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Arms and Empire: US Weapons and Egyptian “Stability”

One of the interesting facets of photographs is how they can contain information that often goes unnoticed.  The same is true of the discourses of empire.  For those living at the center of the system, the operation and effects of the imperial state might as well be invisible, for they have been neutralized by long periods of habituation and denial.  Thus, one thinks nothing when presidents speak of the need for “stability” in a region, not questioning how that is code for “continued support of authoritarian rule.” Or one is genuinely puzzled why demonstrators in a small country far away would burn an American flag–what have we ever done to them?  Even when caught up in the euphoria and instinctive identification with a democratic revolution, it is easy to overlook the evidence that at the end of the day geopolitical relationships may prove to be, well, stable.

This is one of many photographs from Egypt’s civic uprising that features army tanks surrounded by the demonstrators who could conceivably have been or still become victims of a military assault.  As John Lucaites pointed out on Monday, the images draw on a rich iconography of political upheaval while capturing key elements that are obviously important yet still not fully understood in this particular event.  The ongoing, often micro-political negotiation between the people and the army seems to be crucial to whether the demonstrations succeed or are betrayed and crushed.  That alone would seem to be reason enough for the photograph.

Even so, you might wonder why no one bothers to talk about the tanks themselves.  They are symbols, sure, but they also are real tanks having specific designs and manufacturers.  And that’s where some of the “missing” information is actually there to be seen.  The tanks in the long line are versions of the M1 Abrams.  I’m not positive about the tank on the left, but I’m fairly sure it’s an M60 Patton.   Want to guess where they are produced?

Tanks are not cheap, of course, but Egypt has the benefit of $1.3 billion in US military aid every year.  Although President Obama’s recent statements on behalf of regime change are a good thing, don’t think they is going to change the client status of the Egyptian state or the role of the Egyptian army, its officer corp properly schooled by the US, in maintaining that relationship.  As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others have already said, the military aid is not going to change.

And so a photograph of a democratic moment is also a photograph of an imperial relationship.  From there, its a small step to answering the question of “why they hate us.”

Unlike the army, the Egyptian police have not been playing nice.  Gassing, beating, shooting, spying on, and probably torturing the demonstrators, they have revealed in a few days what they have been doing continuously for many years.  The basic reason that many people hate the US is that we maintain dictators who run police states.  We support those autocrats by providing the enormous advantages in money, weapons, information, and just about anything else they need to suppress their own people. And the people notice.

So it is that we have the photograph above: If you look at the figure on the right, you might see the incarnation of a Fox News nightmare: the terrorist, black on brown, his face covered in defiance, his eyes sharply focused in hate.  (Or you can see a young man wearing a scarf to protect himself against tear gas and perhaps the secret police.)  But look at the tear gas canister on the left.  It will have been fired by the police into the crowd; its effects range from painful to terrifying to debilitating.  And look at the bottom of the can: “Made in USA.”

Photographs by Miguel Medina/AFP-Getty Images and Yannis Behrakis/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Arms and Empire: US Weapons and Egyptian “Stability”


3 Responses

  1. Bryan Walsh says
  2. Emily Cram says

    Even more pressing today, as Mubarak supporters attack protestors in Tahrir Square. Many accounts on Twitter report that pro-Mubarak supporters have been paid by the State to wage a campaign of coordinated violence against the protestors.

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