While France and Germany both suspended their sales of arms and crowd control equipment to the Mubarak regime last week, neither the British nor US governments have done the same.

In the UK’s case, it’s not that big a deal — it only sold £16 million worth of equipment in 2009, not much more than the Germans — but the US government provides about $1.3 billion a year in military aid to Egypt.

Like much western aid, though, US military aid to Egypt is really about US aid to its own industries. Prior to the 1978 Sadat-Begin peace deal, Egypt had principally relied on the Soviet Union for its arms. One of the conditions Jimmy Carter agreed to as part of the peace deal was extensive military aid for Egypt — Israel, naturally, already being a recipient of generous US assistance.

But US military companies have always been the big winners from this. The Guardian reported last week that General Dynamics, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky Aircraft are currently the biggest beneficiaries of the United States’ military assistance to Egypt.

That’s why there was never a serious chance of the Obama administration threatening to halt its military aid.

While the US-backed Egyptian Army has so far played a relatively even-handed role in the protests (the regime’s paramilitary Central Security Forces have been the primary tool deployed against demonstrators), the regime’s crackdown has benefited from corporate support from other Western companies.

The company that has drawn most attention is Vodafone, the majority owner of Vodafone Egypt — and a major minority shareholder is the Egyptian government. Vodafone spammed its Egyptian customers with at least two pro-Mubarak SMSs last week. Mobinil, which also sent out spam SMSs, is majority-owned by France Telecom.

Vodafone claimed it had been forced to do so under the country’s telecommunications laws giving the government emergency powers over its network. However, as critics pointed out, it is in no position to complain given it surely understood it was working closely with — and profiting from — a regime dedicated to torture and murder like Mubarak’s.

There are no excuses for California’s Narus (subject of an Al Jazeera profile), which not only does business with some of the world’s worst regimes but develops products specifically designed for use by repressive governments. The Mubarak regime, via its ICT company Telecom Egypt, used Narus’s deep packet inspection technology in an effort to track its opponents online and via SMS.

“We’re looking forward to working with Telecom Egypt with the security and management needs of their network,” said Narus CEO Greg Oslan back in 2005.

Narus, which is now owned by Boeing, has also done business with the misogynistic dictators of Saudi Arabia and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, among others.

Net activist Jacob Applebaum, who has closely monitored the Mubarak regime’s internet shutdown, last week demonstrated that Egyptian government-controlled TE Data has, since internet services were restored, been throttling its service down to as low of 16kB/s in an effort to reduce access to social media to organise demonstrations and provide information.

More straightforward mandatory internet filtering is widespread across the region and the tool most commonly used by regimes, according to internet censorship expert Jillian York, is McAfee’s Smart Filter, which is in use in a number of countries including Saudi Arabia and, hitherto, in Tunisia. McAfee is now owned by Intel.

On a more real-world level, Combined Systems Inc provided the teargas that Egyptian police used by the truckload in a futile effort to suppress the demonstrations. CSI, which also provides teargas to the Israeli military, makes a wide variety of “tactical munitions”, “impact munitions”, “crowd control devices” and “irritant munitions”. CSI is owned by Point Lookout Capital Partners, which specialises in military manufacturers, and the Carlyle Group. A Fairfax journalist also found shotgun shells stamped “Made in USA” in Tahrir Square, though the manufacturer is unknown.

In fact the Middle East revolutions have been a boon for teargas manufacturers. French manufacturer Sofexi shipped seven tonnes of teargas grenades to the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia between December and January, according to the North Africa Journal.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been so welcome for other businesses. Just under a fortnight ago, Phil Fersht — “Founder and CEO of HfS Research, the leading analyst firm and think-tank dedicated to global outsourcing strategies” — described events in Egypt from the point of view of global outsourcing companies, and was very unhappy. He lamented:

“The Egypt situation is a serious blow to many of the developing nations seeking to take their share of global services, which have potentially questionable political stability. What is clear, is that Twitter, Facebook, etc are rapidly inspiring large numbers of people in nations with high unemployment to protest, where they feel their governments don’t ‘listen’ strongly enough to their grievances, and aren’t pushing political reform at the same pace as economic reform. There is real fear now that the uprisings in Iran, Tunisia and now Egypt will continue to exacerbate in other nations, and this is going to have consequential ramifications on global sourcing decisions.”

If only the protesters in Tahrir Square would think about their “ramifications” on global outsourcing before demanding freedom.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey