Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin discusses his experiences reporting from the ground in the Middle East, including covering the recent Tahrir Square protests in Cairo, serving as one of the only foreign journalists based in the Gaza Strip, being embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq, and producing exclusive reports from elsewhere in the region.
This meeting is part of the Voices of the Next Generation series, which seeks to bring CFR members together with fresh, young voices in the foreign policy discourse.
SAM FEIST: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm Sam Feist with CNN. I think we're going to have a terrific conversation today and certainly a timely conversation. You've all been to council meetings before. Please turn off your cell phones and your BlackBerrys and your iPhones.
This meeting is on the record today, so keep that in mind. And we'll spend a little bit of time -- I'll spend a little bit of time visiting with our guest, and then we'll have a chance for you to ask questions about halfway through it, at about 1:00.
So today is certainly a timely moment for us to be visiting with our guest. Ayman Mohyeldin is the Al Jazeera correspondent -- Al Jazeera English correspondent based in Cairo, but he covers the entire Middle East. He has had a fascinating couple of months, I would say. Although he's based in Cairo, he was in Tunisia during the Tunisia revolution; was actually there when the revolution in Egypt began, and had to make your way, I suppose, back into Egypt to cover that story, which turned out to be an even larger story.
I'm fortunate that Ayman has also been a CNN colleague; worked for CNN before Al Jazeera English, based in Atlanta in 2003, and then went to our Baghdad bureau from 2003 to 2006, which was during, I think, some of the toughest times of that war. So I'm glad to be with you also as a former colleague.
AYMAN MOHYELDIN: Thank you.
FEIST: He has also covered the entire Middle East story, from Gaza to the West Bank to the Middle East peace crisis to Libya. And in particular he has reported on Libya's decision to give up its nuclear program.
And I suppose your time in Libya set up our conversation rather well and where we are right now.
So what I'd love to do is visit for a few minutes and talk about the last couple of months of your life and what it has been like. Is it an interesting 2011 so far?
MOHYELDIN: Yeah, I think it's safe to say that the year has gotten off to a start that very few people could have predicted. 2011 has been, you know, by so many different measures, described in so many different ways, whether it's been, you know, the Arab awakening, the Arab spring, the Jasmine Revolution, as it's sometimes referred to, in Tunisia. But nonetheless, it's safe to say that what we are witnessing now in the Middle East is a change of sorts, a change in the relationship between the citizens and the state. And, to put it in the most simple terms, it is at least an awakening of the Arab street, if you like.
FEIST: So go back to when the beginning -- I would say sort of the beginnings of the Arab spring, if you will. What brought you to Tunisia? What did you see? And what were your thoughts?
MOHYELDIN: Well, you know, I think, like most people, when the events happened in Tunisia, it started in a small village called Sidi Bouzid where a young fruit-and-vegetable seller set himself on fire, and really out of the kind of disgust that he had been living. The quality of his life had, you know, degraded so much to the point that he just took it upon himself to do this in protest. And it really, in more ways than one, ignited the protests that began in Tunisia and then ultimately spread.
I, at the time, was in Egypt. And we were ourselves struggling with what was one of the biggest stories in Egypt's recent history, which was the sectarian tension between Coptic Christians and Muslims following the church bombing on New Year's Eve, which triggered, you know, weeks of riots.
But I, like most journalists, got a call from our bosses on the day that the protests had reached Tunis, the capital. And everyone was anticipating there to be some kind of monumental shift, at least, given what Ben Ali was -- you know, the way he was conceding almost every speech more and more reforms, and then, you know, ultimately stepping down.
So they asked me to go to Tunisia. And so me and a group of journalists all came in from different points. I mean, Al Jazeera at that time was banned. We weren't allowed in Tunisia.
FEIST: How'd you get in?
MOHYELDIN: By the time that Ben Ali fled, we were all really just kind of, you know, throwing our dice and saying, "Well, let's try it and see what happens when we actually get to the airport." And, lo and behold, when we go to the airport --
FEIST: So you flew to Tunisia without a visa or any permission to come in.
MOHYELDIN: Whatsoever. Whatsoever. In fact, you know, a lot of the equipment that we normally would travel with would have been confiscated had we just arrived 24 hours earlier. But we arrived in Tunisia, and the authorities almost instinctively had completely changed their attitude towards journalists; and not just the authorities, but even the street in Tunisia had changed, because then, from that point on, it became so easy. Every time we were out in the streets and interviewing people, they would just flock to us and see that we were journalists and speak to us. It was a very different dynamic than just 24 hours before.
FEIST: So you're in Tunisia, and clearly everything is changing in Tunisia. And you're covering the day's events in Tunisia and they are extraordinary. How much of your brain was also occupied with the possibility that this was going to expand well beyond Tunisia, thinking about Egypt, thinking about perhaps Jordan, thinking about elsewhere in the Arab world?
MOHYELDIN: Well, when I was standing in the village of Sidi Bouzid, where this man had set himself on fire, every single person I spoke to said Tunis was just the beginning. And, you know, I was very -- at the time very surprised that they were saying this, because they had a great sense of pride in that they had begun this revolution in Tunisia. But everyone that I was speaking to was saying -- when they found out that I was based in Egypt, would say to me, "Egypt is next. Egypt is next." And I would kind of be somewhat, you know, suspicious of it.
In fact, the calls for the protests to happen on January 25th had already begun shortly after I had arrived in Egypt. And I'm going to make a confession here, which is that one of my friends at Al Jazeera messaged me, saying, you know, "Are you going to go back for the protests on January 25th?" And I dismissed them, saying, "Oh, don't worry, they're not going to be anything big, I can promise you that. You know, it's just" --
FEIST: So you're not a soothsayer.
MOHYELDIN: No, no, definitely not. But I will admit this, that as soon as January 25th happened, I was on the first flight out from Tunis. On the 26th, in the morning, I hopped on a flight straight from Tunisia to Turkey into Cairo, because I knew that the 25th had changed the rules of the game, and they had already begun calling for that Friday the 28th being the day of anger or day of rage. And so we knew that that was going to be a monumental showdown.
