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In Egypt’s Political Transformation, Who Speaks for Whom?

February 7, 2011 at 5:23 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown discusses negotiations between opposition leaders and the government of President Hosni Mubarak with Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and columnist Mona Eltahawy.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, where do things stand now?

For that, we get two views. Mona Eltahawy joins us once again. She’s a longtime reporter in the Middle East and now a columnist and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. And Michael Singh is a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He’s now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mona Eltahawy, the question now seems to be whether to negotiate concessions and reforms with the government with Mubarak at the helm until his term is up, or to continue to insist that he leave. Is that where you see things standing?

MONA ELTAHAWY, journalist and commentator: Well, Jeff, this is an incredibly fast-moving revolution, because just before I came out to speak to you, a young man called Wael Ghonim was released from 12 days in detention.

And he is the Google manager for the Middle East and North Africa, but he also came to be known as this — the anonymous administrator of a Facebook page that was instrumental in launching this uprising on Jan. 25. Now, he was released after 12 days in jail.

And the youthful protesters that we heard about in the story had made it as one of their conditions before negotiating with anyone that he be released. And, upon his release, he gave a live TV interview that captivated the entire country, and dare I say the entire region, because I was — I was following it on Twitter.

And people across the entire Arab world were watching it and crying with him, because he — he was told that people had died over the past few days while he was in jail. And he — he broke down. And he said: This is not our fault. This is the regime’s fault.

And in those few moments that he spent on live television, he managed to snatch back the revolution that young people in Egypt had launched and that was being threatened by takeover by these older people who are negotiating with Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian vice president.

So, we’re at this very interesting moment right now. And tomorrow, people are determined to send out even more pro-democracy demonstrators on the streets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Michael Singh, where do you see things in terms of who speaks for whom here and — and where are the negotiations?

MICHAEL SINGH, former National Security Council staff: Well, it’s difficult to know right now.

I mean, I think, from a U.S. perspective, the White House has to be very happy that some of the worst outcomes appear to have been averted here and that broad negotiations appear to be taking place. Now, it’s not clear, as Mona indicated, exactly who the negotiators are speaking for or what their aims are.

I mean, the concessions that have been offered by the Egyptian government — you know, if we had looked at these concessions two or three weeks ago, we would have said, wow, this is actually quite remarkable. These are the things that the U.S. has been calling for now for — for a number of years.

The question really now is, you know, can an accommodation be reached between these old guard government types and the demonstrators whose trump card are really those — those people in Tahrir Square, who aren’t going away so far?

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much can the old guard or — and including the president, President Mubarak, be pushed, and how much should they be pushed?

MICHAEL SINGH: Well, I think what the U.S. is probably pushing them for now is, take some actions. Make some changes on the ground that people can see, so they see that we’re not going back to the old way of doing things.

I think the government has tried perhaps to do a few of those things. The senior leadership, the ruling party has stepped down, which means they can’t run for the presidency in September. We have seen people being released, like Mr. Ghonim from Google. And so I think the U.S. will be pushing for more of these types of actions to give the negotiations a certain credibility in the eyes of the Egyptians.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mona Eltahawy, when you talk about the old guard, does that — does that include the military or elements of the military? Where — where does the military stand in all this?

MONA ELTAHAWY: It has started to include the military, because although during the first few days, when the military was sent to the streets, they were seen as the kind of noble, honorable figures who were acting as a buffer between the pro-democracy demonstrators and the Mubarak thugs who were sent into the street to beat them, their seeming neutrality has begun — has turned against them.

And over the past few days, the human rights activists and journalists and bloggers who have been detained were detained by the military police. So, there’s a lot of ill will and bad feeling generally towards the armed forces amongst the pro-democracy demonstrators.

And they also see as part — you know, the armed and Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, they see them all as one. They see them all as part of a regime. And they do not trust Mubarak and they do not trust Omar Suleiman. And they’re especially worried about the vice president, Omar Suleiman, because they see the United States administration as pushing him as an alternative to Mubarak. And they see the two as one. They do not make a distinction between Suleiman and Mubarak.

