JAMES LINDSAY: Good morning, everyone. I'm Jim Lindsay, director of studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And on behalf of Richard Haass and the Council on Foreign Relations, I want to welcome you here to today's symposium on the implications of the Arab uprising.
I'd like to begin my remarks today by saying thanks to people who have made today's very exciting event possible. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to a number of people.
First and foremost, I want to thank longtime CFR member and supporter Rita Hauser and the Hauser Foundation for their support of today's symposium. The Hauser Foundation, with a generous gift to the council, has made it possible for us for several years now to hold a conference on a pressing topic in international affairs with a premier partner, in today's case St. Antony's, Oxford University. We've done a number of different topics, including how to counter radicalization of Muslim youth, China and climate change and the impact of Iraq on America's foreign and defense policy efforts. And we're looking forward to continuing the success we've had in past years today.
I would also like to thank Margaret MacMillan, who was very gracious in her role as warden of St. Antony's College to appear last night and give a wonderful talk to kick off our -- this symposium. And I have to say if you have not read Margaret's book "Paris 1919: Six Months that Shook the World," you absolutely must. It is an absolutely superb book that deserved all of the awards, many awards, that it won.
I also want to thank Michael Willis, director of the Middle East Centre at St. Antony's, for working with us to structure the conference and the panels and then come up with titles and what have you. We are also indebted to our panelists and colleagues from St. Antony's, Avi Shlaim and Marwa Daoudy and Eugene Rogan. Eugene and Avi actually have traveled a long way to get here today. Marwa was smart. She decided to spend the year at Princeton, so all she had to do is take a train into the city.
And of course I want to thank my colleagues here in the David Rockefeller Studies Program for participating on today's panel, as you're going to get to see why Richard likes to refer to them as a cluster of excellence here at CFR.
And finally, no conference like this comes off without a lot of hard work by people, and I want to do a shoutout to my good friend and colleague Nancy Bederth (sp) and her team, Stacy Loft-Vallette (sp), Vera Nola (sp), Megan Mills (sp), Jeff Gullow (sp), Kelly Calkinson (sp) and a variety of other people who have labored tirelessly to pull this all together and to make the rest of us look really good. And so thank you very, very much.
Now the symposium today is structured to have five panels. Each of the panels will be on the record. So what you say, whether you're up here on the panel or if you ask a question from the audience, can be used against you. It will be public.
I also have to ask everyone, if you have a cellphone, BlackBerry, any other wireless device, that you completely turn it off, not just vibrate or silence it, so we can avoid interference with the sound system here in the room.
Now the past 15 months in the Arab world has been an incredibly tumultuous time. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi back in December of 2010 helped trigger political (arrests/unrest ?) that has unseated rulers in Tunisia, in Egypt, Libya. It's produced brutal crackdowns in Bahrain, in Syria, and a newfound enthusiasm for reform measures in countries like Jordan and Morocco.
Today's panels are looking to try to understand the drivers and implications of the events of the past 15 months, both within the Arab world and beyond them. I will say we're going to approach the topic with some degree of humility because of the complexity of the forces at play and our recognition that human contingency, human action still has a lot to say in how events play out.
We have chosen to structure the conference to avoid limiting our attention to specific countries. There are almost two dozen countries in the Arab world. Each have their own histories and dynamics. So in contrast to sort of being country-specific, what we're going to attempt to do here today is look at issues thematically and try to parse out some of the broader trends and possibilities in the region.
And our first panel today, along those lines, is "Prospects for Democracy." That's the title that we gave it. And I cannot think of two people better suited to help us make sense of the prospects of democracy in the Arab world than Michael Willis and Elliott Abrams.
I will begin by introducing Michael first. He's on my immediate left. Michael is the head of the Middle East Centre at St. Antony's, as well as the King Mohamed VI Fellow in Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies.
Michael knows the Maghreb as well as anyone. He has written an absolutely wonderful book called "The Islamist Challenge in Algeria." But he wasn't content to rest on his laurels. He has another book coming out, I think next month --
MICHAEL WILLIS: Early May now -- (inaudible).
LINDSAY: OK, OK, May, yeah, but it will be in the bookstores soon, or available for purchase and download on your Kindle in the near future. It's called "Politics and Power in the Maghreb," which is the political history of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
On the other side of the podium from me is my good friend and colleague Elliott Abrams, who is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies here at CFR. Elliott has worked extensively on Capitol Hill and in the White House. I'm not going to try to capture his full biography. I believe the program runs through all of the many posts that Elliott has, but -- held, but I do want to note two positions. I think they're relevant. One, he was senior director on the National Security Council for Near East and North African Affairs, and he was also deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy under President George W. Bush. Both qualifications, I think, are quite relevant to what we're going to be discussing here today.
And I should also point out that Elliott is a prolific author who has a book of his own that's going to be coming out, potentially late this year, called "Battleground," which is a memoir and analysis of his time in the George W. Bush presidency.
Let's shift to our topic. I'm going to begin by asking the first question to Michael. Over the past 15 months we've had a lot of labels for what we've been witnessing in the Arab world. It's been called the Arab Spring or the Arab reckoning, the Arab revolution. The phrase we have for the conference today is the Arab uprising.
Whatever we choose to call the events that are now under way across the region, are we witnessing the birth or the potential birth of democracy, or something else?
MR.: (Off mic.)
WILLIS: Let me begin, first of all, by thanking, on behalf of the Middle East Centre, the council again for hosting us here at this great event.
I think in answer (to your ?) question, as I think you indicated in your introduction, that over the last 15 months, we've seen something quite remarkable happen in the Arab world, that we had a whole series of very established and entrenched political regimes in the Arab world that have not changed for decades. And in the last 15 months, we've seen a new actor come on the political scene that has challenged them in many places, broken this established pattern. And this pattern has been large numbers of ordinary citizens on the streets demanding political change. Now, as you said, that has now led to the overthrow -- complete overthrow of two regimes, the departure of two very long-established, entrenched heads of state and creating problems in a number of other countries.
So we have -- (suddenly ?) you have a situation where you have had regimes being changed, the leaders of the countries being changed by the presence of large numbers of people on the streets demanding change, imagine (itself ?) as a large broadening out of actually the influence. But if you -- if you think in -- if you talk about democracy, one of the ultimate things is the ability to change leaders and as -- that has been broadened out. Beforehand, of course, all decisions in pretty well all of the Arab states were decided by very, very small numbers of individuals. Suddenly you're getting another input of a -- of an actor that hasn't really been seen in the Arab world for a long, long time.
