Diane speaks with Susan Glasser, staff writer at the New Yorker where she writes a weekly column on life in Trump’s Washington.
Egyptian authorities crack down on new protests after thousands take to the streets of Cairo and other cities. The anti-government demonstrations follow the recent toppling of Tunisia’s authoritarian government. Concerns for the stability of Egypt and the region.
- Samer Shehata Assistant professor of Arab politics, Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
- Robin Wright Journalist, author and foreign policy analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
- Graeme Bannerman Scholar at the Middle East Institute, staff leader for Middle East and South Asia on US Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1979-1987), and Middle East analyst on the US State Department Policy Planning Staff.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. When protests in Tunisia succeeded in ousting the authoritarian president earlier this month, Middle East leaders got nervous. They feared the same kind of anti-government unrest among their own people. For Egypt, that fear was realized this week as thousands of protesters took to the streets of Cairo and other cities. Joining us to talk about what this means for Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and other countries in the region, here in the studio, Graeme Bannerman of the Middle East Institute, Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Samer Shehata of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGood morning.
MR. GRAEME BANNERMANGood morning.
MR. SAMER SHEHATAGood morning.
REHMRobin Wright, tell us what's fueling these protests in Cairo.
WRIGHTWell, I think part of it is on aftermath of what happened in Tunisia, and that is this explosion in late December after a young street vendor self-immolated in order to protest the fact that he had lost his job, couldn't support his family, and the regime had made it very difficult for him to survive, which is a common theme throughout that part of the world. Unemployment among youth, it can be as high as one-third, and that includes college graduates. And so this reflected the kind of spark, and it is now spilling over, not only to Egypt, but to places like Yemen. Jordan has had -- seen unrest. There are other parts of the Middle East where regimes are so nervous they've started handing out cash equivalents and Kuwait talking about giving out over $3,000 per person.
WRIGHTBut it reflects something bigger. Since the early 1970s, the two dividing forces in the region have been the regimes, usually autocratic, allowing elections, but with a democratic veneer in which the regimes always get 94 or 99 percent of the vote, and Islamic parties. Now, we're seeing something profoundly different. And that is the emergence of particularly young -- but across the board -- but youth, inspired or connected by modern technology, who are not ideological, who are out there, largely for economic reasons, calling for timeouts and saying this is no longer acceptable to us, and your leadership is not delivering answers.
REHMDo I understand correctly that 40 percent of those in Egypt live at or below the World Bank poverty line of $2 per day, Samer Shehata?
SHEHATAThat's completely correct. Twenty percent of the population lives below poverty. And another 20 percent of the population lives, as you mentioned, very close to poverty, which means that if there were to be 20 percent inflation, as there has been over the last number of years in Egypt, they sink below poverty. So in addition to that, despite the wonderful macroeconomic statistics about growth and high levels of foreign direct investment and so on, income inequality and poverty have actually increased in Egypt over the last number of years, according to IMF and World Bank statistics.
REHMSo the rich are getting richer?
SHEHATANot only are the rich getting richer in Egypt, but, according to Transparency International, corruption has also been increasing.
REHMIs Mr. Mubarak in trouble, Graeme Bannerman?
BANNERMANI think it's too early to say that. It's two days into demonstrations in the street. Even though they've been much larger than anticipated by the government and much larger than anticipated by the international community, two days doesn't tell you that at this point. I think that they have serious problems in Egypt, and I agree with everyone else that the economic, political and social structure of Egypt need serious reforming. And they need to address that.
REHMOf course, the economic effects of these riots and protests, just in the last couple of days, have had profound effects, Robin.
WRIGHTAbsolutely. Rippling effect on Egypt's economy, which is already incapable of absorbing all of its people, or providing for its people, and you've seen the stock market dip both days significantly. The thing for Egypt that is so critical is there is an election scheduled for this year for the presidency. And Hosni Mubarak has not made it clear whether he, as an octogenarian, is going to run again, whether his son, Gamal, might be run in his place, whether you're creating, in effect, a new political dynasty at a time that this is against all the trends in the region. And so there's a lot at stake here, and Mubarak may be affected as much by the economics of it as by the political unrest.
