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In Mubarak's Aftermath, Swift Reforms Needed

Interviewee: Daniel C. Kurtzer, S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies, Princeton University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 11, 2011

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In coming days, "serious steps" have to be taken by the Egyptian military to show the public that the changes they have sought will be made, says Daniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt in the Clinton administration. In addition to beginning a national dialogue, Kurtzer says "the most important and immediate thing" that needs to happen is the cancellation of Egypt's emergency law, which allowed the regime free reign to arrest people. He also says, "It is absolutely imperative that the dialogue that is going to take place on constitutional reforms and other kinds of changes be seen as serious, with serious ideas put on the table, and with concrete commitments that have a timetable attached to them." He says that while Israel has cause to be worried about developments in the region, he does not think the thirty-two-year-old peace treaty is at risk.

On Thursday, there were rumors that President Hosni Mubarak was resigning, but he did not resign even though he turned over powers to his vice president. But on Friday, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak was indeed stepping down and the military was now in charge, leading to what seems to be the end of the immediate crisis. What happened?

After what can only be described as a public relations fiasco with significant political costs on Thursday, the military clearly turned the situation around, and then got the message right to the public. Nothing short of Mubarak's handing over power was going to be acceptable to the demonstrators. Once the military finally understood that, the decision was taken for him to go into "retirement."

What do you think is going to happen in the next few days?

What must happen in the next few days is not just the beginning of a national dialogue but serious steps that need to be taken. For example, the most important and immediate thing is the cancellation of the emergency laws. It is absolutely imperative that this be done, and that the people see a concrete change. Second, it is absolutely imperative that the dialogue that is going to take place on constitutional reforms and other kinds of changes be seen as serious, with serious ideas put on the table and with concrete commitments that have a timetable attached to them. In other words, the faster that real change can be demonstrated, the more the people are going to believe that, in fact, there has been a change.

Do you think that the protestors will now go home?

The army is expecting it. From the reaction that we've seen to the announcement, it appears that the demonstrators have accepted Omar Suleiman's latest statement as meeting their demands, and yes, there will be an expectation that the demonstrators go home and that some kind of normal social economic life resumes, even as political reforms are being discussed.

Is this going to send reverberations around the Arab world?

For sure. It's no question that the actual ouster of the president of Egypt is going to be seen as a cosmic event elsewhere in the region, and everybody is going to be looking at their own internal stability markers and, like the king of Jordan did some days ago, will begin to act, to see if they can get ahead of this curve.

[T]he faster that real change can be demonstrated, the more the people are going to believe that there has been a change.

Can you explain what happened Thursday night that led to such confusion?

We tend to think of authoritarian governments as omniscient and omnipotent, but in fact they often make a lot of mistakes that seem silly in retrospect. Thursday, the Egyptian army had a roll-out plan for trying to convince the demonstrators that Mubarak had effectively transferred power and that the army was going to become the watchdog of the transition. There was an extraordinary televised scene in the morning of the senior military meeting in what they called "continuous session"; there was the issuance of military communiqué No. 1, which almost sounded like they were appropriating the revolution. Then Mubarak was supposed to go on television and basically announce that he was handing over the powers that he was able to do under the constitution.

There are three powers that he needed to reserve: declaring war, dissolving the parliament, and calling presidential elections. The army was confident that there was not going to be any declaration of war, and that the dissolving of parliament and the calling of elections would take place anyway. So, effectively, Mubarak was handing over power to Omar Suleiman. The problem is that nobody understood Mubarak to have said that, and then Suleiman, who was supposed to offer a soothing message to the opposition saying "you've achieved your goals, now go home," came across as confirming this ambiguous message that Mubarak delivered. It was a terrifically poor performance in what should have been essentially a denouement of this crisis.

Some observers on Thursday night thought that after the angry reception of Mubarak's speech there would be a lot of violence Friday, but everything was peaceful before the big announcement. The military has been keeping the people away from buildings like the TV center and the presidential palace. Mubarak has gone to Sharm el-Sheikh.

I have it on very authoritative [sourcing] that he is at the hotel that he normally stays, and that he is already in place. My guess is that he is going to stay there and we are not likely to hear very much from him. His face and his voice are now causes for great anger in Egypt. My guess is that the army will keep him under wraps, even if he is still technically president.