Now, subsequent to that, in those states and also in virtually pretty well every other Arab state, you have seen changes to broaden participation through referendum(s), through organizing of the elections, new elections, changes to the constitution, which open the way to greater involvement of the ordinary populations in the decision-making -- decision systems in the Arab states. Does this equate to the establishment of full liberal democracy? No, but it's a significant step forward: the idea that ordinary people have a say in who governs them and what changes. And I think that's massive.
I think also you've got to bear in mind that in one state, you do have set in place a road map for what seems to be pretty clearly the establishment of something that is a recognizable democracy; I'm speaking specifically of Tunisia. If you look at what has been put in place with elections, with a constitutional assembly being set up, and the first set of proper elections ever held in the country's history where virtually every single party that emerged from the elections were agreed on the establishment of a liberal democracy, and I think that is a significant step forward. So, no, it hasn't actually led to full liberal democracy -- a massive step in the -- in that direction, in my view.
LINDSAY: Do you share that view, Elliott?
ABRAMS: Mostly --
LINDSAY (?): Yep.
ABRAMS: -- not fully. I do think that the regimes that were overthrown were overthrown in a sense because they were illegitimate; that is, they had nothing to say to defend themselves. They were not successful economically. They were not democracies. They were not monarchies with traditional legitimacy and authority. They really had no coherent defense of their rule to make, which is, I think, why the monarchies, by the way, are doing better because they have some legitimacy. And these regimes were overthrown essentially in the name of democracy, which is really the reigning philosophy of government in the world. I think it's very difficult for regimes to defend themselves on any other grounds except in a few monarchies.
The problem and the place where I disagree in part is I think that what has been triumphant so far is majority rule. The people coming into the streets say we deserve a role in government. Where I think I disagree with you -- with you is on the word "liberal." It isn't necessarily liberal democracy. It may be majoritarian tyranny.
In Tunisia, for example, there was -- there were recently some prosecutions for violations of public morals and public order in a way that in Europe or the U.S. would be considered ridiculous: for showing the movie "Persepolis," for example. And the question, I think, is whether -- if you think of non-Islamists in Tunisia, if you think of Copts in Egypt, I think the question that remains to be seen is whether there will be not simply majority rule, but also what we would view as liberal democracy.
LINDSAY: That gets us back to the famous article and book that Fareed Zakaria wrote about illiberal democracies; that what you see is the spread of elections but not necessarily the spread of constitutional protection of individual rights.
And Michael, just on that question, is there any reason to be optimistic that those protections might develop? The reason I asked, I was struck by the example that Elliot used about the people being prosecuted for showing the movie "Persepolis," because if I go back 60 or 70 years in American history, there were movies that got banned; and things that we would today think it's ridiculous were not held to be ridiculous back then.
So do we see the seeds where a more liberal democracy might take root?
WILLIS: I think the first thing to say, of course, is it's very early. These things are still waiting to play out.
I think you've also got to bear in mind that sometimes when we see things happening, they are more to do with some of the -- things like censorship, some of the sort of more illiberal acts by the government, which certainly are occurring, we tend to think they are the result of the ideology of the new people coming in, when I think in many places it's actually the hangover of practices that have been there for quite some time. The control of the Tunisian media, for example, was absolute under Ben Ali.
I think in the case of Tunisia, the cases that you bring up, if you look at them closely, they're not quite as clear-cut as that. And the other thing was that a lot of them were deliberately provocative by a certain section of a population who have actually explicitly said to me on occasion, we want to provoke and we want to create problems to try and bring the Islamists out, to try and make them (producing ?). Things like the "Persepolis" thing was begun before even the elections. This was done by the interim government.
So I think these things need to be looked at, but they -- (if ?) we lose the wider picture of what is happening. I think in a lot of countries -- and again, Tunisia is the one I probably -- where there's been most change which I certainly have studied the most is -- but there is a commitment to constitutional mechanisms that protect minorities.
And a member of (Ennahda ?), a senior member of (Ennahda ?), who have now -- they got, what, 36 percent of the vote, 40 percent of the seats, they dominate the new government, put it to me, saying majority rule is great when you're in the majority. When you're in the minority, it's a problem. And he said: We were in the minority under Ben Ali and we suffered. We were the ones who were tortured and repressed in jail when we were out of power. We would prefer to have a system where the worst thing happens to us out of power is that we just have to sit and wait until the next election. If we create majoritarian system, if we create an authoritarian system, the day that turns against us we've got problems. And therefore, if we create a balanced system where everybody -- there's no complete -- you don't have complete victory or complete defeat, that would be a much better arrangement because that protects us. And it is actually in our interest. We don't want to be at the receiving end of a regime again.
Now, to what extent this is understood in other countries, I'm not sure, but I think this sort of argument is being heard and being thought through. The Islamists in particular (have been -- suffered ?), and I think a lot of them are realizing what mechanisms can we put in place to prevent this, and seeing a little bit into the -- further into the future. So I think there are grounds of concern and there are issues, clearly.
But the other interesting thing as we look at Tunisia is the fact that these are brought up by the opposition and then things have to be changed. And this is a great function in democracy. The job of an opposition now in the parliament is to actually -- to say, well, this is unacceptable, look at this, draw attention; things get changed. It's beginning to work like a proper government.
And the Islamists say, well, we have to be so careful, because the press pick up on everything and change things. And I think that's great. Welcome to a -- you know, to the beginnings of a functioning democracy.
So in Tunisia I'm hopeful. I think in other places I think there are more concerns, and I think (the end of it ?) has to be in putting actually the constitutional rules in place to provide these sort of protections.
LINDSAY: Elliot, can I draw you out on a point? You made the observation that the governments that have fallen were illegitimate, or also the governments that are being challenged are considered to be illegitimate. But they've been illegitimate for a long time. There has been political and economic stagnation in the Arab world for a long time.
Why now? Why not before?
ABRAMS: This was touched on, of course, last night. I think the -- there were alternative theories of government; for example, the Soviet theory of government.
