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Media Conference Call: Egypt's Political Instability

Speakers: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow For Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mettei Senior Fellow For Middle East And Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Robert McMahon, Editor, CFR.org
January 28, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations

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ROBERT MCMAHON:  Hello, everybody, and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call.  I'm Robert McMahon, editor of CFR.org.  And here to answer your questions are Steven Cook and Robert Danin, senior fellows for Middle Eastern studies at the council.

We will be discussing the dramatic and still very fluid events in Egypt.  At last report; in spite of a government curfew, large crowds  across the country continue to protest the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.  In Cairo, shots have been heard near the parliament, according to some reports, and the headquarters of the ruling parties was in flames.

I'll be asking Steve and Robert to make some opening comments on the situation in Egypt and then also spread the discussion to more broadly in the region and the phenomenon across the region of anti- government protests.

Steven, we'll start with you.  You witnessed some of these scenes earlier in the week yourself in Cairo.  How about giving us a sense of the mood there as well opening up to discussion about the stability of the regime?

STEVEN COOK:  Well, thanks, Rob.  And thank you all on the phone who are spending this time with us to discuss Egypt and the apparent decomposition of the Mubarak regime.

As Bob said, I was in Cairo until last night.  And at least on Tuesday when I spent a lot of time in Tahrir Square, the mood was somewhat celebratory as well as angry.  I was among what I would guess, anywhere between 15 (thousand) and 20,000 people, mostly young, who were clearly reveling in this -- at least at the time -- moment of freedom to express their grievances against the Mubarak regime.

And chief among those was a desire to live in a more open and democratic society.  I heard very little about economic grievances, although in other parts of the country, obviously, and as these protests have widened and deepened over the course of the last few days, those economic grievances are coming to the fore.

But by and large, these were protests that were opposed to Mubarak, Gamal Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party.  I would say, you know, central that ran -- a central theme of this was the Tunisian uprising.  People clearly saw the inspiration of Tunisia. They saw what was possible, and that if they only hung together and more and more people would come out, they could, like their Tunisian cousins, topple a dictator.

Now, that hasn't happened just yet.  But clearly, as time has gone on, that fear factor -- and let me emphasize that that fear factor was essentially the only way in which the Mubarak regime maintained control.  That fear factor has fizzled and melted away.

In speaking with people who were observing the protest if not -- though not taking part, they said that they sympathize with the demands of people in the streets, but that they were afraid for their lives and the lives of their family.  That clearly, in particular, on Wednesday night with protests on Galaa Street and burning of tires when the working-class people who live in the neighborhood of Boulaq came out to protest, I think that that was -- that turned the tide. And more and more people decided that they had had enough.

And in fact, when my plane landed yesterday, I got an e-mail from a friend who's a businessman who tools around Cairo in a late-model Mercedes who said:  I'll try to give you as many updates tomorrow.  I know you've left.  Hopefully I won't get arrested.  I'm going out into the streets.

So this -- we have crossed that threshold in which it is no longer confined to a small group of youth and professional opposition activists.

This is now societywide.  And you can see that the regime has by and large lost control and had to the call the army out into the streets. But it's still by no means clear that Mubarak can hang on.

I'll pass it off to Robert Danin now.

ROBERT DANIN:  Well, thanks, Steve -- Steven.  And welcome back.

I've been here in Washington this week watching it from afar.  I think I would just make a couple observations about the situation and also about the administration approach.

What's been striking is, you know, this is really a strategic surprise, what has happened in the region.  First of all, no one really expected Tunisia to be the flashpoint that would spark a regionwide uprising.  When Tunisia then went, the question was, where next?  Many people like Steven and others were saying, you know, Egypt very well maybe the next place, and, indeed, has proven to be the next place.  But Egypt is really central, and what is happening there is going to fundamentally affect American interests in the region.

Now, as a result of this what I call "strategic surprise," you know, the administration has been scrambling, scrambling to play catch-up.  It has come out with what I call a two-track strategy or a two-track policy.  On the one hand, it's tried to affirm its continued support for the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who has been a friend to the United States -- a regime that has advanced, you know, American interests in the region for a long time -- and at the same time articulate principles that are commensurate with what the protestors are calling for, short of regime change.  But the issues of liberalization, democratization, economic opportunity, the whole what has been called under the Bush administration the "freedom agenda" is now being called the, you know, "push for democracy."

The problem with this has been that it's -- you know, it comes pretty late in the day.  The Obama administration -- when President Obama went to Cairo, he gave a very impressive speech that had echoes of the speech that Condoleezza Rice had given in Cairo.  And yet for the first year of the administration, the push to sort of tough love to encourage the regime to reform or else you're going to face troubles really seems to have diminished.  In the last few months, we've seen Secretary Clinton come out both in the Forum for the Future and at the Saban Forum and start to push a little harder on the issue.

