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U.S., Arab Leaders Walk Fine Line as Egypt’s Power Center Remains Uncertain

February 4, 2011 at 6:11 PM EDT
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As demonstrators continue calls for President Hosni Mubarak's immediate resignation, the U.S. faces diplomatic challenges in its relationship with Egypt. Judy Woodruff speaks with Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Marc Lynch of George Washington University and Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya TV.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to Egypt and the difficult diplomatic challenge the U.S. faces there.

To examine that, we’re joined by Michele Dunne, a former specialist on Middle East affairs at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff. She is now senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the online journal The Arab Reform Bulletin. Marc Lynch, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington University, he also writes a blog about the Middle East for ForeignPolicy.com. And Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya TV, an Arab language satellite news channel.

Thank you all for being here.

There are so many questions at this stage, as we watch events unfold in Egypt.

Let me start with you, Hisham. What contacts do we know are there going on right now between Washington and Cairo?

HISHAM MELHEM, Al-Arabiya Television: There are contacts on the highest levels, particularly with Omar Suleiman, the new deputy of Mubarak, and with the military. I mean, I would like to listen the conversations between Robert Gates and Minister Tantawi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The defense secretary.

HISHAM MELHEM: Exactly, yes.

Omar Suleiman, Tantawi, and the others are very well-known to policy-makers here in Washington. They have been involved in dealing with them on security issues, Arab-Israeli conflict, combating terrorism. So, they know each other extremely well. And the United States can influence the Egyptian army.

The Egyptian army knows that they cannot survive without continuing that kind of lifeline between Egypt and the American military here. So, there — there is that toolbox that includes this — this kind of special relationship.

And then the hope here is that there will be a transitional period.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

HISHAM MELHEM: There is a new group of intellectuals called (SPEAKING ARABIC) the wise men, who are trying to — you know, to mediate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let me turn to you, Marc Lynch, with a similar — what more you can add to what — what are the contacts? Who is talking to whom?

MARC LYNCH, George Washington University: Well, I think they are trying to send the messages by every channel.

You have had the public statements by Secretary Clinton and by President Obama. You have had private phone calls to — to directly to Mubarak and the people around him, to people in the military. They have had contacts the opposition. They’re talking to everybody. And I think they’re sending a pretty clear message at this point.

I think, maybe, before you got to the — the horrible attacks on the protesters on Wednesday, I think that there was more wiggle room there in terms of what we could be offering, in terms of what an ordinarily transition might mean.

But after the president went on TV and said, it’s unacceptable that you attack, that you use violence against the protesters, and then the whole world saw what happened, I think now there is really no choice. I think the message now has to be Hosni Mubarak really does have to go now.

Obama doesn’t want to say that, because he doesn’t want to be in a position of dictating Egyptian politics. But I think at this point, when we — when we hear the words ordinarily transition beginning now, I think it really has to begin with — with President Mubarak stepping down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michele Dunne, what is your understanding of the message that the Obama administration is sending, publicly and privately, to Mubarak and the people around him?

MICHELE DUNNE, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I think President Obama was very skillful, actually, in the statement he made today to talk about a meaningful transition.

And I — what I think is going on — Hisham mentioned this wise-men committee that is meeting with Vice President Suleiman. They are trying to broker a compromise between the sort of coalition of opposition groups that are behind the demonstrations and Suleiman.

And what this would involve would be Mubarak giving up the — his duties, becoming, so to speak, a ceremonial president, handing over his real powers to Vice President Suleiman, and — and remaining as a ceremonial president for the remainder of his term, which is until September.

Now the question is, is this acceptable to the opposition? Because this is not actually the opposition negotiating with Suleiman. This is this sort of civil society committee that is trying to broker between the two sides.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, who are they? I mean, who is in this committee?

Hisham, do we know who is…

HISHAM MELHEM: We have people like Amr Hamzawy, who is affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment, intellectuals who are interested, I mean public personalities who are active in…

JUDY WOODRUFF: People who are respected in Egyptian society?

HISHAM MELHEM: People who write, people who are respected, yes.

But I agree with Michele. I’m not sure whether this will be acceptable to the demonstrators in the streets. Many of them are still insisting on Mubarak leaving. I mean, there is a great — there is a huge symbolism in seeing the pharaoh, as they refer to him, getting outing of the stage.

And they would live reluctantly, extremely reluctantly, with Omar Suleiman, who is, by the way, a pillar of the existing regime, of the same regime, a man who has not necessarily the nicest history.