SHEHATAWell, Mr. Mubarak is 82 years old. He has been in power since Oct. 6, 1981. That's 21 years, three months and 21 days. If he were to run again, he would be 83 at the time of running. It's a six-year term. He would be 89 at the end of the term. That is unacceptable to the vast majority of Egyptians. I think that we have seen, over the last couple of days, a political earthquake in Egypt. This was not expected. There is a different Egypt after Jan. 25. The April 6 movement -- the primary movement behind the demonstrations -- has called for continued protest to take place tomorrow after Friday prayers, a holiday. I think it's going to be quite interesting to see how many people come out onto the streets tomorrow and what kind of reaction the regime responds with.
SHEHATAIf people have not seen the front page of The New York Times today in that wonderful picture, I think that captures tremendously what has been happening in Egypt. State security, people beating up two protesters, surrounding them and beating them up with sticks, is just unacceptable.
REHMAnd, Graeme Bannerman, what's been the reaction from the U.S.?
BANNERMANWell, it's very interesting. There seems to be an evolution in the administration's response to the crisis. They -- over the last several days, you have seen from support from the government, moving towards more sympathy to the demonstrators, and, certainly, to the cause of the demonstrators, there's much more sympathy demonstrated.
REHMIt was interesting to hear Robert Gibbs, when he was asked a direct question, to say, Egypt is our ally. Robin.
WRIGHTThe key test for every administration -- going back a long time -- has been what is your priority? Is it the stability of the region? Or is it the democratic values that the United States believes in? And as President Bush said in his 2003 speech, we -- administration's Democrat and Republican have made mistakes for 60 years. But the Bush administration didn't do anything about it. President Obama came in, gave a speech in Cairo, talking about democratic rights, but also didn't do a lot tangibly.
WRIGHTNow, people on the streets are doing it, and the administration had to suddenly decide. What do you say? And it's trying to walk a balancing act in which it says, again, we support free speech. We support the people's right. But the same time, they want stability because those are our most important allies in combating extremism because that's where extremism is the strongest.
SHEHATAI think the administration has gotten it wrong and continues to get it wrong. Robin is right, that there was a brief period between 2003 and 2005 that the Bush administration put pressure on many of these regimes. Unfortunately, that quickly came to an end when Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, came to -- won elections, and they realized a lesson, which is, in some cases, free and fair elections lead to Islamists winning people we don't like. And I don't think that should stand in the way of our support for democracy, but we have consistently got it wrong.
SHEHATASecretary Clinton, on Jan. 11, said in response to a direct question by (word?), a reporter, about what was going on Tunisia, only three days before the ouster of Ben Ali, we are not taking sides. And she repeated it. On Jan. 26, she said, we believe that the Egyptian government is stable, and we believe that they are going to address the interests or the concerns of Egyptian people. Yesterday, there was a moral equivalence that was put forward. Well, we're calling on all sides to restrain themselves.
SHEHATAThat is unacceptable. The United States has to be behind principles of free speech, peaceful political activity, peaceful assembly, free and fair elections universally. We cannot say that the Egyptian regime, using tremendous violence against peaceful protesters, are somehow equal. This isn't a football match. We're not taking sides. It's not the Super Bowl.
BANNERMANI always find these issues more difficult for my background. I am committed both to the democracy 'cause the first thing I did was observe the Marcos-Aquino elections, and I'm really committed to that. But on the other hand, I was the Iran analyst in the policy planning staff of State Department during the revolution, and things didn't evolve quite the way we anticipated. For the United States -- is the government has a different issue. The popular opinion in the Middle East runs so against American policies that any change in any government in the Middle East that becomes more popular will have an anti-American and, certainly, less friendly direction towards the United States, which will be a serious political problem for us.
REHMDo you agree with that, Samer?
SHEHATAWell, I think that if the United States continues supporting these regimes, when they fall eventually, there is going to be tremendous and even more anti-Americanism. So the point is not to support the opposition, but to make it clear that we are behind universal principles of free and fair elections, peaceful political protests against human rights and so on. And that, in itself, should encourage, and we have tremendous leverage. That, in itself, should encourage these regimes to undertake reforms that should have been taken decades ago.
BANNERMANI share the belief that these regimes should've taken reforms decades ago. But I do believe that there are underlying policies of the United States in the region that are unpopular. They don't care for our occupation in Iraq. They don't care for our support for Israel over the Palestinians. They have -- they think we have an anti-Islamic bias. And as long as our policies are seen that way, any popular (word?) in the region will be less friendly to the United States than these.
