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What Impacts Do Egypt’s Protests Have Beyond Its Borders?

January 26, 2011 at 5:42 PM EST
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Judy Woodruff looks at what the protests in Egypt and Tunisia mean for the Muslim world and beyond with Tarek Masoud of Harvard University.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And for more on all this, we turn to Tarek Masoud. He is an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University. He just returned from a three-month trip to Egypt, where he was researching opposition politics. He also was a NewsHour reporter in the late 1990s.

Tarek Masoud, thank you very much for being with us.

First of all, how surprising are these protests?

TAREK MASOUD, professor, Harvard University: These are — these are pretty surprising protests, Judy, at least to me.

I mean, the Egyptian system is a pretty tough, authoritarian system, but it’s also a — a very flexible one. And, so, for the last almost three, four years, there have been small protests by different segments of the population, different labor unions, et cetera, but nothing of this kind of breadth and magnitude that cuts across different groups, different ideological trends and is just really ready to confront violent apparatus of the state.

It’s just — we just haven’t seen anything quite like this on the part of the Egyptian people since about 1977.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, was it the — the protests in Tunisia, the overthrow of the government there, that set this off?

TAREK MASOUD: I think so.

I think, you know, that — the protests in Tunisia or — or Ben Ali’s departure was maybe the — that match that set off this very large collection of combustible material. But the grievance that — in Egypt now that we’re seeing expressed in these street protests has been there for a long time, and one — I can’t shake the feeling now of thinking that this was a long time in coming.

I mean, you have an inflation rate that’s around 10 percent. Official unemployment is 10 percent, but probably the figure is double that. And for — for youth, it may even be triple that, youth unemployment.

And then we just came off of a parliamentary election in Egypt that was rigged to an extraordinary degree. It ended in early December. They’ve had parliamentary elections every five years for quite a while now.

But this last election was unique in the level of rigging and all of the departures from free and fair elections. So, I think there’s a lot of anger and a lot of grievance. And what’s surprising is that it’s expressing itself in this street — in this protest.

But, like I said, the Tunisia example was surprising. I mean, that’s a country that every…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But…

TAREK MASOUD: Yes. Sorry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was just going to say, this description of the people who are protesting as middle-class, educated, Internet-savvy, does that ring true to you, someone who’s spent time in Egypt?

TAREK MASOUD: Absolutely.

I mean, if you look at one of the movements that’s at the forefront of this group, it’s the April 6 youth movement, which is — April 6 is the date of a workers strike in 2008 in a Nile Delta town.

But these youth are very Internet-savvy. And, you know, there’s a huge digital divide in Egypt. So, the people who are using the Internet tend to be more educated, more middle-class. And we see them using this to coordinate their activities.

So, I think that’s — that’s a pretty interesting and extraordinary thing. But I also think that these protests are kind of cross-class. I mean, they’re bringing in not just middle-class people but also people from Egypt’s vast population of poor and disenfranchised.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you make of the Mubarak government’s — the way it has handled this? And where do you see it going with regard to the government there?

TAREK MASOUD: So, the surprising thing about the Mubarak government is that it hasn’t really come out with any kind of statement. You know, the president hasn’t come out and said anything about what is going on.

We have had one statement from the Foreign Ministry, and you can see this — the Egyptian State Information Service is blaming these protests on the Muslim Brotherhood, or — which is, of course, almost laughable, because the Muslim Brotherhood came very late to these protests. They really don’t have a lot to do with it.

And, in fact, other opposition movements are criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood for not being on board with this. So, for the regime to say, oh, this is the Islamists is a way of scaring maybe secular Egyptians and scaring Westerners into thinking that this is not a movement that we want to support or think is good.

But, you know, today, right now, there’s a member of Parliament who’s just submitted a request to the speaker of the Parliament to try to find out what exactly is going on. Why hasn’t the government come out and said anything about what’s happening?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

TAREK MASOUD: And I think reason is, is that the Mubarak administration isn’t really quite sure how to respond.

If you respond by making some concessions, well, maybe that will douse the flames of popular anger, but it could also inflame them more. It could cause people to think, well, we can — if we continue protesting, we will get even more concessions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you…

TAREK MASOUD: So, I think they’re just not quite sure how to respond.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, what do you see as the implications for the United States? What did you make of Secretary Clinton’s comment today?

TAREK MASOUD: I thought Secretary Clinton’s comment was — was great, except for the part where she urged both sides to show restraint, drawing this kind of moral equivalence between people who are protesting for democracy. They’re not protesting for Islamic law or any of the other things that we’re afraid of in the Middle East. They’re protesting for democracy.

And to draw a kind of moral equivalence between those people and between a regime that’s cracking down on them quite ruthlessly is problematic. And it just reinforces this notion that folks have in the Middle East that we’re not really interested in democracy. We’re interested in stability.

And I think best way for us in the United States to kind of kill that perception is for us to come out very clearly and say that we support the right of these people to protest, and we believe that their call for democracy is a legitimate call, and we support it for them, as we do for all peoples around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tarek Masoud at Harvard University, thank you very much.