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Egypt Mediator: U.S. Should Support Liberty, But Not Interfere Too Much

February 8, 2011 at 5:10 PM EST
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An estimated 250,000 people gathered in Cairo after the release of a Google executive re-energized anti-government demonstrations. Margaret Warner speaks with Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American professor and Nobel laureate chemist, who is serving as an unofficial mediator between the government and the protest's organizers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: An estimated quarter-million Egyptians flooded back into central Cairo today, injecting new energy into the two-week-old protests. The huge demonstration came hours after newly named Vice President Omar Suleiman announced new committees to oversee constitutional changes and presidential term limits.

GWEN IFILL: Thousands of people also demonstrated today in several other Egyptian cities. In Cairo, the enormous crowd in Tahrir Square lingered long after sundown. The site was still packed as midnight approached.

Now to Margaret Warner’s report from Cairo. She sat down with Caltech Professor Ahmed Zewail. He’s an Egyptian-American Nobel Prize-winning chemist and one of several unofficial mediators between the Egyptian government and the young Tahrir Square organizers.

MARGARET WARNER: Dr. Zewail, thank you for joining us.

AHMED ZEWAIL, unofficial negotiator: It’s a pleasure.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, here we sit Tuesday, two weeks since these demonstrations started. You have got the protesters in the square. You’ve got the government holding these other meetings. You’re kind of shuttling between them.

Is this negotiation for real?

AHMED ZEWAIL: Well, I guess your first question is a good one, because my level of optimism — I’m — by nature, I’m an optimist, but my level of optimism has been going up and down and up and down.

It seems to me that it’s very clear that the young people are demanding a major change. They are not really talking about superficial or cosmetics. And, therefore, the business as usual is just simply not accepted to them. What they really want to see is a new Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, at least publicly, the protesters in the square are saying, Mubarak must go now, period. Then they have a laundry list. The government is saying, no, Mubarak and Suleiman are going to run this transition until the elections.

Are both sides being inflexible here?

AHMED ZEWAIL: Well, I think — I think the reason the youth say that for President Mubarak to depart now is because there is a mistrust with the system.

What they don’t want to do — to see is the same status quo sugared in certain ways in order to make it appear very good. So, from my point of view, what I’m trying to — my role here is to say also to the government, there should be an immediate action and real action.

If we have a substantial action coming in, maybe the — these young people then will listen to the people that they trust. But I don’t think you can do it as a tranquilizer. Really, the response from the government should be immediate and — and — and very clear.

MARGARET WARNER: So, give us an example, something that President Mubarak and Vice President Suleiman could do right now that would say to you and to Egypt and to these young people, we really are going to make fundamental change.

AHMED ZEWAIL: One thing very clear to me is to immediately, immediately stop the martial law, for example, in the country. Everybody is bothered by this.

And there is no reason for Egypt to — it’s a great civilization — to be under martial law. Secondly, the constitution, for example — there are certain articles in the constitution is not acceptable to me, is not acceptable to the youth, is not acceptable to the Egyptians who want to see a new life.

And I would think that this immediately has to change, these articles which basically would not allow anybody to run, to be a president. The last election in the Parliament, for example, was close to 90 percent from the governing party.

MARGARET WARNER: Ninety-seven percent, I think.

AHMED ZEWAIL: Right.

So, these concepts, if transformed immediately — and what immediately, I mean week time. I’m not talking about six months’ time.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s the risk if this doesn’t happen quickly?

AHMED ZEWAIL: I think they are so determined, and they will continue. And I think that it is not good for Egypt from the point of view of the economic problem. To a large part, Egypt depends on, for example, tourism, investment.

Then you have the issue of security also. My worry is that there will be a tipping point at which all of this will be gone, and we might see chaos.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning it could spin out of control?

AHMED ZEWAIL: Yes, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Vice President Suleiman said in an interview on ABC on Sunday, Egypt would have democracy, he said, “when the people have the culture of democracy,” implying they don’t.

AHMED ZEWAIL: There are people who believe that you can’t have democracy in certain cultures, all this.

I just like to remind people, Egypt has three revolutions until now over the last 100 years. Egypt had the first constitution in the Middle East that allowed for liberty. And it had democracy. So, I think this is not right to say that the people are not ready for democracy.

Everybody in the world is — is ready for liberty. It’s a question of how you do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the government has taken certain steps. Do you see a commitment on the part of the government, even if maybe not at the pace you’re suggesting, but to get to a full democracy, or do you think, as the protesters think, that they’re just stalling, buying time?

AHMED ZEWAIL: The changes are fine, and it’s OK. As of this morning, they are continuing with some changes.

But if you — if the people of Egypt want to change a system, that’s different. I think that it is not a personal fight with Mubarak. It is actually a fight for a new, democratic Egypt. And the changes in many ways are slow or superficial is not going to satisfy the Egyptian masses.

MARGARET WARNER: And you think that’s what’s happening now?

AHMED ZEWAIL: I think it’s too slow.

And, so, therefore, my advice is to do that in this very critical time for history’s sake, and for really his legacy’s sake, to do it promptly and swiftly and in a very, very clear way.

MARGARET WARNER: You are Egyptian and American, dual citizen. Is there a coherent message? Do you hear a coherent message from Washington? And what do Egyptians you speak with — and you’re speaking to all the big players — what are they hearing?

AHMED ZEWAIL: This is an Egyptian problem. It is not an American problem.

I don’t think that the Egyptians in this particular case is looking at the American government to come here and help them in Tahrir Square. I think what the — America can do is to maintain a consistent policy of saying: We are friend, would like to be friend of Egypt, and we would like to support liberty in Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you hear that consistent policy?

AHMED ZEWAIL: I think, the liberty issue, I do hear it. But I think the key thing here really is not to interfere too much.

MARGARET WARNER: As you know, the big concern in many quarters in the United States is that, if Egypt has a full — fully open system, that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, will, in fact, gain all kinds of power here.

What do you say to that?

AHMED ZEWAIL: There is too much exaggeration about the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I think, in a democracy, in a true democracy, where they can speak, and they are not underground, and they are not fighting in the system, the Egyptian people will either accept them or not accept them. If they are really in a country that follows the rule of law, then I don’t believe we will have a problem, and including elections, including the Parliament and so on. So…

MARGARET WARNER: So you think there’s nothing to fear?

AHMED ZEWAIL: No.

I can see that certain groups will have a much stronger influence. But suppose even that they are stronger at that point. And I can tell you that the majority of the Egyptians I know, they think of a much wider spectrum of people than the Muslim Brotherhood.

So, I don’t think — I think the key here in this equation is Egypt being — making the transition to democracy. If it’s a true democracy, I’m not worrying. And, on this note, I think President Mubarak will be the first Egyptian or the first Arab leader to the biggest country in the Arab world that he will be witnessing the changing of the guards.

MARGARET WARNER: As opposed to being in exile?

AHMED ZEWAIL: Yes, correct.

MARGARET WARNER: Dr. Ahmed Zewail, thank you so much.

AHMED ZEWAIL: Thank you, Margaret. And welcome to Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

AHMED ZEWAIL: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: That interview took place before the government’s announcement creating committees to look into changing the constitution, which, this evening, Dr. Zewail told Margaret, today’s moves were too partial a step and not sweeping enough to meet the protesters’ demands.

But, late today, Vice President Suleiman warned the government can’t put up with long-term protests.