But right now it's very difficult to reconcile these two principles of support for Mubarak and the regime, and support for democratization and peaceful expression of views, at a time when violence is taking place on the streets.  And I think the worse it gets out in the region, the worse it gets in Egypt, the more those two principles are going to come into conflict for the administration. And that's why I think the administration is struggling to articulate its position and why, for example, today the press conference by the president, you know, has been postponed -- by our president, President Obama, you know, or press statements.  You know, the administration, I think, is really looking to see, what does Mubarak do?  And then based on that, they will try to make an assessment of what the next step is.

And so with that, I'll stop and hand it back to Robert.

COOK:  Let me just add one thing to that in the discussion about Washington.  Nowhere that I went in the days that I was in Cairo, especially once these protests began, did I hear anything about the United States.  It's almost -- particularly among the demonstrators, it was irrelevant.  And these calls for reform seem hopelessly behind the curve here.

And the discussion of stability, to the extent that it will be examined by Egyptians after this crisis, will be seen as an implicit American endorsement of a -- of a crackdown on people who are demanding their freedom.  And I think that the administration has not handled it as well as they perhaps should have.  My hope is that when President Obama finally does speak he doesn't use the word "stability," and he focuses more on the need for whoever is in charge in Egypt to respect the rights of people who are demanding freedom, which is obviously close to our hearts as Americans.

MCMAHON:  Steven and Robert, thank you for framing that from the outset.

We have a number of people on the line, so we're going to open it right up to any reporters' questions.

Operator, please give us the next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Peter Green of Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah.  Wanted to ask you, first off, what could the administration actually realistically say that would help, or is it just completely out of the game?

And then the second question involves what this might mean for Egypt (sic), particularly if Mubarak doesn't stick around.  For Israel, I'm sorry.  Particularly if Mubarak doesn't stick around, what this would mean for Israel.

MCMAHON:  So why don't we -- Steven, you take the first part, and then Robert follow up the Israeli part.

COOK:  I don't think there's really much that we can do.  I think that, you know, realistic analysis of change in the Middle East would lead you to the conclusion that this is ultimately up to the people of the region, and that's exactly what's happening in Egypt. This has nothing to do with anything that we've done or have not -- or have wanted to do.  This is about both the internal problems and contradictions of the Egyptian regime and, quite frankly, as I said in my opening statement, the inspiration of the Tunisian uprising, which demonstrated to Egyptians that anything is possible.  And that was something that ran like a central vein through everybody that I talked to who was protesting in Tahrir Square:  If the Tunisians can do it, then certainly we can.

So I think that there is -- right now there is very little that the United States can do that can be helpful.  I think, though, that we do need to signal that ultimately we get to a point where we have to stand -- our values do have to kick in and we do have to understand the Egyptian -- the Egyptians have to understand that we are not going to allow them to do just about anything to regain control.

MCMAHON:  Robert Danin, do you want to add anything to that?

DANIN:  Yeah.  Let me -- let me just jump in.

I mean, I do think that -- you know, at this point I mean the statements by the administration have been kind of vague, calling for essentially peaceful protests, allowing free media to flourish again, but it hasn't really articulated the principles that really would frame the endgame, if you will, nor has it offered real specifics.

I mean, it seems to me that, you know, there is a private conversation that's going on between the administration and Egypt now. And, you know, I imagine that, you know, Mubarak's line is going to be:  If I make concessions now, they're just going to sense weakness, and so I really need to crush this first; I understand what you're saying, but I don't want to -- you know, I can't do it now.

The administration will be saying:  No, you really got to throw things to the group now or else all will be lost.

And the sorts of things that I think would really make a difference, you know, is the emergency law that's been in place for some 30-odd years, the fact that Mubarak has not appointed a vice president, perhaps some sort of road map that Mubarak could lay out for the future out of this that would show that this can end in a way that will ultimately not result in his son becoming president, that will lead to free and fair elections, et cetera.

On the question of Israel, you know, again, here this is going to be very dicey, because it's very possible that a government that comes to power will be less enamored with the idea of the peace treaty. That said, we've seen oftentimes governments come to power that inherit policies it doesn't like but it's easier to defend something that you inherit than to create.

And I think, again, this is where the administration is going to have to be very clear if we do get to the point that a new regime comes to power, that it's going to have to be very clear in identifying principles rather than personalities that it wants to see come to power in Egypt; and that, you know, the United States will work with parties that adhere to certain key principles.  Amongst those will be the -- you know, maintaining the signed obligations under the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

MCMAHON:  Thank you.  Thank you for that question.

Operator, next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question will come from Jim Dingman of Pacifica Radio.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, hi.  First of all, I'd like to get a sense from both of you as to what you think the loyalty and vagaries of the security services and the military are, because obviously in the case of Tunisia, the army was essentially opposed to the police forces.  We know what happened in Iran. That was a very different circumstance. But what do you think is going to happen in that regard?

And secondly, I guess Steve, you know, Steve, you seem to give the sense that the legitimacy issue is now out of the bag big time. What do you see in terms of the different groups maneuvering, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood?

What do you see in terms of the different groups maneuvering, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood?