WRIGHTJust briefly, the United States has basically tried to accommodate both those positions for a long time. And the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and beyond mean they have to finally make a decision.
REHMRobin Wright, she is journalist, author, foreign policy analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace. We'll take a short break. I look forward to hearing from you during the hour. Stay with us.
REHMAnd as we talk about current demonstrations in Egypt, what's happened in Tunisia, the effects across the whole of the Middle East with Robin Wright, a journalist. And she's at the Woodrow Wilson Center now. Samer Shehata, he's professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Graeme Bannerman is a scholar at the Middle East Institute. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Here's a question from Debbie, who says, "European press has reported that Gamal Mubarak and his family left Egypt for the U.K. on Tuesday with 97 suitcases. Has this been verified? And, if so, what does it imply?" Samer.
SHEHATAWell, it hasn't been verified. There's been one regime official who has denied it. But I think the rumor, in and of itself, which is widespread in Egypt -- and I heard it independently, directly from people in Egypt -- is interesting. It shows that people believe that this could happen, that the -- as it has happened in Tunisia with Ben Ali's departure. And, in fact, on the 25th and yesterday, the shouts on the streets were, Mubarak, Mubarak, Saudi Arabia is waiting for you. It's a beautiful phrase in Arabic because it rhymes, but it refers to, of course, Ben Ali's departure to Saudi Arabia. So people don't have faith that these leaders are committed to staying in the country because they are not popular, and they're not legitimate.
REHMRobin, who has instigated this uprising? Has it come totally spontaneously? Was the Muslim Brotherhood involved?
WRIGHTThe Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition force -- or had been in parliament -- largest visible opposition force. But it has distanced itself, in many ways, claims it did not organize this. This is largely non-ideological movement, that it reflects some of the young bloggers, activists, civil society groups that have emerged, often with great difficultly, particularly in a place like Egypt. And that's what's so striking about what's happening everywhere, that this is not the traditional opposition that is leading it, that there's no ideology.
REHMAnd, of course, we've got all this electronic and technology moving in here. But hasn't Egypt closed that down? Samer.
SHEHATAYes, yes. They have stopped SMS messaging at times. They have tried to put down Facebook and Twitter and so on, again, against any conception of free media and free speech. And they've been called on that. People, however, are still organizing protests and are able to communicate with each other. But the regime is trying to stop to interfere from people organizing and the tremendous resource that these media provide.
WRIGHTWell, one thing we have to remember, that, since the mid-1990s, there have been so many satellite stations that have taken the visual image -- or control of the visual image away from state media. Al Jazeera played an incredibly important role in Tunisia, and, I think, again, does in Egypt in giving constant play. And that's why you see not unrest in one country but spreading across the region because it's just visible. It's being covered.
REHMNobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei is said to be returning to Egypt today. What will he do there, in your mind, Graeme?
BANNERMANI think it's essential for him to return to Egypt because he can't be seen as sitting in Europe when all of this ferment is going on in Cairo. He has to be part of it. He has to take a leadership role, and I think he'll try to insert himself into the process.
REHMWhat effect will he have, Samer?
SHEHATAWell, I think one of the things is that if Mohamed ElBaradei is involved in the peaceful demonstrations, if he is in downtown Cairo in the main square with the thousands of protesters, that will certainly make the regime think once and twice about using the level of repression they have used -- the water cannons, the tear gas, the live ammunition in the air, the truncheons to people's heads. It will serve as a way to limit that repression, I think.
SHEHATABut this goes well beyond Mohamed ElBaradei, well beyond Mohamed ElBaradei. These groups -- April 6, the Kefaya -- enough to Mubarak, the Ghad Party, which is also participating in this, and then the other opposition groups, which aren't behind this -- as Robin mentioned -- are really the primary instigators, and Egyptian Youth. More than 50 percent of the population is below the age of 28, which means that more than half of Egyptians have only experienced one president -- President Mubarak.
REHMNow, it's very interesting to recall what happened in Tunisia with the army. The army did not get into the fray. What's likely to happen here in Egypt?
