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Why Egypt Can Handle Democracy

And, says scholar, why Israel can handle a democratic Egypt

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Tahrir Square this morning. Hundreds of thousands turned out yesterday.(Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

As part of my continuing series of interviews on events in Egypt, I spoke to Samer Shehata, a professor at Georgetown’s foreign service school specializing in Arab politics.

We’re more than two weeks in, and they are reporting that yesterday was the biggest day for protests yet. Do you think they are going to continue to grow, or have we reached a peak?
Well of course I don’t know. What I can tell you is it’s certainly a good sign. There was some speculation that people were getting weary and there was some exhaustion setting in. It’s certainly refreshing. I think there are reasons to think there are going to be more days like today. As long as people are allowed to peacefully protest, and there’s no violence or coercion or intimidation against them, there’s no reason to expect there will be less. Of course, the reason they go out again, in larger numbers, is that the regime hasn’t listened to them.

What is the regime at this point? Do you think Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is still totally in-charge?
Probably not, right? One, we’ve never had a vice president under Mubarak [he named Omar Suleiman his first vice president about a week ago]. Second, the vice president is getting a lot of attention and there’s a lot of action in his office: Meeting with the opposition, meeting with press. Suleiman has lived an extremely busy life, but it hasn’t been very public.

Where do you think Amr Moussa fits into all of this? I’ve been reading his name as a potential major opposition figure.
Well, look. He has no defined constituency, right? He has a big constituency in that he’s popular.

What’s the source of his popularity?
He was seen as an eloquent, articulate, forceful, independent foreign minister who held his own against international diplomats, including U.S. officials, and as a champion of Arab causes, including the Palestinian cause and Arab rights generally.

How much reform will be enough reform?
Like everyone, I’m really skeptical that the regime can implement its own demise—that’s really what we’re talking about. Usually, autocrats don’t put themselves out of business. So the question will be: Will the pressure be sustained both from domestic sources, primarily, and also internationally, and will people accept the small concessions as enough.

Is there such a thing as too much reform, or too much reform too fast?
In the very abstract sense, if you’re talking about a new nation, for example, that didn’t have existing political institutions, established political parties, experience with elections, a judiciary, then maybe yes. Not in Egypt’s case, no.

People in Egypt have for years, for decades, wanted certain things, and everybody in the White House, the National Security Council, Congress, everyone who has been paying attention knows them. Egypt is a heavy state, a centralized state that has been existing for a long time. So no, there is no too much change, too quickly.

Supporters of Israel may be watching the events with concern that free elections will lead to the Muslim Brotherhood’s coming to power and that would be bad for Israel. What’s your response to that?
My response would be: Those are mistaken concerns, or needless ones. There are a couple of problems. The first is that 83 million Egyptians know very well that the primary concern of 83 million Egyptians isn’t the border or Israel or Camp David or Hezbollah or Iran or Hamas, it’s primarily the domestic political issues. Second, Egypt, economically and militarily, is not interested in nor capable of threatening Israel in any way. This is a military that hasn’t seen combat since 1973, has shrunk in size; a society that has been demilitarized significantly; and an economy that is struggling and is going to be struggling even more after this. So the last thing they need is arms purchases.

And—this is an important thing—although most Egyptians are very concerned about regional issues, including the plight of the Palestinians, not an inch of Egyptian land is occupied. There is no Golan Heights. It’s not the Palestinians. Egyptians are willing to pay a heavy, heavy price for the liberation of Egyptian land, but it won’t be popular or a winning electoral platform to say, “Let’s cause trouble with Israel.”

Finally, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a radical organization. It doesn’t have a military wing, it doesn’t really espouse violence (there’s a whole debate about acts of resistance under occupation, but that’s not relevant here). The Brotherhood’s position before this, years ago, was that Camp David would be put to a referendum of the Egyptian people—that was the official position of an opposition movement with no power to implement it. More recently, the Brotherhood has said it would uphold all international treaties.

So those concerns are completely off the mark. However, there are some things that would have to be thought about or renegotiated. The sale of natural gas to Israel is complicated, for example, and for several analytically different reasons. The primary reason is the price of gas: Many Egyptians would be willing to sell gas to Israel if they believed they were selling gas at international prices, as opposed to in an opaque, murky economic transaction that people seem to be left in the dark about—where no one really knows what the arrangements really are and the assumption, for good reason, is that the sale of gas is at below-market prices.

Then there are issues having to do with Gaza. I think if you asked my grandmother, she’d say, “Look, we shouldn’t be sending missiles into Gaza, but diapers and hospital equipment? Yeah, that’s fine.” That’s very different than the situation now, in which the border seems to be at the whim of the Egyptian government, and does not reflect the widespread opinion of the Egyptian people.

But that’s also not to arm Hamas—and that’s for all kinds of reasons! There are more Egyptians who have been killed as a result of terrorism than Israelis. Tourism is one of the four major sources of revenue for Egypt, and Sinai is crucial for that: If Gaza and Sinai became a warzone, that would be disastrous. It’s also a national security issue!

If the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to implement a radical agenda, why is it so popular—why isn’t the most popular opposition group something more secular?
Over the last 30 years, the most popular opposition movements throughout the Arab world, from Morocco and Algeria right up to Saudi Arabia, have been Islamist. So the reasons have something to do with Egyptian domestic politics, but also with regional politics; as well as, some people would argue, an increasing religious dimension of politics globally, whether it’s the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, religious extremism in Israel, or right-wing evangelical types in the United States.

Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood do better under authoritarian systems. And actually, that should really give someone some hope, right? That under a democracy, the secular and liberal parties would be able to get their ideas out?

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Ah, common sense, facts and intelligence. What a delightful – and, sadly, rare – combination. Thank you, Marc Tracy.

What Lisa said!

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Why Egypt Can Handle Democracy

And, says scholar, why Israel can handle a democratic Egypt

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