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.
Monday, January 31, 10:00 p.m.: Aaron David Miller, of the Woodrow Wilson Center, is an experienced U.S. adviser on Mideast peace negotiations.
What is the immediate effect on the peace process of the events in Egypt?
The peace process was already in deep freeze. This is going to make progress virtually impossible. No Israeli government, watching their major Arab ally for 30 years go through a change will do anything—regardless of who ends up in power (and I’m not expecting anyone to renounce the treaty obligation). The tone will become much more critical. The idea of making concessions to a Palestinian national movement deeply and fundamentally divided, in view of this, is almost impossible.
On the Palestinian side, you have the Palestinian wikileaks, which are going to constrain the choices they could make.
And the Obama Administration is going to be so preoccupied. We have no idea what or who is going to emerge. In the next several months, at a minimum, this is the main story.
Might that actually provide a distraction that is helpful to folks on either side who were maybe less inclined toward the peace process to begin with? A cornerstone for a new East Jerusalem settlement was laid yesterday, and it barely registered, because everyone was paying attention to Egypt.
No, I don’t think this is going to empower extremists on either side.
What should Israel’s response be?
The last thing the Israelis want to do is become part of this story and give the Arab world a cause célèbre—another cause célèbre. And they’ve been pretty calm and measured.
They’re going to be much more uncertain and wary. This is a huge wild card, added to Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Everyone is going to retrench and pull back now, be very careful and cautious and measured, and we will start seeing worst-case analyses.
What should the United States be doing?
For the moment, the main story is Egypt. We should want it governed in a way that opens up additional space but still allows us to maintain our very close relations.
This could potentially be transformative, setting into motion a series of events—it’s not that the Arab regimes are going to fall like dominoes, the change will be more gradual. If the Egypt example fails, or succeeds—if it creates sustained conflict or alternatively if you actually do get a more open, democratic system—it will be inspirational, and will pose all kinds of challenges for authoritarian regimes.
Monday, January 31, 3:00 p.m.: Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on U.S. security policy in the Mideast. Earlier today, he was at the White House for a meeting on Egypt.
What do you think is at the root of these protests?
I think at their core has been this deep, longstanding frustration with an Egyptian government that hasn’t responded to the needs of its citizens. I lived in Egypt in the ’90s, and I remembered somebody saying, “I’m getting a second passport because I don’t think this system can sustain itself.” At its core, the existing conditions are a poor economic and social infrastructure, and it had bubbled up every once in a while—labor unions have caused unrest. But nothing like this. I think this is a direct result of what they saw happen in Tunisia. From Mubarak’s perspective, it’s the perfect storm. But this could be an opportunity to place Egypt on a much more solid footing, instead of investing with leaders that lack legitimacy with the broader public.
Who is Omar Suleiman? What does he represent?
He’s the head of the general intelligence directorate, the guy charged with actually cracking down on these most recent protests. When I lived there in the 1990s, he really smacked down the Islamist groups, the terrorist organizations—he was brutally effective in not only crushing that but also squelching domestic opposition. He plus the new prime minister come from that old inner circle of military and security types. If this is just a transition, that’s fine and well. If this is the sum total of what Mubarak is doing to respond, then it’s not enough.
How has the Obama Administration’s response been?
People have criticized the Obama Administration’s message, but I think they struck the right balance—calling for nonviolence, calling for reform. Now the game is developing a policy and a set of contingencies. If Mubarak basically snubs us and we don’t do anything—it’s like that scene in The Sopranos where Tony and Carmela are talking about Meadow [their daughter], and Tony says, “If she realizes that we’re powerless, we’re fucked.” The biggest mistake Obama could make is not following through here.
What happens if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power?
I’d read Bruce [Riedel]’s piece on the Brotherhood. The implication of a lot of the questions is, if Egypt becomes more democratic, will we lose a partner? I don’t think it’s as simple and easy as that. We think in dichotomous ways: Oh, this is 1979 Iran. And I actually think, no, let’s have a little bit more confidence to work with Egypt. And even if some Muslim Brotherhood figures are part of a new government, we shouldn’t shudder.