And they are especially worried that basically a dictator is being replaced by a torturer because of Omar Suleiman’s connection to the rendition program by which terrorist suspects were sent to Egypt by the U.S. administration. And Omar Suleiman was said to have overlooked the torture for — of suspects for the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. I mean, that — Michael Singh, interesting, in terms of — especially in terms of how the U.S. is seen in this.

Is the U.S. position on all of this, the vice president, what happens with President Mubarak, is it clear? Is it coherent? Is it confused? Or what — how do you see it?

MICHAEL SINGH: Well, I certainly — I’m not sure that it’s clear.

And statements like Ambassador Wisner’s which we heard before have, I think, added to the confusion as to, exactly what is the U.S. position here? But if you listened to the president and to the secretary of state over the last couple of days, they keep repeating the same thing, which is, they want an orderly and inclusive transition towards real democracy.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, sometimes, they use the word “now,” and sometimes…

MICHAEL SINGH: Right, right.

And I think that where the president has now come out on this is that, well, maybe they don’t want President Mubarak to actually resign now, because there are some problems with that. You know, under the constitution of Egypt, it would trigger this 60-day period before elections. And they’re not sure that that’s enough time for a real election to happen.

And so I think the position now is that they’re happy to see these negotiations. They’re going to push both sides to make something real happen in these negotiations, and you’re not going to see them be taking sides on issues of personalities or on whether or not Mubarak should leave immediately or in eight months.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mona Eltahawy, you know, in — in Margaret Warner’s piece, there was this notion of a return to something like normalcy. Is that where the people in the square are isolated in a sense and life goes on around it? Is — is that a — is that a possibility? Is that a — something we might see in the coming days ahead?

MONA ELTAHAWY: Well, you know, I put it in this — in this sense. I think that the Egyptian regime, Mubarak, Suleiman and the circle around them, is engaged in a war of attrition of sorts with the Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrators, in that they’re digging in their heels. They’re hoping that the population at large says, oh, come on, guys, he said he’s going to leave, as we heard in Margaret’s story; you know, just go home.

And the pro-democracy demonstrators are determined. And every day, as I said, their numbers increase. I mean, one of the — one of the young people who was instrumental in launching this uprising is a woman called Israa Abdel-Fattah.

And after Wael Ghonim’s interview, she sent out a tweet saying, tomorrow, we want to see 10 million people all across Egypt, because remember the demonstrators have not been just in Tahrir Square. They have been all across the country. And it’s important to state that, because it’s not just focused on Tahrir Square.

So, that perseverance and determination has not gone. And they’re really engaged in this kind of one-on-one with Mubarak now. And they want to see more pressure put on him, and cut U.S. military aid to the Mubarak regime, freeze the Mubarak regime’s assets. Mubarak is said to have up to $70 billion of assets across the world.

And lobbyists — you know, the position of Frank Wisner is a very strange one, because he was sent to be envoy to Egypt. And yet he’s employed by a company that is employed by the Mubarak regime. So, we have got a lot of conflicts of interest going here. And we can leverage all of those things to help the pro-democracy demonstrators.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and briefly, though, Michael Singh, at the same time, do you see the opposition speaking? And there’s a lot of divisions there, right, between Muslim Brotherhood especially and some of the more secular groups.

MICHAEL SINGH: I think you see fissures within the opposition. I’m not sure there’s a common platform they’re operating from. I’m not sure there’s a common sense of what they want.

That may be true on the regime side as well. It’s not clear exactly who is going to emerge on the regime side as — as the leadership role and if they all want the same things. Some of the members of the former regime are now actually being pursued by the current government for their assets. And they have been — have travel bans imposed on them.

And so I think one thing the United States wants to see happen is for an orderly process to develop. And in a sense, I think they see the military as something which can act as a stabilizing force. And I think you’re going to see the United States try to ride herd on both sides to get them to talk seriously to one another.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Michael Singh, Mona Eltahawy, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL SINGH: Thank you, Jeff.