And that theory began to erode with the Helsinki Accords, where -- Dr. Johnson's definition of hypocrisy -- (laughter) -- the tribute vice pays to virtue -- well, the tribute the Soviets paid was to sign basket three. And so you had, even in the Soviet bloc and -- a kind of acknowledgement that democracy is the only legitimate form of government -- hypocritical, ridiculous, absurd; nevertheless, they signed it; they -- and they said it.
And then you had the collapse of communism and the disappearance of this -- except in China, the disappearance of this theory of government -- even China. I mean, who really at this point views China as a great ideological force, as opposed to a great economic force?
Well, within 10 years of the fall of the Soviet Union and the Soviet empire, I think you begin to see the questioning very publicly in the Arab world -- the 2002 Arab Human Development Report is one of the first occasions where you have people in the Arab world saying, this is wrong; this is backward; democracy is the only legitimate form of government, and our backwardness in the Arab world reflects the freedom deficit. Not only that, the condition and role of women was another key to them -- but the freedom deficit.
So I think what you have here is -- I guess I trace it back to maybe Helsinki and the kind of ideological collapse of the -- of the -- of the communist alternative. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and then I think I would add -- you had a kind of ideological offensive in the Bush administration. 2002, you have the Arab Human Development Report; 2003 you have Bush's 20th anniversary speech to the National Endowment for Democracy saying very clearly that the so-called Arab exception could not be sustained as was not defensible.
And I think you add all that together, and of course you need events like Bouazizi, but I think there is a steady erosion of the nondemocratic regime.
LINDSAY: Michael, can I get you to take a crack at the question?
WILLIS: I think I agree with that. I don't think the external dimension is important. A lot of people in the Arab world were very pleased when there was this initiative and then wondered where it went. And there was a feeling, well, particularly after September the 11th when there was a push towards -- where regimes were able to play the anti-terrorism card and worked to -- and could defend themselves against lack of democracy and human rights accusations by playing the al-Qaida card. And that defended a lot of them very, very solidly. But there was a feeling inside, well -- a lot of people said, well, we're not going to get any help outside from this, therefore we have to do it ourselves. And there was an element of that.
Why it was so late, I -- that's a -- that's a very good question. I'm not sure. And in the end I have to say at times I did wonder why that is the case and -- well, I was very -- because when you talk to people on the ground, you find that people want exactly the same as everywhere else. And it was just the mechanisms. And now I think with the -- with the actual revolt itself, it has revealed that people in the Arab world want exactly the same as everybody else. They want to have a say in how they are governed, which is the fundamental underlying point, I think.
LINDSAY: I'm struck neither of you mentioned Twitter -- (laughter) -- or Facebook. And I ask -- and I raise it seriously because I've seen and read a lot of commentary about the role of social media, role of technology in changing the relationship between citizens and government and among citizens as well and that this is sort of what was different now and that made it happen, that you had these social networks that could mobilize people, bring them out to Tahrir Square and what have you. So is that hype? Is there some truth to that? Does it depend? How would you assess -- I'll go with you, Michael, then we'll go to Elliott.
WILLIS: Yeah, I think -- well, there's been a lot of discussion on that, and I'm sort of reminded -- I had an -- I remember talking to one of the main Tunisian bloggers who was involved in the Internet side of things. And I avoided asking this question, but I couldn't avoid it, and said, wasn't it an Internet revolution? And he looked at me, and he said, that question makes me so angry. He said, I don't see any bullets on Facebook; I didn't see -- there were people who went onto the streets and died because of that.
That said, I think there is a connection. Certainly if you look to -- in Tunisia or in Egypt, it does provide certain mobilizing tools at certain key points to bring people, but the actual work is done on the streets, the actual work -- and there are lot of more traditional ways in Tunisia and in Egypt with things like the trades unions, which was an old, old way of doing things.
I think in terms of the Internet generally, I don't think people in Tunisia and Egypt needed the Internet to tell them that they lived in -- under a dictatorship. It's not like, ooh, I've just received a tweet that Ben Ali is a religious dictator and we're marginalized and oppressed in our own country. I -- you didn't know that? Yeah. (Laughter.) This is outrageous, you know. (Laughter.) There's a Facebook group to say that we have no democracy in Tunisia. Where's this? No, that wasn't the case.
But what it does do is it makes awareness that people are not alone, and I think that was important. So I think it provided a very key -- helping mobilize and speed things up, but that a lot of the real work was done in the old-fashioned way, offline.
LINDSAY: So it reinforced and enabled; it didn't cause.
WILLIS: Yes, exactly.
ABRAMS: I agree with that. I mean, Hungary '56, Prague Spring '68 didn't require Twitter. You know, in the old days we had Radio Free Europe or Radio Liberty, and we fast-forward a bit, and what we were doing was sneaking fax machines into the Iron Curtain countries.
So I think the technology improves that makes things easier, and I think, yes, the horizontal communication is now a lot better. But I -- but I agree.
LINDSAY: When I was in graduate school, struggling to get my Ph.D., I was -- took a bunch of methodology courses, and one of the things they always told you is to focus not just on what happened but what didn't happen. And so as I sort of look at the region, I notice that we're spending a lot of time talking about countries in which things did happen but that in a number of countries, particularly the monarchies, not a lot happened, Bahrain being a notable exception, but also in a country you know very well, Michael, Algeria --
WILLIS: Mmm hmm.
LINDSAY: -- looks to be different than, let's say, its next-door neighbor in Tunisia. So tell me about where -- the countries where things didn't happen. What's really happening?
WILLIS: Well, I think Algeria's the most interesting. It's the sort of dog that didn't bark. Exactly what was there? And it's particularly unusual given the fact that all the ingredients that were there in other countries exist there. You've got a nondemocratic government, you've got very high levels of youth unemployment, you've got disillusionment with formal political processes, you've got growing gaps between the rich and the poor, all the things that led to this sort of problems.
I think there are a lots of reasons that they -- the sort of more minor ones are, you haven't got a single figure to unite against like you had in most of the rest of the Arab world; it's a more collective, rather opaque leadership between the senior military figures, the intelligence, the president.
You -- one thing that isn't -- they also had amounts of oil and gas, like the Gulf monarchies, they could sprinkle around and damp things down.