WRIGHTYou know, I wish I could be that predictive. I'm not sure, but they're very different states. The military is much more pervasive. There are many more wings than they have -- arguably, more invested -- at least the leadership does. And so many of the young people look at the military as a source of revenue, you know, even if they're marginal jobs. I think the -- some -- one of the bigger questions, really, is, who steps in these huge leadership voids? And the military played a bit of a role. There was even an indication that the army chief of staff in Tunisia might be someone who would emerge in the vacuum.
WRIGHTIn Egypt, one of the questions is whether it's Mohamed ElBaradei, who doesn't have a strong base for his National Association of Change yet. The Muslim Brotherhood is not something that's been organized or part of this. Who steps in as the leadership void? We get all excited about, oh, this wave of change and these popular demonstrations. But as we saw in Iran, the first year-and-a-half evolved, increasingly, into an Islamic republic. And so we need to be very careful when looking at these, when we're trying to understand because regime's isolated exile, put under house arrest, and sometimes executed the opposition -- traditional liberal, secular opposition. Who's there to fill in the void?
REHMI think Samer is disagreeing with your perception.
SHEHATAYes. I don't think -- I mean, Iran is not a model anymore. Iran and the model of Iran, the theocratic republic and so on, has long been dismissed by Islamist movements in the region, from Morocco all the way to Iraq. And it is the case that Egypt is a country of institutions, and there are political leaders -- journalists, lawyers, intellectuals, business people -- who have a range of political views, from extremely liberal to Islamist -- of course, Islamist not of the Iran theocratic variety, but much more moderate.
SHEHATASo I don't have any fear whatsoever that an Iran situation can develop in Egypt. We shouldn't be concerned about that. But Robin's point about the differences with regard to the military and the security forces in Egypt and Tunisia is extremely correct. In Egypt, unfortunately, there are about 600,000 people who are in the central security forces, whose primary responsibility is, really, repression of domestic dissent.
REHMBut are the security forces separate and distinct from the army itself?
SHEHATAThey are. And if things were to get out of hand, if things were to require the army to be mobilized -- and some people have said that the army is already on standby -- and if there was excessive use of violence by the security forces against civilians, the shooting into protesters, hundreds of people die, then, I think, the army -- especially after what happened in Tunisia -- would think once and twice about using repression. There are high costs for the institution and for Egypt as a state that would pay if that were to take place.
BANNERMANI would like to take a little different view of the army. The Egyptian army is different, certainly from the American Army. It is very much outside politics. It has -- main function is stability of the country. It -- for example, the military don't vote. They're not allowed to vote in Egyptian elections. They live in cantonments on the outside of town. They perform the role not only of the army but of the National Guard. When you had the earthquake disaster, it was the army that interceded to bring order because they had the organizational capabilities. But in the end, their responsibility is to make sure that the country is stable and not out of control.
BANNERMANThere's been three times in the last 35 years where the army has interceded in Egyptian internal affairs. One was the 1977 bread riots, then again in 1986 when you had the police riots in Cairo, and the third time was in the late '90s after the Luxor massacres. The army only interceded reluctantly when they thought they needed to bring stability. If the army is -- ever comes in to intervene in Egypt, it will be to restore stability to the country and order.
SHEHATAAnd that doesn't necessarily mean restoring the president, although I agree with Graeme. The other thing to mention is that, you know, President Mubarak, of course, himself is a military man, right? He was the head of the air force. And there are very deep connections economically and otherwise between leading army officials and elements in the state. So it's not clear that -- I mean, the situation is very different from the Tunisian case, in which the army was professionalized. The army had a different role, historically, in politics. Of course, the Habib Bourguiba, the independence leader and so on and long-serving president, was not a military man. So there are significant differences.
REHMRobin Wright, to what extent does the protest arise because of Mubarak's son and the belief -- at least on the part of those who may be taking part in these protests -- that the senior is going to name him as the next president?
WRIGHTI'm not sure that that was a spark behind the unrest we're seeing right now. But that certainly plays into it, in the sense that you have a man who is now in his 80s, who may run again and, if not, his son does and that this is going to perpetuate the political and economic melees that has dominated Egypt for so long now. So he's -- I think the Gamal issue is not on the horizon. My earlier point is not that I'm suggesting that there are any similarities with Iran at all -- and far from it.
