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Conference Call: Violence in Egypt

Speaker: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR, Author, "The Struggle for Egypt"
Author: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 21, 2011 New York
Council on Foreign Relations

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BERNARD GWERTZMAN: Greetings, and welcome to the council's forum.

Today we're right on the news, so to speak. The speaker will be Steven A. Cook, who is the Council on Foreign Relations' top expert on Egypt and also on Turkey, where he's just come back from a trip. And he's recently published a book called "The Struggle for Egypt," which is very timely for those who want to catch up on Egypt.

And since we're talking about the news these days, Steve, talk about the latest news from Egypt. There's been demonstrations over the weekend, starting on Friday, in Tahrir Square, and today, because of the violence, et cetera, the temporary civilian government's resigned en masse. One of the reports from Al Jazeera says that the army has accepted the resignations.

What do you make of all this right now?

STEVEN COOK: Well, thanks, Bernie. And thank you to those of you who have called in to spend some time with us discussing what are events in Egypt that feel a lot like the events of January and February of this year.

I think that we are looking at an important moment in Egypt's transition.

Clearly, the military has miscalculated over and over again. After acting quite well during the uprising itself, the military has engaged in a number of blunders and miscalculations throughout.

And the -- I think critically to the events that is what happening now has been the effort to clear the square beginning on Saturday afternoon that has resulted in ever more people coming into Tahrir Square, more people coming out into the streets throughout Egyptian cities, to the point where people are seriously considering that this may, in fact, be the end of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The fact that they have permitted the civilian government to resign, something that they have prevented individual ministers from resigning before, is an indication, to my mind, that the military is looking for a new -- a new formula, if not -- if not an end to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, then perhaps something along the lines of a national salvation government or some sort of consultative council to help guide the transition.

Clearly, the military is feeling the heat from this renewed sense of revolutionary purpose in Tahrir Square. And it's not at all clear to me how -- if, in fact, the revolutionary groups that have called for a million people to come out into the streets -- if they get anywhere close to those numbers, or not even -- you know, if they get hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets tomorrow, it's unclear to me how this SCAF continues in the way that it has. And it strikes me that that is why, in fact, the civilian government has been allowed to go.

GWERTZMAN: Well, let's go back a minute now. First, I just want to say it's not confirmed officially that the government's resignations have been accepted. Al Jazeera said it was, but I haven't seen any other --

COOK: Right.

GWERTZMAN: Secondly, the protest started last Friday, and it was led by the -- actually the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, which surprised me a bit. What is the gripe of the Islamicists against the military right now?

COOK: Well, you know, this was something on Friday that was precipitated by the Islamists. They were concerned about the set of super-constitutional principles that the military had promulgated, with the help of some civilians, that would have carved out a role for the armed forces after the promulgation of a new constitution and the election of a president.

This was something that Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, were not happy with, given the fact that they believe that they are going to go ahead and -- going ahead and, if not outright win these parliamentary elections, but certainly have a deeply influential role in the new parliament and thus in the constitution. So they called people out into the streets in Tahrir Square.

When a number of others who had been protesting continued and stayed -- a small group of people, in the hundreds, stayed in the square and began a tent sit-in, some combination of military police and Ministry of Interior forces, called the Central Security Forces, moved in and disrupted that small protest; a miscalculation, because the way in which they did it subsequently brought thousands of people back into the square. And most of the people who are now back into the square are not related to Islamist groups. In fact, there is a tremendous debate going on right now within the Muslim Brotherhood whether to cooperate with the call for the million-man march tomorrow.

So what the military has done -- and I think that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces itself was caught off-guard by what these units on Saturday did, but nevertheless, the way they have handled the situation since has re-energized a revolution that many of the revolutionary activists themselves, who never wanted to leave Tahrir Square, who were deeply skeptical of the military from the beginning, have called the continuation of their January-February revolution. And as I said -- and for those of you out there who are following this almost minute to minute, as you now can do via Twitter, the political dynamics and the dynamics of Tahrir Square themselves feel very, very similar to what happened in January and February. That's not to suggest that I'm predicting that the SCAF is going to fall, but that the longer that people intend to stay in the square -- and the square looks to be, from the pictures, to be very, very full -- and are no longer willing to be intimidated by the military and the central security forces, virtually anything can happen. That's what happened in January and February, and it ultimately brought down Mubarak, something previously unthinkable. And I do think that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is under a similar kind of pressure now.

