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Media Conference Call: Egypt After Mubarak - What is Next?

Speakers: Ed Husain, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, and Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Head, Office of the Quartet Representative, Tony Blair, in Jerusalem
Presider: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 11, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations

OPERATOR:  (Gives queuing instructions,)

I will now turn the conference over to Bernard Gwertzman.  Mr. Gwertzman, please begin.

BERNARD GWERTZMAN:  Hi, this is Bernard Gwertzman at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.  And we have two co-hosts here:  Robert Danin, a long time State Department official who worked in the Middle East, and Ed Husain, who is a more recent member of the council.  He's a senior fellow at the council and has written a well-received book called "The Islamist" about his earlier life when he was a more radical Muslim.  And he's written many articles about the whole area.

I'd like to start out by asking Robert a question about, where do you think we go from here in Cairo and Egypt now, now that the president has apparently stepped down and turned over responsibility for getting the government into a more modern society to the military?

ROBERT DANIN:  Well, we've turned, you know, an historic corner, as the president just told us.  And you know, clearly Mr. Mubarak's departure has opened a new chapter in Egyptian history and Middle Eastern history.  And I think now the future is in the hands -- the immediate future is in the hands of this ruling council that has -- this ruling council of the military that has taken control.

And you know, the question is:  Will they be able to and are they willing to actually lead and lead a transition to real democracy and ultimately then relinquish control to civilian oversight in a legitimate, or as the president said, credible way?

So I think the test -- or the jury is still out.  You know, the demonstrators' key demand that the president stand down has been met.  The army has said that they will endorse all of the -- and implement all of the demonstrators' demands, but -- you know, it has to be done.

And Egypt under Mubarak had successfully eviscerated the opposition, had successfully broken many elements of -- that we come to know as civil society.  So to move from that picture to democratic rule in a very short order is a herculean task.  And so democracy is not just about elections; it's about putting all the institutions in place that can function for democracy for elections to take place in a truly democratic way.

So I think that, you know, we're -- the short answer is we're headed to the next phase that's going to be quite a challenge.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.  Ed, what do you think the reaction is going to be in the other countries in the Arab world, particularly those with sort of a more Islamic bent?  I was thinking, of course, of Saudi Arabia with a strong Sunni clergy, and Iran, which is not an Arab country, of course, but has a very strong Shiite Islamic government.

ED HUSAIN:  I think what we're seeing now is a completely new Arab world.  This is a Magna Carta moment for the Arab world.  What we saw in Egypt has been picked up across the Arab world from -- as Al Jazeera's been saying -- from, you know, one side of the Arab world to the other.  People are out in the streets today in every Arab capital.  And people in Saudi Arabia, as I understand it from friends in Saudi Arabia, have been glued to the TV.

But there's a huge difference between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and in this case, Egypt.  In the last year we saw the Iranian army open fire on its own people.  That's not something -- to the Egyptian army's credit -- that they've done.  We saw in Syria in 1982 that the Syrian army has opened fire and killed 30,000 of its people.  And the Syrian army's composed, at the leadership level at least, from people from the Alawi sect and at odds with the mainstream Sunni Syrian population.

And in Saudi Arabia, with most of the Gulf, I think the situation's somewhat different.  The king -- the new king, King Abdullah, is very much liked by the Saudi population.  His overtures towards greater rights for women and greater freedom for his people.  He's successfully argued that these have been blocked by the clerics so that the frustration of the people is directed towards the religious establishment -- the Wahhabi establishment -- and not necessarily against him.  And the people understand that the regime is multifaceted, unlike in Egypt, where there were serious considerations of a dynastic type of president emerging after Hosni Mubarak in the form of his son.

But I'd like to say one more thing, if I may.

GWERTZMAN:  Sure.

HUSAIN:  And that's the total irrelevance of al-Qaida ideology and al-Qaida tactics in all of this.  Let's not forget that it was Ayman al-Zawahiri that was produced by the Hosni Mubarak regime's suppression of the opposition and the jihadists who wanted to overthrow him.

They tried again and again, using every tactic possible, but they failed to overthrow him. And as President Barack Obama rightly identified, what we saw this time around was people without protest -- the Gandhi, the Martin Luther King model -- winning in the Arab world.  Inconceivable three weeks ago, but here we are illustrating the fact that Arabs -- like the rest of us in the world -- want freedom, human rights and democracy.  And the last 18 days illustrate that to us.

GWERTZMAN:  Now to me, who's been a long-time observer of the Middle East going back to the 1970s, this rise of democracy seemed to be incredible.  I mean American officials, for instance, have been preaching the virtues of democracy for some time, including most recently President George Bush and then President Obama when he made his trip to Cairo in 2009.  But everyone laughed.  No one thought it was really possible.

I don't know if anyone wants to comment on that.  Rob?

DANIN:  I mean -- you know -- if I may jump in on that one.  I mean, what we see unfolding is actually a -- you know, the manifestation of the analysis that the United States had been providing for a number of years now, which is, you know, that the stability that President Mubarak so cherished was not -- was built on a house of cards.  And that stasis and sclerosis and lack of change was actually rotting Egypt from within.  And that the failure to reform and to liberalize and democratize actually was going to be the undoing of the stability that they thought that they were upholding.  And so now we've seen that actually borne out.