One thing that isn't so widely known outside of Algeria was that Algeria's been having many Tahrir Squares in different districts and different small towns the last three or four years. Someone did a calculation that there's a riot going on in Algeria -- there's at least three riots going on at any time in the day. And what happened was, that defused anything wider, because people are rioting locally and getting local government to respond to things.
But I think the ultimate reason probably is the fact that if you look at the countries that were most affected -- if you look at Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt -- there had really been no political change, no political variation in 30 years, at least, (in Tunisia ?), whereas in Algeria that was different. There was a memory of upheaval in the 1990s. And it was upheaval that was -- had very negative consequences. So there isn't quite the appetite in Algeria -- (inaudible).
LINDSAY: It was very bloody.
WILLIS: It was -- yes. And it was -- and people feel that they didn't want to necessarily go onto the streets because of what had happened before. And I think that's the main reason.
Those are good reasons, but I think I always seem to remember, back when everything started, after Tunisia, everybody came out and said: Well, of course it will never happen in Egypt, because of X, Y, Z, and of course it will never, ever happen in Syria, because of this, that.
So I think we have to be careful.
I think in the other countries, I think in the Gulf monarchies, I think a larger part about it is to do with the availability of wealth that was able to be sprinkled around and damp things down. You haven't got that same sort of restless proletariat. They tend to be foreign workers that are brought in. So that's a different dynamic altogether.
I think the interesting place is probably Jordan, where things didn't happen, although people tell me that things have quietened down, but under the surface things may be ongoing.
So it varies. Somewhere like Morocco, not much happened, because it was already ahead of the pack and needed just to reform a little bit more to keep ahead of things. So I think -- I don't know if that answers your question in terms of the countries where it didn't happen.
LINDSAY: Well, I may come back to you, but I want to get Elliott to come in here on this question.
ABRAMS: One thing that -- one thing that didn't happen that strikes me is in the middle of all of this turmoil, there did not arise in any country a great anti-democratic leader. There's no Khomeini; there is no Hitler; there is no Mussolini; there's no figure like that to rally against democracy.
LINDSAY: Yes -- (inaudible) --
ABRAMS: You know, as Michael said, it's early, and "yet" is the right word. But still, it's -- you know, we're a year in, and there just -- one doesn't see it.
I think it is worth noting that the countries where this began -- Tunisia, let's say; Egypt; Syria; Libya -- the dictator wanted his family to be a royal family. It is striking that in every one of those four cases, the boys were supposed to -- or one of them was supposed to take over next. They were becoming (stake ?) monarchies. And I think if you had said -- I think even up until the last weeks, let's say, if Mubarak had said -- (inaudible) -- and I'm not going to run again, and Gamal is not going to -- this is absurd -- he probably would be president of Egypt today. I think it was the attempt to establish a kind of dynastic principle that contributed a great deal to the overthrow.
I want to tell one story, which I think helps explain why things are more stable in the monarchies and the way in which they are more legitimate. And I tell it to the Mohammed VI professor because it's about Morocco. I have a friend who is a factory owner in Morocco. And he said to me that he said to one of the workers -- this would be almost a year ago now, prior to the referendum -- so you're going to vote next week? And the man said, I don't -- I don't like this; I don't want to vote, but the king says to vote, so I'll vote. So my friend the factory owner said to him, ah, and you will vote for the referendum and the constitutional changes, right? And the man said, ah, I'm not for any of this, but the king says to vote for it, so I'll vote for it. So my friend said to him, why, why are you not in favor of it; what's wrong with it? And the man said to him, I would rather be governed by the king than some dirty politicians. (Laughter.)
And I think it actually gives an insight into a portion of the population, maybe, you know, only 25 (percent) or 35 percent, but there is this view, I think, of -- these are systems in which traditional authority is not illegitimate. Obviously, Bahrain is a great exception. But I would say Morocco and the Gulf -- the other Gulf countries in particular -- Jordan also has a sort of special situation. It's quite a young monarchy.
LINDSAY: I'm curious as you tell the story, because I think there's an element -- there's certainly an element of truth in what Elliott has just said. But when I was thinking of what Michael said, when you talked about the Gulf countries, you basically talked about having money to pass around, buying off dissent. When you talked about Morocco, you talked about a government in which it was already sort of ahead of the reform curve; it was meeting political needs, and a very different approach to the problem. And again, if you look at sort of the evolution of democracy in the West, some countries had revolutions -- the United States -- other countries sort of (moved there ?) and still have -- are constitutional monarchies. Are we witnessing something like that in Morocco, or are there innate sort of limits on how far -- whether we're in Morocco or Jordan, that the governments can go?
WILLIS: I think in the case of Morocco, Morocco had established its place as one of the most liberal Arab states. It had reformed, unlike the 1990s, where they'd been rolled back in -- other Arab states, it has actually reformed the various reasons with -- to do with -- particularly to do with the succession, with King Hassan wanting to change things. And in the 2000s it sort of -- there wasn't a huge amount of political reform. And I think when it was seen that the demonstrations began in Morocco, there was an awareness that things needed to move forward again, and there was a constitutional change; there were -- the system was opened up a little bit further. My feeling is that that will continue, and that will be a dynamic process, and that process will continue to open.
But the first demonstration -- the big demonstration in Morocco was -- just started on the 20th of February, and the king came out on the 9th of March and announced what most people regarded were quite far-reaching constitutional reforms. They didn't -- in the event, they didn't go as far as most people were expecting, but it was still a step in that direction. Morocco generally has seen the writing on the wall and has moved ahead slightly than the other Arab states, and particularly having witnessed what had happened elsewhere.
LINDSAY: Your sense, Elliott?
ABRAMS: Well, I agree. I agree. I think the problem in Morocco, it seems to me, is that the king gets this very clearly. I think his goal, unsurprisingly, is that 35 years from today his son will be king.
ABRAMS: And that requires a certain amount of reform to keep the system stable. But you know, for a long time there have been around him a fairly venal group of people whose goal really is to make the most money possible in 2012 or whatever year it is. And I think the question is whether an alliance, in the sense of the king and the opposition or the king and the people, can defeat that group known there as the machim (ph). And I think this is true to a certain extent in Jordan too, that the king understands the needs for reform, but there are many people in the -- let's call it the East Bank establishment who don't -- who don't agree. And they are -- they have been slowing it down for quite a long time.
