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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.

Marc Tracy
January 31, 2011
Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square today.(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square today.(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

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.

Continue reading: Aaron David Miller, Brian Katulis, and Judith Miller. Or view as a single page.

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.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.