Crisis in Cairo
Mubarak is an autocrat, but he’s also a pro-Israel U.S. ally. As his regime teeters, Tablet turns to experts for perspectives on a rapidly shifting landscape. The latest: foreign policy expert Leslie H. Gelb.
This page will be updated with new interviews as events unfold.
Do you know what to think about the events in Egypt? Me neither.
I was confused last week, and this week’s developments—including the appointment of Omar Suleiman as President Hosni Mubarak’s first-ever vice president and the moderate activist Mohammed ElBaradei receiving the backing of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood—have only made me more confused. What I know is that Egypt is the second-biggest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel; that Egypt was the first Arab state to recognize Israel; that Israel’s relationship with Egypt might be its most important (after its relationship with the United States); that Mubarak has ruled Egypt undemocratically under a perpetually extended Emergency Law for 30 years; and that over the past week the Egyptian people have, as they never have before, said “Kifaya!”—“Enough!” I know that the United States and Israel did pretty well by Egypt with Mubarak in place and that it is not hard to see the two countries doing less well if the Muslim Brotherhood has a larger hand in things; I also know that if I happened to be Egyptian, I’d probably be in the streets demanding my rights, too.
The events in Egypt—the Egyptian Revolution?—might be the most important thing to happen in the region since (take your pick) the Second Lebanon War, the Second Intifada, the Oslo Accords, the First Intifada, the First Lebanon War, or the Iranian Revolution. To try to understand better what’s going on, I’m going to talk to a number of insightful commentators this week, coming from many different perspectives, and report what they have to say, even as events unfold. If there are some voices you think I’m missing, please let me know in the comments.
Friday, February 4, 1:00 p.m.: Leslie H. Gelb is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times and a former senior official in the State and Defense departments. He is currently president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
So, what’s going to happen next?
I don’t know.
Fair! What do you want to see happen next?
I want to see some agreement between the protesters, who aren’t exactly a committee, and the Mubarak regime, that would involve Mubarak stepping aside without humiliation. And [Omar] Suleiman becoming acting leader, negotiations between him and various leaders—they should try to put together a representative group—have a constituent assembly to modify the constitution on the key points, and to allow for elections in three months, supervised by the U.N.
Say all that happens: What if the elections bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power?
It’s a problem. There’s nothing we can do about it, it’s their choice. But the Egyptians should know it’s a problem, and we should know it’s a problem.
Some say it’s not.
The naivete in the foreign policy community here is astonishing. For the moment, they’re intoxicated by democracy, at the total expense of U.S. security.
Well the rebuttal would be that the stability you prize actually helps radical groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
People like Robert Kagan say it’s illusory stability. I say he’s talking about illusory democracy. I don’t think they can jump from a, quote, democratic mob to a functioning democracy. It’s a complicated, difficult process. Usually the best organized, most ruthless, and disciplined organization prevails. Am I predicting that’s what will happen? I don’t know! But if you look at history, that’s what has happened.
There’s been more talk of Amr Moussa as a possible opposition leader in recent days, and a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks cites him as third most likely successor after Gamal Mubarak and Suleiman. Who is Amr Moussa?
Amr Moussa is a very experienced Egyptian diplomat who’s now head of the Arab League. He has political connections, he’s tough, he’s shrewd, and my guess is he will factor in.
How does he compare to Mohammed ElBaradei?
Much shrewder, much tougher, much more political.
So if you were playing this, you would short ElBaradei and bet on Moussa?
Sure, but would I count on either? No!
Tuesday, February 1, 7:00 p.m.: James Hamilton is an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied the economic effects of oil shocks.
Oil prices are rising. It’s connected to the events in Egypt, right?
It is certainly in part a response to concerns about what’s happening, not just in Egypt but around North Africa and the Middle East.
The countries where there seems to be some change in the air are for the most part the have-nots of the Arab world in terms of oil production—there is some in Egypt. It is probably more important in terms of the Suez Canal, through which a million barrels a day of petroleum flow northward, and also the Sumed Pipeline, which also carries over a million barrels a day. If those were to be shut down, it would be a significant disruption in world petroleum markets, although it would still be a smaller disruption than we saw, for example, in the first Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi and Kuwaiti production were out; the Iranian Revolution; and the OPEC embargo.
I think the bigger question is whether this might spread. Libya and Algeria are quite important oil producers. Iraq. Iran is always a question mark.
From the perspective of the world oil markets, what is the best outcome in Egypt?
I think they just react to the supply of oil, and that usually means the status quo. But it would require a significant breakdown in Egypt for something like the Suez Canal to close.