LINDSAY: As we look at sort of political evolution in the Arab world right now and sort of the hopes that perhaps democracy of one form or another will take root and sort of change the political composition and culture in the region, now, one of the questions that my economists friends say, it's very nice you all talk about politics, but at the end of the day, economics matters, and that the economic evolution in the region is troubling.
And particularly what I often hear people talk about is Egypt, where whatever the shortcomings of the Mubarak government, at least sort of in its final days it was starting to take Egypt in the direction of economic reform that at least economists liked. And now with sort of events in the last year, the Egyptian economy is stumbling along, there's great concerns about whether it's going to stay solvent. Tourism is down. There are lots of problems. Is economics in the region going to allow the countries enough time for political reform or is it -- is it doomed?
You get a first shot at that, Elliott.
ABRAMS: This is a -- to me, a great worry. I go back to my Latin American experience in the '80s, where you had this wave of democracies. But democracy didn't produce. It did not improve the lot of enough people. And you then saw a kind of counter-reaction in a number of countries where democracy was threatened or actually disappeared.
Now, you know, one can offer explanations: It was a kind of crony capitalism, if you think of the -- for example, the privatizations in a place like Argentina, where there was an awful lot of corruption. But that -- this, I think, is a great worry if one looks at -- particularly at Egypt. Tunisia, you know, is so small that the amounts of money needed to make a real difference are available even today. I noticed Secretary Clinton announcing a hundred million dollars for -- well, that's a lot of money for Tunisia, a hundred million dollars.
It's not a lot of money for Egypt, where someone gave me the figure recently, which has got to be nearly right, even if it isn't exactly right, that between the day that Mubarak left power and today, there are roughly 2 million more Egyptians -- the normal growth rate that -- so it's a million and a half. But it's -- and you've got to feed them. I must say if I were the -- if I were counseling the Muslim Brotherhood, I would urge them not to present a candidate for president because if you've got both the parliament and the presidency, you really have responsibility for everything. You've got to feed everyone. You've got to make this economic muddle work.
How do they do that in Egypt with the lack of available funds in the -- in the West, with some diminished appetite apparently on the part of foreign investors? If you -- if you look at the Gulf, I mean, it's very striking to look at where are the Saudis, for example, putting their money so far -- striking to me that they have been writing checks for the king of Jordan, cash, I mean, not foreign aid programs, not loans, writing checks, because they want -- they don't want economically based instability in Jordan.
But of course the check that they wrote for Jordan, which was $400 million last summer, disappears without a trace in Egypt. So I think if one thinks of, let's say, a post-Assad Syria, if there is one, and certainly the case of Egypt -- this, I -- this is a -- I think, the greatest concern, because in Europe as well as in Latin America, economic collapse is frequently the precursor to political collapse.
WILLIS: No, I very much agree. That's one of the big clouds on the horizon, and that is of concern, that people will not see that the revolutions or changes have actually brought the sort of things that -- in the election in (Tunisia ?), you have sort of (Tunisian ?) politicians going out and talking about balance of powers and human rights, and people in the villages shouting from the back of the crowds, "Forget about that. What about bread and what about jobs?"
And I think that could have a corrosive effect. I mean -- (inaudible) -- I agree that Egypt is very worrying in that regard. Some of the new governments are trying to put in the fact that if they can correct all the issues of corruption, the color of the thumbs, reorganize the economy, but that takes a long time. And I don't -- I'm worried there isn't the patience amongst the population.
LINDSAY: Well, it also requires sacrifice on the part of publics, and publics are notorious for not wanting to sacrifice.
ABRAMS: Well, it sort of requires good policy. I mean i think that's one of the great lessons of the last 25 years. And it is striking to me that there was good economic policy in the late Mubarak period, or pretty good, and the authors of that policy are now refugees. They're now fugitives. I mean, people like Youssef Boutros Ghali and others in the government who we associate with those late-year reforms, some are in jail and others are fleeing. There were Interpol warrants out for people.
So how are you going to -- how are you going to achieve that? Well, maybe, maybe the Muslim Brotherhood turns out to be very much in favor of free market capitalism. And I don't say that as a joke, because there are, I think, signs that that may well happen. But are they going to have -- even if that is their view, where are the policymakers going to come from?
LINDSAY: I have a whole long list of questions I really want to ask, but I'm under obligation to bring everybody else into the conversation and share. So what we're going to do -- if you would like to ask a question, please stand up and wait for the microphone. And I would ask you to identify yourself. So if we have any questions. We're going to bring you a microphone right here -- (inaudible).
QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Pincas Jawetz. I was involved in energy policy.
LINDSAY: You are -- I'm sorry?
QUESTIONER: Pincas Jawetz. I was involved in energy policy also in the United States. Now retired, I'm running something that is an outlet for sustainable development media.
I understand definitely that the meeting's about the Arab world, but the Arab world is a small part of a larger circle of the Islamic world. OK, (it was ) mentioned Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, but there is one little state that is very much in the news lately that has fallen between the cracks, and this is the Maldives Islands. There a democracy -- Mohamed Nasheed, who is, by the way, now in town here -- last night I sneaked away from here to Columbia university because I wanted to see him. Last time I saw him was in Copenhagen.
Now, he was overthrown. That was the only democratic government that those islands have ever had. He was democratically elected. He was overthrown by the previous dictator, Gayoom (ph). Now, he was a leader in the climate change movement. He is against fossil fuels. Gayoom (ph) is for.
Now, but my question is really, if we can learn something from the experience of the Maldives Islands, and also mention the world "oil" a little more frequent in this meeting, and see if Nasheed was overthrown because he was threatening in what he was doing -- small island, big leader -- he was threatening --
LINDSAY: OK, let me give the panelists a chance to address the question.
QUESTIONER: So I would like to introduce the subject because I think it's something that belongs.
LINDSAY: OK. I don't know if either Michael or Elliott follows Maldives closely, if you have an observation to offer on the Maldives.
WILLIS: No. As I said, I was hoping you wouldn't reveal the depths of my ignorance about Maldivean politics. (Laughter.) So, yeah. I was aware of it. I read some reports. And what struck was me that in many ways it's what happens in the rest of the world. And I think you introduced it as part of the Muslim world, and I think we may be moving away from this idea that there is a Muslim -- there's politics in the Muslim world and there's politics elsewhere. I think there's politics everywhere.
