Egypt as a U.S. Client State: An excerpt from Egypt's Past and Potential: Nationalism, Neoliberalism, and Revolution

Derek Alan Ide I Publication I July 19th, 2013

Two and a half years after the beginning of the January 25th revolution and now two regimes have been toppled. The first was the decades-long Mubarak regime in February, 2011 after two weeks of protests, occupations, and strikes by millions of Egyptians. On July 3nd, 2013, three days after a mass movement of over 15 million people took to the streets to protest the lack of change under the elected regime of Mohamed Morsi, his government also collapsed vis-a-vis a military coup. The military remains one of the strongest social forces in Egyptian society, and extends its control far into the political and economic life of the country. In the context of these revolutionary upheavals, the client state status of Egypt has been questioned repeatedly by U.S. commentators and politicians. Subsequently, after the ousting of Morsi, who had remained quite complicit with U.S. geopolitical interests, President Obama ordered a review of military aid to the country.

Below is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, "Egypt's Past and Potential: Nationalism, Neoliberalism, and Revolution," published by the Hampton Institute Press. This is a short excerpt from Chapter 3, titled "Egypt as U.S. Client State," and analyzes the nature of U.S.-Egyptian relations and the annual military aid provided by U.S. taxpayers to the leaders there.

With massive protests erupting all over and millions of people demonstrating across Egypt, Obama still could not utter the words that Mubarak ought to step down. Even as Hilary Clinton's "family friend"[1] and his regime orchestrated violence against demonstrators by hiring thugs and using civilian clothed state police to attack pro-democracy demonstrators, the Obama administration did not out-rightly condemn Mubarak or call on him to step down. Instead, the State Department simply urged both sides to show restraint and politely suggested the Mubarak regime enact reforms in a timely manner. David Cameron's government in Britain urged "evolution…not revolution" and declared that Mubarak was "a friend of Britain" who "worked together" with him on many issues, not the least of which was to "combat Islamic extremism." [2] Tony Blair made clear to the world that there should be "no rush to elections in Egypt" and detailed how Mubarak was "immensely courageous and a force for good." After all, "where you stand on him depends on whether you've worked with him from the outside or the inside."[3] Benyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, compared the Egyptian revolution to Iran in 1979 and warned of Egypt falling prey to an "autocratic, fundamentalist, Islamic organisation taking over," claiming that such a scenario is "not something we can ignore."[4] Apparently, for such benevolent and high-minded idealists within the US, Britain, and Israel, an autocratic, authoritarian, repressive regime is fine just so long as it aligns itself with the strategic interests of world empire. There exists no greater example of the profound hatred for democracy held by first world elites than the position they took until the midnight hour of the Mubarak regime.

These imperial justifications for the Mubarak regime were not the result of some commitment to non-violent change. Indeed, quite the opposite, as such wishful thinking has been proven inadequate time and again, witnessed most glaringly by the Obama administration's actions in the region, including the violent war waged against the people of Afghanistan, the continuing drone strikes that cause immense civilian suffering in the region, the $30 billion promise of military aid over the next decade to the militaristic, colonial settler state of Israel, and the $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, one of the most internally oppressive societies in the world. European leaders as well were no better, their old imperial ambitions stirring as soon as the opportunity presented itself in Libya and Syria, clamoring to provide weapons, training, and outright intervention to topple regimes they found inimical to their interests.

In this respect, as Noam Chomsky points out, Obama follows a long line of continuity:

The United States, so far, is essentially following the usual playbook. There have been many times when some favored dictator has lost control or is in danger of losing control. There is kind of a standard routine: Marcos [Phillipines], Duvalier [Haiti], Ceauşescu [Romania], strongly supported by the United States and Britain, Suharto [Indonesia], keep supporting them as long as possible. Then, when it becomes unsustainable, typically say if the army shifts sides, switch 180 degrees, claim to have been on the side of the people all along, erase the past, and then make whatever moves are possible to restore the old system under new names.[5]

This is not an aberration from an otherwise democratic and principled U.S. foreign policy. Instead, it is a direct extension of the imperial ambitions of U.S. state planners. Democracy is useful only insofar as it aligns with the larger imperial project. Strategic geopolitical interests in the Middle East dictate that U.S. foreign policy must be aimed primarily at keeping the oil-rich Gulf states, and by extension the production and distribution of oil, under U.S. sway instead of the influence of competitive states like China. Adam Hanieh from the School of Oriental and African Studies articulates this dynamic well:

This should not be interpreted as meaning that the U.S. wants to directly own these oil supplies (although this may be part of this process), but that the U.S. wants to ensure that the oil supplies remain outside of the democratic control of the people of the region. The nature of global capitalism and the dominant position of the U.S. state within the world market rests significantly upon its control over the Gulf region. Any move toward a broader democratic transformation of the region could potentially threaten U.S. power at a global level. This is why the U.S. so strongly supports the dictatorships that rule the Gulf states and also why the majority of the labour in the Gulf is performed by temporary, migrant workers who lack all citizenship rights and can be deported at any sign of discontent. [6]

Obama's ambivalence towards democracy in Egypt stems from Egypt's primary role as U.S. client state in the Middle East. U.S. officials tried desperately to play their cards right, balancing international public support for the Egyptian struggle with their decades-long support for the corrupt, authoritarian dictatorship in Egypt.

Egypt is, aside from Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. Colombia, another internally repressive society, comes in as a close third. Yet, it is this prodigious U.S. military and economic aid has propped up an unpopular Mubarak regime for decades. The sheer amount of U.S. aid provided to Egypt cannot be understated, with some $1.3 billion a year in military aid coupled with economic assistance ranging anywhere from $250 to $815 million annually since 1979. In the period from 1975, just two years after Sadat announced Intifah, to 1997, total U.S. aid amounted to a staggering $44.7 billion. This ramping up of aid, particularly military aid, ran concurrent with Sadat's opening up of Egypt's economy and his acquiescence to Israel. Another $26 billion was given to Egypt from 1998 to 2011, bringing the total contribution to the Sadat-Mubarak regimes from U.S. taxpayers to a stunning $70.7 billion since the mid-1970's. Compare this to the entirety of the 28-year period from 1946 to 1974, where less than $1 billion aid was given total, amounting to an annual average of $32 million. During the same period in which U.S. aid was heavily augmented, a narrow group of Egyptians became obscenely wealthy, including the Mubarak family and others in the ruling NDP party, while conditions for the majority of Egyptians declined precipitously into a state of complete despondence.[7]

This support serves a dual purpose, however. Not only does it cement U.S. hegemony in the region, it also acts as a form of corporate welfare for powerful military interests. As William Hartung explains:

It's a form of corporate welfare for companies like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, because it goes to Egypt, then it comes back for F-16 aircraft, for M1 tanks, for aircraft engines, for all kinds of missiles, for guns, for tear gas canisters… Lockheed Martin has been the leader in deals worth $3.8 billion over that period of the last 10 years; General Dynamics, $2.5 billion for tanks; Boeing, $1.7 billion for missiles, for helicopters; Raytheon for all manner of missiles for the armed forces. So, basically, this is a key element in propping up the regime, but a lot of the money… is basically recycled. Taxpayers could just as easily be giving it directly to Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics. [8]

Throughout the uprising, numerous accounts were circulated of protestors finding tear gas canisters, used by police to disperse the popular movement, with the label "Made in the U.S.A." printed across the bottom. In January 2011, after the outbreak of the uprising, a leaked letter between the Interior and Defense ministries confirmed that the U.S. agreed to ship 140,000 tear-gas canisters to Egypt to "deal with rioters," with the caveat that both the company and country of origin would be stripped from the labels.[9] During the height of the uprising, U.S. supplied F-16 fighter jets flew dangerously low to protestors in an attempt to scare off the crowds. People defiantly roared back in a futile attempt to overcome the jets' percussive sound waves. The United States has been a principal proponent of the Mubarak regime and, undoubtedly, has helped the regime stay in power through an influx of repressive military machinery.

Egypt was not supported simply because it happened to be a cruel, autocratic regime. It is supported partially because Sadat and Mubarak opened Egypt up to neoliberal economic policies in a bid to willingly reposition the country within and as an ally of the international capitalist order. An even more vital precursor for U.S. support has been the willingness of the Egyptian ruling class to capitulate to U.S. military demands. Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia come together to form a triangle through which the US continues to exercise hegemony over the Middle East. After Sadat incorporated Egypt into the US sphere of influence, Mubarak forcefully continued the trend in four key ways: (1) buttressing the imperial ambitions of the Bush administration, manifested most clearly in the Iraq invasion as he opened up Egyptian airspace for U.S. use and allowed free passage for U.S. Navy ships through the Suez Canal; (2) utilizing Egyptian state security to gather intelligence on Islamist groups; (3) engaging in the "extraordinary rendition" program that allowed U.S. officials to carry out torture in Egyptian prisons; (4) and strengthening the crippling blockade against the Palestinians in Gaza, despite some tepid pro-Palestinian rhetorical flares. For all of this, the payoff was an annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid and more in economic aid, alongside ideological support and political legitimacy in the eyes of US elites.

