Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Something in Common: American and Arab Self-Determination

Benjamin West's depiction of the Treaty of Paris
Lorianne Updike Toler

Yesterday The Daily News Egypt reported that Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Yehia Al-Gamal launched a charge against the United States and Israel: they were agitating religious tensions in Egypt which have resulted in violence and deaths in the country since the February 11 revolution, the most recent of which occurred in the Sohag governorate on Saturday.

This is not the first time Egyptian officials have complained of American interference in post-revolution reconstruction activities.  In March of this year, USAID took out half-page newspaper advertisements inviting direct application for development monies, rather than working through official channels per a 1978 agreement.  Just last week, this article in the Wall Street Journal reported Fayza Aboul Naga, the Egyptian minister for planning and international cooperation, as saying, "I am not sure at this stage we still need somebody to tell us what is or is not good for us--or worse, to force it on us."

The WSJ article continues: in calling for Egyptians to refuse American assistance an editorial printed in state-owned Akhbar newspaper complained that America had "dealt with Egypt as a humiliated country."

I do hope my country is not involved in "fomenting religious tensions" in Egypt, but I am afraid that the cause for concern is not without historical precedent: this blog by an American in Egypt and this blog by BBC's Adam Curtis tell an eery tale of a not-so-distant past which saw misguided (but well-intentioned) American interference in securing "free" Syrian elections.  When that did not go well, we then orchestrated a coup which established a "benevolent" dictator setting off a chain events which led to the rise of Bashar al-Assar and the Ba'ath Party.  (The BBC post also links in the sordid history of Saddam Hussein's early work with the CIA through the anti-communist Ba'ath Party.)

But we can also look to even earlier historical precedent in guiding our actions in MENA's emerging democracies: our own.  In the aftermath of our revolution, we were deeply suspicious of foreign powers intervening.  The United States was then physically surrounded by other countries - Britain to the north, France to the west, and Spain (in Florida) to the south, pictured below.  Our emissaries to at least two of these superpowers, Franklin followed by first Adams then Jefferson in France and Adams in Britain, knew that the early Republic's fears of foreign intervention were not unfounded.  Indeed, it was difficult to enforce the 1783 Treaty of Paris: because American states could not be compelled to respect British creditor's rights, the British maintained occupation of forts in the Great Lakes region and did not prevent piracy of American merchant vessels.

We wanted desperately to self-determine our own political future.  The eleven-year interlude between the Revolution and the Constitution was messy and painful.  But eventually, although not all agreed on the goodness of the outcome, we made good on the "Spirit of '76."  It just took time and our own natural political evolution.

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