COOK:  Thanks.  Having written a book in part on the -- on the military, let me -- let me take that question first.

The military has long regarded the ministry of interior forces as the secondary, as doing the dirty job of keeping the streets quiet, and has essentially disregarded them as a -- as an important force, other than doing that kind of dirty work.  Clearly the interior ministry couldn't handle it, and that's why we see the army on the streets of Egypt today.

And there's precedence for this.  In 1977, the army put down the bread riots.  In 1986, they put down the Central Security Forces riots.  So this is not unusual.  What's unusual is the size and scale of these -- of these riots.

In terms of loyalty, the difference -- one of the big differences I see between this situation and the Tunisian situation is that the military in Egypt has their skin in the game here as well.  They are a constituency of the regime.  They are the inheritors of the founders of the regime.  And they have benefited from this regime as well. Senior officers, retired officers have benefited quite handsomely from current arrangements.

So, it could go one or two ways here, it strikes me.  They could either defend Mubarak and the regime and help him preside over a more repressive state apparatus, or they can see this 82-year-old guy who has made a mess of things due to little more than hubris and arrogance, and push him aside, but essentially reconstitute the regime under new leadership, as I said, because they are the beneficiaries of this regime.

As far as the second question, that was, oh, the legitimacy thing.  The legitimacy thing went out the window a long time ago. This is a regime that is based on -- that elicits the loyalty of the -- of the people or -- I wouldn't say loyalty -- elicits the control of the Egyptians through violence or the threat of violence.  There's very little in terms of legitimacy except for that very small constituency for autocracy that includes big business, the NDP, parts of the bureaucracy, the military and the security services, as well as a handful of regime-affiliated intellectuals.

I think there is -- one of the concerns is that this is -- this uprising is largely leaderless.  You can look to Mohamed ElBaradei. But there's no guarantee that he can give it coherence and direction.

The Brotherhood has been largely decapitated by the regime.  And quite frankly, in, you know, the two days that I was there while this was going on, I heard very little about the Brotherhood.  This was clearly not a Muslim Brotherhood- or Islamist-inspired uprising.  If we do get to a point where the regime is swept away and different factions are competing for leadership, you certainly would see the Brotherhood come into play here.  But right now they've been -- and this would suggest that they would have a problem trying to establish control, is that they've been largely absent and have only come to this uprising today.  Until today, they had announced that they were out of it for fear of having a direct confrontation with the state.

MCMAHON:  Robert Danin, do you want to answer that or maybe talk about the -- maybe the broader scale of the protest as well that -- the other people involved?

DANIN:  Well, I mean, I think Steven was pretty comprehensive there.  I guess, I mean, I agree that the army is completely different in this instance.  And the question isn't whether or not the Army will fragment but rather, you know, which way the army will see the wind blowing and will it decide to make a break.

You know, the Muslim Brotherhood has kept out, I think, deliberately until now because, one, it didn't really necessarily like what the protestors were doing.  Second, they recognized that their own involvement would be given -- would give a pretext to the government to use force against them.  And I think they stand poised to try to see what plays out and then intervene if they see chaos emerge or if, you know, an interim regime under an ElBaradei or someone else were to come forward, and then they could easily move it aside for something much more radical.

But I think that, you know, as Steven identified, the key question is, you know, how will the military identify their own interests, because they've traditionally been, you know, the arbiter of power ever since the Free Officers movement in -- you know, came to power in '52.

And they are -- they take a disproportionate amount of resources from the regime precisely to keep them in power.  And it may -- very well may be that Mubarak has waited too long to deploy them.

MCMAHON:  Thank you.  And thank you for that question.

Next question, please, operator.

OPERATOR:  Yes, our next question will come from Stewart Ain, of New York Jewish Week.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hi.  I'm wondering where this goes next.  People are saying that Jordan might be ripe, and Jordan as you know also has a peace treaty with Israel.  Might that be in trouble as well?

MCMAHON:  Rob, you want to take that next?

DANIN:  Sure.  Well, look, we're seeing demonstrations in Jordan.  We've seen demonstrations now in Jordan for about two weeks, originating in Maan, a traditional hotbed of unrest.  And it has spread to Amman.  And like many of these demonstrations, in fact all of these demonstrations, the fuel for it is local conditions, economic hardships, the lack of subsidies, rising -- the declining subsidies, and that sort of thing.  But it's fueled then by and inspired by what people see happening elsewhere in the region.

That said, you know, to date, the monarchy in Jordan -- the king has been effective in distancing himself from this and keeping the government of Prime Minister Rifai as the -- as the target.  And he is the -- he is the recipient of the -- of the mob anger, let's say.  And that's the advantage that monarchies have in the region.  They can -- they can throw their governments overboard if necessary.  And so there's an added safety valve there.

I mean, one of the problems I think Mubarak had is he really didn't buffer himself very well.  He didn't have a vice president, he didn't have others around him that could be targeted.  When you really become the absolute controller, you are the one who then gets targeted.  Whereas in a country like Jordan there are many sources of power, many sources of legitimacy.  The king tries to distance himself from day-to-day operations and then be in a position to distance himself.  And so I think the situation is not analogous, and it would take a lot for the monarchy to be threatened, you know, in a way that Egypt isn't.

