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After Egypt’s ‘Cosmic’ Day, Will Army Usher in Democratic, Civilian Government?

February 11, 2011 at 5:59 PM EDT
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As President Mubarak steps aside and the military assumes control, Egypt faces numerous obstacles as it transitions to democracy. Jeffrey Brown talks with Harvard University's Tarek Masoud, Tufts University's Rami Khouri and Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya TV about what's ahead for Egypt's political scene.
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JIM LEHRER: And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we continue our look at Egypt and beyond with Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University, Rami Khouri, a journalist and director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. He’s now a visiting scholar at Tufts University. And Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya TV, an Arab-language satellite news channel.

Hisham, I want to start with this word historic. Explain it. In what ways is this historic?

HISHAM MELHEM, Al-Arabiya Television: It is because of Egypt’s size, its culture, its history, its homogeneity, its past influence, and hopefully its renewed influence.

You have a regime that was entrenched for more than 30 years. And in the span of 18 days, peacefully, creatively, noisily, this regime was brought down. And this is people’s power, the likes of which we did not see in the Arab world. And even Arabs themselves became so cynical about the promise of a better future. The Egyptians today are telling us our best days are not necessarily behind; our best days are in the future.

And today, without an exaggeration, I can tell you, all Arabs are honorary Egyptians.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rami Khouri, what — what word do you use for today?

RAMI KHOURI, American University of Beirut: Well, I would even go beyond historic. I think it’s cosmic.

I mean, this is extraordinary, in what it means in terms of the Arab world. After the Tunisian — starting the process, the Tunisian precedent, then leading to Egypt, we now have a clear break in the modern Arab security state that has ruled this region for the last two-and-a-half, three generations.

And, for the first time, we are seeing unbelievably important processes of national self-determination created by the citizenry of an Arab country. We have processes of citizens, civil society, businesspeople, rule of law judges and lawyers and military negotiating a transitional mechanism, so that power is vested in the consent of the governed.

These are unprecedented situations in the Arab world. We also have the process where you are likely to get, after some time, civilian oversight over the military and security, as happened in Turkey, for instance recently, and ultimately over the expenditures, the budgets of Arab — of Arab governments and Arab ruling families and royal families. This is unprecedented. And it has to happen. And it has started.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Tarek, now put the what next, all of that, in the Egyptian context here.

TAREK MASOUD, Harvard University: Yes, I mean what next is the essential question.

There is no doubt that today is a historic day in Egypt. They haven’t changed their leaders, by — by choice or not, since 1952 basically, when they overthrew the king. But the question really is now, what’s next?

As many of the people in the reports that you were showing said, they want a civilian government. They’re not happy with the military taking over. The last time the military took over in Egypt was 1952, and they have had a pretty hard time getting them out. So, the question is, what kind of guarantees can the military provide that they are actually going to midwife a kind of democratic process, that we’re actually going to get the things that Rami talked about, civilian oversight of the military?

I mean, that’s very – that’s a very tall order in this part of the world. And so we’re not yet sure that we have actually gotten a regime change.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — what questions do you have, Hisham? You look at the military. You look at the Muslim Brotherhood. You look at democratic powers that really don’t have — they haven’t had any power, right, democratic groups.

HISHAM MELHEM: The good thing about Egypt is, between the two World Wars, Egypt was — had a liberal society. It has a political life. It has parties. It was not — it was dysfunctional in many ways, but it was not a very repressive regime.

Egypt, at one time, was the bellwether of the Arab world, was the trendsetter, created great culture, movies, cinema, you name it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you and I have talked about this many times, right?

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

HISHAM MELHEM: And I think, when those people were demonstrating against the regime, they were demonstrating against the man who became the personification of the decay and the decline of Egypt.

And I think today, the challenge is what is to be done, again, that famous question. And I think I have seen a tremendous intelligence and creativity to make me believe that the people who are friendly now with the army will be also very cynical and very suspicious about what Arab armies have done in the past or what they are likely to do.

It’s true that this army didn’t shoot at the people. You would expect that in the streets of Damascus and the old Baghdad, but not necessarily in Cairo. But this army, let’s not forget, is one of the major pillars of that existing regime that really brought the Egyptians to their knees.

And you have — and this is an opaque institution, in the sense that we don’t know much about the dynamics among the senior officer corps. The minister of defense, 75 years old, picked by — by Mubarak, because he’s a lackey of Mubarak.

So, essentially, what you have here is, is, people have vested interest in the status quo, not in real reform, because they have economic interests, they have their fancy villas, and they have their own industries that they can control.

And if we are talking about real reform, if you are talking about real civilian control of the military, if you talk about rule of law, if you are talking about all of these things, I bet you that some in the senior officer corps in Egypt — I don’t know much about the general officer corps — will resist these changes.

And that’s why those people in Midan Tahrir should be skeptic about the intentions, the long-term intentions of the army. My fear now is, they are trying to co-opt the movement, try to divide it, try to create fissures, you know, among the various groups.

And I think, you know, at this stage, I’m not that concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood. I think, if you create enough space in Egypt, civil society will revive itself, and then will you have all of these secular forces, liberals, nationalists and others, compete with the Islamists. And then you will see the Islamists reduced to their size.

Barack Obama is correct. They represent — I mean, they have roots in the Egyptian society, but they are not the leading force in the society. And this movement wasn’t led by the Islamists. It was led by secularists.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — Rami, what do you think about the role of the army at this point? Has enough changed? Are that — is that status quo that Hisham is talking about still in place?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, I think the Egyptian people have around 5,500 years of experience of running urban society. They now how to do this. They know about civil society. They know about legal systems. They know about farming and trade and commerce and foreign relations.

They know this better than anybody else in the entire world, virtually. So, I have enormous faith in the ability of the ordinary Egyptian people to come together and make this transition. They haven’t had a chance to do this in 50 or 60 years.

But so — I think, but it’s there. It’s chromosomally in them. And you have got hundreds of thousands of Egyptians around the world, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, university presidents, the most unbelievably talented people, who will come back to Egypt now.

And I don’t think there is going be any problem. The critical element — as my two colleagues and friends have said, that the critical element now is the transition. And we must make sure — or the Egyptian people must make sure, as the Tunisians have tried to do, that the transition takes place in a mechanism that includes a lot of civilians as well as the military.

The military is held in high esteem in Egypt, as in most of the Arab world. The Mukhabarat, the police, those sort of things that people don’t particularly like, because they beat them up. But the army is held in high — the armed forces are held in high esteem. And this is the moment where the army will realize that it too can come out as a winner.

I think, one last point, the critical thing to remember, in other situations of transition, Russia, South Africa, other places like this around the world, one of the critical elements for a peaceful transition was to let the people who made money in the old regime keep their money, by and large.

You have to be able to say, OK, this isn’t the past. Now we’re changing to the future. They took. They stole. No more stealing. Let’s now get a new system going. And this is hard to swallow, but it may be one of the bitter pills that has to be swallowed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well…

RAMI KHOURI: … so that the army can keep what it has, but then move on to a more democratic system.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tarek, we have — we have all talked about the historic role of Egypt in the Arab world. So, who is watching what has happened now, and how will it be felt?

TAREK MASOUD: Oh, I think everybody in the Arab world is watching this. Other Arab leaders are clearly watching this. And they are clearly very nervous about what just happened in Egypt and very probably upset that their good friend Mubarak, who probably was giving all of them advice in how to stay in power, is now gone.

And I think the Israelis are probably watching this. And I think they may actually be fairly comfortable by the fact that there’s a steady military hand at the — at the rudder in these coming days.

But, again, I think the issue is that, if Egypt is going to make this transition, it’s — people in the region are going to be nervous, and that’s — we just have to deal with that, because there’s no way to get democracy, which is messy and problematic, and — without — without ruffling some feathers in the region. But that’s where we need to go.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just a brief last word on the — on the — on who is watching here and how the impact will be felt?

HISHAM MELHEM: If you want to use the analogy of an earthquake, the reverberations from this Egyptian earthquake are going to be felt by every Arab society, not only by the societies and the people, but also by the ruler. And most of the rulers, if not all of them, in the Arab world are autocratic in varying degrees.

This is much, much important than the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which really went berserk. And Arabs read these signs in Arabic. They are influenced by — by the Egyptian culture. Yes, it is true that Egypt lost its, you know, influence in the last few years and decades, but it retained a lot, too.

As a young man growing up in Beirut the late ’60s, early ’70s, I used to partake in what Egypt used to offer in terms of art and — and literature. And they were really trendsetters. And…

TAREK MASOUD: And now they are again.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now they may be…

HISHAM MELHEM: And now they have the promise of…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

HISHAM MELHEM: … of regaining that, restoring that past glory. And we will all benefit from it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will leave it here.

Hisham Melhem, Tarek Masoud, Rami Khouri, thank you all very much.