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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.

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Protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square today. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
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Burning Bush

The mass uprising in Egypt that seems set to overthrow the Mubarak regime is the latest test of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. The U.S. and Israel are hoping it works out better than the previous three.


There are several good reasons why Israelis are pulling for the Mubarak regime to hold onto power in Egypt. But maybe they should be embracing change there, instead.

Obama in the Mideast

Part 2 of 2: Ramin Ahmadi, Lokman Slim, Martin Kramer, and Jacob Weisberg consider the president’s policies in the region.

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.

Including Mubarak?
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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First of all the Muslim Brotherhood is currently non-violent only because they were shattered by Mubarak after a violent campaign against his regime. They have also publicly called for breaking the peace treaty with Egypt. El-Baredi provided cover for Iran while he was head of the IAEA. He is also anti-Israel.

Neveragain says:

Miller does a good job of outlining options.The U.S. should have been more active in encouraging a transition to Suleiman years ago.
Democracy needs a tradition to prepare the way. There is none in Egypt…or Iraq, which will deteriorate as soon as we leave.

michel wandel says:

well explained, especially about the importance of suleiman who really holds the key to what the military does or not.
i am far less convinced about the brotherhood being peaceful (look at their history and the assassination of anwar el sadat)and respecting the (cold) peace treaty with israel (you can do a lot of things to empty it without a formal abrogation).
will egypt remain the efficient ally of israel, perhaps not out of fraternal love, is the big question in my mind: the map and the future of the middle east depend a lot on that.
michel wandel

Shalom Freedman says:

The Egyptian a’street’has been educated by the Egyptian media to hate Israel and consider it it’s enemy. The ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ will most likely should it come to power in any way demand cancellation of any relations with Israel.
There is real danger of Egypt moving away from the West and in the direction that Lebanon and Turkey have moved i.e. toward an Islamist anti- Western government.
This situation is of course extremely worrisome for Israel.
P.S. The Obama Administration as Aluf Benn points out in ‘Haaretz’ may soon take to its credit the loss of Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt to the West. Every other American ally in the Middle East, and not only Israel, has great reason for concern.

BB Melman says:

And Iran, when he stood with the temporarily stunned and fragile regime to promote fruitless negotiations instead of capitalizing on the massive street protests, which have since been crushed.

Empress Trudy says:

It’s hard to know what to make of this given the squishy latent antizionism that’s rife here @ Tablet. One might think Tablet readers sort of half way kind of would be ok with the Muslim Brotherhood attacking Israel.

I’d like to hear from Robert Wexler at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, someone from the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and some inside views from Israelis. It’s hard to know from here just how these developments will be affecting Israel and its safety.

What are the chances protests will catch on in the West Bank? What’s a realistic assessment of how secure the Egypt/Israel border would be? More detailed information on the Muslim Brotherhood, who have rejected violence, except when it comes to Israel.

Shvat 27‏‎, 5771 B”H Exactly when the situation is a matter of faith or death, the USA will want to buddy up with Israel for lack of hopes to do so with the Muslim Brotherhood, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that Israel would team up with the Muslim Brotherhood if the opportunity should arise. I think the Orthodox religion could do with a shake up so that people have more control over the chumrohs that were based on the people being treated childish; mistake of chametz flour with kitniyohs, or milk after chicken not necessarily going to result in a d’ohraisah being committed. If fact some of the Chassidiic movements resort to fascist techniques and people deserve to decide their own obligation to buy a telephone and not think of the computer a source of evil but a technology that may be bridled and utilized for beneficial purposes, if only viewing acceptable visual content or other forms of entertainment very important to the elderly. You may read my earnest efforts to portray a vision towards a secure freedom at , pg. 2

JackieFour says:

Regarding a potential uprising in the West Bank, many Palistininas do not support the idea in light of their nascent booming economy. Too simple.
As well, it was the vulturous media that suggested the people of Jordan might take up protests, too. Of course if Prince Hamzah had been of age his father, King Hussein, would have made Hamzah his successor before his death. Hamzah is people oriented, has true compassion for his countrymen and would have worked to better their way of life, would have been an ideal king. King Abdullah, on the other hand, grew up a party animal. The man isn’t even fluent in Arabic! And, remember, Abdullah took away from Hamzah, the title of Crown Prince, even treating that action as a joke among his other brothers.
And, last, but not least, why is Miller pulling against her own country?

Very bad analysis. He claims: “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…” He presents his PERSONAL assumption as a true fact (well known trick from Goebels repertoire) that in the absence of “repressive regime” Zawahiri would remain just a “minor player” among world’s terrorists and would never join Al-Qaeda. However, it could also be opposite: instead of one Zawahiri absence of “repressive regime” could produce many “zawahiris”. He (or we) just don’t know. Never the less the author tries to brainwash us that such outcome is not just a possibility but a true, well established fact.

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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.

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