In terms of being involved in the climate change, I'm not sure of the exact things -- there was a lot of internal problems, I think particularly the military, in the Maldives, from what I understand. So I'm not sure to what extent the -- how far the oil companies were involved or what.
On the more general question about the -- oh, do you want to answer about the oil -- involvement of oil? As I said, we've seen that actually that it's dampened things down in some of the oil-producing states. Didn't save Gadhafi. Obviously there are other things involved there. And I think that oil has not had a very positive effect, in many ways, on the states of the Middle East, and I think we're waiting to see when the oil price changes and we'll see other things happening in the region that will make a difference.
ABRAMS: I would only add one thing. I bow to you on the Maldives -- (laughter) --
WILLIS: (But that can wait ?).
ABRAMS: -- but I'm -- I am struck about one thing on the oil question, and that is that we now have a brewing crisis in the Persian Gulf, Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. And it does strike me that it isn't going to be very long -- maybe 10 years -- before that looks like ancient history. I mean, when one sees the development of alternative -- I don't mean alternative energy in the sense of wind, alternative sources of fossil fuel, the new discoveries off the coast of Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Brazil, practically every -- the United States, in the production of gas is -- and then you see, for example, the new pipelines, the U.A.E. building one, for example, to go around the Strait of Hormuz -- I just -- it seems to me that it isn't going to be long before the notion that the Strait of Hormuz was this fantastically great choke point is going to look like something from the Eisenhower administration.
LINDSAY: Fair enough.
QUESTIONER: Joan Spero, Columbia University. I wonder if I could ask you to talk a little bit about the underpinnings of democracy, about the emergence or lack thereof of civil society organizations, the role of political parties, and I'm particularly interested in Egypt.
LINDSAY: Could I tag on -- if you can just give us a little bit of senses from the variations and the degree of civil across some of these countries, I think that would help people put some of this in perspective.
You want to go first, Michael?
WILLIS: Yeah, sure. I think you had civil -- you had things called civil society in lot of the Arab world, but what happened was, they weren't quite as they seemed. There was an awareness across a lot of the Arab world that particularly outside powers and outside donors like this thing called civil society. So a lot of states said: You want civil society? We can create civil society.
And a lot of this was in a fairly fake sense.
There was, however, created a space, even unofficially, of civil society a lot of the countries -- not very strong. It was stronger in some countries than the other, but the state had a tendency to control it. And what we're seeing a lot of Arab states at the moment, particularly in the ones that have had substantial change, is trying to resolve to what extent these elements of civil society are still wound up in the previous regime and which ones are genuinely independent.
I think they do give a certain depth and strength to some of the opposition movements, the organization society more generally, but it's still working it out exactly where it fits in.
ABRAMS: Thinking about it, it's a very interesting and hard question. I think that, given the role of the state in Egypt and Tunisia, as examples, Syria, first, much of the zone that we would call civil society and society organizations that was not under the control of the state was Islamist, was the brotherhood. And so one of the questions that has to arise now is whether others can come into that expanding zone.
I think the problem is that if you look at the civil society organizations -- Egypt is an example -- you tended to have the brotherhood and, let's say, elitist Cairo upper middle-class, well-educated, English-speaking people who dealt with us, who got grants from the American government and American NGOs, European NGOs, which leaves the rest of the society with, I think, not the absence of civil society organizations but a skewed picture.
One of the kind that existed that I think will be increasingly important is labor unions in really every Arab country, because they were never out of existence, and now they have an opportunity to grow.
But I think the -- what will be a very important question for democracy is of course the question of political parties. In each of these countries, you had -- Tunisia is a very good example, and Algeria is a very good example -- you had kind of the -- Palestine is a good example -- you had the Independence Party, the party that fought for it and won that then becomes the dominant part. And over time, of course, it changes. But there -- you don't have the kind of political party life that we would need to see to call -- to establish a liberal democracy. Morocco's is a little bit better off because it has, and has had for decades, more parties.
But are these parties going to develop in Egypt? My own guess would be the answer is yes, but not fast, because the kind of liberal intellectuals with whom we deal in Cairo and to a certain extent Alexandria -- unlike the brotherhood, they don't have the reach-out into the society; they are not in every village and town. They can do that over a period of time, decades. I am struck that the little -- I think this is fair to say -- the little academic study that's been done of the -- let's say, the arc of Islamist parties suggests that they do best in the first election because they are the only organized parties. In the second and third election, assuming you have a second and third election, they don't do as well because there is new competition and because they have not delivered.
So I think -- this goes back to Michael's statement, which I think we always have to remember -- it is so early that it's very hard -- one should not project forward from the elections of this year what will necessarily happen five or 10 years down the road.
LINDSAY: Kim (sp).
QUESTIONER: Kim Davis (sp) -- (inaudible) -- if I look at other countries that have migrated from dictatorship to democracy -- Argentina, Spain, South Korea -- there was sort of a period, arguably, of enlightened dictatorship that sort of set preconditions for democracy. Here there's almost a migration, you could argue, from dictatorship to anarchy -- some brief period of anarchy to then democracy. Is that completely unrealistic? Do we -- have we focused too much on elections? Do we have sort of this missing interlude that almost condemns this to not succeed, at least the first time?
WILLIS: I think the problem was that the -- a lot of leaders in the Arab world try to sell themselves as that. You listen -- you listen -- you could go back and listen to Mubarak and Ben Ali, and they say, well, of course, we are the sort of country where we need to take our time; democracy is a long road; we have to have these reforms. And you listened to Ben Ali and Mubarak and all of them -- they were saying this for ages, and that didn't work. And I don't think -- and I think people are fed up with that, and I think if there was an attempt to go back to that, I think there will be huge resistance to that.
And as an example, in the -- and what I think was good, and I think -- in the fact that Elliott raised -- it was -- there weren't figureheads that came from revolution, and I think that was very good because there was a great antipathy to the single leaders. I think it was very interesting that there was -- one of the leading opposition parties in Tunisia was expected to do very well in the elections -- did very badly, did very badly for many reasons. But one was it pushed its leader and put big posters up of its leaders campaigning in the elections, and people did not want anything to do with that. They want -- the idea of this single great personality leading the people to progress and democracy isn't going to go anywhere in the Arab world. There were far too many murals and cults of personality, and I think that's -- (there's nothing ?) -- that's a good thing.
ABRAMS: You could see -- I was thinking of Russia when you were asking your question, in a sense, of democracy, chaos, Putin, and then maybe after Putin more democracy. It certainly seems there's a greater push for it in Russia in the last year. But there are other examples of -- in Europe of the post-Soviet Europe where things were a smoother path right to democracy without that interlude.
So I'm with Michael on this. I think we should not assume it, and we should be very suspicious of people who claim it, because most of the people who claim it are phonies. I mean, there are very few enlightened dictators. It is true that, you know, Pinochet had a fabulous economic policy, but -- and, you know, Lee Kuan Yew is a great man. But for each of those examples there are too many others of people who were -- who destroyed the politics and destroyed the economy. So I think this is unlikely.
LINDSAY: Fair enough. In the back, please.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Nan (Keohane ?), Princeton University. I want to go back to the question of why now, why not before. I thought your answers were excellent in terms of the specific cases, but one of the things that it doesn't explain is why is there now this simulation or this spreading of parallel, although rather different, movements to other parts of the world. Somehow protest has become more a common phenomenon more broadly than it might have been before Tunisia and then Tahrir Square. So Spain Occupy, of course, is a very different kind of situation, with different concerns and very different goals or lack thereof.
But there are a few similarities -- mass protests with an agnosis (ph) about leadership, and also the sense that this is a present possibility now in countries that might not have worried about protests a while back, whether it's Russia or China. So was there a readiness, in some sense? What's the cause and what's the effect? And how do we explain the sort of worldwide change of mood?
LINDSAY: That's a big question, so -- when I have big questions, I go to Elliott. So I'll ask Elliott to --
ABRAMS: In the countries -- in many of the countries in which this is happening, and Spain is a good example, and Greece is another, it's occasioned by a terrible economic situation. The unemployment and underemployment rates, particularly among youth, are really fantastic in Greece and Spain. And I don't think it's, in that sense, akin to the Arab protests, that are largely political in origin.
I do think there is something -- here maybe we do get to the old -- you know, the CNN effect, the Al-Jazeera effect, that there's a constant portrayal of demonstrations and why don't we demonstrate too. But I'm -- I guess I'm reluctant to say that this is one very similar phenomenon in, let's say -- I mean I wouldn't -- what is happening in Spain is not really like what happened in -- is happening in Syria, let's say. There is a kind of disappointment, skepticism in governments that have been unable to produce a better economic situation. But I'm reluctant, I think, to draw too wide a conclusion. Perhaps it's because I'm not tweeting enough or something. (Laughter.)
WILLIS: I very much agree that I think you can go too far. I think the (prior ?) example was important. Certainly in the Arab world that traveled very quickly, and people saying, well, actually, we saw in a part of the world we thought would never change that people could come onto the streets and change things; maybe we have a difficulty here, but we can bring people onto the streets. Politicians are aware that this can actually change and make a difference. And I think that has had some effect.
I'd also like to make a sort of parallel point to that, and I think one thing we didn't discuss when we looked at democracy was the change at the real base level in the countries. And I think this is very, very important. We focused at the -- this may lead into the question about people coming onto the streets.
One thing that I was struck was the change in atmosphere amongst people a lot in the countries, particularly where there's been changes, even where there's just been reform. One thing that I found quite depressing over the last decade or so in the region was the -- the fatalism and depoliticization of particularly the young people in the countries. You'd talk to people and people would say: There's no point being involved in politics, there's no point protesting in things; everything is settled beforehand. Particularly in the Maghreb, they referred to sort of formal political things as cinema: It's a little game the regime puts on for us; we have these sort of fake elections and the president pretends he's popular, and we say we love him; and it's all a joke; I want nothing to do with it; I want to remove myself; I'll just look after number one or I'll try and go abroad. Or -- and this is one of the problems, I think, in very small amounts resulted in violence, where people felt that everything was so fixed and so controlled.
But what has happened now is, when you go back -- (inaudible) -- you talk to young people, there isn't that fatalism anymore. I mean, we were talking to one of the leaders of the protest movement in Morocco on February 20th, and he started saying, well, what we've done, we've organized this, and our strategy is this and we've now done this and we've organized this for other groups, and when -- we put our protest on and we're also getting involved in this issue. And this was just wonderful to hear, having heard people: it's all rubbish, it's all set up, there's no point in politics, everybody's a thief and a liar and I want nothing to do with this.
And there was a change in this. And I think you're seeing among other societies, where a lot of the youth movements beyond the big-picture politics are now becoming much more involved in all sorts of social issues and there's a thinking that things can actually change. I was in Tahrir Square the beginning of February, and it was a completely different place, where people felt they actually owned and had some involvement in things. And I think if that spirit is transferred to other places where people think, well, everything is controlled, I'm just on my own, I can't do anything -- and I'm wondering if part of that spirit has made its way across. I don't know.
QUESTIONER: Roger -- (off mic) -- National Intelligence Council. And I see there are other segments of the whole program that will be more on economic policy, but this is on politics. There are people who -- Robert Hardy, for example, the publisher of the Geostrat Worldview -- who are cynics about Egypt and really have analyzed from the beginning that this was just one coup of a part of the military against another part of the military, and that the permanence of the democratization is in question. So that leads to a question about the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists with this military group that were -- be responsible for that coup.
What is it -- how, shall we say, constructive; where are the pressure points or the fractures; what does the military want that this Islamic parliament won't agree to or vice versa? That's very important in terms of the sort of near-term evolution of this democratization process. And I'd be very grateful for your assessment. Thanks.
ABRAMS: It seems to me that if you had a kind of war game in which you said, tell you what, you be the military, the SCAF, and you be the Muslim Brotherhood, and you be the crowd, it would bring you pretty much to where you are. That is, I think the relationship between particularly the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood is really quite logical, each one jockeying for power, so that at times you see the brotherhood and the SCAF cooperating against a common enemy, which might be the Salafis, about whom the brotherhood is nervous. At another time perhaps today, you see the brotherhood and the SCAF confronting each other because there is a finite amount of power and there are rivals for it, because the SCAF would like to maintain much more of an economic role than the brotherhood's economic advisers are probably telling it is good for Egypt and its economic development.
so I think this is -- none of this, it seems to me, is at all (unexpected ?) or mysterious. It seems to me it is perfectly logical that these groups, seen as interest groups or power groups, are trying to protect their interests and advance their interests and see each other as allies, rivals and enemies in varying degrees as the weeks and months go by. And I don't see that changing. I think that jockeying continues.