MCMAHON:  Thanks for that question --

QUESTIONER:  Can I just --

MCMAHON:  Sorry, go ahead if you have a follow-up.

QUESTIONER:  I was just going to ask, so how do you see -- you mentioned that Israel is concerned, obviously, about this peace treaty.  But how do you see it?  It's caught, perhaps, right in the midst of all these Arab regimes here and a lot of unrest.  Do you -- do you -- how -- and of course, with Lebanon right on its northern border and problems up there, and then of course Syria --

DANIN:  Right.

QUESTIONER:  -- can you -- can you put that into perspective, maybe?

DANIN:  Well, I would just say one thing, and then, you know, Steven, by all means jump in.  You know, traditionally, the Israelis have been much less inspired by the idea of democratization and reform in the Arab world.  In many ways, the Israelis are of the Middle East and have liked the strong men who keep things in power.  They like Assad being in power in Damascus.  They were very skeptical about the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.  They don't see -- they don't see the opportunities that I think democracy proponents in the United States and elsewhere in the West see.  And so I think they are very uneasy about what's happening right now, because this sort of unrest is very, very dangerous to them.  And they can do nothing to control it or affect it, and that is a real source of anxiety, I think, for them.

COOK:  I think this is a blow to the Israelis.  I think it is, without a doubt.  They regard Mubarak as a strategic asset, and without him there is so much uncertainty, lest the military come in and preside over a repressive regime, and with the inspiration that Egypt will no doubt be for the rest of the region.  It's one thing for Tunisia; but now, if Mubarak goes in Egypt, a country of 82 million people, almost a third of the Arab world, this is going to have a profound impact elsewhere.  So I think the Israelis -- this is -- this is -- should be of enormous concern to them.

MCMAHON:  Thank you.

Operator, another question, please.

OPERATOR:  Yes, our next question will come from Will Dunham of Reuters.

Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hello.  And this is for Steven Cook.  I know you guys have touched on this a little bit, but could you amplify on the dangers that the United States -- that the Obama administration faces now in how it responds to the events unfolding in Egypt?

COOK:  Well, I think that, you know, clearly, strategic interests are engaged here for the United States.

But we now really need to see the writing on the wall.  Any effort on our part to -- at this point, to provide support to Mubarak is going to be read in Egypt as a -- as supporting a crackdown and supporting an inherently non-democratic regime while people are out in the streets demanding an end to this regime.

And I think that we need to be forward-looking about this, not just today and not just tomorrow, that if this is not the end today, it's going to be the end sooner rather than later; and that we need to signal to whoever is coming next that we support the demands that so many Egyptians have now expressed, which is not just the end of the Mubarak regime and the ruling National Democratic Party, but a fundamental change that allows Egyptians a more open, transparent and responsive government.

To stand in between that and in support of a regime that clearly has no legitimacy, I think, in the long term, in the iterated game of politics and foreign policy, doesn't put us in a very good position -- even with all the risks that are involved, which is, you know, the standard litany of concerns:  the Suez Canal, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the peace treaty.  Honestly, I don't think in this situation any of those things are seriously in play.  I think that the one scenario where we get involved with the Brotherhood is if the regime is absolutely swept away, including the armed forces, in this -- in this uprising, and different political factions emerge to compete for power.  And that's where the Brotherhood is likely to be powerful.  But I don't think that that's going to happen.

I think that the armed forces has now deployed -- General Sami Anan, who is someone to watch, is now on his way back to Cairo from Washington.  And I think that they are -- if not going to save Mubarak, they're going to save Egypt from the chaos of sweeping away the regime -- the regime completely.

As far as the Suez Canal goes, why would any Egyptian government really at this point close the Suez Canal?  It doesn't seem to me that that's going to make sense in the profile of any of the people who'd come to power, outside the Brotherhood.  Even Mohamed ElBaradei, who doesn't have the warmest relationship with the United States, is unlikely to take a step along those lines.

And I think the Israelis have reason to be concerned, but as I said in answer to another question, we have very little leverage, and the situation has changed dramatically.  We need to do what we can to get out ahead of it and salvage what we can.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

MCMAHON:  Thank you for that question.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks.

MCMAHON:  Our next question please, operator.

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir.  Our next question will come from Yun Wu, of People's Daily.

Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Hello.  Thank you for your presentation.

My question is, given the serious situation in Egypt, do you think that it is still possible for the Egyptian government, the Mubarak government, to stabilize the situation?  And at present stage, what is -- how the international community, including China, U.S., could help to stabilize the situation, or to prevent the -- you know, the protests from spreading other countries?

MCMAHON:  Steven, will we see the U.N. Security Council getting involved in this?

COOK:  Oh, I mean, I think the U.N. secretary-general's already made a statement.  But actually, I would throw this question to my colleague Robert Danin, who actually has served in government, unlike myself.  What is it that we can do?