WRIGHTI think the Iranian model is totally obsolete. But the pattern and the lesson of revolutions, historically, is that you go through a period in the aftermath that is very uncertain and that unlikely players come in to fill the void. And the longer those revolutions take, the more uncertain -- the greater the radicalization, and it leads to something that, you know, is not pleasant for -- ends up not being pleasant for a lot of people. Tunisia was very lucky. It took one month between the beginning and -- of the uprising and Ben Ali's ouster. But it's also not over.
REHMAnd, on that very point, let's open the phone to Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Madaj. (sp?) You're on the air.
MADAJGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
MADAJI want to thank your panelists for all the honest answers that they've been giving back. I'm an Egyptian American. I just want to make sure that I point out to you that not every, you know, grassroots movement in Egypt or the Middle East is an Islamic movement. So, I think, we owe it to ourselves to at least give it a chance and support it from the -- especially from the U.S. And I'm going to say, not every revolution is going to be an Islamic revolution. Not every country in the Middle East is going to be Iraq. So I hope that the listeners will understand that.
SHEHATAWell, the gentleman is completely correct. And as we mentioned -- all of us -- the instigators of the -- or the people who called for the protest originally, were the April 6 Movement, completely, you know, secular or non-religious movement. The Kefaya (word?) Mubarak movement -- also not religiously oriented -- the National Association for Change, Mohamed ElBaradei's movement and the brotherhood actually declined to participate in the Jan. 25 protests for all different kinds of reasons. So the gentleman is completely correct. And the other point is that these regimes have very shrewdly used the Islamist bogeyman to scare Western governments and publics to support them. So what they give to the West -- or the alternative, they say, is it's either us or al-Qaida. And, of course, that's not the case.
REHMSamer Shehata, he is assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Eugene, Ore. Good morning, Al.
ALThank you for taking my call. Yes. I would like to ask your panelists about the effect of the U.S., and mostly the Western countries, with regard to the Middle East process. It seems like it's continuously -- would have taken into account mostly a Zionist narrative of what's going on there, the continuation of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians through settlements. I would like to see how, if these -- if the population of the Middle East, especially in those Arab countries, end up taking care or command of their lives.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. Graeme Bannerman, on this point, to what extent is what's happening in Egypt relevant and connected to the ongoing Middle East peace process?
BANNERMANI believe the events in Egypt are related to the situation in Egypt. There are -- as we said before, the political economic situation in Egypt needs fundamental transformation, and this is the Egyptian society rising to that. Will those other questions, that the caller suggests, about the American policy towards the peace process and other regional issues, have an impact upon our relationship with these countries? Absolutely. And as the country is more popular -- as I said before -- as more popular opinions come forward, there will be greater disagreements with the policies of the United States.
SHEHATAWell, the caller is right in one sense only, that the United States depends heavily on and benefits from the existing relationship with Egypt -- not necessarily the Mubarak regime. It doesn't have to be that way -- in maintaining and furthering its policy on the region, whether that's containment of Iran, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the peace treaty with Israel, the tremendous military cooperation between the U.S. and Egypt, the idea that naval vessels can pass through the Suez Canal, as well as intelligence sharing and cooperation in the so-called war on terrorism. So the U.S. benefits tremendously from the "cooperation," or client state status, really, of the Mubarak regime.
WRIGHTThere's actually, also, kind of a position in between that a lot of people in Egypt and elsewhere believe that their governments do more for the United States or carry out agendas that are more compatible with American interest than with their own people's needs -- that Egypt, for example, is cooperative in dealing with extremist groups, al-Qaida, and particularly in negotiating on Arab-Israeli issues whereas it doesn't do much at home. And so that's a perception that affects their thinking generally.
REHMWhere is Hosni Mubarak in all of this? We haven't heard a word.
SHEHATAWe haven't. There were rumors that he was in Sharm el-Sheikh, which he spends much of his time in Sharm el-Sheikh. But it's also the case that I read in the Egyptian press, that on Tuesday, he was addressing the police cadets because it was police day, a national holiday, in a different part of Cairo. But the point is, Diane, you're right, that the Egyptian government has not forcefully come out and made a statement about the events. In fact, the only thing that we've really seen is the interior ministry come out and try to scare protesters by saying, we will have no tolerance. Demonstrations will not be accepted. And we will detain, arrest and prosecute those people who try the peaceful (word?)