And so in many ways, you know, what we -- unfortunately, some of the efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East were delegitimated by the Iraq war and many felt that what the United States was trying to do was impose democracy.  And it was something that we did to the -- to our enemies, not with our friends.

And I think what we're going to see now is that in fact, you know, democracy is a good thing, is a positive thing.  It's something that -- you know, what this demonstrates more than anything is that the Arabs want it.  This isn't something that is being imposed from outside.  That, you know, there is no Arab exception; that the Arab world is indeed like everywhere else in the world.  And that there are certain human and universal aspirations that extend, you know, to the Arab world as well as other parts of the world.

GWERTZMAN:  Say, Carrie (sp), I'm ready -- we're ready to open it up to questions.

OPERATOR:  (Gives queuing instructions,)

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

QUESTIONER:  Hi, thanks.  In the call yesterday that Richard Haass and one of your colleagues did, Richard's opening comment was that, if there was anything that we learned -- and this is as of last night -- it was how little we know about what actually is taking place in Egypt and is going on.  It was a reminder that as much as we think we know, we don't know much.

Keying off that, I want to ask a question, which is -- which is arguably hypothetical.  But I'm interested in whether either of our speakers has a thought about it.  Something obviously happened between 11:00 last night and some time this morning -- this afternoon.  It is the presumption -- is it -- is it a presumption that -- I guess the parallel that I want to use is I remember in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson did a speech from the Oval Office and what we learned afterwards was that he went to that speech -- he went to that appearance with two speeches:  one in which he said, I shall neither seek nor shall I accept the nomination of my party to be your president; and one that did not.

Is there some chance that that's what happened last night with Mubarak and that he made the decision at the -- literally the eleventh hour -- to go with the, I'm sticking around speech?  Is it likely that the military and others -- that the military were operating under the assumption that he was going and that the cabinet friends were operating that he's -- that he was going to stay?  What's -- is it too early to even guess, but I'm interested in what your thoughts might be in that regard.

GWERTZMAN: I have some information but I'm willing to defer to my colleagues here. Does anyone here want to take a crack at that before I divulge what I know?  (Chuckles.)

DANIN:  Well, why don't you divulge what you know first?

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  I'll tell you what -- I had the pleasure of interviewing today Daniel Kurtzer, who was a former ambassador to Egypt.  What he told me was that yesterday -- that is, Thursday -- everything was set in place for Mubarak to step down; that the military had decided to take over and that he would step down gracefully.  And in fact the military had this highly publicized meeting of their whole council that was televised on state television.  And Mubarak was supposed to say he was transferring powers to the Vice President Suleiman and that was supposed to be it.  And Suleiman was supposed to say, I've got the powers and all your demands have been met and go home.

But it didn't come out that way.  It was a very clumsily handled speeches.  And this morning, the military was furious and they made them go through the whole thing very quickly and had Suleiman just say, Mubarak has given up power and has gone to -- left town; he's now in Sharm el-Sheikh.  Anyway, that's what I've -- that's what Mr. Kurtzer said and sounds reasonable to me.

DANIN:  Ed, do you want to jump in or shall I?

HUSAIN:  Well, no.  Go ahead, Rob.  I've got a couple of thoughts but I'll add to yours.  Go ahead.

DANIN:  Yeah.  Well, I mean this is one theory that's going around.  I mean, you know, I'd be interested to know where Dan heard it but --

GWERTZMAN:  From Egyptians -- I don't know how.  I'm not sure -- but anyway.

DANIN:  You know, I think we're in one of those moments where over the next,  you know, weeks and months if not years to come the true history of what was happening in the palace and behind the scenes will emerge.   That's been one of the great unknowns in the last few weeks is what have been the real debates that have been taking place?  Has the military been the arm of the president or have they in fact been putting tremendous pressure on the president and has he been resisting?  That's one.

And secondly, you know, can you speak of the military as the monolithic entity here or might you indeed have different factions within the military that have been exercising different positions?  Clearly you have one element of the military that went out in to Tahrir Square.  General Anan, General Tantawi and said, you know, we are with -- the protesters' demands are going to be met.

And at the same time, you had Omar Suleiman come out last night -- yet another former general and now the vice -- until last night the vice president -- saying, immediately after the president spoke, echoing what the president said.  So that suggests to me that there's been a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing behind the curtain for power and that President Mubarak has not been just, you know, singlehandedly issuing decrees, but rather, even the appointment of Omar Suleiman seemed to me a possible concession made to a restive military -- something he hoped to keep at bay.

Yes, Mr. Mubarak comes from the military.  Yes, he, you know, is one of them and has been looking out for their interests.  But clearly there have been, you know, the sentiment within the military -- within some quarters of the military -- that they stand with the principles of the demonstrators, which is why they came out earlier to say, we will not use force against them, which was quite an important statement and deprived Mr. Mubarak of an important tool he might have used to try to quell the demonstrators.

In short, we don't know the story definitively.  The scenario you painted that ultimately he did not give the speech that was expected sounds like a distinct possibility.  We waited a great deal of time -- much beyond the deadline or much beyond the expected time frame to deliver the speech.  The fact that expectations were so raised over the course of the day yesterday, only to then be dashed down, put the president in a much worse place had he not spoken it at all and had these leaks not come out, so --

GWERTZMAN:  Ed, do you want to add something?

HUSAIN:  Just very quickly.  I'm mean, I'm in complete agreement with what both of you've said.  But to add to that, yesterday was Thursday; today is Friday.  Something very important happened on the streets today:  the Friday prayers.  And after the Friday prayers, the streets again were filled with tens of thousands of people again.

So yesterday's speech was supposed to allay some of those people.  Some the compromises that the former President Mubarak had made were supposed to have allayed those concerns and minimized the numbers, but that didn't happen.   And the second fact was, the medium through which President Mubarak and others have been addressing the Arab masses has been Al Jazeera.  And Al Jazeera yesterday -- Al Jazeera Arabic in particular -- had two screen shots when he was speaking:  one of the former president addressing the camera, and two of the masses in Tahrir Square listening to what he had to say.  One-third through his speech, after all the compromises had listed, people started to shout en masse, "Irhal, irhal," (ph) leave, leave, go, go in a very sort of derogatory manner towards the president.

That was the breaking moment, that despite his compromises, people en masse still wanted him to leave.  And that's when, you know, whichever speech he wanted to deliver, it didn't work the magic that he had intended it to.

GWERTZMAN:  Right.  All right.  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Your next question comes from Arshad Mohammed from Reuters.

QUESTIONER:  I wanted to follow up on something that Rob said earlier -- and I'd be happy for all three of your views on it, if you wish.

And the question is to press you a bit on what you think is likely to be the willingness of the Egyptian military to preside over a genuine transfer to democracy -- one in which they would have to presumably accept civilian control, one in which they might see their economic interests eroded, one in which they might have to accept or presumably have to accept a more subaltern role than they have enjoyed, you know, arguably for the last 30 or 60 years.  Do you think they're actually willing to do that?

GWERTZMAN:  Rob?

DANIN:  I was going to let Ed have the first crack this time.

GWERTZMAN: Okay.  Sure.

HUSAIN:  Sure.  I mean I -- judging by the current circumstances and judging by the statement the military put out, the Egyptian military put out two hours ago, I think there's every chance that they will continue to want to maintain the grassroots popularity they have.  After all, the Egyptian army comes from the rank and file; it's a very sort of homogeneous group of people from wider Egyptian society.

And two other indications are very important I think.  One is that the army in its opening statements salutes the martyrs of this great revolution in their own words.  You know, the people who are behind the revolution and 300 people that died.  Rather than the army taking an objective stance and not acknowledging them, it goes out of its way today to salute them.  And then the army in that same statement repeatedly talks about the need for a civilian-military government.

So by their own words and in recognition of the new political reality in Cairo, the army is committed to bringing in people from wider society.  And I think we ought to take them on face value in that promise, because they know ultimately breaking that promise would result in a new Egypt that doesn't have the kind of fear factor that we saw in Egypt over the last 30 years.

GWERTZMAN: Okay.  Any other comment on that question?

DANIN:  You know, I would agree with that.  I think that's, you know, that clearly will be the aspiration of the rank and file within the military.  The question, you know, that we will have to see answered is whether or not the top echelons of the military that have benefited greatly from -- under Mubarak's rule -- and when I say benefit, I mean not just in terms of exerting power, but actually, you know, financially in terms of the special privileges afforded them, you know, in Egyptian society.  You know, when it actually comes time for there to be a real, you know, transparency introduced and whether -- and real civilian oversight of the military, you know, how they're going to react.

And so they may indeed recognize that they have to go with the new order.  But you know, one question is whether or not they really understand what that means.  General Tantawi comes from the same school as General, you know, former General Mubarak.  And you know, one thing we saw -- have seen over the last two weeks is that General Mubarak just did not understand what it was happening in Tahrir Square.  And the question is, does -- you know, do -- does Omar Suleiman, who still remains as part of this -- as part of this council?

GWERTZMAN:  All right, next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.  Your next question comes from Mary Beth Sheridan from the Washington Post.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, thanks a lot.  I know this is very early days, but I am wondering what the departure of Mubarak means for U.S. policy in the Middle East.  Just your thoughts on that.

GWERTZMAN: Robert?

DANIN:  Well, I think what this does is this firmly swings the pendulum in the debate in the foreign policy -- U.S. foreign policy establishment, and in particularly within the administration between those who have argued for nurturing bilateral relationship and trying to preserve stability in the world and in the Middle East in particular, and those who have been advocating democratic change.  You know, the pendulum has firmly swung towards those advocating democratic change.

Recall, President Obama came to power, he gave an important speech in Cairo.  But at the same time, his agenda was to try to repair what he perceived as the damage in relations between the United States and many countries in the Middle East.  And that meant not criticizing those countries, not creating tensions between those countries.  And one of the results of that meant not criticizing them and not speaking to their -- to the way in which they handled and mishandled their own domestic rule.

So I think that -- now we're going to see a much more assertive move.  I mean, President Obama today fully put himself behind what has happened in Tahrir Square, calling this, you know, historic along the lines of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  So now the onus will be on the United States to really be consistent on that point.

GWERTZMAN:  Ed, do you want to take a crack at that?

HUSAIN:  Just one or two points very quickly:  I think it's going to be harder for the U.S. to be more influential now in Egypt and in countries in which there's going to be an increasing democratic presence.  It was easier in the Mubarak days to pick up the phone.  Relationships were very direct, very blunt, very secretive -- now in a new spirit of openness and democratic transparency.  And it ought to be said, increasing levels of anti-American sentiment have been expressed at least by those who Al Jazeera Arabic is speaking to and is interviewing both on the streets and on -- and in its studios.  If that's any barometer, we're seeing some levels of anti-Americanism emerging.  Whether that transpires into policy and therefore making the U.S. job in the region difficult or not, time will tell.

Two other issues I think are of real concern.  One is the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its own attitude and it's 70-year-long history of anti-Americanism.  If that has anything to do with having a significant impact in the Egyptian political space, then we see an increased (mood ?) of anti-Americanism.  And then that makes the U.S. job in terms of influence in the region -- in particular Egypt -- more difficult.

And the third issue would be Israel, and I think that's a real concern to people here and people in Egypt, whether the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel stays or it's somehow revived or it's ratified or -- those are real issues.  And judging by the most critical voice, I think, the voice of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamid Ghazali, after coming out of a meeting with Omar Suleiman last Friday, said that the peace treaty ought to be maintained because it was in the interest of Egypt.

That was an interesting way of putting it, but it seems to me that thus far, positive noises have been coming out of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Time will tell whether those noises are, you know, political reality or otherwise.

GWERTZMAN:  I would like to know myself what the impact of this change in Egypt will have on Hamas.

HUSAIN:  Rob?

DANIN:  Well, one of the interesting things -- I mean, look at the reaction that you've seen right now, just today.  Where has this been most quickly welcomed on the street in the Arab world has been, you know, in South Lebanon and in -- and in Gaza, which is not to say it hasn't been welcomed elsewhere as well.

But one of the reasons it's been welcomed in the streets of Gaza is because the Mubarak regime had come to be seen, especially in the last few years, as having been staunchly anti-Hamas.

The Egyptian regime and notably Omar Suleiman had been the key negotiator and envoy trying to broker a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.  But increasingly, Hamas has seen the Egyptians as not as an honest broker, but as clearly behind Fatah and anti-Hamas.

And so in that sense, they're very happy to see this regime go, because they think that a more representative regime, one that actually has -- I mean, they're hoping that the Muslim Brotherhood will play a great role in governance, but at a minimum, they expect that whatever regime comes to power it will be less sort anti-Hamas and less sort of what they see as pro-Israel.

I mean, recall from their perspective, they see pictures of Hosni Mubarak and Benjamin Netanyahu, you know, backslapping in Sharm el-Sheikh.  So, you know, they do not see this as necessarily -- they had not seen this as a regime that was friendly to them so they're happy to see it go.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Donna Leinwand from USA Today.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, good afternoon.  I was wondering if you both could analyze who the emerging leaders might be.  I'd love to hear some thoughts on Tantawi, on Anan and Moussa.

DANIN:  Ed, do you want to take it or do you want me to?

HUSAIN:  I can try, and then you can -- (laughs).

I think that the emerging figures are Amr Moussa for sure -- not just because of his popularity, but because of his standing and his guts.  You know, defying diplomatic protocol and appearing in, among the crowd in Tahrir Square more than once.

A second figure that's been tested and tried in the 2005 presidential election, Ayman Nour, who came second and then was put behind bars and tortured.  He has at least a political party in formation and has some grassroots appeal, as opposed to Mohamed ElBaradei who is more popular here in the media and the West than he is out in Egypt, it seems.

That said, you never know.  Mohamed ElBaradei has the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the brotherhood were the force that collected 800,000 signatures of the million that were collected last year opposing Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Ghonim -- Wael Ghonim, the young Facebook organizer -- seems to be a voice that's increasingly being looked at by a younger generation of protestors.  And I think all of that said, democracies are supposed to be unpredictable and produce unexpected results.

My hunch is we're yet to see a clear winner.  And we still don't know for certain who the next president would be of Egypt.

GWERTZMAN:  Hey, Robert.  Do you have any ideas?

DANIN:  Well, I have no crystal ball and we're firmly in the realm of pure speculation, but I, you know, that won't stop me.

You know, I tend to think that people, you know, sort of that we know well are likely to be the ones who will ultimately be bypassed.  General Tantawi, Omar Suleiman, even to a certain extent, Amr Moussa, I think are going to be just too closely associated with the old guard.  And to the extent that they are, you know, singing a new tune -- perhaps seen as carpetbaggers.

You know, I think people like Ayman Nour, people who -- like Wael Ghonim -- people who've actually suffered at the hands of the old regime will have much greater legitimacy.  But I think who ultimately emerges will also be a product of how that transition takes place, because the more credible the transition is, the more likely we will know one of the figures that will emerge.

But should the transition go bad, you know, then we still could then see a second round.  I mean, revolutions have a way of sometimes producing a second backlash if the first round didn't go well.  And so, you know, while we all hope that this will lead to a perfect transition leading to elections and a stable democracy, we should also be prepared for real turbulence here.  And if there is further instability in the political system, then faces that we've not known to date, you know, will become more prominent.