WILLIS: I agree. I mean, on one level, it was looking like there had been a nice, cozy deal established between SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood. The SCAF would look after the economy, look after foreign defense affairs, and the social policy, education (exactly ?) -- it would be done by the Muslim Brotherhood, and they'd have their own areas and then everything would be run and controlled by the both of them.
But I think, as Elliott said, there's now a creative tension. They think, well, could we actually get a little bit more than that, and getting concerned about that, which I think could work in some fairly positive ways. It's not working in a particularly positive way at the moment -- the battle over constitution and the election of president, I think, are going to be key, and whether the -- with the two forces, who feels they get the upper hand on that and the shift in balance of power.
And again, there are -- I don't think they're necessarily monolithic organizations, both the SCAF and the brotherhood, and you could see some movement in there. I think it's going to be very interesting. And we still have got some way to go on that, particularly with presidential election, as I said, and the constitution.
QUESTIONER: Hi, Michael Auerbach, Control Risks. I'm wondering what the role of the United States is in the prospects for democracy in the Arab world, what the impact has been, what the impact will be and if the impacts will change after the election in November.
LINDSAY: Could I ask you to broaden that, if we might, not just the United States, but the West, but also other great powers and what they might do, for well or for ill?
ABRAMS: You know, I'm struck -- the United States did not have a particularly close relationship with Tunisia. Tunisia was viewed as country that had a closer relationship with France. We didn't have much in the way of economic or security interests in Tunisia.
That's very different in the case of Egypt, obviously. And yet, you know, I look back and ask myself, what did we know about Egypt? I mean, did anybody really know a lot about Egypt, and -- in the U.S. government? And you know, we -- I think we tended to know the kinds of things that governments know, like who are the three people likely to be candidates for foreign minister next. And we would know on Tuesday who was going to be appointed on Thursday. (Laughter.)
But that doesn't help you when you get to the kind of larger question now of what's actually happening in Egypt, particularly when the embassy -- and this would -- this is not -- this really is not just true in the United States; it's true of every foreign government, every great power -- your embassy is in the capital; your intelligence operation is in the capital. How do you find out what's going on in the rest of the country? I think the answer seems to be, well, often you don't find out.
I do think that, to give my former boss a plug, that the fundamental analysis that Bush made in 2003, 2005 that these were unstable regimes that appeared to be far more stable than they were was correct. But of course, we judged that it would take 10 or 20 years for anything to change, not one or two years.
What is the role of the United States or France or Britain or Russia now? In one or two cases, the role can be -- Tunisia is a good example -- economic support. You know, Libya has lots of money. The Gulf countries, for the most part, have lots of money. Tunisia doesn't. It doesn't have fossil fuels; it doesn't have phosphates. But it's small enough so that there we can make a significant difference with a few hundred million dollars.
In Egypt, I suspect our role is going to be quite limited. We may be able to push back on certain excesses, let's say. But I'm struck -- you know, the whole NGO question has been a very interesting one because I really wonder whether the NGO activities that we had under way, all of which I think were terrific, made any significant difference in the trajectory, the timing, the content of change in Egypt.
So I think we have a role. I think the role is to defend liberal values. And I think we should do that not by invading countries, but by being very clear in our speech. I think it's very important for particularly European and American leaders to speak up for the rights of women, the rights of religious minorities, against censorship. But that, I think, is our largest role.
WILLIS: Yes, I think -- I think a lot of errors were made. And I agree with what Elliott just said and what he said earlier about one of the problems is there wasn't knowledge of what was going on in the country, and this engagement with an elite in the capital that tells -- that you feel comfortable with -- the French made a classic mistake of this in North Africa and Tunisia. They found the people who spoke good French, the Ben Ali people, and said, what a wonderful group, and they had no idea what was going on rest of the country. And then they couldn't believe what happened in Algeria because they'd never met an Islamist; all (they ?) talked to were Francophone elites and were completely out of touch.
I think there's a sense -- I agree with you -- that to hang -- to hang back, offer advice when asked for and to offer some financial support -- there is a feeling that there was -- particularly, there was a lot of preaching going on.
And I think for the first time maybe I would disagree with you on the liberal values thing, that I think that that would be seen not primarily as interference, but it was a game that somebody like Ben Ali played. One of the reasons Ben Ali was supported was he said, listen, I support women's rights, I support a free economy, I wear a suit, I'm against all these fundamentalists. And he was welcome. Everybody thought he was actually wonderful. What a -- what a great guy. And he sits between Algeria and Libya, and he's in this wonderful island of liberalism. He's -- he shares our values. And he was pretty -- he actually used to say, I share -- we are part of European civilization here.
And once you get onto the values, the idea that there is a different set of values in the Muslim world and a different set of values in the Western world, I think that's a very -- a very potentially destructive discourse to get into. If you say this is a better way of doing things, we are unhappy on this particular point -- but the discussion on values becomes problematic because you begin to feed into the more extremist current who said, look, they're looking to impose their values.
ABRAMS: This is a real disagreement -- (laughter) -- and I --
WILLIS: At last.
ABRAMS: -- a good one, because it seems to me that there are groups in these societies -- and we certainly hope they're are large groups -- that do share our values with respect to really important questions about the way a society should be organized. And they're going to be struggling against people who do not share those values. And it seems to me that they have the right to our moral and rhetorical support at least.
Now, they may say to us, shut up, please; the last thing we need is more speeches from you. And we should certainly take that advice. As always, we should be guided what people on the ground tell us. But I do think that if they say, we're feeling quite isolated and embattled, and we could use some speeches about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, we ought to do it.
WILLIS: I think on a case-by-case I agree, but as a broad sort of thing, I think that would be a problem.
LINDSAY: So we resolved our -- (laughter) -- disagreement in true democratic fashion?
WILLIS: We -- (inaudible) -- disagree, so --
LINDSAY: We have come to the end of our time, so -- and there are a number of people who had their hands up, and I'm sorry I -- not going to have the chance to get to you. But I think that's a sign of how well both Elliott and Michael stimulated the conversation this morning, so please join me in thanking them. (Applause.)
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