QUESTIONER:  Uh-huh, yeah.

DANIN:  I think the ability for the international community to do very much at this point is extremely limited.  I think the only thing that the international community could do is something that would come at the invitation of Hosni Mubarak.  If he were to, for example, say, "I'm going to hold free and fair elections under international monitoring," that sort of thing, then the international role could be -- could be present.  There could be a supporting role.

But short of that, I just don't see it.  I don't think the -- you know, as Steven's, you know, pointed out, I mean, the conditions are driven by indigenous factors.  I think, frankly, the international community could do some harm if it tries to intervene and mediate between the regime and the people, and may be just seen as foreign interference.

One of the facts:  you know, the fact that there have been no protests against the West, no burning of American flags, no burning of even Israeli flags, no "Death to America," all this is -- you know, these are the dogs that didn't bark.

And I think we don't want them to bark.

And so sometimes no action is prudent.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

MCMAHON:  Next question, please, operator.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question will come from Corine Lesnes of Le Monde.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Thank you.  Good afternoon.  And my question was about the preparation of this, how it's been said that in Tunisia, for example, the ambassador, the U.S. ambassador, had contacts with the opposition, they were -- had -- (inaudible).

How has it been here in Egypt?

MCMAHON:  I'm sorry, could you -- could you phrase that again?

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, sorry.  I'm just wondering about what kind of contacts, maybe the United States or the embassy over there, had with the opposition, where the -- you know, the freedom agenda or the greater Middle East had put some money in lots of help for democratization. What --

MCMAHON:  You're talking about region or Egypt in particular?

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, the region and Egypt -- what kind of action the Obama diplomacy had.

MCMAHON:  Steve, you want to go first?

COOK:  Well, I think that after the Cairo speech, there was a tremendous amount of hope that the president was turning a new page and that even though many activists liked President Bush's strong, forthright statements about the need for democratic change in Egypt and the Middle East writ large, I think there was hope that Obama would be a better messenger because he wasn't tainted by the invasion of Iraq.

And -- but he did not fulfill that promise by -- because he insisted on speaking privately, supposedly, to President Mubarak on  these issues.  And I think that that -- I think it had an impact on the way people viewed President Obama and his support or lack thereof of democratic change in the region.

And that's why I think, as I've said before, it's important now for President Obama to say something very strong about these things. We need to be looking forward as this situation unfolds.

In terms of what kind of contacts we have with the -- with the opposition, the embassy there has political officers who are charged with dealing with -- speaking with the opposition.  But by and large, the official opposition is weak and divided, and until Tuesday widely regarded to be unable to mount any kind of opposition to the Mubarak regime.

And in fact, that's the case.  The organized official opposition wasn't able to -- wasn't able to challenge the regime.  This was an amalgamation of different activist groups using new technologies and bringing people out into the streets in opposition to the regime.  And they were largely successful.

But this has nothing to do with the Wafd Party, the Tagammu or any of the other legal political parties.  To the extent that the embassy had contact with these movements, I would hope that they did, but I can't be sure that they did.

And let me just say one more thing.  You know, Tuesday night when I was in Tahrir Square, I was the only American out, even though the embassy is just right there.  And I later learned that the U.S. embassy was on lockdown.

So we had absolutely -- the U.S. government, as of Tuesday night, when there were -- after a day in which tens of thousands of people had come out to the streets all over Egypt; and that Tahrir Square, the central axis of Cairo and important symbolically, was occupied until after midnight by tens of thousands of people, and we were -- the U.S. government in Washington was flying blind, says something about the way in which we had become so intertwined with the Mubarak regime.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

MCMAHON:  Robert, anything to add to that?

DANIN:  Well -- (chuckles) -- I can only speculate, but from experience, I would say two things, two mitigating factors.  I mean, one is, you know, when you get into this kind of situation, given the proximity of the embassy to Tahrir Square, you know, you don't want the -- your number-one concern as a mission is to protect the security of the mission.  So you -- you know, it's natural that you would go into lockdown square when -- lockdown mode in such an environment.

That said, we don't know that there were any Americans out there. But that's not necessarily to say that there weren't any Americans out there.  But, you know, we don't know what we don't know.

MCMAHON:  Okay.  Operator, another question, please.

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir.  Our next question will come from Sally Quinn of the Washington Post.

Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  I'm -- you mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, and you touched on that as sort of not being -- as sort of being decapitated and not really having anything to do with this uprising, and yet it seems impossible to me that religion is not going to play some kind of role in this uprising and then -- and what happens in Egypt in the near future.

COOK:  I think that religion has always played a really important role in Egyptian politics and culture.  And I think that there's no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood has had a tremendous impact on politics and culture.  I was merely emphasizing that this was not an Islamist uprising, this was not something that was planned by the Muslim Brotherhood and that, in fact, the argument in Egypt, over the course of the last five years, has been about liberal values and liberal principles.  And you see the Muslim Brotherhood appropriated the discourse of -- the liberal discourse about reform. That's not to suggest that I believe the Brotherhood are made up of liberals.  But -- and you see the ruling National Democratic Party adopting the discourse of liberal principles.

The odd thing about Egypt is that as the liberals have become marginalized, the ideas about -- liberal ideas became the debate in Egyptian politics.  And remember, there's somewhat of a history here. There was a somewhat functioning parliament, there was tolerance, there was pluralism.  And Egyptians are not in the streets calling for Islamic theocracy.  They're calling for democracy and freedom and a clean parliamentary system and a mechanism by which to hold their leaders accountable.

The -- when you do hear the calls of "Allahhu Akbar" going out, that doesn't necessarily mean that that is an indication that the Brotherhood is involved.  That's something that you hear from across the Muslim world for a variety of different reasons.  Yes, Egyptians feel very strongly about being good Muslims, but I question whether we have a tendency to get overly concerned about what might happen.

I think this is the echoes of the 1979 revolution in Iran.  But thus far, I don't see any indication that this is an Islamic uprising.  Like I said, should things go in a direction where the regime is completely swept away and there is a -- different factions are competing for power?  I certainly expect that the Brotherhood would be one of those competitors.  But I don't necessarily think that they have -- they have a lock.

QUESTIONER:  When you were talking about the Brotherhood, I just wonder if they might be in the same situation as the opposition, which was not very organized, and this was kind of taken away from them by these activist groups, whether the Muslim Brotherhood could have the same thing happen to them where sort of an activist Muslim group could come in and sort of usurp their role.

COOK:  Well, there has often been competition between the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.  But what you really see happening in Egypt over the course of the last decade or so is actually a quietest Islamist groups.  The Salafist movement in Egypt is not a jihadist movement.  It's a quietest one.

And actually, the most important religious groups in the country are Sufis, not necessarily the Brotherhood.

But one quick point on what you were saying.  I think that Brotherhood -- you're onto something here.  The Brotherhood was late to these protests because they wanted to avoid a confrontation with the state.  And also, the MO of the Brotherhood throughout its history has been trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the state and has --

QUESTIONER:  Why?

COOK:  Why?

QUESTIONER:  Uh-huh.

COOK:  Because the most important thing for them is to maintain the movement.  And I think that they are compromised in a sense that the activists, these groups -- Kefaya, the April 6th movement and others -- see them as having been too compromised by their willingness to accommodate the government.

QUESTIONER:  Do you think that the bombing of the Christian church recently had any affect at all on what's happened now?

COOK:  Actually, you know, this morning, the Coptic community vowed to protect mosques in solidarity with their Muslim -- the fellow Muslim citizens so that they could all together engage in protest against the regime.  Thank you, those are good --

DANIN:  Let me just jump in on one point on that.  I mean, it seems to me that one of the things that happened on the New Year's Eve bombing was a very strong message was sent to the Egyptians that the regime was concerned more about protecting itself than it was about  protecting its citizens.  It quickly tried to pin the blame of the bombings on external forces, just as it tried to pin the blame for the protest immediately on al-Qaida and outside forces.

And I think it has hurt its legitimacy by doing this.  It's sent a very strong message that this regime cares about itself, but not about the people.

MCMAHON:  Interesting points.  Thank you.

Operator, is there another question, please?

OPERATOR:  Yes.  Our next question will come from Martin Klingst of Die Zeit. Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hello.  I have a short question.  I would like to know whether the Obama government is caught in a trap.  Because you know, the Bush government was for regime change, and Obama pressed more of these human rights issues, but did it more, you know, in a silent way. And now suddenly, you know, it's more about regime change in Egypt. And the human rights are also an issue, but it's more about the change of the government.  Is that a political strategy problem for the Obama government?  Thank you.

MCMAHON:  Robert, do you want to kick off with that one?

DANIN:  I'll actually happily defer to Steven on that one. He can go first.

COOK:  I think the -- like I said, I think the Obama administration is behind the curve here.  I think that this is not a question now of a change of government.  If you switch out Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif with Prime Minister Mohammed Rashid, it's not going to make much of a difference.  I think Egyptians are demanding a clean slate in the same way that they were demanding it in Tunisia.

Like I said, you cannot underestimate the power of the Tunisian examples what was going on in Egypt.  It provided Egyptians with a sense of possibility.  To the extent that they believe that the MVP and President Mubarak and Gamal Mubarak were the source of their troubles and tribulations, they want a clean slate.

So it's not a question of government, it's a question of actually regime change.

MCMAHON:  Thank you.

Operator, we'll take another question, please.

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir.  Our next question will come from Tom Curry of MSNBC.com.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  Thank you.  This is giving us a lot of information and insight. And looking at maybe a future government, the next government in Egypt, can you talk about the long-term strategic interests of Egypt and the United States being aligned when it comes to Iran and Iran's role in that region?

I mean, even if there were a new government, would Egypt still have strategic goals vis-a-vis Iran that are congruent with the United States?