FEIST: Your editors don't have some email that says, "Ah, the 25th, it's not going to be anything significant."
MOHYELDIN: (Laughs.) No, we actually had -- I mean, to their credit, we did have people on the ground. It's just that when my friends were messaging me, saying, you know, "What do you think is going to happen on January 25th? Shouldn't you be back in Egypt for it?" I was very much like, "No, Tunisia is still the big story. It's the revolution. We're still trying to cover this." And, lo and behold, I was wrong. (Laughs.)
FEIST: OK. So now it's January 26th and you're in Egypt. Where did you go? What did you see?
MOHYELDIN: Well, we arrived -- I arrived that night. And Egypt, actually, from the 25th until the 28th, the protests were still ongoing, but they were very kind of nightly skirmishes with the police; very, you know, low intensity, not the type that we saw on Friday. The calls for a day of rage for that Friday after Friday prayers had really gained and gathered momentum. And so we all anticipated that it was going to be very big.
I think the most troubling thing for us as journalists was the announcement by the Egyptian minister of interior, who came out and essentially vowed that never again would protests take control of Tahrir Square like they did on January the 25th. And instantly, the second that you heard him say that, the dynamic in Egypt changed, because everyone was about "January the 25th, we have to go back to Tahrir Square. That's where the showdown is going to be."
And so the calls started to be that on the 25th, everyone after Friday prayers march on to Tahrir Square. And what was really troubling was, on the evening of the 27th, the Egyptian government announced that it was cutting off the Internet, cell phone connections went down, and Egypt was essentially taken off of the information grid. I mean, it was in a complete blackout. And that really just sent shivers up everyone's spine. I mean, this was really unprecedented, what we were about to witness.
And we had, like any other news organization, begun our preparations, anticipating it was going to be a very big day. We had deployed teams across the city. I personally went to Friday prayers with Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei and to see how he was going to be treated, how he was going to be received. He himself had flown into the country just a few hours earlier from Vienna, when everyone was beginning to build up these protests.
FEIST: So give me a little bit of a -- lift the veil a little bit on how you operated during the Egyptian revolution. Al Jazeera has a full-time bureau in Cairo that you work in, but I understand that at some point it was closed. Who closed it? How did they tell you? What happened? And how did you do your work?
MOHYELDIN: Yeah, Al Jazeera, I think, as most people here know, was shut down. I mean, the way I usually describe it is that we were subject to really two different campaigns -- the official campaign and the unofficial campaign. The official campaign from the government -- essentially they jammed our signal. They came to the office and confiscated our equipment. They detained our staff. They revoked our licenses. They took off our accreditations physically off of us so that we had nothing to prove that we were journalists. And so that was really the official campaign that the government unleashed.
The unofficial campaign, which I sometimes think is slightly the bit more dangerous one, is the incitement that happens, which is you have senior officials of the Egyptian government coming out, like the vice president, Omar Suleiman, and blaming what is happening in Egypt on friendly satellite -- or satellite channels belonging to friendly countries, and then going on Egyptian state television and having people call in and just, you know, create this incitement against Al Jazeera, which then spills over into violence, which means people come to our offices with sticks and knives thinking that we have become legitimate targets.
And on more than one occasion throughout the course of the revolution, you know, our offices were attacked. We had people show up outside when we left our offices and gone to a nearby hotel, showing up outside with these posters and knives demanding that the hotel security turn over Al Jazeera staff. And I think that public incitement --
FEIST: But how did people know where you were?
MOHYELDIN: Well, at that point, when we left the -- left our office, everyone took refuge in essentially this hotel that was just next to the bureaus. I mean, most of the media is concentrated in one corner block in Cairo. And they could see that there were a lot of cameras pointed out there. And I think it became very apparent where Al Jazeera and a lot of other networks were. I mean, that was never a hidden fact.
And so the pro-Mubarak protesters, when they gathered on that day, the infamous day of the camel attacks on Tahrir Square, essentially just came over to the hotel where a lot of the journalists were and demanded that the Al Jazeera staff be brought out.
FEIST: And how much time did you and your teams spend outside of the hotel versus wandering around the square, knowing that other journalists were getting beaten? Some American journalists, as we know, were injured. Were you inside, outside? Were you trying to do --
MOHYELDIN: I never stayed at the hotel and I never actually worked out of the hotel. You know, I stayed very much kind of street-level. And we -- to our credit, our bosses, when they were anticipating this tension towards Al Jazeera, really made the decision, a conscious decision, to keep as many of us, in terms of our equipment, in safe areas. So we actually put some of our equipment in Tahrir Square. We hid it in an apartment in Tahrir Square, and that became one of our focal live-shot positions for the course of the entire revolution.
Other times our staff -- we were always out in the field. I don't think that we ever at one point reported simply from the refuge of the hotel. We would just go to the hotel as most people at the end of the day, just as a place to actually stay. But me personally and the crew that I was working with, never once did we stay or operate out of the hotel.
FEIST: Speak personally. Was it frightening, knowing that there were pro-government thugs out there who would have liked nothing more than to, well, if nothing else, arrest you, and perhaps worse, because Al Jazeera wasn't at the top of the government's favorites list? How did you feel moving around? How did you feel, going in and out of the square, going in and out of the hotel or your work space?
MOHYELDIN: It was extremely frightening. I think it was -- you know, I've been in a lot of difficult situations, from Iraq to Gaza, but I think this one was slightly a little bit different. It seemed almost personal.
In other situations, you're almost a product of the environment that you're in, which is a violent environment. I think here you were always looking over your shoulder, knowing that you were Al Jazeera and that you knew that you could be in one pocket at one point where those people around you were not necessarily fans of Al Jazeera, and therefore you would be targeted. So it was extremely frightening.
But I think, at the end of the day, I looked at it very much like ordinary Egyptians, which was these are the tactics of the regime that ordinary Egyptians have suffered from for decades. You know, these attacks that we saw, these camel attacks by the pro-Mubarak supporters, this was something that ordinary Egyptians had been accustomed to.
So it wasn't something that we -- we've seen it in elections. We've seen it in political rallies. We've seen it during protests. And we knew that, you know, as accredited journalists with the ministry of information, it wouldn't be hard for any ministry official to give out our information to, you know, pro-regime thugs and then have them knocking on your door in the middle of the night or anything like that. These were all part of the environment that we had grown used to.
FEIST: So it's always an awkward position for a journalist to be the story rather than just be covering the story. And in Egypt, other places as well, but certainly in Egypt, Al Jazeera became a part of the story. Clearly when the government was talking about those other Arab-language satellite networks, they weren't speaking -- it wasn't much of a code. They were talking about Al Jazeera.
How do you -- how does it affect the way you do your job when now, all of a sudden, you are part of the story? CNN covered the Al Jazeera part of the story. Give me a little bit of your thoughts on that.
MOHYELDIN: Well, the way I look at it is really this was not by Al Jazeera's design. This was by the government's design. It was the government that was putting Al Jazeera in the crosshairs. And I think that was a testament to the quality of the journalism that was coming out.
I mean, these are governments that have existed on the ability to control information. And one of the things that I've been saying, really, is that these are the first revolutions that we've witnessed in the information age. Information was such a catalyst behind these revolutions. I mean, information, whether it was satellite television, the Internet, cell-phone technology, really shrunk the space and time by which this information, you know, went from Sidi Bouzid all the way to Egypt. And when people talk about these revolutions, the fact that they can go from Yemen to Syria to Morocco, the ability of information to carry that message is what is so powerful. And that's why I think governments are extremely afraid.
In that sense, Al Jazeera is no different than the fact that the Egyptian government shut down the Internet. I mean, they looked at the Internet as a threat just as much as they saw Al Jazeera. The difference here is that Al Jazeera, as a single entity, was singled out.
For me, it's really -- it's unfortunate. But as a journalist, I just have to stay focused. And I think all of us, really, to our credit, stayed focused on the story in terms of what we were doing and not get sucked into being part of the story, whether it's the Egyptian government or other media that's reporting on it.
FEIST: When the Egyptian government shut down everything -- the Internet, cell phones -- how'd you do your job? How did you guys operate during that time? How did you get information? How did you get information out?
MOHYELDIN: Well, this is really a good question. Actually, we had a few -- as you probably know, we use a lot of small technology, satellite equipment, that we had with us in the country, like BGANs and other things that we use, in order to kind of circumvent the limitations of relying on the local information infrastructure. So that was one way that we were able to get pictures out. We were able to get video out. We were able to do our live shots and our reporting.
But one of the most important components of it was the Internet, because Internet had become such an important tool. And personally, here in the U.S., where Al Jazeera is not, you know, regularly viewed, we knew that the Internet was going to be very important.
So one of the things that I did going into the revolution -- we knew the Internet was going to be cut off -- I actually gave access to my Twitter account to a very good friend of mine, and I told her to just constantly update whatever she sees on Al Jazeera English on Twitter. And so it became this huge thing, because I remember I went from, like, you know, 3,000 followers to something like 20,000 followers in the course of, like, three days. But the information that people --
FEIST: And you don't get credit for any of it, because it wasn't even you tweeting.
MOHYELDIN: It was not me tweeting, and I've confessed as such online so that people know that it wasn't -- you know, I wasn't trying to take credit for it. But it was a really important thing, because people were not getting their information exclusively from television. They were getting it from alternative media, whether it was Twitter feeds or Facebook.
And, you know, from our end as journalists, we were relying heavily on the Internet for a lot of the viewer-generated content. I mean, a great portion of the footage that we were getting from, whether it was Libya or Tunisia early on, or a lot of the times from Egypt, was generated by viewers who were standing in Tahrir Square and elsewhere with their own cell phones sending these images back to Al Jazeera.
FEIST: So let's scroll forward a little bit and let's talk about Libya. And I'm curious of your impressions. And first, it's worth noting that the courage of Libya has not been easy for Al Jazeera. Tell me a little bit about how -- what has happened to your staff.
MOHYELDIN: Well, unfortunately, we've had one of our cameramen killed, Ali Hassan Al Jaber, who actually I had the privilege of knowing from and working with in Gaza, was killed in Libya a few weeks ago. We've had some of our staff detained and currently in the authorities. We've had others that have been shot at. There are vehicles ambushed.
So, I mean, I think it's safe to say that Al Jazeera has played a very -- has paid a very heavy price for its coverage in Libya, just along with so many other journalists, like The New York Times and other photographers that are there. But I think it goes to show the degree of violence that is willing to be used to by this regime to silence what is happening in Libya.
FEIST: And so is Al Jazeera free to report now from Libya? Where are your locations in --
MOHYELDIN: We have teams in Benghazi. We have teams in Tripoli. And we have teams that are constantly moving with the flow of the front line, so to speak, so they've been as far away to Ajdabiya, sometimes even beyond that, other places. And then, depending on the security assessments, they constantly revisit it. But they're operating freely in the sense that they're on obviously one part of the story.
The team that is in Tripoli was there by the invitation of the Libyan government, so they have the same restrictions and impediments that you would suspect of having by being brought in by the government. They're only allowed to see a certain part of the story.
FEIST: So let's talk a little bit about -- the president's speech tonight is obviously a significant moment. He has worked hard to point out or to suggest that the United States is not taking the lead in the Libya operation and is quickly handing over command and control of the operation now to NATO, that this is a coalition; this is not the U.S. driving it.
Curious of your thoughts about that and if your viewers -- and I know Al Jazeera doesn't take a position on it, but if you, just based on your sense of the region -- if people in the Arab world believe that, do they see this as a U.S. operation? Do they see this as a truly international, you know, led as much by the Arab League because of their call for a no-fly zone as by France, by Qatar, by Britain?
MOHYELDIN: I don't think that my reading of it, and from the people I've spoken to, I don't think anyone looks at it as an American operation. I think they look at it as a western operation. But you'll be surprised to know that I don't actually think that a lot of people think that's a bad thing. I think for the first time, really, in a long time there's actually a convergence of interests. And surprisingly, a big part of the Arab street is in favor of military intervention to protect the Libyan people.
