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Egypt's Need for Presidential Change

Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
January 31, 2011

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Egypt's protest movement continues to grow, calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, despite Mubarak's efforts to name a vice president, shuffle his cabinets, and otherwise maintain his regime. The Egyptian army announced it will not fire on protesters, who hope to stage a "march of millions" February 1. CFR President Richard N. Haass believes Mubarak's days in office are numbered. He says the United States should be very circumspect in its public statements, but privately be "pushing very hard for a transfer of authority," perhaps in the form of a caretaker government or a constitutional reform process. He notes that "time is now the enemy," and that if the current situation drags on, it could undermine the legitimacy of the army, either for allowing chaos or for protecting Mubarak. Haass also points out that if the situation in Egypt doesn't stabilize in an orderly way, "Egyptians [could] say things are so bad that they will support anyone or anything other than the Mubarak-led status quo." Additionally, any new democratic Egyptian government is likely to be "less favorably inclined" toward Israel, given popular sentiment, says Haass.

If you were still the director of the Policy Planning Council at the State Department, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called you for advice, what would be your recommendations?

I would essentially argue that less is more. Whatever you say won't be enough for the people in the streets, and it would be too much for our friends throughout the Arab world. So I would limit our public statements. Privately, I would be pushing very hard for a transfer of authority. I believe essentially that the Mubarak era is over. He has lost his legitimacy and his ability to lead, but the fact that he is still in office puts the army, which is a valuable and valued institution in Egypt, in an impossible position. Either it stands by--which is what it is doing now--as disorder and chaos grow, the army loses respect, and people begin to take security into their own hands; or the army uses lethal force, which would make it appear to most Egyptians that it is simply trying to preserve Mubarak's position. I believe in order for the army to act like an army, there needs to be a chance for a new political authority. So, I would be urging Mubarak to step down and set up some sort of caretaker or process as quickly as possible.

Does Mubarak have some good advisers that the United States deals with?

The person many Americans know best, besides Mubarak himself, is the new vice president, Omar Suleiman. He has been the chief intelligence official in Egypt for years, but he has [also] been the person who has represented Egypt's interest in trying to promote progress between Israelis and Palestinians. Americans have worked closely with Omar Suleiman in both the intelligence and the diplomatic arena.

But if Suleiman took over, that wouldn't ease the protest, would it?

It would, somewhat, in the sense that it wouldn't be Mubarak--but it wouldn't be enough. What Suleiman needs to do is set up a process, probably a constitutional reform, and set a date for elections, if not this September [when they are now planned], then perhaps down the road, with the explanation that one needs to revise the constitution first. Conceivably, you could still have elections first and then revise the constitution, and there would have to be some sort of a broad-based government of national unity emerging. Conceivably, people like Mohamed ElBaradei, who has suddenly emerged as an important figure of the opposition, could be tasked with forming a temporary government. You could imagine a temporary government made up largely of technocrats to help Egypt through this political transition.

When ElBaradei was head of the IAEA, I think the Bush administration didn't think much of him.

I've always had a good relationship with him, and even when I was in the George W. Bush administration, we continued to have a pretty good relationship. I know a lot of my former colleagues did not; they thought he was not sufficiently tough or skeptical on Iran. But he was good on Iraq and pretty realistic on Iran. I thought that the criticism of him was, for the most part, unwarranted.

He does not have much of a political constituency even in Egypt, does he?

Mubarak has lost his legitimacy and his ability to lead, but the fact that he is still in office puts the army, which is a valuable and valued institution in Egypt, in an impossible position.

But he is gaining one. The fact that he flew in last week has given him, to put it in the vernacular, "street cred" that he never had before. He spent virtually his entire professional career outside, in Europe and other places. Suddenly, he has emerged as a focal point, and the fact that this broad range of Egyptian organizations, from the secular to the Muslim Brotherhood, are talking about him as this caretaker or transitional figure tells you something.

Will the Muslim Brotherhood continue to support ElBaradei?

I have no idea what the Muslim Brotherhood is thinking. It's interesting that this process, like in Tunisia, began not with Islamists, but with secular middle class--mostly young people. The Muslim Brotherhood, like everybody else, seems to be playing catch up. The danger obviously is that they will catch up, and that they will exploit this situation. What we've learned over the years, say in Iran [after the revolution in 1979], is that these processes take a while to play out and often have many phases. So in this first phase the opposition is disorganized and is largely led by secularists, but that doesn't mean that phase two, three, or four will continue to have that complexion.