DANIN:  It seems to me that whoever comes to power is going to be a power that is not -- does not see Iran as a natural soul mate. You know, even the Islamist parties have had tensions with Iran.  And you know, even -- it seems to me that even the more radical forces in Egypt are going to be, number one, focused on Egypt; and two, will not want foreign influences, non-Arab influences playing too large a role.

The Iranians might try to meddle or dip their toes in it, but I think -- I don't think there's a natural alliance there to be had. But Steven may have different views.

COOK:  I agree with Rob.  You have to understand that even -- any, I think, Egyptian government under whomever is going to regard themselves as a natural leader of the region.  And that while Egyptian foreign policy may change, to some extent, and may not be as tightly aligned with the United States, there's still going to be concern about the rise of Iran as a competitor to Egyptian influence in the region.

So I think that this is -- I think that this concern that somehow this is going to change everything and that the Egyptians may actually align with this other camp that we perceive in the region, is perhaps overblown, although I do expect that there will be changes in Egyptian foreign policy is a new regime comes into place.

I think it's going to be tougher going on the U.S.-Egypt front, I think it's going to be tougher going on the Egypt-Israel front as Egypt seeks to reclaim its prominent and influential role in the region.

MCMAHON:  Thanks for that question.

Operator, another question, please.

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir.  Our next question will come from Laura Rosen of Politico.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, thanks both for doing this.

Steve, I just listened to the White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs kind of struggling to talk about the Egypt situation.  And you can, you know, really hear that the administration is struggling about how to talk about a situation that's moving so quickly.

Similarly, the Defense Department was, you know, kind of giving business-as-usual comments about the Egyptian military delegation here this week, you know, just sounding completely tone deaf, and all the agencies sort of not sounding like they're on the same page.

I was just wondering if you can speak to why the administration seems a bit, you know, as you said, behind the curve?  And also just speak to, you know, so many of the principals and the advisers in the White House who deal with the Middle East, you know, having looked at the region for so long primarily through the lens of the peace process and Islamic (stat Iran ?), you know, does that inhibit their ability to deal with a rapidly changing situation now?

COOK:  I think it does.  I think we have been fixated on the peace process, to our detriment.  I think Iran obviously is an important strategic issue. But I think that what we have missed in working so closely and looking at Mubarak and others as the strategic partners to deal with these big issues, we have lost or - we haven't necessarily lost our ability, but we have ignored or downplayed the kinds of things that are going on in these societies and the problems that these leaders confront.

There was a sense, and it's something that ran throughout the Washington policy community, and you know, I had written about this myself that, you know, the whole notion that Arab regimes have muddled through in the past and will likely do so in the future.

Now, if I was someone who, you know, wagered, I would have wagered on that, because we have had stability in the region for a long time.  But we have also had, at the same time, enormous changes going on in society and a lot of pent-up anger and demand that we haven't paid enough attention to.

And I think we also, you know, in struggling to deal with the post-Mubarak period, we have become used to a relationship with Egypt, an important country, in which we can expect, broadly speaking, a strategic alignment.

It's likely not to be the case going forward.  We've wanted to balance things in a way that should Mubarak survive this we could still work with him.  My sense is that, again, that is behind the curve.  If he survives this, we're likely to see a much more repressive Egypt.

Egypt could be brutal, but it was mostly obstructionist and bureaucratic; it wasn't repressive in the way that the Iranian regime is repressive or the Syrian regime is repressive.

But if he survives this, it's likely to be far more repressive. And I'm not sure, under those circumstances, the United States can be so supportive in that case.  And I'm sure he'll be looking elsewhere for legitimacy.

And I think the dynamic has changed.  And I think -- I can understand and I sympathize with the very tough spot that Obama and his team are confronted with.  But events have moved beyond the rhetoric coming out of Washington.

MCMAHON:  Robert, anything you want to add to that on the focus of the administration?

DANIN:  Well, I will just say, just to spin out Steven's scenario just a little further, I mean, if indeed Mubarak survives, I think he's going to need to be both tougher and more benevolent at the same time.  He's going to require both more carrot and more stick to stay in power.

So obviously, the stick will be necessary in the short term to keep power, but the only way he'll be able to then keep -- to manage the expectations and the sentiments that exist is by making fundamental change.  That's the message that the administration has  been trying to drive home very explicitly and with increased alarm over the last few days.

I mean, the administration is clearly trying to show that it adheres and it supports the principles that the protesters, you know, espouse.  I mean, it's no secret that this administration and the previous administration, within it both, you know, have had internal, let's say, centers of gravity, internal debates.

Egypt was a focal point when, you know, in my times in government, you know. And always you had, you know, you had the democracy promotion crowd, let's say, and the sort of stability uber -- (inaudible) -- crowd.  And that tension exists today.

And in fact, I know from, you know, contact that there have been intensive debates within the administration about where you come down in those two places.

Earlier in the week, Secretary Clinton came out and said something that was perceived as an endorsement of Mubarak.  Then we had a subsequent statement come out that didn't mention the regime at all and was a nod toward the principles of the protesters.  I think the democracy-promotion crowd within the administration felt that it now had the upper hand.