We have had a façade, an appearance of stability, and we’re probably in for some serious turbulence for weeks if not months to come. These things take awhile to unfold. Letting our greatest fears dominate could turn them into self-fulfilling prophecy. I would rather affirmatively state, “Egypt was going to go into some transition in any case, let’s use it as an opportunity to really follow through and help Egyptians create a more decent government.”
Egypt as a nation will have security interests—the calculus won’t change overnight. The doomsday scenario—these are Cold War type of mindsets that often got us into some of the biggest problems.
What should Israel be doing?
I don’t know that Israel can do much besides sort of watch and look at the front-line issue. And make sure there are no problems on the Gaza-Egypt border, maintain the quiet cooperation it has. No matter what happens in the streets, there’s a pragmatic, behind-the-scenes cooperation that will continue.
For lack of a better term, whom should we be rooting for?
You shouldn’t be trying to pick sides and root for anyone. That’s the Cold War mentality, picking winners and losers. What you should be rooting for is a transition that respects the rights of individuals, that really moves the country toward a more sustainable democratic system. I would root for Egyptians getting a much more decent government, reflective of their economic concerns, social ills.
Monday, January 31, 7:00 a.m.: Judith Miller, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Tablet Magazine contributor who served as the New York Times’ Cairo bureau chief, looks at the prospects for a transition of power.
What is the significance of Mubarak’s unprecedented appointment of Omar Suleiman as his vice president?
Suleiman stands for the continuation of the regime, that is, the military and security services. He is known as an officer and a gentleman. He is not seen as personally corrupt, has Mubarak’s absolute confidence, and he handles two of Egypt’s most sensitive portfolios: Israel and counter-terrorism. That tells you how important he is in the regime. At 74, he is a spring chicken by Egyptian ruling standards. He is welcome in both Washington and Israel. He is extremely well-connected. He will clean house. He will get rid of the people who have been called dinosaurs.
Yes, if it’s necessary to protect the military, the heart of the Egyptian regime. We still don’t know who’s really in charge: whether Mubarak gave orders to the military and intelligence services to toe the line, or if they are pressuring him for a graceful exit.
Who has the main opposition to Mubarak been?
The Muslim Brotherhood. But even when there was something close to a free election, they have never polled more than 20 percent. They are the strongest organized political party, but the last poll on them was conducted more than a decade ago. So, that’s another unknown. They are organized, unlike the others, and in a vacuum, that counts for a great deal—but don’t assume they’re going to sweep an election with 80 percent. That depends on how organized the people who are now in the street can become.
What is the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda for Egypt, particularly concerning Israel?
I was told they would not annul the peace treaty with Israel. Compared to the Islamic extremists of the region, they are moderate—and say they are nonviolent.
Where does Mohammed ElBaradei fit into this?
Until the current protests, he was more popular with the media than with Egyptians. He lives in Vienna. He hasn’t been a member of any party for a year, so I’m not sure he can run for president unless the Constitution is changed. But he has become the well-known face of the protest, and Egyptian icon, and for many Egyptians he has come to symbolize Egypt’s desire for change. His insistence that Mubarak must leave, and his desire to be the face of a united opposition gives him potential influence, despite his utter lack of a political base.
For lack of a better term, whom should we be rooting for?
You should be rooting for a smooth transition of power from Hosni Mubarak—his departure is the only thing that will satisfy the street. And now there is an “Arab street.” That is a real change. There are people who want change so badly that they are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to get it—in Tunis and Cairo, there is an Arab street. What you’re seeing is real—but in Egypt, even if a million people have come out, there are still more than 82 million other Egyptians who haven’t. We don’t know what they want Mubarak to do. But the Arabs in Tahrir Square are demanding that he leave. Thirty years. “Enough!” as one secular opposition party’s name and slogan declare. That has to happen sometime. Mubarak is 82 and ailing. But we want it to happen in the smoothest way, with known players who are committed to Egypt’s key pro-American and pro-Israeli foreign policies. And Omar Suleiman, as a transitional figure, is probably the best you can hope for.
And not Mubarak’s son?
The son is a non-starter, because he was never respected by the military. The one lesson the past few days have taught us is that Gamal is toast.
What is the best-case scenario? Is there room for real, vaguely liberal democracy?
If there’s a smooth transition of power to Suleiman, that would be the best.
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