairo a dollar-per-dollar subsidy. Behind the scenes, Gamal Mubarak had pulled out all stops for a bailout from Arab oil producers, which were finally awakening from the dizzy dream cast by Al Jazeera.

Instead of announcing his resignation as planned for a late-night speech, Mubarak showed defiance against the treachery of his Western allies. By then, it was too late. A Saudi-Egyptian partnership independent of the West is, of course, intolerable for a Washington fearful of genuine Arab power. With four U.S. carrier strike groups closing in, the Egyptian military had to pull the carpet out from under their war hero and patriarch, Hosni Mubarak.

What remains is not a libertarian democracy, just the pyramids — the institutional hierarchies of Egyptian society — and perhaps with the coming elections, an Islamic order.

Yoichi Shimatsu, former associate editor with Pacific New Service and with the Japan Times group, has reported extensively on North Africa and the Persian Gulf region.