REHMSo how do you read that? How do you read the fact that Hosni Mubarak has not spoken?
SHEHATAWell, I think, you know, the regime is in a very difficult situation. You'll remember what happened in Tunisia when Ben Ali said, I understand you, and he came out on TV. That just increased the flames of protests.
REHMSamer Shehata of Georgetown University. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back as we talk about events in Egypt, Tunisia, and how the kind of outburst of protest could spread to other countries. And that, really, is the question for now, Robin. What about Yemen? What about Lebanon? What about other countries?
WRIGHTWell, I think we've seen a pattern developing here, and Yemen is obviously the next place to monitor. And Yemen is so important because this is also the largest operating base of al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula and, in many ways, the most dangerous place in the Persian Gulf because of that. They have rebellion into the north, the secession effort in the south, and al-Qaida operating in one of the most unruly and one of the poorest countries of the region -- far poorer than Egypt. It's largely oil estate in the Gulf that -- in terms of export anyway. And people live terribly poorly. And you've now began to see calls for the ouster of President Saleh, and this is another important development. I would think, actually, that he is in more trouble than Hosni Mubarak.
REHMWe've had a caller from Berlin, Germany, who's watching Al Jazeera showing the Palestinian papers, the 24/7 WikiLeaks document. He wants to know what effect this might have on Egypt and Tunisia, Samer.
SHEHATAI don't think that the so-called Palestine papers that have been released by and uncovered by Al Jazeera really has any effect. I mean, if anything, it is simply symptomatic and, again, representative of an unrepresentative political authority -- the PA being out of touch with the population, having no accountability, no transparency whatsoever -- but it's not really what's causing or behind in any way with the protest in Egypt.
WRIGHTIt may have more impact on the future of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, because he is in the documents, reportedly willingly to give up more than the Palestinians have indicated publicly. And he is 70 years old. This is the time when he faces a lot of problems at home. And so we may see the WikiLeaks play out on that front, but not in Egypt.
BANNERMANI think the WikiLeaks actually played an important role in Tunisia. I think some of the leaks of the American criticism and the reporting back to the United States from the ambassador in Tunis about the Ben Ali regime and the corruption and all of that had -- gave validity to those complaints in the general population and had an impact there.
SHEHATAThat's correct. I mean, it wasn't anything that anyone in Tunisia, or who has studied Tunisia, didn't know. You know, we knew about the extensive corruption of the Ben Ali regime. It was proof, however, that the Americans also knew, and that was interesting. And some of the details were outlandish, the idea that Ben Ali's son-in-law had a pet tiger which he fed four chickens a day to or that Ben Ali would ask for 50 percent of certain business deals himself and so and so. That was startling.
SHEHATABut the idea that there was corruption in Tunisia and that the family was very much involved in this was widely, widely known.
REHMA call here in Washington D.C. Ibrahim, welcome. Oh, dear. Ibrahim, are you there? I think not. Let's go to Omar in Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning to you.
OMARI'm originally from West Africa, Mauritania, and what's going on today in Egypt makes me think we are losing a big ally like Mubarak. What will be the impact of this (word?) in Egypt, in the Middle East, by looking the peace process?
REHMSo, if Mubarak does in fact lose his position, where does that lead the U.S. as far as what they have called their ally in the Middle East? Graeme.
BANNERMANWell, I don't like to speculate because I think it's a little early to put President Mubarak out of office. I think that's a mistake. I think, clearly, Egypt was already in a transition. They have been preparing for the post-Mubarak era for the last two or three years, and they continue to do so. I think that is one of the reasons for the unrest, is because you have this period of uncertainty of where the leadership is going to go. I think I'd like to make one point about President Mubarak speaking. I think the Egyptians learned from the Tunisians that you do not go onto the radio as the president of the country or address the nation on television from a position of weakness. They believe you look strong as the president, and he will not address the nation till he sees things under control.
REHMHmm. How do you feel about that, Samer?
SHEHATAWell, I think that's right. I mean, what we saw from Tunisia was Ben Ali coming up and making a series of concessions and people being even more enthusiastic, more enabled, more empowered as a result of those kinds of concessions. So if Mubarak were to come out and make some kind of statements, I think people would feel even more empowered to protest.