So you'll be surprised to think that even though right now there is this extreme caution on the part of the United States to not be perceived a certain way or its military intervention being perceived a certain way, this is one of the unique opportunities in the history of American military involvement in the Middle East where the Arab street is not looking at what is happening in Libya as an attempt by the United States to impose its own objectives onto the region.
Now, that's at this stage in the process. There is always that skepticism. Because of America's large military footprint in the region, there's always a little bit of skepticism. And there's no doubt that even what adds more fuel to the fire is the fact that Libya's largest natural resource is oil. I mean, had it been bananas, it might have been a slightly different discussion.
But the fact that the United States is engaged now in this military operation is not something that people are necessarily upset about. And one of the biggest evidence of that is that, for the first time in the years that we've spent covering the Middle East, in the past 18 days I have not -- or in the past 18 days of the Egyptian revolution, I never once saw an American flag being burned in Tahrir Square, neither in Tunisia, neither in Libya.
And I think the fact is, despite the common knowledge that most Arabs have that the United States government supported so many of these regimes, financed them, equipped them, they didn't hold that resentment towards those regimes as they were crumbling, as they were, you know, fleeing in different areas. And that's to the credit of the people making the distinction between the policies and the United States as a country.
FEIST: And contrast that with some of the other protests against -- protests that you've covered in the Arab world since -- you know, you've covered the Iraq war. You're an American citizen. You work for Al Jazeera English. Just give me a sense of what you've seen before versus now.
MOHYELDIN: Well, I think that, to a great extent, over the years there was a huge amount of animosity towards the American government for its policies, particularly not just in Iraq and elsewhere, but also one of the biggest problems is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and America's perceived bias in trying to address that particular conflict.
That resentment over the years has created a sense where ordinary Arabs do not trust the intentions of the United States government. They look at the United States foreign policy as an interest-driven foreign policy, not a value-driven foreign policy. And despite the fact that the United States espouses these ideals and values, it doesn't resonate with ordinary Arabs because the actions don't add up with the rhetoric.
In this particular case, there is, as I was saying, a convergence of interests, which means that ordinary Arabs, particularly those in Libya, want the ousting of Muammar Gadhafi, because he has demonstrated the kind of violence he's willing to use to achieve his aims. They believe that in the absence of any other type of interference from Arab states, which we all know are really incapable of imposing a no-fly zone or actually defending the Libyan people, the only option was western military intervention.
And I think this is why this unique situation has arisen, whereby the West can militarily intervene in a country like Libya and not be seen as part of an imperialist operation. The question is going to be how big the military operation is. Are we going to see boots on the ground? What are the long-term attempts by the United States to shape the rise of a new Libyan government, if it does happen, and to what extent there's going to be an engagement with the emergence of a new Libyan government? I think these are the questions that still have to be answered.
FEIST: OK, so I'll use your expertise as both an American and an observer of American politics and an observer of global politics. Who do you think the president's audience is tonight? What do you think he's trying to achieve or needs to achieve?
MOHYELDIN: (Laughs.) Well, I would certainly have to wait and see what he says. But I would say that I think his immediate audience is definitely the United States. I think there's a great deal of concern. And just from watching and reading a little bit of the commentary that has been in American media, there's a great sense of concern. And I keep hearing this question, who are these Libyan rebels? You know, what are we --
FEIST: Who are the Libyan rebels?
MOHYELDIN: The Libyan rebels are Libyan. (Laughs.) And I know that sounds very simple, but I don't think that you should dismiss that, because there is this tendency sometimes to kind of overanalyze the situation to the point that we are talking about Libyans as if this revolution were somehow not organic.
Let's not forget where these revolutions begin. These revolutions begin with ordinary Arabs in places all across. And Libya is no different. The Libyan revolution began as a peaceful protest on February 17th. It turned violent when Muammar Gadhafi ordered his army to open fire to suppress the protesters, which his own army refused to do.
So it's not what we saw, for example, in Iraq and Afghanistan, whereby there was an injection of foreign fighters, people coming to fight in Iraq, people ideologically driven by, you know, this kind of, you know -- even though I don't like the term, but how it's described sometimes in western media as this jihadi mentality. That's hot what we're seeing in Libya.
So yesterday, you know, just very briefly, I was watching one of the Sunday morning talk shows, and the question that was posed was we don't know whether these are going to be good Muslim extremists or bad Muslim extremists. And I was really kind of surprised that nobody stopped to say, "Well, how do we know that they're even Muslim extremists? And, you know, is there a possibility that they're not going to be even Muslim extremists; they could just be ordinary Libyans?" But it's this sense of hysteria.
So, back to your question, I think that President Obama tonight, first of all -- the first thing he really, you know, should try to do is allay the concerns of ordinary Americans about what is actually happening in Libya. And I hope that he has more intelligence and information than what is being discussed in sometimes the mainstream American media, because I think it's sometimes a little bit short-sighted.
These people who are leading these revolutions, particularly, again, in Libya, we may not have all of the answers. That's not a bad thing. You know, we are trying to rush to find out who is the national council. Who are these people? These are people that used to be in the Libyan government. So we know who they are by name. We know what they stand for.
They have given a time line of the transition that they would like to impose. Their limitation is that they don't have the weapons. They don't have the ability to push on to Tripoli. And right now they're trying to address those issues with whatever diplomatic maneuvering they're trying to position.
And so Obama really needs to -- President Obama needs to address that first concern within the American domestic arena. And then he needs to deliver a message to the Arab street that the United States is not intervening in Libya for imperialist objectives or its own interest objectives, but more importantly because of humanitarian and value-based judgments.
FEIST: Perhaps they are taking notes at the White House right now --
FEIST: -- carefully rewriting the president's address.
I want to take a few minutes and get questions from you all. Raise your hand, but wait for the microphone that will find -- there are two microphones here. We'll start over there, sir.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. John Gannon from -- is this on? John Gannon from BAE Systems.
If I could sort of play on your broader experience in Iraq and Israel and Gaza, and now in Tunisia and Egypt. The landscape has changed significantly in the region. I think what we've seen -- it's the first time in my lifetime where you really see the empowerment of Arabs in the street. And these are Arabs who have been victims of the repression of their governments for generations, certainly throughout my lifetime, and really the object of indifference from foreign governments, for the most part.
Now, if this empowerment continues, what are the Arabs in the street saying about what they expect from two key actors -- one, the United States; you talked a little bit about their immediate reaction. But what do they want from the United States? And then the other, of course, is Israel. So the United States and Israel -- how, in this changed landscape, do these newly empowered Arabs -- what do they expect from those two actors?
MOHYELDIN: I think, actually, two very different things. I don't think they want anything from Israel, so I think what's going to happen differently is that if there is an emergence of governments in the Arab world that accurately reflect the will of the Arab street and respond to it, you're going to see a different level of engagement. So in this case, the Arab street wants their governments to interact with Israel differently, not that they necessarily want anything from Israel.
QUESTIONER: (Off mic.)
MOHYELDIN: Well, you're going to see, for example, like in the case of Egypt, they want to see the interests of Egypt take priority over the interests of Israel. So, for example, they want to see for the sale of natural gas not be sold at a subsidized price when Egyptians simply can't even get natural gas in their own country. They want to see the priority of, like, let's say, the siege on Gaza be lifted because there is a greater sense of empathy with the people of Gaza and Palestinians in general. So they want Egypt's foreign policy to reflect that.
They want to see Egypt's national security take precedent over the national security of both Israel and the United States. And I think most Egyptians will tell you that Egypt's national security interests over the past 30 years took a back seat to whatever Washington and Tel Aviv wanted Egypt to do. So when Egypt -- when Israel wanted the United States or Egypt to engage in mediation efforts between Hamas and Fatah, you would see a spike. When they wanted to see the siege on Gaza enhanced, you would see the siege on Gaza enhanced.
I mean, the underground barriers that they built along the border with Gaza, everyone -- it was common knowledge that it was really at the behest of international pressure to do more to stop the smuggling, despite the fact that ordinary Egyptians wanted the siege on Gaza lifted and a free flowing of people between Gaza and Egypt. So that's just -- those are just some of the kind of quick examples off the top of my head.
With the United States, I think they want something different. I think they want the United States now to engage the Arab street and these Arab governments on a foreign policy that is more value-based, not interest-based. And what I mean by that is they want to see the United States engage Egyptian civil society -- universities, think tanks -- you know, bring the know-how that America has to the region, but not impose a form or a model of government on the Egyptians.
If the Muslim Brotherhood emerges as a political player in the new Egypt, they don't want to see the United States hanging a veto over the fact that it will not deal with an Egyptian government that has members of the Muslim Brotherhood on it. And that, I think, is the type of imposition that I think distance the Arab street from the United States.
The Muslim Brotherhood, like any political party, is no different than Shas in Israel, the ultra-orthodox party. It's no different than the AK party in Turkey. It's no different than Christian Democrats in Europe. They can be political parties that drive their base from religion, but play within the secular rules of the game. And they don't want to see this type of western imposition saying, "If the Muslim Brotherhood wins a certain number of seats, we will not deal with them." That kind of tone is what Egyptians want to see end.
FEIST: Do you have a sense now that as the political process moves forward in Egypt and the political parties really begin to form, that the Muslim Brotherhood has a significant amount of support? Obviously during the revolution, even the Muslim Brotherhood tried to downplay the amount of support that they might get. But now that the political process is open, the rules have changed.
MOHYELDIN: I think the Muslim Brotherhood was completely surprised. And this was not a Muslim Brotherhood revolution. Nobody in Egypt can take credit and say that this was a Muslim Brotherhood revolution. Never once was the Muslim Brotherhood flag waving over Tahrir Square. Never were the slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood chanted in Tahrir Square.
FEIST: That's not by accident.
MOHYELDIN: Not by accident, and, more importantly, because the people there were not part of the Muslim Brotherhood. There were people who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, but this was not a Muslim Brotherhood-led initiative or event.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a part of the political fabric of Egypt. That cannot be ignored, nor should it be. That's the reality.
FEIST: Do you have a sense if it's a little, medium size or really big part?
MOHYELDIN: Well, there's a few days to test it. One -- and just give me a second to walk through the sequence. One, they themselves said they're not going to field a presidential candidate. Two, they said they're not going to actually field more than 30 percent of the seats because that's what they've given themselves in terms of popularity. So in an upcoming parliamentary election, they're only going to compete for 30 percent of the seats.
Now, assuming they win every one of those, they will not have more than 30 percent of the Egyptian parliament. That's assuming if they win every one. I think what we can safely say is that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they themselves anticipate and they know that their popularity was in large part due to the fact that they were the only game in town besides the Mubarak regime, in the sense that President Hosni Mubarak was, you know, the power, and the only legitimate opposition in town were the Muslim Brotherhood. Nobody took any opposition party seriously.
And so even if you were not ideologically in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, even if you don't like what they stood for, you tended to support them just because they were the ones willing to go to the street and oppose the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and they paid very dearly for that over the course of the years.
So my personal assessment is that the Muslim Brotherhood -- and I can't quantify it, but I suspect that they won't be -- they will not be the type of party that is all or nothing. They will not control everything, and they certainly will not be in the fringes, as some other political parties. They will be, I think, very visible, but not necessarily dominant.
FEIST: Another question? Yes, ma'am, in the green sweater. Right back there. State your name and your affiliation, please, and stand up.
QUESTIONER: Thanks. Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council.
First, may I say thank you, as someone who was riveted to my computer watching you day after day after day --
MOHYELDIN: Thank you.
QUESTIONER: -- and wondering how you were managing to continue to broadcast through all of this.
Can you talk a little bit more about the secular parties, and particularly the young activists? Are they going to be able to get their act together in time to really participate in the parliamentary and in particular the presidential elections? We've seen some push-back against Mohamed ElBaradei. Do you see -- I mean, Amr Moussa. Do you see somebody really emerging now, or should we wait to see a new personality? Thanks.
MOHYELDIN: Yeah, there's no doubt there have been five or six prominent Egyptians who have thrown their names into the ring, including Amr Moussa, Mohammed ElBaradei, Ayman Nour. There is a prominent judge, Hisham Bastawisy, who also threw his name into the ring. So there are people that are emerging.
I think, you know -- I'm speaking here more analytically than as a journalist, but I would say that I don't necessarily think that any one of these individuals has a great deal of traction, particularly with the revolutionary groups, because one of the really most unique things about these revolutions is that they're really organic and they're very leaderless.
None of these groups -- I mean, and this is why I'm saying nobody can claim credit for the Egyptian revolution in the sense that nobody came in rolling from the countryside on a tank. There was nobody in exile that suddenly flew in. They don't have that. It was ordinary people that took to the streets.
Now, that's a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that it's presented an opportunity of a new generation of Egyptian leaders to emerge. This grouping of revolutionary groups, which have now, I think we can safely say, are in the ballpark between 12 to 13 groups, are not traditional political players in the Egyptian arena. That excludes the Wafd party. They're not in there. Tagammo is not part of it; the Nasserist, the socialist. None of these parties are part of these core revolutionary groups. Many of the kids belong to them, and many of them support that ideology, but they're not part of it.
So I think what we're witnessing now is going to be this emergence of a new Egyptian generation. If the elections happen in six months, I think the key to whether or not these groups will be ready to participate is whether or not they ban the NDP. I know it's one -- there are two opposite sides of the coin. But if the NDP is banned, you will give a great opportunity for these parties to emerge; not parties, but these youth to organize on a street level.
And people from the NDP, with their institutional knowledge and whatever, may now suddenly find themselves involved in helping these groups. If the NDP stays and it's allowed, you're really -- it's a recipe for a problematic election, because you will only -- the two strongest parties will be the NDP and the Freedom and Justice party, which is the offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
QUESTIONER: (Off mic.)
MOHYELDIN: Well, we're actually expecting the decision relatively soon, perhaps in the next week or so, as to whether or not -- they're already -- the prosecutor general in Egypt, I think it'll be his call. But I think that's done with very close consultation, perhaps, with the military as to whether or not they're going to ban that party. And I suspect that in the course of the next, you know, two weeks, we can expect a decision.
It's been one of the demands of the revolutionary groups. I mean, today they announced that parliamentary elections will take place in September, and they're expected to announce a new law on the formation of political parties in Egypt, which I think will be very instrumental to how these elections play out.
FEIST: Do you have a gut feeling about whether it will be banned or not, the NDP?
MOHYELDIN: I think the indications are that it will be banned. I think the fact that the demands of the protesters are that if you're really genuine about creating a new political atmosphere, you have to ban. And if it's not so much that you ban the political party itself, you will have to avoid them from participating in this upcoming election. I mean, they make take the decision like defer to the new president or the new parliament, but they may impose a five-year ban on the political activities of this party for the time being. But I suspect it'll be banned.
FEIST: Question from this side of the room. Yes, sir. Just wait for the microphone.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. David Apgar, Apgar Partners.
Just to expand the focus a little bit, would you say at the moment that there's more press freedom in Egypt or in Turkey? And are you optimistic or pessimistic about the development of press and government relations in Turkey?
MOHYELDIN: I think what I've seen in Egypt has been very promising. Egypt has gone from a -- I'd probably say -- it's probably gone 170 degrees. I don't want to say 180, because I don't think they're willing yet to criticize the military and tackle some of the fundamental issues that are still problematic in this transitional period, which really has to do with the military, the constitution and a few other things.
I think the media in Egypt is at a huge advantage in the sense that there are plenty of news outlets, whether it's television, whether it's print. For many years they were usurped by the regime. So I think what you're now seeing is a purging of these news organizations. And I think that's a huge advantage compared to, let's say, Tunisia, which only had two channels and a few newspapers, where they're going to start from scratch.
The fact that Egypt has a long history of opposition newspapers, a long history of print and press and broadcast, and more importantly, even in this day and age in the satellite era, they have plenty of news channels and plenty of entertainment channels. The key is just getting them kind of up and going and being vibrant and not being afraid. So I think that's an advantage.
I think Turkey is a good model. I'm not a big -- in terms of its journalism, Turkey has huge amounts of newspapers and channels. And I think it's a good model for the kind of engagement you can expect from media in their political environment. I mean, the media in Turkey is extremely vibrant; very opinionated, though. I mean, the lines are very clearly drawn in terms of some of the newspapers and their affiliation to the political establishment.
So I think probably that would be one criticism I have, compared to what it's like in Egypt. I think Egypt should try to shy away from having every party has a newspaper; every, you know, political ideology has its own news channel, and try to break beyond those limitations.
FEIST: Yes, ma'am.
QUESTIONER: I'm Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School. This has been an absolutely fabulous session. Thank you very much for what you're doing.
I'm really interested in this whole question of the public's expectation about how quickly things are supposed to happen. And I keep going back and saying to my friends, it was 13 years from the time we declared independence before we had a president and a constitution. (Laughs.)
So my question is, how do you think this is all going to get crammed into a very short period of time to meet the expectations of everyone wanting to get into this new space?
MOHYELDIN: I think that's a really good question. You know, even more recently, I think -- and I'm not a Latin America expert, but some of the people I've been talking to have been making a lot of comparisons in the transition Chile went through as it went through its, you know, problems to more democratic processes. And I think, by some estimates, that took 15 years.
I think you have to kind of look at Egypt's progression through different lenses; one, capacity-building, institution-building, political pluralism, freedoms. Then you have to look at things like accountability, justice, reform.
There are a lot of people right now who are telling you, you know what, it's not as important right now to try to bring elements of the regime to justice. I mean, it's -- you know, you're spending all this time, and people -- some analysts, you know, say that this is more politically motivated; that the general prosecutor in Egypt, who was appointed by Mubarak and answered to nobody but Mubarak, is now suddenly this white crusader who's involved in, like, bringing all these former regime officials. And people are saying he's only doing that to buy himself time, and people are questioning whether these actually are going to be fair and, you know, legal processes with, you know, due justice.