Then on Wednesday, you had the secretary issue the most comprehensive statement when she met with Nasser Judeh, which sort of synthesized the two.  And that's where kind of this two-pronged approach has come.

But as Steven has, you know, rightly put out, I mean, it's a bit late in the day.  And the problem is, you know, for those of us who actually have been pushing for a much more vigorous democracy promotion agenda in the Middle East, you know, there's a sense of sad vindication that the analysis was right, that the status quo was unstable and needed to change, but now a sense that, you know, you can't now do it, you can't start a diet, you know, two days before your wedding and hope that you're going to slim down and fit into your tuxedo.  I mean, you have to -- it has to happen over a long period of time.  And this is not the environment in which reform can take place, not, you know, with the streets flooded and with violence, you know, taking place.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks.

MCMAHON:  Thank you.  We can squeeze in, I think, one more question.

Operator, is there another question?

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir.  Our next question will come from Peter Green of Bloomberg News.  Please go ahead.

QUESTIONER:  Well, I just wanted to ask, I mean, is there anything that -- you know, the administration is saying that they're going to step up their pressure on Mubarak.  Is there anything concrete that would have any effect that they could do?

And you also said that if they put too much pressure on Mubarak, he might turn elsewhere, but where would that be?

MCMAHON:  Steven and Rob, just quick wrap-ups then with that?

COOK:  Yeah.  I think that the administration -- I'm not it's a question of really ratcheting up pressure on Mubarak.  I think he's under a tremendous amount of pressure right now.  I think the issue is, standing firm on American principles, or at least the principles by which we like to believe that we live and conduct our foreign policy, which we know we really don't.

But here's an opportunity to look forward, and at least, even at this late hour, to put ourselves on the right side of things.  There's much commentary out there about American support for Mubarak, that the, you know, gas cannisters and equipment that has been used to try to control these protests have a made-in-America stamp on them, that the technology used to undermine communications networks are of American origin, and those kinds of things.

So I think that that's why it's calling out for the president, even at this late date, to say something important on the issues.

The second part of the question was -- I'm sorry, I'm running just a couple hours of sleep here.  What was the second part of the question?

QUESTIONER:  I think that's okay.  The question was -- you said Mubarak might turn somewhere else, but Moscow is not there.  Who is his new friend?

DANIN:  Well, the Chinese.  And it's something that the Egyptians have been keenly interested in developing that relationship.

But again, I think it's -- I think we're a day late and dollar short for the present arrangements in Egypt.  You know, I'm not ready to call Mubarak out.  I know that the military delegation that was here is on its way back, and I would never count those guys out.  As I said before, they are deeply entwined in this regime.

But it sounds cliche, but nothing will ever be the same now in Egypt.  It is an entirely different political dynamic.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you very much.

COOK:  If I could get a word in here.  You know, the administration at this point is clearly in crisis-management mode; it's not in crisis-resolution mode.  It is not in a position to  resolve the crisis.  It could not send a special envoy there.  At the same time, it has not yet made a determination about what it -- at least it does not appear to have made a determination about what it sees as the longevity of the Mubarak regime.

I mean, you know, this is, you know, this is quickly moving towards a Marcos moment.  You know, is it -- I mean, but the difference is, there, you know, there is not a natural party to which the administration can turn to say, you know, Mr. Mubarak, you know, we've been your friend, but I'm sorry, you know, for the sake of Egypt and the sake of the people, I think it's time you go, and there is a natural sort of element that can move in and provide the continuity, you know, here.

Mubarak made it very -- you know, this was by design.  Mubarak made it hard for there to be succession.  You know, he put the Muslim Brotherhood as the opposition in order to help bolster his position. You know, it's me or them.  And the third (wave ?) has, you know, been squashed.

Now you have this inchoate group, but we don't know where it's going to go. So the point is, the administration doesn't have an ally yet, you know, other than Mubarak.  And at the same time, it hasn't, it seems, crossed a line that says we're going to, you know, walk away.

But you know, President Obama has called a Cabinet meeting for tomorrow. This is unusual.  I think it's designed to try to show that the United States is taking this crisis very seriously, that it's very on top of what's happening.

But as I've, you know, have been saying, you know, it's been articulating principles, but it hasn't articulated a vision of the end game, and I don't think it's there yet because I don't think it's made the determination that Mubarak's days are over.

But it seems that with each passing day, that becomes more of a scenario that they need to game out.

DANIN:  Let me just, as we're closing, add -- I've just gotten something across that says the Egyptian parliament speaker is on TV, and he is announcing that something important will be announced soon.  So things are, again, continuing to move.

MCMAHON:  All right.  Well, we will end on that tense note. And I want to thank all of our callers and questioners.  Very good questions.  And especially, special thanks to Steven Cook and Robert Danin for guiding us through this still-unfolding situation in Egypt.

This concludes this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call.

COOK:  Thank you.

DANIN:  Thank you.

 

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