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Is the U.S. Trying to Steal Credit for Egypt’s Uprising? Or What?

March 13, 2011

Does it mean anything that some of the protest leaders took US sponsored democracy courses? And if so, what? Tahrir Square photo by Abdelrahman Mostafa.

Who is responsible for the revolution? Can the U.S. claim partial credit for the uprising because some of the protest leaders have attended democracy workshops? Even though we gave billions of dollars to help the dictator maintain stability?

And if the US does make such a claim, will anyone believe it? Or is such a narrative just meant for domestic US audiences?

An Associated Press story entitled “US training quietly nurtured young Arab democrats” by Charles Grassley ran in the Washington Post Mar. 12. It offers the claim that

The revolutionary roar from the Arab street, shaking the palaces of the privileged, toppling presidents, has echoed around the globe, dominating the headlines and airwaves for weeks. But behind this story of political upheaval lies another, quieter story of outside organizations that, with U.S. government and other money, tutored a young Arab generation in the ways of winning in a political world.

There is no doubt that the basic facts in the case are true: while giving billions to dictatorial regimes, the US was also funding workshops on democracy. The larger claim remains to be tested: did they do any good? This article is essentially based on remarks by 3 Egyptians. It is okay as journalism, but it wouldn’t pass muster in a social science class. It would be nice to see a good network analysis that tracked who among the planners of the uprising had training, and who knew someone who had training, and so on.

Journalism expresses the values of the people for whom it constructs its stories. As I have written elsewhere, this is not so much because newspapers are “biased” in the usual sense of that term, as that newspapers operate from a common sense approach–and common sense, as Michael Herzfeld points out, is a cultural construction. The common sense that grounds a particular newspaper is different for different historical experiences, national interests, cultural expectations, geographical proximities and economic interconnections.

From a U.S. perspective, it’s easy enough to see why this particular story is news. The U.S. was far more riveted by Egypt’s protests than Tunisia’s because Egypt was “our” stable regime in the Middle East. The protests pitted a long-time U.S. backed dictator against pro-democracy activists, thus literally pitting our political-economic interests against our values, with the fears of an Islamic takeover lurking in the background (a fear that got a lot of play in US media where it has enormous symbolic valence but much less in the media of most other countries).

As public fears about an Islamic takeover gave way increasingly to optimism about a genuinely democratic Egypt, it became advantageous for the U.S. to find narratives in which it was not simply the foreign country that propped up a brutal dictator for 30 years. This article allows the U.S. to claim the high ground: sure, we were propping up an evil dictator to ensure stability, but all the time we were also training a cadre of democratic leaders for the day he would fall.

Egyptians–based on comments when Ted Swedenburg and I posted this story to our Facebook pages–are more likely to read this as a pathetic (or infuriating, or both) attempt by the U.S. to lay claim to their revolution. They cast it in the junk drawer with columns by Thomas Friedman claiming they were inspired by Obama’s Cairo speech, or by Charles Krauthammer saying that they’ve all belatedly bought into George W. Bush’s democratic agenda.

Russians, on the other hand, may be likely to read a story like this as proof of the U.S. meddling in the affairs of other countries. I assign students in my International Studies class to read at least one foreign newspaper, and one of them has been following Pravda all semester. He reports that this trope of the US meddling in the affairs of other countries is a regular and recurring theme.

Rashomon has nothing on global journalism.

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