And I think that's a legitimate concern. You want to make sure that the institutions that you build and the processes that you're building are capable of bringing about the genuine reform. I think there's a huge concern in trying to impose a huge time line, and that's why you see that the biggest division in Egypt right now is between those who think the six-month time frame of the military is realistic, and those that say no, it should be more than a year.
Some people are saying that the constitutional amendments, the eight that were passed, that was a bit of a sham; it's not going to bring about the institutional reforms that you need, because Mubarak, when he stepped down from power, he didn't abide by the constitution. He didn't abide by what was supposed to happen. And so he's telling you, in essence, that the constitution has failed. So why are you just going to try to amend eight articles and then think that everything else in the constitution is completely functional?
And I think that's the biggest division right now that you're seeing in Egypt. I think there's a great concern that you rush things and that you put in place this once again a bit of a sham that looks like a democracy when, in reality, it doesn't function like a democracy.
FEIST: Yes, ma'am, right in the middle here.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Anya Schmemann, Council on Foreign Relations.
You mentioned how difficult it is for Americans to view Al Jazeera. But visitors to the website surged during the revolutions, particularly from the United States. I wonder if these revolutions -- Al Jazeera's coverage -- do you think that perceptions of Al Jazeera by Americans have changed? And also how has this historical episode actually changed Al Jazeera?
MOHYELDIN: That's a great question. Well, I think the fact that, you know, that I was on the Colbert Report, I think -- (laughs) -- that is testament that Al Jazeera's perceptions have definitely changed a great deal. In fact, he even told me he was a big fan of it afterwards, which I thought was, like, really, you know, surprising.
You know, as you mentioned, this notion that Americans are not interested in international news, I think, is false. The fact that Al Jazeera's website, I think, you know, had grown in terms of viewership by 2,500 percent during the revolutions, at one point surpassing that of The New York Times in its peak, the vast majority of that from North America, from the United States, I think it's a testament to the fact that people, when they want good news, they know where they can get when it particularly comes to the issue of international relations.
How has it changed Al Jazeera? I think it has only recommitted us to the values that, when you report, sometimes the most simple reporting is the most powerful reporting, which is that on the street. And I think that you see Al Jazeera's commitment to deploying a lot of these resources, because I think sometimes the problem or the criticism, if I can, is that in this current climate there's all these budget cuts. So a lot of the major news organizations in the world that had become reputable institutions for international coverage have shrunk back a lot and they've consolidated so much of their coverage in London and New York and engage in parachute journalism.
And I think Al Jazeera has 60 bureaus around the world, and I think this reaffirms that. It reaffirms that the best type of coverage is to keep people on the ground, to keep people deployed. You're always going to get the most authentic story. And that shows all the way from the bottom all the way to the top.
And I think that's why it is a truly historic moment, both for the network and in terms of its exposure. I think we're beyond the negative perceptions that when we launched English launch that we suffered from in the United States. I think the discussion of the discourse is about our coverage, is about what we have to offer that others don't. It's no longer about who Al Jazeera is. It's about what Al Jazeera is doing. And fighting the negative misperceptions, I think we're now beyond that. It's just getting the cable companies to respond a little bit more positively.
FEIST: Yes, sir, right here; second row.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Jonathan Brown, Georgetown University.
Looking at the various peoples and parties in the Egyptian political scene, newly opened Egyptian political scene, what is their stance on the Libyan conflict and the western intervention? How is that affecting the angling or their strategies for getting into power?
MOHYELDIN: I think the Egyptian people, particularly the revolutionary groups, have a huge amount of empathy for the people of Libya and for the opposition fighters or the pro-democracy fighters that are engaged in this fight. I think there was actually a great deal of criticism against the Egyptian transitional government, if you will, for not being more supportive of the Libyan rebels.
I mean, it's gone so far as some saying the Egyptian government should help now in this new environment play -- and a quick way for the Egyptian government to re-emerge on the international arena in a credible way, by helping the rebels, by supporting them, by giving them material, by, you know, whatever support they can offer them, to some saying that they should be engaged more diplomatically, that the Egyptian government should take the lead in supporting their diplomatic initiatives.
I think what's problematic in this case is that the Egyptian government is in itself in a crisis, in a transition, so it's not giving it a sense of clarity in terms of what it's doing. It's just beginning to reprioritize its own national security interests, its own priorities.
You know, the prime minister just visited Sudan. It's expected that Egypt is going to recognize the Republic of South Sudan. So I think these are very important steps that Egypt wants to re-engage in the region, as it once used to be considered a superpower. But ordinary Egyptians very much side with the -- you know, the opposition, if you will, in Libya and the people fighting against the Gadhafi regime.
FEIST: Yes, right here in the front row.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Tammy Holtman, AllAfrica.com.
The way that certain people emerge as kind of icons of resistance and become a sort of galvanizing force for further actions -- (inaudible) -- certainly became that for Libya; and maybe in the last 24 hours, Iman al-Obaidi. And I'm wondering if you think it's going to take that kind of spark in, say, Algeria and Morocco to give more impetus to protests there, or whether you think it just won't happen in those two countries. Are they different somehow?
MOHYELDIN: Well, I think that -- I think the genie is out of the bottle. I don't think any Arab country is immune from what is happening. I think every Arab leader and almost every Arab chief of staff of the army is asking themselves, "What am I going to do when this happens in my country?" But I think it's going to be different. I don't think every country is going to follow a similar path, because the composition and the forces at play are very different from country to country.
Libya is a country whereby, for 40 years or so, Gadhafi has essentially centralized power. He has not allowed for the establishment of political parties. There are no unions there, which is very different than Egypt. Egypt has political parties, has unions. And, true, they were usurped by the regime. But the forces that are at play and the tensions and the currents underground are very different.
