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After ‘Vague’ Mubarak Speech, What’s Ahead for Him, VP, Army?

February 10, 2011 at 6:36 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with Georgetown University's Samer Shehata and Mary-Jane Deeb of the Library of Congress about the speeches by Egyptian President Mubarak and Vice President Suleiman, and what's ahead in Egypt's unrest and transfer of political power.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And more now from two people who’ve helped us analyze all this these past two weeks: Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, and Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle East Division at the Library of Congress. The views she expresses here are her own.

Welcome back to both of you.

Samer Shehata, this was not the speech that most people were expecting. What did you hear? What — what jumped out at you?

SAMER SHEHATA, Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies: Well, there wasn’t that much to the speech.

I mean, this is the third time President Mubarak has spoken, the third time the Egyptians have expected him to resign or leave, and the third time that Egyptians have been incredibly disappointed, in fact, shocked, outraged, really, as Margaret mentioned.

So, the details weren’t that important. He did talk about this supposed — quote, unquote — “national dialogue” with a group of opposition, quite broad and so on. He talked about youth. He talked about constitutional amendments, specific constitutional amendments having to do with restrictions on presidential candidacy and judicial supervision of elections.

But really, none of that mattered, because that’s not what this is about. I mean, for several weeks now, millions of Egyptians have been calling for the president to resign. And they didn’t get that. And I think things are going to escalate, as Margaret mentioned.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does — Mary-Jane Deeb, does it — does it mean that he thinks he has — does he have the backing of the military, of power elites? Is that — is that what it signifies?

MARY-JANE DEEB, Library of Congress: Absolutely. I mean, there is no way that he could stay in power if he didn’t have the backing of the top brass, the Supreme Armed Council.

And I think one of the issues that led to this belief that he was going to resign was the communique that was issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which basically said that the people’s demands would be met. This was a misunderstanding.

And that led people to believe that the president was going to resign, because that was this primary — the primary demand of the people. In reality, they were saying that they were going to, you know, respond to some of their demands for more democracy, more openness, et cetera.

So, it’s a very dangerous situation, because there you have the top brass of the army backing the president, supporting, and yet issuing a communique a bit earlier in the day that has led to very high expectations, and then, crash, the whole thing collapses.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the — the main news of this speech, that — this shifting of power to the vice president, what exactly does that mean? Do we know?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, no, and even that was very vague.

I mean, he simply said he was going to transfer some of the presidential powers to the vice president. We can surmise from what’s happened over the last three days and Mr. Suleiman’s appearance on Egyptian state television, for example, leading the so-called — quote, unquote — “national dialogue” and so on, or meeting with youth, or addressing the nation, that those are some of the powers or responsibilities that Omar Suleiman is taking.

But there was no specifics as to what he was going to be charged with or what powers Mr. Mubarak was going to give to the — to General Suleiman, the newly appointed vice president.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and what do you make of Mr. Suleiman now, given the speech by the president and then by the vice president…

MARY-JANE DEEB: The vice president and the president are out of touch.

JEFFREY BROWN: Out of touch?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Out of touch.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, but — together, but out of touch?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, together out of touch.

And the president is simply moving, shifting some of his responsibility to the vice president, so that, instead of the crowds focusing on the president, they now have two people to focus on, and he can sort of move back behind in the shadow, and leave Suleiman to face the music.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there was some sense that he might be — Suleiman, that is — the kind of transition figure. But you’re saying, not anymore?

MARY-JANE DEEB: He’s done. He’s finished.

Basically, Suleiman always wanted to become president. He was the major contender for the presidency with Gamal Mubarak. And now, in a way, he has burned his boats in terms of any expectation that there would be support for him among Egyptians.

JEFFREY BROWN: Samer, there — there were references in the speech to constitutional amendments and the emergency law. Hard for an American audience to — to know all those. What is he referring to with the amendments?

SAMER SHEHATA: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — what kind of changes is he talking about?

SAMER SHEHATA: Sure.

Well, he mentioned Article 76, which restricts quite narrowly who can actually run in presidential elections. That’s why Mohamed ElBaradei, for example, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is not permitted, because the restrictions are tailor-made so that only really members of the ruling party can run.

Or Article 77, which doesn’t provide term limits, which has allowed President Mubarak to rule for 29 years. Or Article 88, which essentially doesn’t allow any kind of supervision of the elections by the judiciary or outside bodies.

So, he mentioned these articles. These are longstanding demands that, you know, could have been implemented decades ago that Egyptians have been calling for. But the regime has lost all credibility. And Mr. Suleiman is certainly part of the regime. And transferring powers to him or him becoming an interim leader, I think that wouldn’t be acceptable at this stage for the vast majority of Egyptians.

JEFFREY BROWN: The — the language that — you know, the use of the word account chaos and the fear of chaos and stability, you heard that again tonight. What does that tell you about what happened today behind the scenes, the — the power elites, that’s the — that’s the strategy they have decided to come with here?

MARY-JANE DEEB: They have always spoke — spoken this way: law and order. You have to go back home. You know, we have to have a peaceful transition.

But, you know, it is avoiding the major issue, which is, he needs to resign, and a new — new elections have to be held. And so, by speaking about law and order and stability, they’re really evading — evading the issue. But, also, the danger is that they’re preparing the way for the — for a greater military intervention in the situation, because by emphasizing law and order…

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re signaling that, do you think?

MARY-JANE DEEB: It’s dangerous.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you — do you feel that?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, Mr. — Mr. Suleiman hinted at that yesterday when he said that, if things get out of hand, if the people don’t go back home, the military could get involved.

With regard to the question of chaos and anarchy, though, however, we have to remember that it — it’s a manufactured chaos. The regime is responsible for unleashing the thugs, for having the camels stampede into the protesters, for what we think is releasing the prisoners and so on. And this is the false choice that Mr. Mubarak has presented to Egyptians and the world.

It’s either chaos and anarchy, or me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

SAMER SHEHATA: And, of course, that’s, I think, the problem, is Mr. Mubarak and the regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was — there was another line that jumped out at — for me from President Mubarak where he referred briefly to foreign dictations.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: To a domestic audience, right?

MARY-JANE DEEB: And it was — it was — he was implying the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mm-hmm.

MARY-JANE DEEB: And, in fact, that might be good, because by implying that the United States is putting pressure on him to resign, that would make the — the Egyptian public very much in favor of — or very positive towards the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you sense that, too?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, yes.

I mean, in the past, of course, that kind of a discourse would have affected the Egyptian population, right? We don’t want foreign meddling and so on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

SAMER SHEHATA: But I think, really, no one believes that anymore. I mean, this is well beyond — this is not about the United States. It’s about Egyptian domestic politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and, finally, the — the vice president said, go home, go back to work. You heard what Margaret said, that that — it sounds unlikely, doesn’t it?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Not only that, but it is patronizing. I mean, you’re little children. Now go to bed. We are going to be — we are going to be dealing with the problems of Egypt. You really don’t know what you’re talking about. We know better than you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just on the wire, Mohamed, you mentioned, ElBaradei, he said, “Egypt will explode.” He sent out a warning: “Egypt will explode. The army must save the country now.”

SAMER SHEHATA: I think that that’s very correct.

I mean, not only have we seen this talk about moving — marching to the presidential palace, but protesters tried to really storm the Parliament yesterday. And as Margaret mentioned, the radio and television building is there. And I think the protesters are thinking about new and creative ways of moving around the city en masse, as opposed to simply restraining themselves in Tahrir Square.

So, this is going to escalate only.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

MARY-JANE DEEB: And, by escalating, it will lead to violence and interference of the army. And so, it may be a calculated risk by provoking people to violence, and then using the army to quell the violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mary-Jane Deeb, Samer Shehata, thank you both very much.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Thank you.