Crisis in Egypt: The protests, U.S. policy, more

Jan 31, 2011

Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the online journal, the Arab Reform Bulletin, will be online Monday, Jan. 31, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the crisis in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, U.S. policy and the latest developments out of the capital.

A Message for Mubarak (Post, Aug. 17, 2009)

Hi, this is Michele Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  I am here to discuss the situation in Egypt and answer your questions.

I am worried Egypt will be the new Iran. Let's remember this is how it started in '79...the so-called young, educated students took over...which led to one of the most repressive regimes in the world which sponsors worldwide terrorism....and is much worse than what came before it. How can we stop this from happening in Egypt?

I don't think the United States or any other outside power can stop change from happening in Egypt now. What we are seeing in Egypt is not an Islamist revolution, but a grassroots protest calling for democracy.  It is true that Islamists, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, are an important part of the political scene but they do not dominate it and were not in the forefront of these protests.  We're going to have to make our peace with the fact that they will be part of the change, while we continue to emphasize that Egypt should make a transition to real democracy, including the rule of law and rights for all Egyptians (including women and non Muslims).

Should President Obama bluntly and openly declare that Mubarak must go now?

Probably not; there are some dangers inherent in having U.S. fingerprints all over this.  But U.S. officials have already begun to signal through their calls for an "orderly transition" that they are prepated to see him go.

With other countries in the Arab world trying to launch their own mass protests, what should the United States do to get ahead of this trend in their policies and messages?

The United States should persuade other Arab allies--for example Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia--to undertake serious reforms to improve respect for human rights and expand civil and political freedoms in their countries.  That is what we failed to do in Egypt and why the country is now experiencing an explosion.  The superficial and self-serving reforms these governments have undertaken so far clearly will be inadequate.

If Mubarak were to cling to power at any cost, meaning violently crushing and oppressing his own people, he'd probably become a pariah in the U.S. and Europe, but what kind of backing might he receive from China and Russia?

First, there is a question as to whether lower-level Egyptian military officers would agree to fire on peaceful protestors.  But if we assume they would, then you are correct that Mubarak would become a pariah.  He might well receive more understanding from China and Russia, but ultimately they would be unable to replace what the United States (Egypt's major military partner) and Europe (Egypt's main trading partner) gave him.  And it would just be a matter of time until the next outburst of protest.

How likely is it that Mubarak will voluntarily leave? It seems that only the military could force him to go.

Mubarak might be persuaded to move into retirement at the end of his current term in September.  But the demonstrators want him gone now--within days, not months.  I agree that it is probably only his own military who can tell him that he has to go.

Will Jordan and Saudi Arabia follow Syria's move to reforms in response to the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia before it?

The Jordanian government tends to be more responsive to its population and probably will undertake some reforms quickly.  Saudi Arabia moves more slowly but pr0bably will also take steps.

With no history of democracy and no viable opposition parties, who has the organizational chops to lead Egypt other than the army and the Muslim Brotherhood?

Actually there are a few opposition parties and groups that enjoy credibility, but what Egypt needs is a period of political openness (leading to elections) in which new parties can form.  Assuming the army remains cohesive, it will be an important source of stability.  And the Brotherhood will be a major political player but will not necessarily dominate.

Which country in the Arab world do you think will be next?

Hard to say.  Jordan, Yemen, and Algeria all have seen significant protests.  And citizens are deeply dissatisfied with their government in several other countries:  Libya, Syria, and Bahrain spring to mind.

What will this mean for Egypt's relations with Israel? And for the peace process?

If there is a reasonably stable and nonviolent transition in Egypt, I expect any government to emerge from new elections to respect the peace treaty with Israel.  Egyptians have no desire to return to a state of war.  That being said, Egyptians were dissatisfied with what they saw as cozy relations between Mubarak and Netanyahu and a new government might well chill those relations.

Who would actually takes over governing on an operating level if the existing regime is kicked out? Is there much of an opposition party, besides the Muslim Brotherhood, to actually make sure services actually run as necessary for security and basic needs?

There is still reason to hope that there can be a managed transition to new elections and new leadership without the existing government collapsing.  The Egyptian military probably would not let things get as far as a total collapse of order.

Hi. Would the U.S. government support the Egyptian military taking over the presidency in Egypt removing Mubarak and his VP Omar Sulieman?

U.S. officials are reluctant to say that Mubarak should go, but I think they would accept a scenario in which the military would remove Mubarak (and possibly Sulaiman as well) in order to effect a peaceful transition to democracy.

Was such youth uprising expected in U. S. government circles? How do you believe it would last?

U.S. officials had ample warning for years that frustration in Egypt was building due to youth unemployment, human rights abuses, poor governance, and corrupt politics.  But they did not take it seriously until they saw the uprising in Tunisia.

Any new Egyptian government that follows the will of the Egyptian people will have much less friendly relations with Israel, particularly vis-a-vis Gaza. Should Israel worry about Egypt not following its illegal blockade of Gaza? And what could Israel do about Egypt opening the gates to Gaza on Egypt's border to all non-military goods? Would Israel try to re-occupy Gaza?

Any new Egyptian government will want to look more kindly upon the Gazan Palestinians, but will also face the same national security challenges that Mubarak faced.  Whoever is in control, Cairo cannot afford to have an open door to Gaza because of fears that Palestinians will flood into Sinai, thereby making refugees an Egyptian burden and also increasing prospects of terrorism there.  But it is true that a new government might be more permissive about letting non-military goods into Gaza. 

While the chaos engulfing Cairo, the toppling of Tunisia's Ben Ali and the protests we have seen elsewhere certainly present enormous challenges for U.S. policy, might there also be opportunities here? What strategy would you recommend the administration pursue to take advantage of the fluid political situation?

This is an opportunity for the United States to prom0te the emergence of governments in the Middle East that respect democracy and human rights.  Priority number one is to do all we can to ensure that Tunisia and Egypt make successful transitions.  And we should press other governments to undertake serious reforms to pave the way for transitions that one hopes can be peaceful and more gradual.

I'm sure you remember that the 1979 Iranian revolution was also a "people power" revolution with many moderate forces. Ditto the 1917 Russian Revolution and even the French Revolution. But in each of those cases the moderate forces were then brutally purged and murdered by extremist elements that then took over. I am worried that this will happen in Egypt. Do you have good counter-examples which could provide a positive path for Egypt?

I am not an expert on revolutions and situations are never completely analygous, but I think there are some examples in eastern Europe that were encouraging.  There are many risks in this situation, but the train is rolling forward in Egypt and Tunisia now and there is no way to turn it back now.  The U.S. should help them find a constructive path forward.

How would nominating ElBaradai to be the youth uprising representative be viewed by the U.S. government?

Mohammed ElBaradei is a mature, responsible interlocutor and if most opposition and protest movements agree to deputize him, I don't see the U.S. objecting.  But remember that it is the Egyptian government, not the United States, that has to negotiate with the demonstrators.

Thanks for the discussion; signing off now.

Cheers, Michele

In This Chat
Michele Dunne
Michele Dunne is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She was previously a specialist on Middle East affairs at the U.S. Department of State and White House.
Recent Chats
  • Next: