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Media Conference Call: Change in Egypt

Speakers: Richard N. Haass, President, Council On Foreign Relations, and Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow For Middle Eastern Studies, Council On Foreign Relations
Presider: Robert McMahon, Editor, CFR.org
February 10, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations

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ROBERT MCMAHON:  Thank you.  Welcome, everyone, to this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call.  I'm Robert McMahon, editor of CFR.org.  And the topic is Egypt.  It's expanding protests and what we initially expected to be a dramatic announcement from President Hosni Mubarak.  As many of you probably know, he went on TV just a few moments ago to repudiate rumors he was stepping down immediately.  And now the question is how the large crowd amassing -- among other things, the large crowd amassing in Cairo -- Cairo's central square would react to this.

To try to sort of what is happening, we are very fortunate at this moment to have with us CFR President Richard Haass and Senior Fellow Steven Cook to lend their deep expertise on Egypt and the region to the -- to the issues that are playing out.  Both will say a few opening comments about the unfolding situation and then we'll get right into questions.  There are many of you on the line and we'll get to as many of you as we can during this hour that we have.

So, Steven, we'll start with you.  Can you say a few opening comments about what we just saw happen?

STEVEN A. COOK:  Thanks, Bob.

After a very dramatic day of rumors swirling about and conjecture about what might happen, President Mubarak took a minor step, I should say, if it can even be called that, toward meeting some of the demands of the protesters in Tahrir Square.  Clearly from their reaction as he was speaking, this was not enough.  What he has done is transfer power, presidential power from him to the Vice President Omar Suleiman.  However, I should point out that by the Egyptian constitution, this -- it has to be temporary.  If he were to permanently vacate the office, the line of succession would be to the Speaker of the People's Assembly Mr. Fahti Sorour.  So there is a sense here at least by his statement that this does not seem to be a permanent transfer of power.

He also outlined a number of constitutional amendments, articles of the constitution that he would like to see amended and talked about beginning the process of scrapping the emergency law, which is one of the primary, primary demands of the people in Tahrir Square.  I should point out that some of those articles, Article 76 and 77, have to do with the election of the president.  Article 77 has been a demand of the opposition for some time because it does not impose any term limits on the president.  Interestingly, there had been term limits on the president until Anwar Sadat amended the constitution in 1980.

The other very important article which he is proposing to amend is Article 179.  Article 179 was amended in 2007.  And what it did was incorporated many aspects of the emergency law into the constitution.  And this was at the time a source of considerable friction and opposition and continues to be and is central the overall demands for a more democratic and open Egypt.  It was in fact Article 179 -- once that was done that he had promised to then subsequently lift the emergency law.  That was a promise that he obviously did not keep.

We have seen today some movement, but nevertheless, Hosni Mubarak remains defiant to the end, it seems.  And based on the reactions, at least while I was watching before I came into the call, people were clearly not satisfied.  And as he was speaking, as it became clear that he was not going to step down, that he was in fact stepping aside, the crowds seemed to get louder and louder.  And there is the possibility that we will see this go on in a way that does not end possibly peacefully.

People were clearly in a celebratory mood an hour ago anticipating that President Mubarak would leave.  They're now contending with their expectations being dashed.  I'll hand it over to Richard Haass now.

RICHARD N. HAASS:  I would just make three short points.  One is when we set up this call we, like, I expect, most all of you, thought that the news was going to be different.  It yet again underscores the tenuousness and incompleteness of our knowledge of what is going on in Egypt.  This is -- this is anyone who claims transparency, if you will, much less -- much less the ability to predict is clearly going to be proven wrong time and time again.  That echoes something that Steve had said.  In the short run at least, you now have the problem of management of expectations of the people in the square, in the streets more general -- more generally, so it may have actually complicated the short-term political and security challenge.

Secondly, a lot of possible -- and I emphasize the word "possible" -- steps were -- small steps were outlined.  Whether they're actually undertaken or not ultimately remains to be seen.  The one positive, I would say is the avoidance of a formal triggering of the 60-day clock.  Under the constitution, that would have been the result of a formal giving up of power.  But obviously there were lots of other things that might have been done which were not that also would have avoided triggering the 60-day clock, the transfer of power to the speaker then elections.  That would have perhaps satisfied not simply some of the people in the square but, more importantly, might have signalled the beginning of a transition that might have enjoyed a bit more support and legitimacy.

And, lastly, what I think today also shows more than anything else is that the basic challenges haven't changed.  We're still talking about a political transition, basic questions, pace, sequencing.  Legal questions, political questions are all out there.  The economic challenges as a result of today will if anything probably grow slightly greater.  So it's not clear to me how what is -- what has taken place makes what was already an extraordinarily difficult situation any less difficult.

I still think the challenge of setting up some gradual process with some sort of hybrid government that undertakes various types of political and constitutional reform, that's still out there.  It remains to be seen whether the result of today can undertake that.  It's not immediately obvious to me that it can in its -- in its -- in its present form.  And what the last -- what -- two and half weeks should have shown us is it's not at all necessarily so that this is the last shoe to drop, that this is, today's reaction, if you will and in several days we might see yet additional reactions both from people in the square, as well as from people in the government.

MCMAHON:  Thank you, Steve and Richard.  We're going to right to your questions.  So, operator, could you tell us if there's a question in queue right now.

QUESTIONER:  (Gives queueing instructions.)  Please note that only questions from members of the media should be asked for today's conference.  Again, to ask a question, press star, one.

MCMAHON:  I think while we're waiting on this -- I'm sorry.  Go ahead, operator.

OPERATOR:  I'm sorry.  Our first question comes from Tom Curry from MSNBC.com.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, thank you.  I wanted to ask you to talk about the U.S. military -- U.S.-Egyptian military-to-military relationship and whether you can say anything about how it has been important in the last two weeks and where -- what influence it might have in the next, you know, as we go on from here.  I mean, earlier this week, Secretary Gates said that he was -- he praised the -- he said, "I think" "the Egyptian military has conducted itself in an exemplary fashion during this entire episode," "acted with great restraint."  "They have done everything we" "indicated we" hoped "they would do."  How has that military-to-military relationship worked?  And how do you think it might continue from this point?

HAASS:  Look, there's a strategic dimension to the relationship that an awful lot of these Egyptian officers have spent time in American staffs, colleges and schools.  There's a lot of good relationships.  As you recall, when this crisis began, senior Egyptian military officer were in Washington meeting with their American counterparts.  As I understand it, the sort of message you suggested is the sort of message being transmitted, to essentially exercise restraint, think for the long term and so forth.

The limits, though, are also clear, which is the relationship of the American military to American society is fundamentally different than the relationship of the Egyptian military to Egyptian society.  And there's an obvious enormous, visible political dimension to the Egyptian military's role.  And there's a less formal but nonetheless real economic relationship between the Egyptian military and the Egyptian economy and Egyptian society.  So I also think that ultimately there are limits.

And I'd say one other thing.  There's fundamental differences of identity.  The Egyptian army perceives of itself in many ways as the ultimate protector of the state.  And the American military quite clearly sees itself given the whole tradition here of civilian primacy and all the rest as an instrument at the service of the -- of the state.  We have the very strong concept of posse comitatus where the military does not take a domestic security role.  Obviously, in Egypt there are fundamental differences.

So I think -- again, I think the U.S. military can communicate messages, as they have been and are, to their Egyptian counterparts.  But at the end of the day, the Egyptian military is going to act in ways that they believe are necessary for their institutional prerogatives or requirements and for their national requirements as they -- as they seem them.

Do you want to add to that?

COOK:  Yeah, Richard hit all of the points that I -- that I would make and, as usual, did them better than I -- than I could.  But let me just add one quick thing.  I think that this episode just demonstrates once again that the military is the pillar of the regime and that it remains foursquare in support of maintaining the current constitutional order with some modification.  I would even go so far as to say that President Mubarak retains the loyalty of the senior command even though he is transferring power to Vice President Omar Suleiman.  The rumors of a coup d'etat or some dramatic change here seem to suggest something very different from what actually is going -- is going on.

MCMAHON:  Steve, do you want to maybe add to how the military's comported itself during this three weeks almost of protests?

COOK:  Well, my own sense, and given -- given my past work, is that the military has not been neutral and it has actually been complicit with the regime in trying to undermine this broad-based opposition, to sow chaos, to put pressure on foreign journalists and Egyptian journalists because the military is deeply intertwined both in the politics, in the regime itself as the inheritors of the founders of the regime.  There is a clear institutional connection between the military and the presidency, it's not President Mubarak itself -- and that they are deeply intertwined in the economic arrangements of the state, that they control an empire unto itself that is beyond the prying eyes of civilians and beyond the accounting, to the extent that it exists, of the Egyptian civilian agencies.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

MCMAHON:  Thank you for that question.

Operator, is there another question?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Mary Beth Sheridan from The Washington Post.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, thanks very much for doing the call.  I know the events in Egyptian are pretty unpredictable today.  But I was wondering, perhaps Steven, can you offer any thoughts as to why the suggestion was made earlier in the day by the military why -- you know, why the officials seemed to be suggesting that Mubarak would be stepping down?  Do you sense that there's differences somehow in the government?  Or was that simply a miscommunication of some sort?

COOK:  Well, this is Egypt.  So you can never discount the simple miscommunication.  I think the person who, I think, said it -- communicated the issue with President Mubarak who I think had most authority, was Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik in which he said he may step down and he may not.  He's going to do what's best for the country.  And that -- when I heard that, it suggested to me this may not be as clear-cut a situation as we thought.

I think it was important that supreme military command met without Mubarak.  I do think that the senior officers said all your demands would be met.  I think it was an important statement, but I don't think that it necessarily reflected the senior command.  What we now should be looking is whether there is some difference between the top brass, the Hussein Tantawi, Sami Anan, the leader of the presidential guard and others and people lower down in the -- in the general officer corps.  But I think that, again, it reflects the fact that the military has not broken.  It remains unified and it remains committed to defending the Egyptian state.  I can't emphasize enough how deeply intertwined that they are.

I also would not discount the fact -- and I know -- you know, I've spent a lot of time in Egypt, so I don't mean to sound conspiratorial.  But I would not necessarily discount the fact that there is an effort in sending mixed signals to kind of sow confusion and discord and create an environment of uncertainty that could, could backfire on them but also could play to their advantage.

MCMAHON:  Thank you for that question.

Operator, next question please?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Sally Quinn from The Washington Post.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Here's what I'd like to ask you all.  What kind of marks do you give the Obama administration for the way they're handling this?  You -- some world leaders are -- particularly European leaders are saying that he's doing a good job.  I interviewed Tony Blair on Monday and basically was in agreement with the go slow and said that he liked, knew Suleiman and respected him.

On the other hand, the Obama people are getting absolutely slammed by editorial writers saying they -- you know, in op-ed pieces saying they're -- you know, they're not responding to the opposition and they're -- you know, they're lowering their chances of getting Mubarak out at this point.  And it may be that they're creating -- they're allowing a vacuum to create so that the Muslim Brotherhood can come in much more strongly that they might have.  What do you all think?

HAASS:  Well, I don't know what we all think, Sally.  But this is Richard.  I'll tell you what I think.

QUESTIONER:  And what do you --

HAASS:  I think the administration is essentially correct in its having come around to the position that you need transition in Egypt, but the transition needs to be gradual.  And the idea of having some sort of a transitional, a hybrid caretaker -- call it what you will -- regime that doesn't try to do things in weeks or months but many months or even a year is, I believe, a wise approach.  And you've seen the secretary of State and others articulate it.

Second of all, you've seen the administration, I think again, correctly begin to reduce their public statements.  They've gotten into a little bit trouble with the number of public statements, at times the inconsistency and then also some of the tone, saying things -- for example, that the transition must happen now.  It was interesting that President Mubarak in his speech was clearly to some extent playing the nationalist card, that he was pushing back against outside pressures clearly in the hope that it would buy him a little bit of space and support on the -- on the streets at home.  I think the administration is wise to not be talking any longer about potentially threatening aid cutoffs.  Again, the Egyptian military is obviously the pivotal institution.  Why do you want to cut off or in any way threaten to cut off one of your -- one of your ties to that -- to that institution.

So what we're beginning to see, I think, is considerable discipline and restraint coming out of the administration.  My own sense is they are having as much trouble as anyone else just following the hour to hour, day to day comings and goings, if you will, of events there.  And what advice they're giving they're largely now giving in private, whether it's the vice president to vice president or now to Omar Suleiman or through other channels.  And that's exactly the way it should be.  They should be giving advice.

I think we should be encouraging various reform steps, significant but gradual.  So my own reading is that things are getting more disciplined.  They're getting quieter in public.  They're getting focused in private.  And that seems to me to be essentially all moving in the right direction.  But the bigger reality is still the limits of U.S. influence and the limits of U.S. knowledge.  And as an observer and as a former government official, that's -- what strikes me about all of this is the limits to what we know and the limits to what we can do to steer things.  And the fact is we can't -- we can't steer things.  At most, we are a limited influence.

MCMAHON:  Steven?

COOK:  No, I think that's right.  I think that the administration has been surfing the news cycles a little too much.  And this has been a lot of ups and down.  And they need to, as Richard said, approach this with a little bit more discipline.

HAASS:  Well, they are.  And what I said is they are approaching.

COOK:  The are approaching.

HAASS:  And I think that they've basically found their footing, but, like I said, that that these are extraordinarily difficult situations.  It's -- I'm hard-pressed to think of more difficult challenges for any U.S. government than this sort of a scenario.  There's no more difficult foreign policy challenge than trying to influence or affect the internal workings of another government or another society, particularly when it's under crisis.  There's no -- there's no playbook for this sort of thing.

And, again, it's one of the reasons to limits one's public comments, because invariably anything you say tends to be much for some constituencies, not enough for others, whether inside the country or around the region and the world.  So, again, my own sense is the administration is finding its footing on this but, that said, faces what as a class of challenges tends to constitute one of the -- toughest classes, if you will, or kinds or foreign policy challenges you ever encounter.

MCMAHON:  Thanks for that question.

Operator, is there another question please?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Doyle McManus from The L.A. Times.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Actually, that was my question.  But let me take it one more step.  If you were advising the administration further, you know, do they have any useful points of leverage or influence in the service of the principles they've laid down, which is, you know, no violent repression of the demonstrators, an expansion of human rights and some kind of genuine process?

HAASS:  My sense, Doyle, is that the principal tool, if you will, is not the leverage of what you said but it's really persuasion.   And that is inherently limited because it almost totally depends upon the willingness of the other side to be persuaded.  But I think that -- you know, if I were advising the administration or if I were in an administration talking to the Egyptians, I would now talk about the importance of having a reform process under way that bears some scrutiny, that actually comes to enjoy a degree of credibility.

Suspicion is higher than ever, I would think, after the events of today.  The hurdle has gotten higher.  But I would think you need people in the government who have civilian -- people in positions of authority who have civilian, if you will, clothes as well as military.  This can't be seen as a solely military operation.  And there need to be not simply promises about reform or changes down the road.  But I would think there need to be some near-term examples of specific changes, so essentially to tackle the suspicion that if anything has increased because the events of today.

So if I were in the administration I would be delivering that message.  At the end of the day, the Egyptians are going have to decide whether they're prepared to take it -- however big our stakes are, their stakes are bigger.  So -- but I get uneasy when we talk about ways to trying to force them or coerce them or leverage them.  I really do think that it's going to be up to them and they're going to have to make the decisions.  And we're simply -- largely in an advisory role at this point.

MCMAHON:  Should the administration be trying to reach out to the Egyptian public as opposed to the Egyptian leadership at this point?  Or should it be refraining from appeals to the Egyptian public at this point?

COOK:  Well, I think that what they've tried to do up until this point is position themselves so that they can do just enough to appeal to Egyptian public opinion while necessarily maintaining ties to the regime.  That hasn't worked very well.  And the discipline that Richard is talking about now seems to be a better place to be.

Of course, while we're talking, I've been checking my Twitter feed and it's been lighting up.  And there's been lot of people in Egypt wondering what exactly the administration's reaction to this will be.  And so I think that there will be a certain amount of political pressure coming from protesters and advocates in Washington for protesters on the administration making a strong statement.  And I think this creates somewhat of a problem for the administration.

HAASS:  That's true.  But if I had to choose, if I were advising an administration and I had to choose, I would worry less about short-term satisfaction of people in the streets and more about keeping advice private, because ultimately you'll never say enough to satisfy many of the people in the streets.  You'll damage your credibility with the people in positions of authority.  You'll damage some of your relationships around the region.  And you essentially want to save whatever ammunition or fire you have or influence you have to try to persuade people in positions of authority to undertake some meaningful reform steps.

And ultimately over the course of weeks and months and years that will prove far, far more significant that any short-term benefit you may get from this or that public statement.  So part of the discipline, I would suggest, of managing this kind of a crisis is not giving in to all of those who say we constantly have to get on the right side of history and satisfy people in the square.  That's a dangerous game to play.  I would focus much more on getting the Egyptian authorities to take steps in the right direction.  If they do that, that will have a far more lasting and far more meaningful effect on not simply the course of events but ultimately on America's relationship with Egypt.

MCMAHON:  Thank you.

Operator, another question please?

OPERATOR:  Thank you. Our next question comes from Viola Gienger from the Bloomberg News.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  Hi, thanks very much for doing the call.  I wanted to ask two things.  One is, how much do you see the military had to do with this decision by Mubarak to make the comments that he did and to not go to the full extent, especially since the top three officials of his government that he put into place are basically military officers.  He's a former air force commander himself.  What do you see as their role?  And how -- what's the likelihood at this point that the dissatisfaction that I think Steve made reference to or Richard related to the expectations in the street could explode overnight?

COOK:  Well, it's very hard to know what is going on precisely inside this black box.  It's the military.  But if you go by historic precedent and you go by the fact that Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister, owes his position to President Mubarak, that Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister, owes his position to the president, that the Chief of Staff Sami Anan owes his position to the president, that you would think that you can surmise that President Mubarak looked at each one of these power brokers and said "are you with me" before he went ahead on television and made the announcement that he was on.  I think that the signals that we were getting today that President Mubarak has been tossed overboard by the military in order to save the military as an organization or the state seem to be a misreading of what the actual political dynamics are.

In terms of a potential explosion, as we are sitting here, there are protesters who are now trying to make their way in the direction of the presidential palace in Heliopolis, which, I assured my people, is guarded by the Horas Gomburi (ph), the Republican guard, which is the Egyptian praetorian guard, who are by all measure motivated to protect the president and the regime.  So we could be entering into a dangerous situation with this problem of greatly raised expectations being dashed.

HAASS:  The -- again, the -- I would be prepared, if I were advising, to say if you have to take some short-term hits with people in the street in order to bring about longer-term political change and influence with those in a position to actually bring about political change, that seems to me to be a pretty good trade-off.  There's news coming out now that the vice -- that Omar Suleiman is about to speak at some point or he -- or is speaking now.  You know, what he has to say will again, you know, have more of an impact than anything American authorities say.

Again, the United States has to be very, very careful not to try to win short-term points by saying things that might, again, be well-received by people in the street.  But then we're not in a position to deliver so there's a danger of looking feckless.  There's also the danger of looking like an outsider who's interfering.  So I would just be very, very wary of trying to fine-tune, if you will, the public game.  I would do as little of it as possible and, again, focus on the private exchange.

COOK:  Obviously, there's a very fluid nature to this -- to these events.  The vice president of Egypt is speaking right now.  But we're going to continue to take your calls for a little while but cognizant of the fact that there might be some new developments to talk about.

Operator, we'll take the next question please.

OPERATOR:  Your next question comes from Jim Chuop (ph) from Straits Times.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you for taking this question.  Mubarak today has said pretty tough words about, you know, not giving in to foreign intervention and, you know, not wanting to step aside.  How would this affect good relations with the U.S., you know, whether it's behind-the-scenes negotiations or, you know, formal ties going ahead?  I mean, does it signal sort of a U.S. break in relations, do you think?

HAASS:  I don't believe it signals any such break or much of anything.  I think the president of Egypt said what he had to say in part because it's the sort of statement that tends to be well-received domestically.

No society likes to hear that it's being -- it's the object of external pressure from the United States or anyone else.  But I don't -- but I don't read more into it than just that.  And again, the United States is not, from what I can see, is not in the process of delivering ultimatums to Egypt, telling them that they have to do X or they have to do Y or else.  This is not the sort of message as I understand it being delivered, rather the messages are more in the form of suggestions, saying we believe you would be wise to do certain things, not as a favor to us, but as a favor to yourselves.  And at the end of the day, the Egyptians are going to have to make a decisions they're going to have to make.  And some of those decisions may have consequences for the relationship with the United States, but again it's their decisions in the first instance to make.

COOK:  Well, I just think that these kind of statements that President Mubarak is making about foreign intervention and foreign support for these things don't actually ring true to those people in Tahrir Square or others demonstrating in other parts of Egypt.  There certainly have been incidents where journalists and others have been accused of being foreign agents, but those are -- the people who are attacking journalists and others as foreign agents are people who are in the employ of people connected to the regime.  But the vast majority of the people in Tahrir Square are focused on Egypt and focused on their belief that the Mubarak regime is a particularly brutal one and it needs to go.

HAASS:  I'd just like to make a broader point just to address what might be the tone of this conversation more broadly, which is even though Hosni Mubarak is retaining a degree of authority or position today against many expectations, I would still argue that in many ways here is affect is over and whether it's in a week, a month or not until September as you suggested today that he wants to retain some role and that, ultimately, what's going to determine the trajectory of events in Egypt is going to be more essentially what takes it place, not just the person, but the political process.  And the question of who is involved in the reform, what's the substance of the reform, politically, constitutionally and the rest -- the focus on the tendency, I believe, and the reaction to today's events would be to focus mostly on the fact that Mr. Mubarak is retaining his basic position or elements of it.  And it did not leave in the way that was anticipated.  But I really do think, ultimately, that that is while it might be today's story, it's not the ultimate story.  And the ultimate story is still, again, the political process that ultimately begins to unfold.

So what the vice -- what Omar Suleiman is saying while ultimately, could ultimately be more significant and more significant than what either says today is what starts happening tomorrow.  And what's the substance of constitutional and political deliberations  and whose in the room having them.

MCMAHON:  Thank you, operator.  Is there another question, please?

OPERATOR:  Yes.  Our next question comes from Richard Cohen from The Washington Post.

QUESTIONER:  Actually, my questions have been answered.

MCMAHON:  Terrific.

QUESTIONER:  I hope that part is on the record.

MCMAHON:  (Laughter.)  Yes, it is on the record.

QUESTIONER:  So I turn over the remainder of my time to somebody more interesting.

OPERATOR:  Again, as a reminder if you would like to ask a question, you may do so -- (gives queueing instructions).

Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell from The Mitchell Report.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, Richard, ask a two-part question and it comes from two remarks that you've made, one today and one -- and the second a couple of days ago.  One is, the first thing you said in this conversation was that this demonstrates how little we know about what's actually going on in Egypt, if I said that correctly.  And I'm interested to know whether -- what you mean by that is not in the same way that we don't know what's going on in Iran because we're not there.  But is it that we don't know, we don't understand and that's also a reflection of not understanding the sort of political context it will in Tahrir Square, that it's hard to read.

I'm -- I'd like a little more flesh on how little we know about Egypt.  And second, you said I think a day or two ago talking about Egypt something we're in the second inning.  And my question is, is what's happening in Egypt today, I mean, are we still in the second inning?  Are we moving ahead in the third inning?  Sort of where are we in that context?

HAASS:  To take the second question first, I think today's events will probably place us squarely in the bottom of the second inning.

COOK:  No outs.

HAASS:  This has got a long way to play out, and a little bit akin to what I just said before your question, Garrett.  That even if today's events had been different and Mr. Mubarak had come up with a more decisive movement away from position and power, I would have said maybe than we had moved to the third inning.

I just think that most of what's -- what will one day perhaps be called the revolution in Egypt that most of it is yet to unfold.  And it's all the phases to come, all the permutations to come.  And that continues to be my sense, and today reinforces it, which leads me to the first part of your question.  Well, when I said how little we know, I wasn't speaking in anything veiled, I meant literally that many of us -- many of the observers or if not virtually all of them were expecting something different today.

For what I can tell, I don't know specifically about U.S. intelligence or the U.S. government.  It's not clear to me that we had a clear heads up about what was going to be said and not said.

So what this -- what this tells me is literally what I say, is that we are -- you're always dealing with imperfect and incomplete knowledge, whether you're an analyst or a practitioner.  And what I'm struck here is we're dealing with slightly more incomplete knowledge than usual.  This is a really fast-changing situation.  We're not necessarily being told everything in advance by some of the critical parties.  We're not necessarily in touch with all the critical parties.  It's one of the reasons that makes this, I think, particularly difficult, whether you're an analyst, a journalist or a government official to figure out exactly what's going on and who is playing what part.  And more important, what's likely to go on.

This is -- this is a very, very tough situation, not simply to monitor, but to understand.  So my comment was about that simple.

QUESTIONER:  Well, I actually have a question for you, Richard, on this point.  The fact that we're not getting the information from the relevant parties, the fact that -- Leon Panetta said he believes that Mubarak would step down.  This was, clearly, a head fake if we're sticking with the sports metaphors here.  Is that any reflection of the kind of quality of the relationship at this moment that there is significant tension between U.S. officials and Egyptian officials and that's why we're not getting that good information?

HAASS:  Well, what I'm struck by is, to some extent, the disparity of the stakes.  The Egyptians have essentially, virtually all their chips on the table.  We do not.  Why would we -- why would we assume that they would share everything with us, particularly when they see us as a party that has its own interests.  They know where we're coming from.  I expect they see us as pressuring, largely privately, sometimes publicly, but pressuring for reform.  I expect there are those in Egypt who welcome it.  There are those in Egypt who think what we're pressuring for is inadequate and there's clearly those in Egypt who think that what we're pressuring for, advocating for is misguided.

So we are seen, to some extent, as someone who has a bias for better or for worse.  We have interests and we have our own preferences.  So my sense is the Egyptians do not see our policies and preferences and I think that echo with their own.  And as a result, they're going to treat us at arm's length at times.  That doesn't mean there's a crisis in the relationship.  That's just the real world where Egyptian interests and American interests are not one in the same, and certainly, the perception of the interest by either side is not one in the same.  My hunch is and this is nothing new, but when I was an official, I had any number of conversations be it with President Mubarak or those around him where I would talk about some of these issues about the domestic reform, politically, economically and the like.  And in many cases, the Egyptian reaction was we know you're a friend.

We know you Americans are well-intentioned, but, but essentially we know Egypt better than you do, and at the end of the day, we respectfully disagree and we will do what we think is best and necessary for our country.  And I see this as simply a continuation of that.  Its gotten a little bit edgier now because of the people in the streets and there's a crisis.  But that fundamental lack of overlap between American and Egypt perceptions about what Egypt's authorities ought to be doing in terms of a direction and pace and substance of reform, than that lack of overlap wasn't a case and isn't the case.

MCMAHON:  Thank you.  Operator, next question, please.  And could I ask everyone to just ask short questions if you could so we can take as many as possible in the remaining time.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Lara Marlowe from The Irish Times newspaper.

QUESTIONER:  Hello.  Mr. Panetta said this morning there was a strong likelihood that Mubarak would step down.  Do you believe that the Obama administration, that the White House believes he was going to step down today?  And what is likely to be, even if they don't express it publicly, the reaction within the administration to Mubarak's speech tonight in Egypt?

HAASS:  I don't know what the innermost councils of the White House believe was going to happen, whether they thought -- whether they had any private indications beforehand of what Mr. Mubarak was going to say or whether they like the rest of us were dependent largely on public indications.  I simply don't know.  Maybe we'll find that out.

I would think the reality is though that, again, coming back to where in some ways we began the call.  I would think this complicates the situation in the immediate short run because what it's done its further raised the salience of Mr. Mubarak's status.  It's not what people in the square and beyond thought was going to happen.  So you have the dashed expectations problem.  Again, I don't know the substance of what Mr. Suleiman is saying, but from all reports it was not, if you will, decisively or fundamentally different in terms of what's going to be undertaken and so forth.

So my own sense is that the foreign policy management, challenge, if you will, of things has probably gotten slightly more difficult, but that said, I don't think it has fundamentally changed.  I think it was difficult before the events of today and it would have been difficult tomorrow regardless simply given the basics of this situation.

COOK:  Today, the vice president apparently said -- this is a translation -- young people go home, go back to work.  And there was a great deal of reassurance about working together as one team and one country and so forth.  But he said change has begun.  Return home and return to your jobs.

HAASS:  My hunch is that that's sort of general language won't wash and sooner rather than later it would behoove the Egyptian authorities to want to present something of, again, more of a civilian face to their country.  And second of all, to actually begin a process that enjoys some credibility around the country, that looks politically real and with real possibilities and even to look to some things that could be implemented very quickly.  So change is not just a promise down the road, but becomes something even in a limited sense of a reality.

I would think it would be very important to begin to change, if you will, the narrative here.  And I believe the authorities there would be wise to start doing that.

