Belmont Club

The Perils of "Leading From Behind"

“It’s always America’s fault”, Egypt says. When you don’t know whether to agree with this accusatory trope or not, then you really have a problem. The Associated Press notes how the Arab Spring is turning out in Egypt.


Egyptian security forces stormed the offices of 10 human rights and pro-democracy groups on Thursday, including several based in the U.S., accused by the country’s military rulers of destabilizing security by fomenting protests with the help of foreign funding.

The raids on 17 offices throughout Egypt are part of the ruling generals’ attempt to blame “foreign hands” for the unrest that continues to roil Egypt since the 18-day revolt that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in February, but that activists say failed to topple his regime.

The Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which is not under investigation, said in a statement that the raids went beyond the type of Mubarak-era tactics that spurred hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to take to the streets demanding freedom and democracy during this year’s uprising.

The irony is that many of these NGOs congratulated themselves on playing a role in starting the Egyptian protests in the first place. The lesson the secret police are teaching is that it is one thing to start a revolution and another to win it. The World Policy Blog carries article by Carmel Delshad: “Unwanted: NGOs in Post-Revolution Egypt”.

Translation. You’re no longer useful, so scram.

In recent months, Egyptian banks have been ordered by the Central Bank of Egypt to inform the Central Bank and the Ministry of Solidarity of any transactions between NGOs and charity groups. The interim government also launched an investigation into the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) funding of unregistered NGOs in Egypt, which prompted U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson to hand over a list of organizations that have taken U.S. funds (USAID’s director in Egypt quit in August). A reported $40 million has been given to groups since the revolution.


Things look a whole different today than in February, 2011 when Mark Mardell of the BBC wrote “Obama adopts Egypt’s revolution”. The President had just taken retroactive credit for overthrowing Hosni Mubarak. It was a pattern that would repeat itself in subsequent months until the heading, “leading from behind”.

Barack Obama looked supremely happy making his speech on the exit of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. It was not just that he could complete the one he had started prematurely yesterday. It was not just that, despite all the brickbats that have been thrown at the White House for clumsy handling of this crisis, the administration has got exactly what it has wanted for a couple of weeks: the exit of Mr Mubarak, the entry of the military as caretakers, the promise of democracy, and the absence of violence.

It is more personal, and more political than that. Maybe it is the old community organiser in him, maybe it is the admiring, almost envious, student of the great civil rights leaders, but something tells me few things light him up more than seeing ordinary people overcoming obstacles to seize their own future.

This triumph allowed Mr Obama to revert to the visionary candidate of the campaign, as he did in Tucson after a tragedy.

When he talks about the “moral arc of the universe” you know he is in his element. This is what he is best at. Weaving a selection of facts into a simple story that builds into a grand moral narrative that speaks to his greater vision. He instantly cast the Egyptian revolution as part of a pattern. …

Film stars can adopt foreign orphans, Mr Obama has adopted a foreign revolution, and with it a foreign policy narrative that allows him to restate his core manifesto of inspiration and unity.


It will be interesting to see whether President Obama disinherits his adopted revolution now that it appears to be blowing up in his face. The Islamists and the Army, both of whom were once partners in days before Nassar, may reminding President Obama of a few English-language saws he may have forgotten. Among them: “he who laughs last, laughs best.” Or “never count your chickens until they’re hatched.” Still another is “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. Each of these sayings makes a single point: if you’re not in control of events, don’t pretend you are. The problem with the strategy “leading from behind” is that it’s a contradiction in terms, besides being indistinguishable from opportunism.

Maybe the President will remember some lessons a true Man of the Left should never forget: the fate of the Old Bolsheviks; the men who made the Russian Revolution, who finished up mostly dead or in exile. They all started ahead of Stalin. They all finished behind him. That is because revolutions were made to be betrayed; and its mantle is always up for grabs. In revolution, the race is not to the swift, but to the shameless. Like the Old Bolsheviks, just because President Obama took credit for overthrowing Mubarak in February doesn’t mean someone else couldn’t come along and lift the mantle from his shoulders. Anyone who would successfully see them through to their conclusion has got to watch its progress like a hawk. A teleprompter and 15 minute speech doesn’t cut the ice.


The interesting thing about the Old Bolsheviks is that they retained faith in the monstrous system which was destroyed them until the last. Some even contrived to praise Stalin with their dying breaths. Dr. Johnson, writing in Marxists.Org noted that betrayal was endemic; not the exception to the rule but the rule itself. One set of victims were African Americans who believed that they would find solidarity among their ideological bretheren. They thought wrong:

it invited some Negroes to Moscow to make a film which would depict lynching and the other features of Negro life in America. The company was selected and reached Moscow. American capitalism, however, realizes that, although it can deceive the people at home, it would be difficult for it to pose abroad as the friend of democracy if its treatment of Negroes were exposed in so popular a medium as a film. Washington was at that time engaged in negotiations with Moscow over recognition of the Soviet government, and made it quite clear that if the Russians made any such film, it would be regarded as a serious obstacle in the way of an understanding.

The Moscow bureaucracy reacted in characteristic fashion. It capitulated before the capitalists. It sought to deceive and browbeat the workers. The Negroes who had gone to Moscow were told that it was impossible for the Soviet production studios to find time and room to make the film. When some of the Negroes protested, several attempts were made to frame them as drunkards, disorderly persons, etc. in order to discredit in advance any protest that they might make when they returned home. In all this the Daily Worker, which now cannot contain its rage at Hollywood’s crimes, played its usual obedient and servile role as a tout for the Kremlin’s crimes.

Among the Negroes who went to Moscow to help in the making of the film was Langston Hughes, the Negro poet. Hughes is one of the most pertinacious fellow-travellers of the Stalinists. He is, or was, vice-president of their stooge organization, the American Writers Congress. He has represented the Stalinist point of view at international congresses in Europe. Some of his works are published by Stalinist publishing houses. When the Moscow bureaucracy tried to impose its lies on the Negroes who had gone to Moscow to make the Negro film, he accepted the “explanation” entirely and cooperated with the Moscow bureaucrats, to smash down those who refused to accept this transparent lie.


That kind of doubletalk, of course, is exactly what the President may soon find himself doing before too long. He’s caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. In order to continue to depict his support of the Egyptian revolution he must continue to maintain that the raid on the NGOs is nothing but a momentary abberation, just a hiccup in the “arc of history”. Or else he must eat crow; admit he was duped; confess he was taken for a fool. For now, the second tier is protesting the raids on NGOs. Will the President admit that he’s made a mistake? Well, how could he?

Another senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in private channels, the United States had sent an even stronger message: “This crosses a line.”

“It’s triggered by ongoing concerns about control,” the official added, as the ruling military council confronted the mounting pressure to hand over power.

Others called the raids a major challenge to Washington’s policy toward Egypt, which receives $1.3 billion in year in American military aid.

Besides “not counting your chickens before they’re hatched” there’s one other English phrase the Egyptian Islamists and Army might remind President Obama of : it is, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

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