REHMHere is an e-mail from Chapel Hill, N.C. Susan asks, "Even if the repressive regime is currently being assailed by their people, or even willing to make changes in how they conduct government, do they know how? How could that be facilitated?" Robin.
WRIGHTI think they could. There are lots of mechanisms for change. But they also know that opening up the system, whether it's free speech, less -- you know, less corruption, or picking up people engaged in corruption, that that then opens up the avenues for political change as well. That makes them vulnerable. So the cost-benefit of opening up for a lot of these regimes, you know, doesn't weigh on their favor. That's why this period is so interesting, that they face pretty brutal choices. Do they try to hold out and hope that this -- their security forces can beat them down, which is quite possible in Egypt. Or do they worry about kind of ongoing and growing or increasingly radical opposition, that then forces them out, or forces them to take bigger change? Then, sure, they're going to be out.
REHMAnd on that point, Alex would like to know, how would the Christian minority in Egypt fare under a change in regime?
SHEHATAWell, hopefully, like everyone else in Egypt, better. I think that if the groups that are protesting continue to protest and if they were to come to power in some way, then they would fare better than they have previously. All Egyptians are the victims of abuse by the regime. And, certainly, I think, all of the protesters and the groups that have been protesting have been calling for constitutionalism rule of law, equal citizenship, end to torture and so on. And there have been Christian and Muslim protesters, and I think that will continue.
REHMAnd to Orlando, Fla. Good morning, Allison. You're on the air.
ALLISONGood morning, Diane. I just had a quick question for the panel. What would the effect -- I know Saudi Arabia turns a lot of money towards the port of call areas that they have interest in. What effect does the Egyptian revolution have on Saudi Arabia and vice versa?
BANNERMANWe're jumping the gun here. I'm not sure we're at the revolutionary state yet in Egypt. If there were a revolution in Egypt, it would be transforming in the region. One cannot forget the importance of Egypt to the Middle East. It is the fulcrum of political power. Even now, it's not as important as it used to be, but it's still vital to the entire region.
BANNERMANEgypt is the only country in the region that, when it shifts its balance, it affects everybody else. I think in the revolution in -- when Sadat made the decision in early 1970s and decided to move Egypt away from supporting the Soviet Union to supporting the United States, it tipped the entire region in favor of the United States for a long period. There were islands against us -- Syrian, Iraq, at times -- but on the whole, it's been very favorable territory for American policy.
WRIGHTIn the 22-nation Arab bloc, Egypt accounts for one quarter of the population. It's always been said that Egypt was the heart and intellectual soul of the Middle East. There's a saying that books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq, and it is true of political ideas as well.
SHEHATAThat's completely correct. I mean, as was mentioned, the most populist country, if there were to be a change of regime, it would be an earthquake in the Middle East, and there would be a new Middle East as we know it. And although Egypt's regional influence has declined in the last few years as a result of poor governance at home and the rise of Iran and Turkey and so on, there's no question that if there was a change of government in Egypt, there would be a new political landscape in the Middle East.
REHMPeople really are jumping the gun, Graeme. Here's another e-mail from Diane in Houston, Texas. "What institutions might be strong enough to handle government affairs should Mubarak be forced out? What would give them cohesion?" Samer.
SHEHATAWell, the most coherent institution in Egypt today that could play a potential role is the army. The army -- as was mentioned before -- is removed from the day-to-day coercion that makes the security forces completely illegitimate. It's also removed from the visible corruption of the ruling party, which is similar to the ruling party in Tunisia in the sense that it's hollow, ideology-less in a way. And the army has a great deal of respect among ordinary Egyptians as a national institution. That being said, however, Egypt has universities that, although deteriorating, are very important. Egypt has political parties. Egypt has journalists and lawyers and judges. The judges club has been very important in Egypt. So there are enough capable people and institutions that we shouldn't be overly concerned about chaos or regime breakdown completely.
BANNERMANWell, you also have a huge bureaucracy in Egypt. I mean, if nothing else, Egypt has a long tradition of strong central government, and that's not going to change. Those people are in place.
WRIGHTWhatever happens in Egypt, we have to see this moment as part of something bigger that's been happening throughout the region for the last four, five years -- whether it's the seat of revolution in Lebanon where one-quarter of the entire population turned out, whether it's the Green Movement in Iran, which is the largest protest in 2009 since the revolution -- that there is something called people power that is emerging in the region. And we see it now in places, and it's -- this is something that's quite different. It's part of a trend. Whatever happens in Egypt today or tomorrow with the...