GWERTZMAN:  One thing I'd like to ask myself is:  Do you think the military should move quickly to get rid of that emergency law?

HUSAIN:  Rob?

DANIN:  Well, you know -- I mean, ironically, the emergency law looks a little more relevant today than it did a few days ago, you know, a few weeks ago, because of the, you know, what is happening on the streets.  But clearly, this is one of the most hated elements of the ancien regime.  And so to be smart, they're going to have to lift it.

You know, one of the reasons the administration had been cautious over the last few weeks is that -- you know, as I stated earlier -- because of the lack of democratic institutions, there has to be a kind of a long enough transition that actually glides, you know, Egypt into a more stable place.

We're not going -- you know, elections within, you know -- 60 day elections, as even many in the opposition have said, is too soon.  You know, they need time to get organized; they need time to get pieces in place.  The opposition needs time to really organize.  So you know, the longer a credible transition can take, the better.   And removing the emergency law will be one of the most important elements of giving credibility to that transition, will be an important signal that something new is really happening in Egypt.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Clayton Jones from Christian Science Monitor.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Thanks for doing this.

Could you speculate about the role of any officers in the army who might have received training in the U.S., maybe under the Pentagon's IMET program?  And if any -- they influenced any -- the mood within the military not shoot or to take sides in this struggle?

DANIN:  I don't want to hog this, but I -- let me just -- but I will take this question first, just because I did talk to some officials on this.  And I think, you know, I think this is actually one area where we have seen the importance of having had that bilateral relationship.  Because what has been happening -- I mean, recall, when this broke out, there was a huge delegation of senior Egyptian officials actually in Washington meeting at the Pentagon.  That meant that, you know, important discussions were able to take place at the time.

But it also means that there are important people-to-people relationships that have been established over the years at many levels of the American military, you know, to levels of the Egyptian military.

And you know, I think that's -- that, along with the exposure to, you know, much in the United States, you know, will have had a very constructive influence.  And one thing is that, you know, while it was reported that some of the Egyptian military returned to Egypt immediately after the protests broke out, I understand actually some of them did remain in the states for continued consultations.  And so therefore, that just shows deep that relationship is and how much the United States actually was playing a role behind the scenes in trying to steer events.

But Ed, you know, I mean that's a very American-centric view.  So it's good to have a non-American perspective and maybe correct -- give a bit of perspective.

HUSAIN:  No, no.  I'm in full agreement.  And those values of not shooting on innocent protestors have been embedded within the Egyptian army, I think, in large measure due to contact with an army that works for freedom and democracy by and large -- with some exceptions, but by and large here in America.

I understand there's been intensive ongoing contact between the U.S. embassy and the palace, as well as the army top brass in Cairo.  And therefore, despite those fighter jets going very close to those protestors repeatedly over a whole day, you know, fire wasn't opened on the protestors.  And that has a lot to do with that sort of, you know, understanding the role of the military is there to protect the people.

But all of it said and done, a lot of it has to do with a sense of Egyptian unity and that concept of, you know, ashab (ph) or the people.  It has very strong, powerful, emotive connotations in the Arab world.  And the military's there for the people and it's not there to open fire on the people -- unlike what we saw in China or in Syria.

GWERTZMAN:  I have another question, which comes to my mind:  How much of an impact will this have -- that is, the events in Cairo -- have in Damascus?  I would think Mr. Bashir is worried about this.

HUSAIN:  Rob, do you want to go ahead?

DANIN:  Well, you know, frankly I've been watching this -- Damascus quite closely the last few weeks.  And much to my disappointment, it's been, you know, very, very quiet.

We know that people in Syria are watching what's happening in Egypt very closely.  But what we see is that the regime has been very effective in keeping a lid on things.  I mean, one of the ironies here is that Egypt was more ripe for this kind of democratic change from below and unrest, precisely because it tried to throw some elements of freedom and openness towards the Egyptian people.  I mean, the Egyptian press actually did have -- you know, was, while not what we come to expect, you know, consider a truly open and free press, was much more free.  And there were things that were allowed in Egypt under Mubarak that are just not at all tolerated in Syria.

And so, you know, one of the ironies is that if you, you know, let the lid off somewhat and let some air in, it actually may give greater impulse to change.  Whereas Syria to date, the forces of repression have been so effective that the Egyptian people -- rather, the Syrian people are still very cowed, which is not to say that the regime enjoys any legitimacy or popularity -- to the contrary.  As Ed pointed out, this is a minority regime and a military dictatorship that keeps a very firm grasp on the rule.

And I would say over the longer term, you know, a country like Syria is going to be under great pressure.  And you know, recall:  President Assad tried to -- you know, he gave that speech to The Wall Street Journal -- that interview to the Wall Street Journal soon after the big demonstrations came on that first Friday saying, you know, I get it.  We're going to be instituting some changes.

So that suggests that he is paying attention and he's extremely concerned.  But I think, you know, in the short term they've proven that they're able to keep things quiet.  And as Ed pointed out, they use extreme brutality.  The military is willing to use extreme brutality to keep the people down.

And that's something, fortunately, we saw that the Egyptian military was not willing to do.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Philip Sherwell from The London Telegraph.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, hi there.

Just kind of returning back to the question about American influence, but sort of kind of backwards:  I mean, what if any insight do you have on calls that would have been coming in from Washington to Cairo last night after Mubarak did give his -- did finally give that speech?  And what sort of influence do you think they finally had on that sort of thing?  Enough is enough or do you think it was more a decision of the Egyptian and from the military, et cetera?

GWERTZMAN:  Well, of course, you had the president make his -- this rather strange statement asking questions what it was all about -- what the speech was supposed to say.

Rob, do you have any thoughts?

DANIN:  I saw one press report that suggested that the United States -- that calls were being made afterwards and that -- you know, again, this is going to be your job to ferret out of the administration officials.  But that, you know, why is it that the administration felt so confident that something big was about to happen that Leon Panetta told the, you know, congressional committees that he expected change?  I mean, it suggests that the decision had been taken -- at least -- and the message conveyed to Washington that the change was going to come last night.  And when it didn't, you know, White House officials were clearly caught by surprise and quite outraged.  And there have been -- I saw one press report that suggested that there were then calls made overnight saying, no.  This is not good enough at all.  But I can't confirm that.

GWERTZMAN:  Then you had the Egyptian ambassador in Washington telling CNN that actually, the president had given up power.  (Chuckles.)  He read that speech to that extent, anyway.

All right.  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Hilary Krieger from the Jerusalem Post.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Thanks for doing this.  I have a question for each of you.

Rob, I was wondering if you would talk a bit about what your sense is of what the administration is trying to do and what advice you should give them on what to do to keep the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic extremists from really influencing, you know, playing an influential role on any new government.

And I was wondering, Mr. Husain, if you could talk a bit about the reaction in Iran.  I've been keeping an ear on the press conference Gibbs is giving now and he's mentioned Iran several times saying, you know, we should look to see whether Iran would be willing to have these kinds of protests and the reaction there.  And it sounds like there's this sense that the White House would like to see this be a chain reaction in terms of Iran.  And I'm wondering what prospect you see for that kind of thing happening.

DANIN:  Well, I'll be brief, but just to say that what struck me about the president's remarks just now was the comment that he said, "Above all, this transition must bring all of Egypt's voices to the table."

That says to me the Muslim Brotherhood.  And that shows that -- you know, that's a dramatic change in the traditional American approach towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which was to keep them at arms length because they were a banned organization in Egypt.

So I think the United States now will be holding some form of dialogue with the brotherhood.  And you know, clearly, the administration is going to want strong institutions put in place to keep any single group or power from subverting Egyptian democracy.

GWERTZMAN:  But I guess the question is whether the Islamic Brotherhood is an extremist group, which the question suggested.

DANIN:  Well, that one I'll let Ed speak to, since he's written on it recently.

GWERTZMAN:  Ed?

HUSAIN:  Thanks, Rob.

My thoughts on this is that yesterday, I think the director general of the NDI said that the Muslim Brotherhood was largely secular.  And then we have, you know, another media bias towards them.  You know, you hear a lot on the U.S. cable television of a certain persuasion that they are essential the al-Qaida and they're suicide bombers and what have you.

And the truth is and the facts are that the Muslim Brotherhood is somewhere in between those two extreme caricatures.  To its credit, it abandoned violence in the 1970s and it hasn't taken it up; to its credit, it's wanted to engage with the democratic process; to its credit it's called for human rights and greater freedom for Egyptians.  And to its credit, it's talked about rights for Christian minorities and others.

And in the chaos of the last 18 to 19 days, the Muslim Brotherhood has been at the forefront of saying that it will not field a presidential candidate.  It was its way of saying that it's standing behind the Egyptian people, rather in front and trying to lead.

Calling the Muslim Brotherhood extreme, I think, is an extreme response.  They are by all measures realists; and therefore, I think it's imperative that -- whether it's through third parties or through civil society bodies, you know, we engage with the Muslim Brotherhood on two or three key areas.  One is its understanding of Sharia in the public domain -- how it would manifest if it should manifest at all.  And I think they're open to those discussions.

Even Mohammed Badie, the leader of the brotherhood, scoffed at the idea of creating an Islamic state, wanting a civilian state.  Similarly -- (name inaudible) -- and -- (name inaudible) -- have written yesterday and Western media outlets elsewhere asking not for, you know, a Sharia-led state, but a civilian state.  Now, those are good signs, as opposed to other organizations that would call straight out for Sharia law.  So the Muslim Brotherhood hasn't done that.

A second area would be its attitude towards human rights, more particularly for women and for the Coptic minorities in Egypt.  Again, the Muslim Brotherhood has made the right noises, but they remain an enigma as far as what they would do in power.

And the third area would be its attitude towards Israel.  Here it's got to be said that the Muslim Brotherhood is not alone in its anti-Semitism or its dislike towards the state of Israel.  The Muslim Brotherhood, sadly, is in tune with lots of conservative-leaning Arab thought leaders.  So there I think it's wrong to just hone in on the Muslim Brotherhood.  It's a wider issue throughout the region.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Steve Thomma from the McClatchy Newspaper.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

 

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Thanks and thanks for doing this.

Can either of you or all of you speak about how the president has handled this in the last two weeks?  As you know, there's been some criticism of him for not coming out more forcefully against Mubarak and some criticism of him for not supporting Mubarak more forcefully.  Can you just talk about how he's handled it up to this point?

GWERTZMAN:  Robert?

DANIN:  Well, I know that there are two camps.  You know, there's one that's seen the administration flip-flopping, grasping, speaking in many voices, being inconsistent.

I actually am more sympathetic towards the administration.  I think what we've seen is that the administration's been trying to -- had been trying to balance several interests here.  One was upholding principles for which the United States holds dear and manifest by the demonstrators in the square and throughout Egypt; and at the same time, standing by Egypt and by a friend and a government that it considered a friend for 30 years.  And clearly out of touch, but one that needed to be -- needed to be gradually but expeditiously changed.

And you know, moreover, I think it was taking into account some of the regional implications of what was happening and what the United States' stance would be.  I mean, the administration was hearing from many parts of the Arab world -- what are you doing?  Why are -- you know, from friendly governments in the Arab world saying, how can you throw Mr. Mubarak overboard?  What kind of friend are you?

I mean, I've had this confirmed.  This is not speculation; it's true.  The administration was hearing this and it's true that was being said by many Arab leaders and governments.

So you know, the United States was trying to walk between those two poles.  And as Bernie suggested, it left both camps, let's say, a bit dissatisfied.  It left Mubarak feeling that he had been abandoned by the United States:  why are they not standing with me?  And it left the people in Tahrir Square feeling, like where's the United States?  Why is it not standing up firmly and categorically for Mr. Mubarak's departure today?

I think it was trying to balance two different -- at least two different sets of concerns and trying to manage a sense of transition.  And what you saw, I think, was as when the regime appeared to be taking steps that looked like it was progressive, then the administration backed off.  When it looked like Mubarak was digging in and being recalcitrant and unresponsive, then I think you saw them turning on the heat.

And I think that's what explains some of the apparent flip-flopping.  And to be sure, there was inconsistency.  I don't want to -- you know, I'm not a government spokesman and happy not to be.  But you know, I do think that they were -- they were in crisis management mode and modulating their message to meet the issues of the hour.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Ed, do you have anything to add on that?

HUSAIN:  No.  Rob's answer was perfect.

GWERTZMAN:  Is there another question?

OPERATOR:  Yes.  Our next question comes from Kathleen Hays from Bloomberg Radio.

 

QUESTIONER:  Hi, gentlemen.  I got on the call a little bit late, so I don't know if you discussed this at the outset.

But can you assess -- what are the markers for when the protestors will go home, when they'll leave the square; and if there's a point where the military -- is there a point -- is there a line they don't cross or a point where they're pushed too far?

GWERTZMAN:  Ed, take a crack at that.

HUSAIN:  Sure.  I mean, in terms of going home, it was interesting to hear Omar Suleiman yesterday in a very patronizing tone saying to the protestors, go home, go home.  And before that, when he last spoke, he was saying he was saying, you know, we will ask your parents to ask you to go home.  You know, a very sort of grandfather-type figure who's completely out of touch with this new generation of people who are mobilized by Facebook that somehow, you know, we'll ask your parents to ask you to go home.

So putting all that sort of patronizing language to one side, I think we will start to see -- again, we're in the realm of speculation and one's always in danger of predicting the unknown -- but I mean, I'll just say I think the key demand that was made by the people in the square over the last 18, 19 days was the regime change and was that Hosni Mubarak stand down.  That's now happened.

The only real issue is Omar Suleiman -- will he continue to be part of this ruling council or will he also step aside?  If he remains as part of the ruling council, if he becomes some kind of prominent voice -- either in the media or to the international community -- then I think we'll see revived protests, because let's not forget that Omar Suleiman was the spy chief.  Omar Suleiman -- that name in the minds of ordinary Egyptians is linked to torture, is linked to all kinds of inhumane treatment.

So if Omar Suleiman takes a prominent role, I don't think the protestors will be going home.  And if they go home, they'll be coming back.  So much depends on what happens.  But if the regime has a clear slate and Omar Suleiman and Hosni Mubarak both disappear -- as the latter has -- then I think we have a serious chance of seeing people return to normality, at least up until the elections.

GWERTZMAN:  The next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Jim Landers from the Dallas Morning News.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  The Pakistani military has sort of a bad reputation for keeping jihadists as an auxiliary force in their unspoken conflict with India and keeping us in a mess in Afghanistan.

Is there any sense that the Egyptian military is looking to play on two sides of that kind of a fence or is there any sort of wing within the military that's sort of an unknown to us?

GWERTZMAN:  Anybody?

DANIN:  I have no reason to believe that that's the case.  But I'll hand that one over to Ed.

HUSAIN:  The Pakistani army has been influenced by extreme Islamist thinking due to the way Pakistan as a state was formed in 1948.  In other words, it's the so-called Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Pakistan as a country is in a deep identity crisis.  Pakistan's Urdu-speaking, Urdu-reading military personnel read something completely different from the elite English-speaking generals and officers.

So the Pakistani army is split; the Pakistani intelligence community is split and many have sympathies not just for Lashkar-e-Taiba, but for Jamaat-e-Islami.  And also the literature that's come out of Jamaat-e-Islami are -- (inaudible) -- related.

Those are not factors in the Egyptian army.  The Egyptian army very much understands the different strands of extreme Islamist thinking and it's been at the forefront of clamping down against them.

So as we see it so far -- and again, in a revolution, things are uncertain and you never know which way people turn and how much influence the brotherhood would have going forward.  Thus far, the Egyptian army is immune by and large from extremist influences and it's in a whole different league from the Pakistani army.

GWERTZMAN:  Well, we have five minutes left.  So any more questions?

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Paul Merolli from the Energy Intelligence Group.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, guys.

My question is about U.S.-Saudi relations.  King Abdullah was obviously one of the more disappointed ones with the U.S. treatment of President Mubarak and it came through, I guess, in a pretty testy phone call with President Obama.

Could you just give us your vision of where U.S.-Saudi relations go from here?  There have even been some reports that Saudi Arabia may be initiating a dialogue with Iran at this point.

GWERTZMAN:  Robert?

DANIN:  Well, again, I mean, in the short answer, no.  Clearly, this is a distressing moment for the Saudis.  You know, Mubarak was one of their key regional allies.  The Saudis believed that they, along with the Egyptians, were sort of the core -- what's the word -- the core sort of good guys in America's eyes.  You know, core pillars of American interests in the Arab world.  And they've seen -- they believe they've just seen one of their -- America toss one of its friends aside.

And so clearly, the confidence that the Saudis have -- will feel in the United States, which is never fully 100 percent, will have been diminished greatly.  And the fact that they're turning to improve relations with Iran I don't take as an indicator that they're turning away from the United States towards Iran.

I mean, the Saudis are sort of balancers par excellence.  They will -- you know, they're proximate to Iran and have, you know, are trying to maintain as cordial a relationship with the Iranians, you know, while at the same time profoundly fearing them.  And hoping, you know, as we learn from some of the Saudi leaks, hoping that the United States will do something to keep the Iranians in check.

So I think that Saudi confidence in Washington right now has just gone down precipitously, but you know, I'm confident that the United States will make a great effort to try to address that.  But then comes the real dilemma.

Again, how do you pursue democratic change -- how do you encourage democratic change and reform with allies and friends and do it in a way that is seen as constructive by the ally in the region and not as something as outside intervention in domestic affairs?

Ed, you may have other thoughts and insights.

HUSAIN:  No, no. I'm in agreement.  Let's take another question, perhaps.

GWERTZMAN:  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Elizabeth Pond from the Independent Journalists.

GWERTZMAN:  And this may be our last question.  Okay.

QUESTIONER:  Hello?

GWERTZMAN:  Yes?

QUESTIONER:  I have two short questions.  One is:  Is this the beginning of the end of jihadi terrorism?  And two, is time now working for or against Netanyahu and his position on peace talks?

GWERTZMAN:  Let's -- Ed, take the first part of the question and let Robert finish it up.

HUSAIN:  I wish I could say that this is the beginning of the end.  This is certainly progress, simply because young Egyptians have shown to us that the way to bring down the Mubarak regime is not through bombs, is not through assassination attempts and is not through advocating a caliphate in its stead, but rather freedom, democracy and the Ghandi-Martin Luther King model of peaceful resistance.  So that's certainly good news.

But al-Qaida and jihadist terrorism isn't, sadly, limited to the Middle East.  They have strong bases in other parts of the world, as we know.  And even if Egypt manages in the long run to see out al-Qaida and al-Jihad al-Islami -- both which have a small presence in Egypt -- let's not forget about Saudi Arabia, more particularly about Yemen, where al-Qaida have a new presence.  I mean, Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in the Caucasus, and indeed, in cities of the West.  So whatever happens in one part of the world, I think it'll take a much longer period of time in order to contain al-Qaida.  And if the truth be said, we've got a long way to go yet.

GWERTZMAN:  And Rob?

DANIN:  Well, there's an assumption in that question, which is, you know, Mr. Netanyahu doesn't want to make progress.  I mean, which, you know, may or may not be the case.

But you know, the Quartet met over the weekend in Munich amidst this crisis in Egypt.  And what you saw was different reactions from the international community to what is taking place -- or you've seen different reactions, let's say, between let's say Israel and the rest of the many parts of the world.

In Israel the reaction has been that of we need to really watch what's happening in Egypt.  And it's sort of, therefore, incumbent on us to watch what happens before we, you know, take any steps that would jeopardize our security.  Though at the same time, they announce a package of measures with the Quartet representative -- my former boss, Tony Blair -- on steps that they would take to improve conditions on the ground as part of the effort of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's state-building effort.

You know, but at the same time, you've seen elsewhere, especially in Europe, a different reading of the situation, which is that of saying, look, because of what's happening in Egypt, it shows that peace is all the more imperative; that the forces of the -- you know, progressive forces need to be strengthened, the forces of peace and moderation, and that therefore, if anything, it's increased the pressure that Mr. Netanyahu is facing from the international community.  We will likely see a -- you know, there's now a U.N. resolution that's been tabled, you know, criticizing Israel on settlements.  It hasn't been brought to a vote yet.

But I think it's too early to say that this redounds to Prime Minister Netanyahu's advantage, as it were.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Well, look, thank you all.  And thank everyone for phoning in. And if people were still waiting to ask, I apologize, but we've now run out of time.

So thank you all.

 

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