That’s not in anybody’s interest. I think stability is the thing that would help calm oil markets the most, and I don’t think you can say whether that is Mubarak, or some moderate coalition, or whatever it might be.
How might oil concerns influence the reactions of Western policymakers?
Well, as I said, Egypt is really one of the have-nots—oil goes through there, but it’s not a significant player in terms of the oil they produce themselves. I don’t think that’s the overriding political consideration, as it would be in, say, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Iraq. But it’s also very important for its implications—does it threaten the stability for the region overall? That would be the way I would see its relevance.
Tuesday, February 1, 1:00 p.m.: Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He has advised four presidents on the National Security Council staff in the White House.
Was 30 years of backing Hosni Mubarak a net good or a net bad in terms of counter-terrorism, for both Israel and the United States?
It was probably a net good, though we can never know. The Mubarak government worked very closely with us in fighting terrorism both in Egypt, which witnessed horrible terrorist attacks in the 1990s, including against Western tourists, and in the region. They support responsible Palestinian security efforts, and they have helped target al-Qaida.
The problem of course was that the stability Mubarak’s government brought came at the cost of any kind of political process, with no mechanism for releasing pressure out of the cooker, and now we’ve seen something which is really remarkable and unprecedented.
Right. Because the rebuttal to what you just said is that backing Mubarak may have helped cause terrorism.
There’s no question that the repressive nature of the Mubarak regime also produced a terrorist cadre. Best example: al-Qaida’s number two, Ayman Zawahiri, who was a minor player in the plot to assassinate [former Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat 30 years ago but was tortured and imprisoned and has spent the rest of his life trying to overthrow Mubarak and attack the United States.
Do the events in Egypt make an uptick in terrorism likely?
There’s no way to know. We now face the extraordinary challenge of dealing with the shockwave of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution and now the tsunami of the Egyptian events.
You wrote a much-cited article last week arguing that we should not be overly fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining a major hand in Egypt’s government. Could you elaborate?
The reality is that if we’re going to have a springtime of freedom in Egypt and a democratic process and a government that is more reflective of the Egyptian political situation, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be a major player. They are the oldest, best-organized political party in Egypt, and they have credibility because they’ve been leading the resistance—until now. But I think it’s also important to recognize they are not al-Qaida and Ayman Zawahiri; in fact Zawahiri spends a great deal of time castigating the Muslim Brotherhood as too moderate and insufficiently supportive of global jihad.
So, how do we approach it?
The trick for us is to now begin to have dialogue with those parts of the Islamist movements which are open to dialogue. We should certainly test the Muslim Brotherhood, test if their commitment to nonviolence and a political process is sincere. It’s an inherent unknown, but the best way to find out is to engage it and talk with it and not demonize it.
If what we say we want is democracy, representative government, then we have to deal with the fact that some significant percentage of Egyptians are likely to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, just as Palestinians voted for Hamas. You can’t have it both ways.
What do you think is next?
We’ve ended an era here. It was relatively easy. It’s going to be much messier. Pakistan is in many ways a good example. The Bush Administration, like many of its predecessors, embraced a military dictator, Musharraf, who we thought could deliver, and then stood by him after the Pakistani people wanted him to go, and what we have now is Pakistani people who deeply distrust America for standing by dictators and a very messy civilian government that has to listen to the whole spectrum of Pakistani opinion and doesn’t respond to American requests to do this and to do that because it also has to listen to the Pakistani people. I think it’s a new era in the Islamic world.
Has the Obama Administration done a better job responding to Egypt than the Bush Administration did responding to Pakistan?
Yes, I think the Obama Administration has recognized that history is moving on, that it has tried to thread the very tricky needle between accepting that change is coming and trying to get in front of history while at the same time not throwing a friend of 30 years under the bus, and perhaps more importantly other friends.
Which “other friends” are most important?
From an American standpoint, Jordan is the one that is both at risk and critically important. And for Israel, too. Jordan is absolutely vital to fighting terrorism. They have the best intelligence service in the Middle East—
Other than Israel’s?
I would say they have the best. They sit on a vital piece of territory, and they face many of the same problems Tunisia and Egypt face, of a large youth bulge with high unemployment and underemployment, and without the oil money to buy off political enemies. The little Gulf states and Saudi Arabia are much less at risk because you may not have a job, but you still get a salary.
I think Jordan is something to keep a very close eye on here, because the stakes are very high for the United States and Israel. The Hashemite monarchy has been a very loyal and important friend for over half a century. And just as Israel-Egypt is an important peace treaty, Israel-Jordan is as well.
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