It's important, sooner rather than later, that we see the president of Egypt removed. I would hope that it would be graceful, and that we begin the process of political transition and order can be restored. You do not want Egypt to get to the point where many Egyptians say things are so bad that they will support anyone or anything other than the Mubarak-led status quo. That is the danger; you never want things to reach that point. You want to make sure that the political space opens, because if the political space opens, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to compete and, based on everything I know about Egypt, it will have an element in the vote, but it will not be a majority. If we allow things to narrow to two choices, an unrepresentative status quo or the Brotherhood, my fear is that many people will opt for the Brotherhood just because they are so desperate for order in the streets and change in government.

Would it help if President Obama sent over a special emissary?

That might be too visible, but I would say if the United States could essentially weigh in privately, calling for political change, and get other Arab leaders to basically tell Mubarak that you don't want to undermine or see destroyed all you contributed to Egypt and the last thing you can do that can help your country is to step down. Time is now the enemy. If the current situation is allowed to drag on, it really puts the army in an impossible position. Either they look feckless or they lose their legitimacy if they act in what will be perceived as ways to protect the president. They need to restore order in the name of the next government of Egypt, not this one.

Do you think the unrest is likely to spread to other countries, like Syria?

Much more repressive places like Syria are so wired and so repressive that it's difficult for popular uprising to spread there. It's interesting that already one sees the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, talk about the need for political reform in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. So he is feeling a little bit of heat. Maybe it was preventive, if you will, on his part. Jordan has to be a little bit worried.

They've had protests all week.

Exactly. I don't think the Gulf states are, for the most part, threatened, simply because with the exception of Saudi Arabia, they are more city states and are so small. Even in the case of Saudi Arabia, it's a different relationship between the government and the citizens, given all the money that can be around society. So I would think that one needs to watch Jordan closely and potentially Syria. As much as I'd like to see change in Syria, I think it is a long shot.

If a new government is formed in Egypt, does this threaten the equilibrium in the Middle East? Israel is obviously nervous about this after nearly thirty-two years of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

You want to make sure that the political space opens, because if the political space opens, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to compete and, based on everything I know about Egypt, it will have an element in the vote, but it will not be a majority.

The devil is in the details. So much depends on the process and the outcome. If sooner rather than later, you have a managed transition to a more democratic government that's able to maintain order and introduce a degree of political reform. Then this could be a very positive development in the region, in ways that Iraq never was. Change in Iraq was imposed by the United States and was incredibly chaotic. Change in Egypt, like Tunisia, has come from within, so it's ultimately a much more appealing model, if it's orderly and if it turns out well. If it turns out to be disorderly and it turns out badly, then obviously it could have an incredibly negative effect. But it's going to complicate relations between Israel and the region. A democratic government in Egypt would probably be less favorably inclined toward Israel, given what the popular sentiment is in Egypt. It seems to me that the Israeli/Egyptian relationship could be going through an extraordinarily difficult phase. This is significant because peace with Israel has taken the potential for regional war off the table, and the last thing any of us want to see is that possibility reintroduced.

You were just in Davos, meeting with business leaders and politicians. Did Egypt come up much?

Surprisingly little. It was a backdrop to what happened. Each day it got a little bit more visible. In my meetings, it was the Arab people who had come to Davos who were most concerned about it. I think many of the people at Davos were more concerned with financial issues, from the future of the euro, to the better-than-expected U.S. growth numbers, to the challenge coming from China and the rest of Asia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made it to Davos after the terrorist attack in Moscow. Did he have much to say?

The short answer is no. Russia remains a complicated place where people are thinking about investment. It's not simply a question of the violence; it's a question of corruption and the potential of running up against the regime.

I guess people want to know who is going to be the next Russian president.

Most people I know pretty much think it's going to be Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The consensus is that Russia will remain a somewhat risky place to invest in. There is a lot more comfort investing in Latin America and Asia and even in some parts of Africa. There is real concern about Europe and Japan in the sense of their growth, and I don't think anyone came away thinking that was going to change any time soon.

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