It's not to say that -- and I'm not a big fan of this, but it's something that we hear a lot; we hear that Libya is a tribal society. But the forces in Libya are not -- it's not a tribal war. These people are not going to war along tribal lines right now. And I think that sometimes is a bit of a misnomer to suggest that it is a tribal war and who these tribes will be allied to.
I think Algeria is going to be a very unique experience because it has these tribal fault lines, but also has institutions under emergency law similar to Egypt. So it's going to be very interesting to see. But I do not think that there's an Arab country that is immune to the winds of change that are blowing across the region.
FEIST: We've spent a lot of time in the last week talking about Bahrain, talking about Yemen, talking about Syria, to a lesser extent recently Jordan. But in each of those countries, the regimes are trying to quickly make reforms.
MOHYELDIN: Right. (Laughs.)
FEIST: The emergency law is going to be lifted in Syria, or so they say. So clearly the regimes are trying to do what they can to --
MOHYELDIN: Piecemeal concessions.
FEIST: -- to relieve the pressure, to stay in power. Do you think that any of -- and each country may be a little bit different, but what's your response to what those regimes are doing? Too little, too late? Will it be effective?
MOHYELDIN: I think they're too little, too late. These regimes have had decades to implement reform without it being instigated by popular uprisings, and they chose not to. So any attempt right now for them to offer these reforms are widely going to be seen as attempts to hold on to their power, as opposed to bring about genuine reform. The question is going to be, "What can I do to hold on to my seat by offering these piecemeal concessions and by offering these reforms?" But I don't think that they are resonating or that they have any traction with the Arab street.
Now, it's not to say that it's not going to delay it coming to your country. It may buy you more time. But nonetheless, the demands for change now -- and when we talk about the demands of change, one of the most important parts of that is that the fear factor has been broken. Ordinary Arabs, particularly in some of these countries that we're seeing where violence is being used, they have overcome their fear of these regimes. So they no longer fear these notorious security services. And I don't have to tell many people here the kind of security services that existed in Egypt. But those security services were completely quashed in a matter of 72 hours.
And I think that fear factor has become contagious. People are seeing the fact that they did it in Egypt, they can do it in Syria, they can do it in Yemen, in Morocco and Algeria, and perhaps because these countries that we're talking about, let's not forget the fact that they are African countries. So it could even go beyond the Arab African countries and even into African countries themselves.
FEIST: Time for a couple more questions. Yes, sir. You've been waiting for a while; the third row.
QUESTIONER: Hi. I'm Dan Raviv with CBS Radio News.
First, my bosses wanted to thank you for your good work. And Al Jazeera English was very cooperative in saying we could use audio, so you were heard in the U.S. that way. Also I never thought I'd have anything nice to say about my cable company, but Comcast in D.C. has Al Jazeera English, so I do.
QUESTIONER: And you did a great job. People may be a curious a little bit more about you. Were you born in the U.S.? Are you an immigrant story made good? Did you go to college here in Washington? And are you, what, 6'8"? (Laughter.)
MOHYELDIN: I'm all of the above. Well, I was born in Egypt. My parents immigrated to the U.S. when I was about five years old; went to school right down the street at American University, did my bachelor's and master's, and actually started working for NBC News right across the street from American University.
And I started off as a desk assistant, which you probably know is a very entry-level position. I was handing out newspapers in the morning, answering phone calls; great environment to be in a news (org ?). Most of the time I was just in awe of a lot of the correspondents that were walking in and out in the morning with their coffee and stuff. But it was a great environment to just watch and learn to see how people operate in that kind of high-pressure environment.
The summer that I started, believe it or not, I was actually going to leave journalism. I was, like, "This is not -- I'm not cut out for this," because it was the summer of Gary Condit and Chandra Levy and the summer of the shark attacks, which I was, like, "No." I mean, my parents were like, "You have a master's degree. Isn't that what you're going to be working on?"
FEIST: That was two months before 9/11.
MOHYELDIN: And that's what changed. I actually stayed through by chance until 9/11 happened, and then the rules of the game completely changed. There was all this talk about the war in Iraq the following year. And so a lot of the American networks started to beef up their staffing with people who spoke the language and knew the region. And that's what led me to CNN, and then ultimately to Iraq. And the rest is history, as they say.
FEIST: But you skipped one of Dan's questions.
MOHYELDIN: Which was?
FEIST: (Laughs.) Okay.
I think we have time for one more question. Yes, sir.
QUESTIONER: Allan Wendt.
You haven't mentioned Saudi Arabia in terms of unrest. This is obviously a vital interest of the United States. Do you see any prospects that the unrest will spread there too? There have been some kind of preliminary signs, but anything more serious?
MOHYELDIN: Well, you know, the word unrest is probably not the best word to describe. I think the way I look at it is demands for change. Now, whether that leads to unrest or whether that actually happens peacefully, yes, I do think that demands for change and reforms will happen in Saudi Arabia. And I think even the king himself has recognized that. He has offered this huge incentive deal, you know, $80 billion, which kind of makes you wonder where all that money was for the past several years. But nonetheless, nonetheless, you're definitely going to see those demands.
The reason why I was saying earlier every country is different and every country will take a little bit longer, because the forces that lead to these demands and to these acts of civil disobedience are different. What we are seeing in Bahrain, it's -- I mean, I personally don't subscribe to it, even though it's perceived as being sectarian, is not a sectarian demand. Yes, the majority of the people that are suppressed are Shia, but their demands are for equal rights. And it's different. And I think what we're seeing in Yemen is different. What we're going to see in Saudi Arabia is different.
But I am convinced that no Arab country, including Saudi Arabia, including Bahrain, including Jordan, including Iraq and Sudan -- all of these countries are going to demand a new equation between the citizen and the state.
FEIST: Well, I want to thank you for -- thank you for your time. (Applause.)
MOHYELDIN: Thank you very much.
FEIST: You have -- you have seen a career's worth of news in two months. I can only imagine what the next six months will be like.
But thank you all for coming. Thank you for joining us today.
MOHYELDIN: Thank you so much. Thank you, Sam.
FEIST: Appreciate it.
MOHYELDIN: Thank you so much.
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