All of these positions were in sharp contrast to the will not only of Egyptians, but to the Arab population as a whole. A comprehensive poll conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International concluded that Arabs were not ignorant to the aims of U.S. foreign policy. When asked to identify the two most important U.S. policy goals in the Middle East, 49% of respondents said it was to protect Israel, 44% to control oil resources, and 33% to preserve regional and global dominance. A phenomenal 5% of Arabs aligned with U.S. rhetoric that spreading democracy was most important, while a whopping 6% thought U.S. officials were concerned with human rights. When Arabs were asked which two countries were the greatest threats to their security, 88% responded Israel and 77% the United States.[10] The PewResearchCenter found that in 2010 only 17% of Egyptians, as well as the same number of Pakistanis and Turks, held the U.S. in a positive light. This was down from 30% in 2006. [11] Another PRC poll taken in 2011, two months after the downfall of Mubarak, had 54% of respondents calling for the annulment of the euphemistically-phrased "peace" treaty with Israel. Only 36% favored maintaining the treaty.[12] These staggering results show enormous Arab disdain for U.S. policies. [13] Furthermore, this sharp divide between Arab public opinion and policy suggest that the Arab monarchs and dictators, as well as their U.S. overlords, care little for how the majority of their citizens think or feel. After all, Arab opinion was of relatively little importance as long as dissent could be properly managed or subdued through coercion and violence.


[1] Kirit Radia, "Secretary Clinton in 2009: "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family"," Political Punch, ABC News (blog), January 31, 2011,

[2] Willis, Bob. "U.K.'s Cameron Urges Peaceful Democratic Reforms in Egypt in CNN Interview." Bloomberg, January 30, 2011. (accessed July 4, 2013).

[3] McGreal, Chris. "Tony Blair: Mubarak is 'immensely courageous and a force for good'." The Guardian, February 01, 2011. (accessed July 4, 2013). British political comedian Mark Steel exposed Blair's hypocrisy, quipping in an Independent article, "I'm sure that's true. If you were tortured by him you never got to see his kindly side."

[4] Donnison, Jon. "Egypt protests: Israel watches anxiously."BBC, February 01, 2011. (accessed July 4, 2013).

[5] Noam, Chomsky. "Noam Chomsky: "This is the Most Remarkable Regional Uprising that I Can Remember"." February 02, 2011. July 4, 2013.

[6] Hanieh, Adam. "Egypt's Uprising: Not Just a Question of 'Transition'." The Bullet, February 14, 2011. (accessed July 4, 2013).

[7] Jeremy, Sharp. Congressional Research Service, "Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations." June 27, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2013.

[8] Hartung, William. "Made in the U.S.A.: Tear Gas, Tanks, Helicopters, Rifles and Fighter Planes in Egypt Funded and Built Largely by the Pentagon and American Corporations." January 31, 2011. July 4, 2013.

[9] Original in Arabic found here: Gahrl, Muhammad. Al-Masry Al-Youm, February 22, 2011. (accessed July 4, 2013). Partial translation here: Germanos, Andrea. "Stripped of 'Country of Origin' Label, US Agrees to Sell Tear Gas to Egypt.", February 22, 2011. (accessed July 4, 2013).

[10] Shibley, Telhami. University of Maryland with Zogby International, "2010 Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey." Last modified 2010. Accessed July 4, 2013. arab opinion poll telhami/0805_arabic_opinion_poll_telhami.pdf.

[11] Pew Research Center, 2010. Quoted in Callinicos, Alex. "The return of the Arab revolution."International Socialism. no. 130 . (accessed July 4, 2013).

[12] Kirkpatrick, David. "Poll Finds Egyptians Full of Hope About the Future." The New York Times, April 25, 2011. (accessed July 4, 2013).

[13] Compare these results, for example, with the saber-rattling against Iran by the U.S. officials and media. Only 10% of Arabs viewed Iran as a threat to them. Meanwhile, 57% said that Iran should have nuclear weapons, presumably to act as a deterrent to Israel which is the only state in the Middle East to have nuclear weapons. For Egyptians who thought Iran was seeking nuclear weapons, 69% said there would be a positive outcome if they had them. When asked what world leaders they most admire, 20% responded with Recep Erdogan of Turkey, presumably due to his handling of the Israeli raid on the Turkish flotilla bringing aid to Gaza. Another 13% chose Hugo Chavez of Venezeuala, which we can assume was based on his stance against U.S. imperialism and the implementation of widespread social programs. These statistics show a great disdain for U.S. foreign policy.