MARGARET WARNER: Since the 9/11 attacks, a new tension has arisen in the close quarter-century alliance between the United States and Egypt; at issue: The lack of freedom in Egypt's political system. Since taking over from the assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1981, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has run his country with what amounts to a one-party system and emergency rule.
But over the past few months, widespread speculation that Mubarak would seek another six- year term this fall-- running unopposed in an up-or-down referendum-- began to spark ever-wider anti-government protests. The government responded with a heavy show of force at demonstrations and many arrests.
In January, an opposition member of parliament, Ayman Nour, was thrown in jail on forgery charges. The Bush administration protested, and Secretary of State Rice cancelled a planned visit to Egypt. Then, in early February, President Bush used his state of the union address to publicly challenge Mubarak to open up Egypt's political system and help spread democracy in the region.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.
MARGARET WARNER: Later that month, Mubarak stunned his supporters by calling for the first multi- party, direct presidential election in Egypt's history. Egypt's parliament last week adopted a constitutional amendment to do just that. But the opposition has continued to protest, saying the election law changes don't go far enough to let anyone mount a credible challenge to Mubarak.
Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif came to Washington this week to meet with President Bush and other top officials. Among the items on the agenda: Economic and political reform in Egypt. I spoke with the prime minister earlier today.
MARGARET WARNER: Prime Minister Nazif, thanks for joining us.
AHMED NAZIF: It's a real pleasure to be here, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: So explain to us why President Mubarak decided to let rivals run against him in the presidential election.
AHMED NAZIF: I think it's an important decision. It's -- people tend to think that this is our beginning with the political reform, or the end. I think it's just a step in the middle. We started with parliamentary elections. We have a multiparty system today, and we're still improving on it. And this was one step along the way, the presidential election.
MARGARET WARNER: And what role did President Bush's call on Egypt to open up the system, what role did that play?
AHMED NAZIF: Egypt takes very seriously its regional leadership. You know, it led peace and it should be leading democracy. I think the president was right on the button there.
MARGARET WARNER: So you didn't consider what he said unwelcome pressure?
AHMED NAZIF: No. No. We take it as advice from a friend. We shouldn't do that. I don't think it was intended this way.
MARGARET WARNER: Some Egyptian observers, including pro-democracy forces suggested, though, that there can be a backlash if the United States is too aggressive and seems to be driving the change. Is there a danger of that?
AHMED NAZIF: Yes, there is. I think it's important not to cross the thin line between advice and pressure. I believe that each country should be given its own space to decide on how it wants to progress with that, to set its own goals. We all agree on the goals, and that's the important thing. But the pace and how to do it should be left to the countries.
MARGARET WARNER: So what did President Bush say to you about President Mubarak's decision and the Egyptian elections when you met on Wednesday?
AHMED NAZIF: Well, he commended it very much; he asked me to send his appreciation to the president about that courageous step, and that he was looking forward for Egypt to set the example in its elections in September to run a free and fair election.
MARGARET WARNER: And did he define what he meant by free and fair? He has said publicly, for instance, he's called on Egypt to allow international monitors. Did you discuss that?
AHMED NAZIF: He did mention it but we didn't discuss it in any detail. But I think the sense is we and the president as well share the view that we need to project to the world that this is a free and fair election. Now, it takes observers; it takes television cameras standing in front of polling stations, whatever it takes. We are genuine about this. We need to show the world what we mean. But one of the reasons is because, you know, President Mubarak came up with this move, and he is met mostly by skepticism; and that's sort of challenging us. We'll show the world.
MARGARET WARNER: Even the United States allows international monitors who really come in and over -- not oversee, but observe the elections very closely. Yet in different appearances this week, you've been reluctant to commit to that. Explain why.
AHMED NAZIF: I'll tell you why. There's a little bit of a cultural diversity here. You know, you say in the United States you don't see a problem with that. In our part of the world because we've been subject to colonialists for some time, we are a little bit more sensitive to foreign intervention, foreign interference. Observation is good, not overseeing; that's a good step. We might think of observers, but not monitors, not people doing the elections for us. So it depends on where you put it on the scale. I mean, we don't close our country. People can come in and out, there's no problem with that. But do they have an official duty within that? That's where the debate is. And I think we still have time till September.
MARGARET WARNER: But might international observers actually be the best way for Egypt -- if Egypt plans to have free and fair elections to demonstrate to the world that you did - because, as you know, your critics are going to say, oh, no, the vote was rigged; it was just like the old days?
AHMED NAZIF: Well, there are other ways. For example, Egypt is the only country that I know -- there might be others -- that has judicial supervision of the elections. We actually have a judge sitting in every polling station. Now our judges in Egypt are known to be independent. They're very independent- minded and they have run the elections in 2000 in a very thorough way, the parliamentary elections. Now, they are asking for more.
MARGARET WARNER: Yes. They have said, in fact, that they don't find the rules so far are going to guarantee free and fair election, and they want more independence.
AHMED NAZIF: That's not what they said. They didn't question the rules. They questioned the old rules; not the election rules. They questioned what they can and can't do. And that's a little bit different.
