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In Egypt, Revolution Still ‘in Progress’ as Protesters Return to Tahrir

April 11, 2011 at 6:30 PM EST
Egypt's prime minister apologized and promised an investigation after troops stormed protesters in Tahrir Square, killing two and hurting dozens. Margaret Warner examines the latest unrest with Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S., and former National Security Council and State Department official Michelle Dunne.
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MARGARET WARNER: Late today, Egypt’s prime minister apologized for the weekend crackdown and said he’d ordered an investigation.

For more, we go to Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. He’s now dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University of Cairo. And Michele Dunne, a former National Security Council and State Department official. She’s with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and also edits the Arab Reform Bulletin.

And welcome to you both.

Ambassador Fahmy, let’s start with these crowds. Why are we seeing these huge crowds again in the square?

NABIL FAHMY, former Egyptian ambassador to the United States: I think it’s natural and to be expected. This is a revolution that is in progress.

The first phase, what they asked for was the president leave office. And they achieved that. Now what they are trying to do is build the tenets of a better Egypt, a more democratic one, a more inclusive one, and with more stakeholders.

Since we haven’t done this before, this is actually happening on the square and different squares around Egypt. It’s happening through a public debate. Demonstrations are used as political leverage. And there are many, many more stakeholders and different opinions about what Egypt should look like than there were, for example, during the demonstrations where there was a clear…

MARGARET WARNER: The original ones.

NABIL FAHMY: … original objective of getting people out.

So, I hope this won’t continue endlessly, but I completely understand it. Until we put together a clear-cut road map and people are comfortable with it, demonstrators will come out, particularly on Fridays, to express their opinions and try to pursue their demands.

MARGARET WARNER: But these — these protests, this demonstration was one of the largest.

Michele Dunne, how serious is the tension between — you were just there as well — how serious is the tension between these activists and the military, and the military council that is running the show?

MICHELE DUNNE, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Tension is mounting.

And what I think it is about is that the protesters are really determined to take down as many figures as they can from the old regime, because they are worried that, as often happens in these situations, that after a year or two, some of the officials and people from the old regime would kind of start to resurface. And they want to prevent that from happening.

So, they are demanding the prosecution, not only of President Mubarak and his sons, but of a large number of officials, the head of the ruling party, the former prime minister, et cetera. A number of these people now are either in jail or are facing charges and questioning.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Ambassador Fahmy, as we know, during the original uprising, the activists embraced the army as their protectors. Is it now just — is it a dispute over the pace of reform, or do you think there’s some deeper distrust developing, at least on the part of the activists, toward the military?

NABIL FAHMY: As of now, it’s mostly about the pace.

But if it is prolonged, and the pace continues to be slow, or there are issues that aren’t addressed, natural consequences when you have an open public discussion, people become a bit more cynical and will start challenging the military.

And that’s frankly why the military itself has announced they don’t want to stay longer than six months, and they want to hand it over to civilians to then pursue the continuation of the process.

MARGARET WARNER: But are they — is the public growing suspicious about why Mubarak — nothing has happened to Mubarak yet?

NABIL FAHMY: The public wanted it to happen more quickly. The public also understood that, by demonstrating, you get what you want.

And that’s why the attorney general just yesterday or day before yesterday, after the demonstrations, said: I’m going to bring in President Mubarak, former President Mubarak and his family for an investigation.

MARGARET WARNER: How much of a flash point, Michele Dunne, is this about President Mubarak and his family and corruption investigations?

MICHELE DUNNE: I think it is really a difficult issue. I think it is a very fraught issue for the military leadership.

For the demonstrators, it’s highly symbolic, that you need to take down the head of the old system to be sure that the old system is really gone. But for the military, it’s really difficult. And I think they’re subject to a lot of different pressures. They are feeling the pressure right now from demonstrators who are able to show that they can still call out large numbers of people.

On the other hand, Mubarak was the patron of the military. And let’s face it. If a lot of information starts coming out about Mubarak and other people in the regime and their dealings, one has to wonder if this will eventually lead to information that the military might find uncomfortable.

And also, there are reports in the Egyptian press — they are not confirmed, but there are reports that there is pressure from Saudi Arabia on the Egyptian military leadership not to allow the prosecution of Mubarak.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s move on to the broader path to democracy.

And you referred to this, Ambassador Fahmy. How well do you think — or in what ways do you think Egypt really is on this — as you said, it is a complicated process, and you have never been down it before. And where have there been some missteps or some missed opportunities? Have there been?

NABIL FAHMY: The most positive point has been the engagement of the public. This was a revolution lead by youth but supported by the public.

We had a referendum a couple of weeks ago. Forty-four percent of those eligible for voting went out and voted. In the past, the numbers were in single figures. And beyond that, everybody wants to participate in the new parties, in debating a constitution and so on and so forth.

So, I’m actually quite optimistic, because people now want to get engaged. Where I see concerns is if we do this too quickly and we’re between a rock and a hard place. We want the civilians to come and take power again and the military to go into the barracks. But if we do this too quickly, you will end up legitimately electing a Parliament that doesn’t represent post-revolution sufficiently. It will represent those who have been in politics before and know how to get the vote out and so on.

So, I…

MARGARET WARNER: Mainly, the old ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood?

NABIL FAHMY: Old ruling — yes, but also just basic people who joined the ruling party or were quite prominent in their villages and so on and so forth, and pursued it for national interests.

What’s changed is a true belief — I have mentioned this frequently — friends of my kids came up to my house after the demonstrations and the first curfew. And I said, sleep here, because there’s a curfew. They said: We own the country. We decide when there is a curfew.

So, it is different here. And you need to have a Parliament that represents this change.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see how they are doing on this path to democracy?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, Ambassador Fahmy mentioned this referendum. And I quite agree that the large public participation was a really good sign.

But I also think that some of the demonstrations we’re seeing right now is a response to that, because the military pressed forward with a referendum on limited constitutional changes that a lot of the activists who were behind the uprising opposed.

And the military felt that, you know, by getting 77 percent of voters in favor of the referendum, they showed, OK, the public is in favor of the political timetable we’ve established, which means pretty quick elections, parliamentary elections in September.

Meanwhile, the protesters, I think that these, you know, hundreds and thousands in Tahrir Square were a little bit their response to the referendum, to say, oh, yes? Well, we’re not happy with that fast timetable, and we want to show you that we still have a lot of support, too.

NABIL FAHMY: I agree with you completely.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. On that note of agreement, we will leave it there.

Michele Dunne and Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, thank you.

NABIL FAHMY: Thank you.

MICHELE DUNNE: Thank you.