GWERTZMAN: Well, all right. You have this interesting alliance, in a way, between the Islamics and the liberals, who are against the Islamicists; and the military is kind of stuck. Do you think the military will allow the elections to go ahead on Monday, probably?

COOK: Well, they certainly have indicated that they would like them to continue, but that was, you know, this morning.

That was before the day's events took off in the way that they have. And in fact, the Cabinet has resigned, and there are, as you pointed out, mixed signals that the Cabinet has resigned. But to put a finer point on it, the -- apparently, the military is waiting to find a new prime minister before accepting the resignation of the Sharaf government.

Needless to say, with no government, with people in the streets, with the kind of uncertainty, instability and violence that is currently wracking Egypt -- polling places are supposed to open on Monday -- on Monday morning a week from now. It's hard to see how those elections are going to take place unless something dramatic changes in the next -- in the next 24 hours. I think Egyptians are at this point less interested in -- at least those who are protesting -- less interested in the elections than they are in ultimately changing the situation in Egypt and bringing an end to the SCAF.

GWERTZMAN: Well, but of course, easier said than done, because the military really has run Egypt since the early 1950s. And if the military is going to give up power, wouldn't there be a risk of real anarchy in Egypt?

COOK: Well, I think that that's one of the things that is -- actually made it difficult for anybody to imagine what would happen because there's that question of who or what next. And if that's posed to Egyptian revolutionaries, they say, shabab, you know, the people, the revolutionaries. There is no real "who's next," and I think that that's why we're getting the kind of -- the somewhat anodyne statements coming out of the Obama administration. There has been some talk over the course of the last 24 or 36 hours about a national salvation government that would include Mohamed ElBaradei and other notables. It's unclear, though, how sustainable something like that is going to be given the fact that the different groups that are driving these protests have a different conception of what the -- what exactly the formula should be for going forward.

This was essentially a leaderless revolution to begin with, and many of the revolutionary groups really prefer for it to be that way, although there -- you know, they -- their -- the Islamists obviously support varying Islamist groups' leaders. There is a core group of liberals who support Mohamed ElBaradei. But there is really no agreement on one kind of moral authority or figure who can take the reins here. And it's quite unclear to me who would want to take up the reins at this point, giving (sic) the cross-cutting political pressures, different interests and all -- in general, overall, complex, difficult and multilayered problems that are confronting Egypt right now.

So this may -- if the -- if the people in Tahrir Square are unable to actually bring the SCAF down, the question is whether the military will resort to some sort of military solution, installing their own government, their own direct government, a military figure as a prime minister, or whether they will try to impose some weak government on the country. All of these things seem to be measures that are not likely to be met with general enthusiasm in Tahrir Square.

GWERTZMAN: All right, it's now time I think we should open the floor up to questions from our audience.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, at this time the floor is now open for your questions. (Gives queueing instructions.) And we'll give it just a moment for people to queue up.

GWERTZMAN: Do I keep going? (Chuckles.)

COOK: I think -- you know, I think it's important to recognize here that, you know, we're talking about the people in Tahrir Square, and they may not necessarily be the weight of the Egyptian people at this point.

And I think that that was the case in January and February; that you had, you know, a relatively small group of people who made this -- made the uprising, and I think you're -- you see that again. But I think the critical -- the critical thing -- and this is what the -- this idea that there was a silent majority that did not come out into the streets and did not necessarily demand change directly -- the military counted on that group, which some have estimated in the range of 90 percent, to carry them through.

But I think that the military learned the wrong lessons of the -- of that support. The -- it seems that Egyptians did not want a recreation or -- or for the military to salvage what it could of the Mubarak era, which -- I think it's clear what the military's been up to since Mubarak's fall.

What they wanted was the military to provide a bridge, a stable bridge, to some sort of new political formula that would bring Egyptians prosperity and a more open, accountable, just political order. And I think that the kind of manipulations over the course of the last eight, nine months are coming back to haunt -- coming back to haunt the military right now.

GWERTZMAN: Any questions?

OPERATOR: We have a question from Mark Seibel with McClatchy.

QUESTIONER: Yes. I'm curious. One of the specific demands of the people in the square right now is for Field Marshal Tantawi to step down. Do you think there's any possibility of Tantawi going and the SCAF still sticking around, reordering itself? What's your view of whether personally the SCAF might decide, OK, Tantawi goes; we'll see if that helps?