MCMAHON:  Thank you.  We have another question, operator?

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Barry Schweid from The Associated Press.

QUESTIONER:  Hello, how are you?  Richard, do you see him moving in any sense in the direction where you very much seem to want him to move?  We've seen some movement, but he remains defiant.  Everything I heard was concessionary and the defiance is in not quitting now.

You don't like how slow he's moving, but is he moving in a right direction?

HAASS:  Barry, the short answer is the proof will be in the pudding or whatever the Arabic equivalent of that saying is, which is that the -- what matters, again, more than today's disappointments or frustrations, whatever words you want to use, is the substance of what sort of political change we see coming out.  So, if in a week or two weeks, there's a noticeable -- there are some things to look at and we see a process that looks genuine and we see people participating in the process who have some following, that I believe that becomes the focus, that becomes the narrative.  If not, than we've got a very different situation on our hands.

So if you're asking me, again, I like the fact that, in principal, things are moving in a gradual way.  What still remains to be seen is exactly the direction and the pace.  And so I don't want things to move too quickly; on the other hand, I sound a little bit like looking for the Goldilocks, there's a danger in them not moving.  And I simply don't think any of us have enough information to say whether things are moving, but I don't know if the adjective is measured or orderly or regulated, you know, choose your word, but its got -- any of those words is fine, but there's got to be -- you've got to avoid it seems to me the two extremes of essentially chaos or movement that's too much, too soon.  But you've also got to avoid essentially stasis and standing still.  And either one, I think, either one of those two extremes would be a recipe for disaster or something or at least extremely risky and costly.  And I just don't think we know enough either to say with confidence one way or another about whether the Egyptian authorities have determined on a trajectory.

I don't even know, Barry, that they haven't started -- I don't know what they, themselves, have decided.  I don't know what consensus may exist.  I don't know to what extent they're reacting simply tactically or they have something of a strategy here.  So, you know, it's hard to keep listing all the things I don't know or we don't know.  But I would simply say not -- as I -- just that.  My instinct is not to overreact to today's events.  I simply -- we have to see how this -- how this plays out a little bit.

MCMAHON:  Steven you want to --

COOK:  I just think that we need to be wary of the fact that there is -- the longer this goes on and that there is this fear and concern among protestors that this is giving an opportunity for Omar Suleiman and President Mubarak, who has not given up power.  He has not left; give them an opportunity to manipulate a political process going forward while -- and this is a tried and true method -- what the NDP, the ruling National Democratic Party has been doing since 2004 -- which is institutionalizing the power of the party under the guise of the reform.  And that's something that I think that people are quite wary of and that in looking at the situation, we need to be -- we need to be aware of this possibility.

HAASS:  Well, I agree, and those who would succeed President Mubarak have to be very careful about that.  If it begins to look and feel and in every way resemble what might be described as faux reform, than they increasingly get tarred with the brush of the ancien regime.  They forfeit legitimacy and they jeopardize their ability to take Egypt into the next phase, and that is -- that is their real risk of not doing enough.  And it's why, again, I keep saying they would be wise to broaden the participation and come up with something that even if it's measured is genuine.  But faux reform will backfire.

MCMAHON:  Thanks for that question, Barry.  Next question, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Natalie Nougayrede from Le Monde.

QUESTIONER:  From Le Monde.  Yes.  Thanks.  Hello, everybody.  Thanks for taking my question.

I wanted to ask you about the regional context.  To what degree does the way that other American allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, to what degree does their perception and the fact that they're watching all this crisis unfold, does that weigh onto the Obama administration's policy on the Egypt issue?  And does it possibly encourage Mubarak to do what he did today, which is basically stay on, and, you know, the fact that this is a 30-year-old American ally, an ally of 30 years and everybody in the region is watching how Washington is going to treat them.

COOK:  Well, we all know that Arab leaders have been lobbying the Obama administration on Mubarak.  And I think that, obviously, they're quite concerned about the way in which the United States has been handling it.  And I think this, I think, I don't know how much credit we should give to Arab leaders, but I think you see a change and this discipline that Richard was talking about earlier in the call coincides with the stepped up effort on the part of regional leaders to send their own message to the Obama administration on how they're handling the situation, how to handle the situation should be handled.

Clearly, they felt very uncomfortable with the administration trying to get out ahead on the right side of history as people are calling it.

So I think that broadly speaking, the region would like the administration to stay maybe where it is now or perhaps supported.  As I said earlier, I think that there is going to be some political pressure in Washington and certainly generated by the pictures on the screen and the live feed from Twitter and Al-Jazeera -- the tendency to try to make statements in support of the protesters, exactly what our Arab allies don't want us to be doing.

MCMAHON:  Thank you.  Another question please, operator.

OPERATOR:  Our next question is from Martin Klingst from Die Zeit.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hello, thank you very much.  Isn't it all a question of trust?

HAASS:  Sorry.  Could you please repeat that?