So, it’s going to involve a great deal of debate, a great deal of involvement. As long as we don’t have violence, I think there is some wiggle room. I don’t think it’s going to last for weeks. We are looking for days before you see really the evolution of the shape of that kind of transition we’re talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marc Lynch, is it your sense that the power center has already shifted? I mean, you heard the president all but say the words lame duck today, that Mubarak — President Mubarak, has said, “I’m leaving,” and he should be worrying about his legacy.

So, has the power shifted away from him?

MARC LYNCH: I think so. And, frankly, I’m surprised that it is taking as long as it has for the — for the transition to take place.

But I think that now what we’re seeing is that the real questions, the really big questions, are going to be what kind of Egypt emerges after you get this transition. And I think the president and his administration have been really focused on that. Everything that they’ve said has talked about this being a meaningful transition, which includes real reform, the participation of opposition parties, constitutional changes.

I think that it’s very important that we don’t get overly fixated, as — you know, as much as we are, on Mubarak leaving, but to realize that it doesn’t matter if he leaves, if the same system is left behind.

HISHAM MELHEM: Yes.

MARC LYNCH: But his leaving is really important for the protesters, because they have no real leader. And that’s the one demand that everybody can agree on, and nobody can negotiate that away.

There’s no one in a position in Tahrir Square to say, anything less than that would be acceptable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how — so, how do you see that working itself out, Michele Dunne?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to, you know, ask all of you, how much influence does the United States really have at this point?

MICHELE DUNNE: I really think at this point that — that the Obama administration has sent very clear messages to the Egyptian military. You are responsible for stability. If we see violence against the protesters, don’t tell us rogue elements. You are responsible.

And they — they sent that message, and we saw that today. The protests were peaceful, and violence wasn’t used. So, you know, that message is the — the U.S. has influence in that regard, I think.

In terms of the fine points of what kind of a deal is going to be worked out here, I think the Obama administration is taking a step back a little bit. I mean if — you know, if it’s acceptable to the Egyptian opposition parties for Mubarak to leave the presidency in the sense of no longer having any official duties and being moved off to his residence at the beach or something, then why should the Obama administration get out in front of that and say that isn’t good enough?

So, I think he’s being a little bit careful here to say that, you know, that there needs to be a transition but not spell it out too clearly so that the Egyptian parties can work out something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Hisham, on this question of U.S. influence, how much, and who — is there anyone on the outside who has influence? We saw the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates sending signals they don’t want Mubarak to step down immediately.

HISHAM MELHEM: No, no, what they care — and I was in Davos, and I met many of those people from the Gulf in particular. They were extremely concerned. One of them was even in a state of fright. At this stage, what they want is no chaos. They don’t want a power vacuum that could be filled…

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are the other Arab leaders.

HISHAM MELHEM: Yes, yes, the other Arab leaders, yes, Arab monarchies from Morocco to Saudi Arabia.

What they want is a quick end to this particular period. Without Mubarak — I mean, they realize now Mubarak cannot remain in power. What they don’t want is an open-ended period of uncertainty and chaos that could be filled by Iran, by the Islamists, by others. And that’s really what they are harping on.

The United States still has a lot of influence. There is a lot of soft power on the American side. The business community in Egypt, the wealthy, the extremely wealthy, may not be happy, because they are benefiting from the status quo. But all businesspeople, you know, middle class, professionals, they believe in — that the United States economically needs to — Egypt needs to have that economic relationship with the West.

And, again, the military here, you might end up with a situation where the military realizes, if we shoot at unarmed civilians, not only the Obama administration will turn its back on us; the Congress will impose military sanctions on us, the way it did with Turkey, which is a NATO power, in 1974.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So Marc Lynch, whom and what should we be keeping an eye on right now? I mean, this is an important weekend coming up.

MARC LYNCH: It really is.

I mean, today was a decisive day, because many people worried that, after the violence, that it would — it would knock the protests back and that the regime had regained its balance. Today’s amazing protests and the sheer number of people and the peaceful nature of the protests strikes me as decisive.

So, I think we should be watching the messages coming from Washington, the message – what’s happening in Cairo. I think that it’s going to happen soon.

But your question about U.S. influence is an important one. We do have a lot of influence. We’re using it well. But if you look at Mugabe, a dictator who is determined to stay in power can resist outside pressure for a long time. Obama’s message today was clearly aimed at Mubarak, saying, don’t be — don’t go down in history as Mugabe, the man who destroyed your country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to leave there and, of course, continue to watch events very closely.

Michele Dunne, thank you.

Marc Lynch, thank you, and Hisham Melhem.

HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you.