Talk about the Muslim Brotherhood. Should anyone really worry about them? One of their people had an op-ed the other day, in which he described the Muslim Brotherhood as something of a reformist group that is Islamic (NYT).

That is a very poor description of an organization which since 1928 has had a single focus on the achievement of an Islamist state in Egypt. They've been very adept at public relations and tactical flexibility, but the goal hasn't changed. Pechter Middle East Polls conducted a survey earlier this week that suggests that while Egyptians are highly devout and religious people, there is not a strong reservoir of support for what the Muslim Brotherhood stands for.

So if there is a free election, do we know who would be the presidential candidates?

We don't know who the candidates would be, and we don't know the degree to which an organization to run a candidate can be put together quickly enough for that candidate to have an impact. It costs money, and it takes organization, and it's a seriously trying problem in an advanced democracy, let alone a place where they have never done this before. The Muslim Brotherhood has announced that it will not run a candidate, but we don't know what will happen when the actual process beings.

It's no question that the actual ouster of the president of Egypt is going to be seen as a cosmic event elsewhere in the region, and everybody is going to be looking at their own internal stability markers.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who lived in exile until he returned to Egypt, has gotten a lot of publicity as a potential candidate. He has a distinguished career at the International Atomic Energy Agency where he won a Nobel Peace Prize, but he doesn't have that much resonance inside Egypt. People have also talked about Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister and now head of the Arab League. Do you have any candidate you would pick?

In this Pechter poll, they actually asked that question. Amr Moussa outstripped everyone by a substantial margin. If I remember correctly, almost 30 percent of the respondents who were not given his name chose him. Mubarak did get some support, and Suleiman got some support. ElBaradei got almost nothing, which confirms what many of us have said: that he is well known to the international media and international community but is a relatively unknown figure in Egypt even almost three weeks into these demonstrations. I don't think he has a political base, nor do I believe he will be the choice of the twenty-five-year old oppositionists, who will probably try to put forward one of their own "heroes" of this movement. For example, the Google executive, Wael Ghonim, however much he disclaims interests in running, now has far more recognition in Egypt then ElBaradei.

Let's move a few hundred miles to the east. The Israelis have been fairly quiet throughout all of this. Do you think they are shuddering at the thought of Mubarak losing power?

The Israelis have good reason to be concerned, not specifically because of what is happening in Egypt, but because of what is happening all around the region, [for example] Hezbollah's manipulation of the Lebanese political system and now acting pretty much as a puppet master for the government that replaced Saad Hariri as prime minister. Hamas has continued governing in Gaza. The protests have taken place in Jordan and now the uncertainly on how the Egypt story will end. So there is reason for concern about a neighborhood that has become far less stable in the last few weeks. On the other hand, there is almost no evidence whatsoever that the peace treaty is up for grabs in this Egyptian upheaval.

In Egypt, Israel has been a very small factor--not totally absent--but a very small factor in the demonstrations. One can imagine that if this process unfolds further, there may be some additional scrutiny of the 1979 peace treaty, but so far there is nothing to indicate that it is part of the debate. In fact, if the military in Egypt remains the ultimate arbiter of power, then the treaty will remain intact. The military has zero interest in changing the basic nature of Egypt's national security policy, in which the treaty with Israel is a major component.

It's been tough for the Obama administration to get a hold of this issue. How do you think the Obama administration did?

The administration has done as good a job as anyone could have done in trying to balance what are clearly conflicting interests. We have gained a great deal from our relationship with Egypt over the past thirty years in very concrete terms. The peace process, military and security relations, intelligence sharing, even the day-to-day movements of our military forces, back and forth to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, we remain a nation committed to the expansion of freedom. It's very hard not to be attracted to the idea that Egypt may be in this marvelous transition on the road to democracy. The administration has had to wrestle with these conflicting aims. They have done a very good job in balancing those. A few missteps here and there, but it hasn't really challenged the ultimate soundness of the policy. At the day's end, given the fact that we aren't the primary player in what is going to emerge in Egypt, the same kind of steadiness will be exactly the right policy.

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