WRIGHTWell, ElBaradei, but (word?) call for demonstrations. The regime also knows that. It'll be out in force, its water trucks and everything else. But it, you know -- this is not the end of it. We tend to think, you know, you flick a switch and something happens. It doesn't happen that way in the region. It's slower, and it may take -- could play out years. But the fact is the region is changing, and people power is doing it. And it's not Islamic as it has been in the past. It's youth driven. It's secular. And it's very important. It's the most dynamic time in the region in decades.
REHMRobin Wright. She is a journalist and author, foreign policy analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She's also a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We haven't talked about Iran and the impact of whatever happens here in Egypt, what effect that could have on what's going on in Iran. Samer.
SHEHATAI don't think that much, actually. I think that there is a significant difference between the Arab world and Iran. I think that, I'm sure, people in Iran are following the protests in Egypt and in Yemen and looking at what happened in Tunisia. But there is a divide, really, when it comes to these kinds of things. As we said before, Iran and the Iranian Revolution is no longer really a model for Egyptians. People looked at what happened in the protests in 2009 after the presidential elections in Egypt and ask, why can't we take to the streets like that? Why can't we put on mass demonstrations to challenge the regime? But, in terms of it being inspirational, I don't think so. It's a different identity, a different nationality there.
WRIGHTIt's a whole different era. That's what's making it so interesting.
REHMAll right. And, finally, let's see if we can now get Ibrahim, who's here in Washington on the air. Good morning.
IBRAHIMGood morning, Diane. And thank you for taking the call and giving me a second chance.
IBRAHIMI am an Egyptian American. I do care about both countries. I have loyalty to both Egypt and the U.S. I was pleased that Secretary Clinton changed her statement from stable government in Egypt to demands for human rights and so on. What I'd like to ask the panel to address is the U.S. interest in democracy and human rights and freedom in that part of the world. In the long run, it is beneficial for us to support these principles than the old-fashion dictators. I'll take my call off the air. Thank you.
REHMThank you. Robin.
WRIGHTClearly, that's the key issue. The United States does have a vested interest long term. No administration has been willing to bite the bullet and basically say to our allies, it's time, and you have to open up. And -- because that jeopardizes, whether in Egypt, peace process and Egypt's role or the war against extremism, since the 9/11 attacks, our priorities have been dealing with extremists and eliminating it. And that's often meant dealing with regimes that are distasteful and their distasteful practices.
REHMAre you all generally optimistic about the outcome of what's happening now in Egypt? Graeme.
BANNERMANI'm in a complete conundrum. I have no idea what the outcome is going to be, so, therefore, it's neither optimistic nor pessimistic because we don't know where it's going. But the problem for the United States on the democracy issue is in the cases where you've had really free and fair elections in the Middle East. The United States has then had to change its attitude towards the winners. The perfect example is Hamas. I was an election observer in the election -- Palestinian elections. And, clearly, Hamas won free and fair. Now, where are the winners of the Hamas on the West Bank today? They're in Israeli jails. And in Lebanon, we saw the -- I was an observer there, too, in 2009, and the winners were -- the balance of power has changed in Lebanon. And, now, you have a government at which Hezbollah has greater influence. How are we going to respond to that?
SHEHATAI'm a pessimist about everything. But when it comes to the Middle East, I actually think we're seeing the kind of change that we've seen elsewhere in the world, in Southern Africa, in the east -- Soviet east bloc, in Latin America. This is part of an historic moment. The Middle East, the Islamic world is the last to go through this period of change. It will be difficult. We will sometimes be nostalgic for the past because it was simpler to understand, and they were people we identified and knew. It's going to be messy. But in the long run, it's part of an historical trend.
SHEHATAI'm optimistic despite my political science background. There will be change in Egypt. It's just a question of when and how. And that is up to the regime, and it's up to the United States and, most importantly, to the Egyptian people. There is a difference between pre-Jan. 25 Egypt and post-25 Egypt. There's no going back.
REHMSamer Shehata of Georgetown University, Robin Wright of the Wilson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace and Graeme Bannerman, scholar at the Middle East Institute, thank you all so much. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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