OPERATOR:  It looks like we've lost Martin.  Our next question is from Alex Privitera from N24 German TV.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  Thank you very much.  My question is about the role of the army, which has been somewhat elevated into this role of anchor of stability, but at the same time it should be the vehicle of the least -- the facilitator of change.

What dangers do you see for the army itself if this drags on for too long?  And is there danger of losing the only interlocutor that we seem to be having?

HAASS:  Well, I actually worry about that.  I worry that the longer this drags on, the more the army gets out of the barracks, if you will.  I see two fundamental risks, one is the more it becomes a political actor, it loses some of its above politics or beyond politics legitimacy.  And then, secondly, it could be forced situations where it needs to take sides, and that could ultimately mean the use of force against one or another actor.

So I would think that the army runs great risks by essentially asserting a very visible and physical way its dominance, either as a political actor or as the final provider of public security.  It's much better when these things are implicit and potential rather than explicit and real.  So I think it's one of my concerns because absent the army, I think you would lose one of the potential useful instruments in helping Egypt manage what could be a prolonged period of turmoil.  And if the army ever were to get divided or to lose its public authority, I think it would be terrible to say the least -- development for Egypt.

So I would ultimately like to see again and it's one of the reasons I want to see a greater civilian dimension to things.  And I want to see a process that enjoys greater public legitimacy because otherwise I believe the army risks quitting itself in positions.

QUESTIONER:  But doesn't that imply that the process should be sped up?

HAASS:  I don't believe it should be sped up in terms of the actual pace necessarily of this institution holding elections or how long it takes to do a constitution.  But I think the start of the process should start.  And that the sooner there is a civilian dimension and there are some -- there's some, again, credible processes that have been launched, I think the better.  But I don't think the goal should be to hasten the actual process, much less to set unrealistic goals for it to finish.  But I do think it's important that it begin in earnest and in a credible way, sooner, rather than later.

Steven, why don't you jump in because you've thought hard about the army.

COOK:  Sure.  I think that the only place where the military retains certain credibility in this regard is probably in Washington, and certainly not in Cairo and certainly not in Cairo after this evening's events.  It is both as you pointed out somehow been painted as a force for stability and as an instrument of change.  And I think that can only go so far given that the military is deeply intertwined with the political system as it is.  And as I said before, also, in the economic system.  They have skin in the game and they're only willing to let things go so far.

They are, indeed, quite concerned about threats to social cohesion and the potential for chaos, and that's why you see them in the streets, in the streets today.  But I agree wholeheartedly with Richard that the longer this goes on, there is a great danger to the military.  They risk unlearning, if that's a word, unlearning the lesson of 1967, which was that a military that is deeply involved in politics and governing, not just ruling, but governing the country, risks its corporate coherence and its ability to be a professional force.  And I think that's a real danger going forward as the military has been thrust into this political crisis.

MCMAHON:  Thank you for that question.  We have a few more minutes to spare since we started a little late.  Operator, do we have another question?

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Jacqueline Albert-Simon from Politique Internationale.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  Good afternoon, and thanks for answering -- for listening to my question.  I noticed that there's only one question exterior to Egypt and I do have another, which is about Israel and their position in all of this and their fears.  And I am wondering if you have any knowledge of how the Obama administration might be counseling Israel on restraint and no preemptive statements or actions more than what they've done so far.

HAASS:  Well, I don't know -- I don't have any knowledge that the U.S. government has counseled the Israelis for what it's worth.  I don't think the Israelis need counseling on the need to be restrained.  They, themselves, initiated it.  They were, in the sense, there were reports that the government essentially instructed its own members not to speak publicly on this matter.  The Israelis have enormous stakes here given their relationship with Egypt.  And so from what I can see, the Israelis have not spoken to any considerable extent, if at all, publicly, understanding that, again, anything they say is likely to be counterproductive.

I would also say that, you know, there's risks here and not of the sort you mentioned.  But I would think that if public opinion becomes a greater force in Egyptian politics, it is unlikely to bring about an improvement, at least in the short run in Israeli-Egyptian relations.

So I think this has the potential, at least in the shorter and medium run to be a complicating development in the relationship between Israel and, in some ways, it's most important neighbor.  And that would then have consequences for more broadly, you know, what is called the peace process.  And it raises questions about the ability to enter into agreements with countries, not only that are not democracies, but even with entities that are not mature and relatively predictable democracies.

So I think the likely consequences of this are to take a peace process that was moving slowly at best and to reinforce that said.  So I think we're more likely than not to enter something of a pause in which things don't go forward with the very important exception of the continued, and I think, very positive process of building a Palestinian state from the ground up on the West Bank.  There's no reason that that has to be wait on anything.  But I think the traditional diplomatic dimension, the negotiating dimension, which, again, was not moving at any pace to speak of before this happened, it's hard to see it reviving or picking up in this context until things clarify.

MCMAHON:  And that's going to wrap it for us today.  I want to thank everyone for spending the past hour with us on this CFR, Council on Foreign Relations media conference call.  And thank you very much to CFR President Richard Haass and senior fellow Steven Cook for their insights.

 

 

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