COOK: Yeah, it's a very good -- it's a very good question. And there have been consistent rumors over the course of these many months that there were differences on the SCAF and that there were factions that were supporting Lieutenant General Sami Anan, the armed forces chief of staff, who is the number two in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

It's unclear whether those fissures and differences really do exist and have been papered over by dint of protocol and the fact that these officers are intent on maintaining the chain of command and unity of command.It's also unclear, if Tantawi gives up the reins of power and retires, whether that will make much of a difference to the activists and people who are now intent on staying out in the streets until they bring down the SCAF. There has been some sense that Tantawi is just one person and that it's overall structure of the military -- which, as Bernie pointed out, has essentially ruled the country since the Free Officers consolidated their power in April 1954 -- is just a continuation of a regime that Egyptians rose up against in January and February.

So if the heart of your question is, you know, Tantawi riding off into the sunset to his retirement somewhere is going to mollify the people who are presently in the streets, I think the answer is no. And it's unclear whether -- as I said before, whether any kind of differences and fissures on the SCAF are going to result in the younger group of officers from pushing Tantawi out. I think that what that -- that the precedent that that would set and the risks to breaking the military may be too great for them to pursue that, even if they very much wanted to.

GWERTZMAN: Next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from James Kitfield with the National Journal magazine.

QUESTIONER: Hey, Steven. Appreciate you doing this.

COOK: Hi, James. How are you?

QUESTIONER: Good. So what's your sense of what the Obama administration is behind the scenes, you know, advising here? Have they been very engaged on trying to sort of counsel the Egyptians on this, or are they sort of hands-off at this point?

COOK: Well, I mean, you've seen the kind of anodyne all sides need to show restraint -- which, by the way, has not played very well in Tahrir Square. In fact, those kinds of statements have enraged more than anything else. But you could sort of understand the difficult position that the Obama administration has been.

Everything that I know over the course of the last couple of days since this all flared up is that the administration has been in an information-gathering mode trying to see -- trying to understand what precisely is happening and gauge what the prospects are for the SCAF. Most of the questions that have gone out beyond -- to people beyond the administration has been, you know, what do you make of this, what is your assessment?

It strikes me that, given the kinds of statements that they've been making, once again the White House and the State Department are caught in this -- in this netherworld, not knowing how this is going to play itself out, certainly trying to position itself should the SCAF prevail, given the assessment that they made all those months ago, well, it's not going to be pretty but we're going to have to work with these guys because they're basically the only people standing, and the "who comes next" question and that fear of just general chaos and instability. And so -- and that, I think, produces these kinds of statements about calling on all sides to exercise -- exercise restraint.

So I don't think there is a policy or any kind of definitive view about what is happening. It strikes me, though, that the response of the military and the fact that they -- to these protests seems beyond that was called for; and the fact that the -- we have stood by and allowed the SCAF to create an environment of uncertainty and fear and frustration requires that we -- that the United States respond in some sort of more forceful manner.

There have been suggestions that we tinker with the military aid, and, you know, generally I have counseled that we be careful in this area and that we be mindful of our history there, but we do need to send some sort of signal that the violence -- and it is continuing and it seems far more intense than it did in January and February -- should -- cannot go without the United States making some sort of statement and commenting on it in a way.

So perhaps the administration should signal that if this continues, that it might, in fact, throw its support behind congressional efforts to dock portions of the military aid.

QUESTIONER: OK, thanks.

GWERTZMAN: Let me just ask a question which is on my mind. The parliamentary elections are supposed to begin next Monday, but they're not supposed to end until April. Why does it take so long to choose a parliament?

COOK: Because, given the history of Egyptian elections, there has been an opposition demand, that predated the uprising, for judges to supervise each and every polling station. There are 9,000 judges and there are 27,000 polling places, which are actually too few. And as a result, they need to hold elections and run-offs in different stages. So you will have three stages of the People's Assembly elections between November 28th -- if it's, in fact, held -- and early January. And then you will start having the upper house of the parliament, the Shura Council, the Consultative Council, held in three stages beginning in -- January 29th, lasting through -- through the middle of March. That's why this takes as long as it has.

GWERTZMAN: OK. And then the second question I have is, back in March when they had the election for ratifying constitutional amendments, people were critical that it was happening too fast, there wasn't enough time. And now the presidential election is now not scheduled for 2013, I gather. Why is it that delayed?

COOK: Well, again, this is a source of tremendous frustration on the part of people who want to see an actual transition. The military has set out a timeline that it believes will provide the best opportunity for ensuring the stability of the country through this process and, I think, an outcome that it prefers, which is a relatively weak parliament and a weak president. And they believe that extending this timeline is what's going to ultimately do that.

I'm not sure that they have a perfect theory of politics, and there has been a tremendous amount of pushback to presidential elections being held in the first quarter of 2013.

And in fact, when this -- when this round of protests got kicked off, the military signaled its intention to actually have everything wrapped up and complete by 2012.

But of course, things were moving very fast in a number of different directions. It's entirely unclear what they have committed to with regard to the presidential election.

GWERTZMAN: Next question?

OPERATOR: (Gives queueing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Matthew Kaminski with The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTIONER: Thanks very much. I'm sorry if this came up in the first few minutes. I missed that part. But you know, for months we heard from U.S. officials and others that, you know, the military really hates governing; the last thing they want to do is run this country in -- you know, for many more months, if not -- you know, and certainly not -- and not years. That seems to have not turned out to be the case. So what's -- what is the military's thinking here, really? I mean, the -- you know, if -- is that analysis that they don't want to directly govern, they want to have their economic interests safeguarded, but they don't really want to run the place -- that seems to have been wrong.

COOK: Actually, I don't think it's wrong at all. And I'm a leading proponent of the idea that, in fact, the military has wanted to give up power, but they've wanted to give up the power in a -- in an orderly and stable fashion. It's not so much that they don't want to give up power. They don't want to be responsible for running the government on a day-to-day basis because they're manifestly unprepared, and also for important historical reasons.

The military's narrative is that they were a political army that ran the day-to-day governance of the country between the early 1950s and 1967. And then, quite frankly, they got the -- beaten very badly in 1967. The lesson they learned from that is to go back to the barracks, to professionalize as a military, which they then redeemed in October 1973 with the crossing of the Suez Canal. That is the lesson that they have learned.

But that doesn't mean that they want to give up, I think, three important things. One, on the political front, they want to retain -- they want the military to continue to be the source of authority and legitimacy in the political system. That suggests an influential role for the military going forward, if not a direct political role for the military. They also want to hold onto their economist interest, and they have a certain conception of what a stable Egypt looks like.

None of those things conform to a more democratic Egypt. But nevertheless, those are the things that the military wants, and it's something that they can feel that they can do from behind the scenes. After all, that is the situation in which they existed under Mubarak, in which they retained an influential role through a formal and informal linkage with the presidency.

So I don't think that that analysis that the -- that the military is looking to step away from politics is so off the reservation. I think the issue here is, is that they wanted to salvage as much as they could of the previous regime, which served their interests better, and that in a vastly changed political environment, they confronted and have confronted push-back that is making it difficult for them to do that. But the idea that the Egyptian armed forces wants to hold onto power, like some, you know, Latin American junta of the, you know, 1970s and 1980s, I think, is an incorrect assessment of what the current situation is.

QUESTIONER: And when you saw Tantawi walk around Cairo in a business suit, did that suggest to you that he might want to step into the Mubarak role as a former general?

COOK: Tantawi was making a condolence call to a family member and was not necessarily on a campaign -- on a campaign trip.

GWERTZMAN: All right, next question?

OPERATOR: (Gives queueing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Peter Green with Bloomberg News.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Steve. You sort of touched on this, but what are the actual policy options available for the Obama administration now, and how would those go down in Washington, particularly if the Islamists come out with a plurality of the vote?

COOK: Right, I mean -- and I think that this is -- it's a great question, I think, that this is the dilemma that the administration is currently -- is currently confronting. It is that, you know, kind of perennial fear of what comes next. And the answer is likely to be people, and particularly Islamists, who are not necessarily friendly to U.S. interests. I think that it's sort of a false choice because anybody who is going to come to power in Egypt in the short term is going to have to demonstrate a certain amount of nationalist bona fides, and that's not necessarily going to work out very well for the United States. But in terms of policy options, there's really not a lot for the United States to do. The one area that we can -- we can work on is on this military aid issue. But even there, there's -- you know, the amount of money is not what it used to be. And if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces comes to the conclusion that it is in -- essentially in a fight for the -- for the life of the military and the cohesion of the military, it may not at all -- it may not all -- at all work. But then again, they're in a corner. And here is a moment in which the Obama administration can publicly signal its disapproval of the way in which Tahrir Square has been handled and the kind of excessive use of force. It may ultimately do some good.