MARGARET WARNER: They didn't question the degree of independence they'd have from the executive branch?
AHMED NAZIF: They're asking for more independence but not for the elections, in general.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's talk a little bit about how free and fair. And I understand that anyone from the 18 opposition parties can run. What Ayman Nour, who is currently out of jail, on bail, awaiting trial on these forgery charges -- is he going to be able to run for president, or is there a danger that he could be tied up in legal matters at the time of the election?
AHMED NAZIF: Well, according to the rules he can run. Now, he has a court case in progress; he'll have to answer to that as well, according to Egyptian law. He's being processed in normal course, nothing extraordinary or urgent or emergent about out. I believe he'll have his day in court, but that doesn't preclude him from being a candidate if he wants to.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the world will think it's a free and fair election if for some reason Ayman Nour finds himself either in jail or in court?
AHMED NAZIF: Why is that? Who is Ayman Nour? This is a political unknown six months ago. It just happened that he was a member of parliament; he's a leader of one of the opposition - nineteen opposition parties -- that is charged by a very serious charge, a criminal charge, not a political charge. So I don't think or ought to think that anybody should take that position.
MARGARET WARNER: Other issues critics have raised and opposition politicians have raised in Egypt is the dominance still really of the state-owned media. How can you have a free and fair election with state- run press?
AHMED NAZIF: Well, the state-run press in Egypt, unlike people think, is not dominant. We today have literally tens, if not more than a hundred newspapers, people watch everything on CNN, al-Jazeera, everything, so it's an open society. Now, having said that, we will have election rules; the election rules will, I'm sure, we don't have the rules yet because we're waiting for the referendum, but they will state exactly what free time or what equal time means on state television, and it should.
MARGARET WARNER: The Muslim brotherhood, which is an opposition social movement in Egypt, is not considered allowed to be a legal political party even though it has people in parliament, and it won't be allowed to run a candidate for president. Why is that?
AHMED NAZIF: Well, the reason is that when we look at the history of the Muslim brotherhood itself, they're not pro democracy. They say today that they are. But their history doesn't say that. So it keeps us - we are a little skeptical. They say that they're not pro-violence, say less violence, but their history says they did have violence before. They are still on the terrorist list in the United States. Having said that, we do acknowledge their presence in Egypt; we have given them leeway. We're allowing them to run candidates independently in the election. We have them as members of parliament in Egypt. That will make them prove their point. Let them sweat for it. Let them prove that they are real democrats through the process that exists today. Let them have twenty, thirty independents in parliament and see how they'll behave.
MARGARET WARNER: Opposition figures say that the Egyptian police still engages in mass arrests when they put on demonstrations. Is that the case?
AHMED NAZIF: Well, we've seen some arrests, yes, but, first of all, the fact that there is demonstrations says a little bit about the system. We're allowing people to express themselves through demonstrations. Now, in a society that's still maturing, maybe demonstrations here in the U.S. would be different from what you see there. What happens is, and many times this happens, a demonstration does not stop at expressing opinions. It moves to becoming something of a destabilizing effect, for example, turning to violence, inciting people towards violence, even if not doing it themselves. And that's when the police interfere.
MARGARET WARNER: So even the speech, if, in the view of the authorities, that - it's inciting violence, they would be subject to arrest?
AHMED NAZIF: Not speech, but actually inciting violence -- that leads to violence. And, you know, we're allowing people to speak. The government doesn't interfere at all. The Muslim Brotherhood holds press conferences in Egypt; that was unheard of twenty or thirty years ago.
MARGARET WARNER: But 400 of their members were arrested at a recent demonstration.
AHMED NAZIF: Again, because those demonstrations turned violent.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, let me ask you this: It's not only the Muslim Brotherhood that's holding demonstrations, but there are growing demonstrations in Cairo, middle class people, there's this movement called Enough, meaning enough of Mubarak. Why do you think there is this rising call for change in Egypt right now?
AHMED NAZIF: Well, change is inevitable. Everybody wants change. It's how you manage change that is important. I think it's good. It's healthy that people are looking for change, because if they do that, they're motivated to improve themselves, and that's good.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the way the system is set up for this election there will be a viable opponent to President Mubarak?
AHMED NAZIF: That's the big challenge. The problem is, of course, that as I said, we moved from a uni-party to a multi-party, but right now have more of a dominant party and small parties. Whether the opposition parties will be able to present one or more viable candidates is something that I'd like to see actually, but it's hard to tell right now. I think the president is very popular in Egypt; that if he decides to run again, that he will win with a comfortable majority. But, having said that, I'd very much like to see the process in place, see a candidate that comes out, not just to bad mouth the president, but to present an alternative, to present another problem, to say to Mr. Mubarak, you've been doing it this way, I'd like to do it that way; that kind of thing would be very healthy.
MARGARET WARNER: Might you be that kind of candidate in 2011?
AHMED NAZIF: That's not in my political agenda right now.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Prime Minister Nazif, thank you so much.
AHMED NAZIF: Thank you.