What we can -- what we can be sure of is that the current kind of, you know, as I said before, anodyne pronouncements about both sides need to demonstrate restraint is only sowing resentment among the people in the streets, and I know that the administration has sought to put itself on the right side of these Arab uprisings.

GWERTZMAN: All right. I just want to add something, which I told Steve about. I interviewed Shibley Telhami, who's the professor at University of Maryland whose group does an annual polling of Arabs and -- including Egypt, of course, and the American popularity in Egypt is very low right now. It's risen somewhat higher than it was in 2010, when it was at an all-time low.

And right now the Egyptian people, given their choice, would like to have a president -- and they've given a choice of different presidents in the world -- a president similar to Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey.

Anyway, next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Raula Jabril (ph) with Newsweek.

QUESTIONER: Hi, I -- just my question is about the Islamists, because obviously the polls are saying that they might win in the parliamentary election, 40 percent of that. But are they all together?

What I mean is we've seen also them fighting. El-Erian (sp) is saying one thing and other Islamists -- are they all Sufi or we have a different kind of Islam that is more radical and more conservative? COOK: Well, I think it's a very good question because I don't think we can talk just about Islamists. You have the brotherhood, you have offshoots to the brotherhood, you have Salafists, you have different versions of Salafist groups.

So the main group, obviously, though, is the Muslim Brotherhood, and they themselves have had an extraordinarily difficult time adjusting to the new Egypt. In some ways, it's -- it was easier to be the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood or part of the Guidance Council of the brotherhood under Mubarak. Now there are -- have been a series of debates about how to -- how to deal with a new, more open system. The brotherhood was essentially goaded into creating its own political party, rather than doing so on its -- on its own.

They're -- that's why you see offshoots. You see the Egyptian Current, which is made up of mostly younger brothers who seek to emulate the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. That's why you see Abdel Menem Abu-Fattou (ph), a former prominent member of the brotherhood, seeking his own path, without the brotherhood, to the Egyptian presidency. And you see obviously Salafist parties and others engaged in a kind of -- the political struggle with each other on the Islamist end of the political spectrum. There is a lot of political dynamism here.

All that being said, should the elections come off on November 28th, with all of the problems that the brotherhood has confronted in the new Egypt, it remains the most well-organized and well-resourced of these Islamist groups and is likely to do very well.

Now, the number that everybody throws around is 30, 35 percent. I think that's mostly a function of the fact that that is what the brotherhood has said its aims are in terms of these parliamentary elections. I think the polls are all over the place; I think that there's really no way of knowing precisely how they're going to do, although, you know, it's fair to say that the brotherhood and Islamists more generally have been better at organizing during this transitional period and will likely do better than their secular liberal or -- counterparts in more traditional political parties.

QUESTIONER: So -- sorry, so what's happening in these days will benefit them in the eventual election?

COOK: Well, I'm not sure that it is. You see that there are, you know, growing numbers in Tahrir Square. The brotherhood had initially opposed -- had initially opposed the military, and came out into the streets with regard to the -- with regard to the super- constitutional principles, but today they're being a bit more coy about whether they are going to participate in this million -- this call for a million people to come out into the streets. They've said that they don't want to contribute to chaos and instability in the streets.

Now, they may not -- they may not have the kind of ability to control younger members of the brotherhood which seem -- who seem primed to go out there and join this group. We'll just have to see what transpires tomorrow. But as things go now, what's happening -- how this benefits the brotherhood will depend on what happens tomorrow and in ensuing days and whether they are able to leverage what's happening to their political benefit.

I would suspect that if many, many, many people come out into the streets tomorrow and the brotherhood stands down, they are going to look -- they're not -- it's not going to redound to their benefit, come time for elections.

GWERTZMAN: I'm still curious why the brotherhood had this demonstration Friday, when they would have done well in the elections.

COOK: Well, I -- again, I think, you know -- first of all, let me just say none of -- none of these groups have a perfect theory of politics. But it strikes me that they went out into the streets because they wanted to press their case against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and their plans for super-constitutional principles in the constitution, and believing -- and I think quite rightly -- that there are many, many people across the political spectrum who oppose these super-constitutional principles.

GWERTZMAN: All right. Next question?

OPERATOR: At this time, we have no further questions.

GWERTZMAN: All right, well, thank you much. COOK: All right. Well, thanks very much, folks.

GWERTZMAN: Thank you very much, Steve.

COOK: Feel free to be in touch. Thank you.

GWERTZMAN: Thank you.

COOK: Bye-bye.

GWERTZMAN: Bye-bye.

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