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Amid Combustible Atmosphere in Egypt, ‘There Could Be a Showdown’

February 10, 2011 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Jim Lehrer speaks with two former presidential national security advisers about the impact of Egyptian President Mubarak's speech and continuing political unrest on U.S.-Egypt relations. Stephen Hadley served under President George W. Bush, and Zbigniew Brzezinski held the post in the Carter administration.

JIM LEHRER: Now some further perspective on today’s events from two former presidential national security advisers. Stephen Hadley held that position for President George W. Bush. He now has his own consulting firm. Zbigniew Brzezinski served President Carter in that same national security post. He’s now counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Both of you gentlemen know President Mubarak, have dealt with him. As this thing was approaching even to this day, Dr. Brzezinski, did you ever believe that President Mubarak would actually voluntarily stand aside?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, former U.S. national security adviser: No, of course, not.

I mean, he has a sense of his own mission, his own worth, his responsibility. This doesn’t mean that the course he has chosen is right, but to expect him to resign, in part under domestic pressure, in part under pressure from the outside, is I think, a misreading of his personality and his history.

JIM LEHRER: His personality being what? What is it about his personality that would keep him from doing this in this situation that has now been dramatized these last several days?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Look, he was a fighter pilot. He’s from the military. Egyptians have a sense of their own pride. They even have special pride for the war of 1973 in which he participated.

That’s not the kind of background which inclines you to quit when the going gets rough and especially if you’re told to quit from the outside.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read that, Steve Hadley? Did you think that, hey, wait a minute, Mubarak might really actually go?

STEPHEN HADLEY, former U.S. national security adviser: I thought there was a possibility that he would confer his powers to Vice President Suleiman.

The problem he’s got is that if he were to actually resign as president, under the constitution, the leader of the Parliament would take over, and within 60 days, there would have to be presidential elections. And that’s really inconsistent with what our president has been saying, which we want an orderly and genuine transition — transition.

So, there is a problem that Dr. Brzezinski described about who this man is. There’s also, if you want a transition, a problem for him stepping down. But I did expect that he would more dramatically convey powers to Omar Suleiman.

And the problem was, if you read the speech, there’s a lot of sympathetic words for the people in the streets. There is a reform agenda, but it’s about 10 days too late. And rather than making expectations low and then exceeding the expectations to get ahead of the crisis, they did just the opposite. Expectations got way inflated, and what they delivered was much less.

So, rather than being ahead of this crisis, they’re now again behind. And their options as to how they go forward are considerably narrowed.

JIM LEHRER: What about the — the suggestion now that this thing was kind of a setup in a way? In other words, you — the military must act if the protesters take another step and it leads to violence, go after the palace, go after the radio-TV thing, and that the — then the military reacts, and everything would be justified, et cetera?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I have no — I have no idea if it was a setup. But I do feel that we’re getting to a point in which the options could become quite ominous, because obviously tensions are rising. The situation is fluid. There could be a showdown.

There could be the use of fire, lots of casualties, polarization, violence. And then the outcomes become equally unpalatable in whichever direction they go. Either the army takes over eventually, crushes the opposition, and we end up with Egypt a little bit like the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, for example. Or the army crumbles, disintegrates and we end up with something somewhat approximating Iran, namely, the Muslim Brotherhood from behind the scenes gains higher in significance, and Egypt veers in that direction.

So, the name of the game, in my judgment, is to the extent that we have any influence — and we have to be very careful not to exaggerate it — is to try to promote, advance a political process which transforms this is amorphous rising of the young people, the protesters and others, into a real participation in a political process, which means leaders become evident, programs begin to be articulated, and eventually the existing government, whoever is running it, and they sit down and define the rules of the game for a transition of power by elections.

That is exactly what happened in Poland in 18 – in 1989. The communist government, realizing that it can not crush Solidarity, was prepared to talk. Solidarity was willing to sit down. And then you had in effect a roundtable in which the opposition, led by trade union leader Walesa, assisted by intellectuals, with the church participating and the right wing and the left wing of the Communist Party together eventually arranging for elections.

That cannot happen in Egypt overnight, because you’re dealing with an amorphous protest which isn’t yet crystallized into some sort of programs and leaderships. And that’s what we have to promote as much as we can from the outside, but quietly, and not by imperative commands publicly.

JIM LEHRER: Can that be done? Can the U.S. promote that effectively?

STEPHEN HADLEY: I think we can.

It’s — it’s something our president has talked about. It’s — if you look at it, it’s what a lot of responsible leaders in Egypt are calling for: a transition time. You know, the options now are either the government party or the Muslim — which is the only really powerful party — and the clandestine, if you will, Muslim Brotherhood, because Hosni Mubarak has really prevented the arising of any non-Islamist middle parties.

They need time for those parties to organize and to emerge, so that when elections are held, the Egyptian people really have real choices. If they have real choices, I think they will accept and choose a government that is not an Islamist government. But to have their transition, you need some time.

The box they’re in was that, if President Mubarak had conveyed power to Omar Suleiman, and it had taken with the people in the street and had been accepted as a way forward, they would have bought time. But they’re running out of time under the constitution, with the demand now that Mubarak leave, because if he leaves, then under the constitution, elections come in 60 days.

That’s the — the challenge for them is to get a way to buy the time for the kind of process that Dr. Brzezinski talked about.

JIM LEHRER: When you were an official of the U.S. government, and before that, and since that time, was there — did there come a time when you believed that something like this could happen in Egypt, or that this was inevitable if Mubarak and the people who run the country didn’t get their act together?

STEPHEN HADLEY: You know, we have known for a long time that authoritative — authoritarian regimes look on their surface stable, but aren’t over the long term, that, in the end of the day, stable regimes are built on democratic freedom for the populations.

You look at it this way. The kindling for this kind of out — or uprising was laid because of the policies of the Mubarak regime, the authoritarianism, the destroying of any political center, so it was either the government party or the Muslim Brotherhood.

That put on the kindling. Nobody knew what the spark would be that would cause the uprising. But the spark has now come, and the uprising is in evident. The Egyptian people are trying to win their own freedom. That’s the only way you get freedom; you have to win it yourselves.

And what we need to do with our policy is to encourage a process, so that the end state is real freedom, not either an army crackdown or a Muslim Brotherhood takeover.

JIM LEHRER: Did you see the possibility of a spark coming, Dr. Brzezinski?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think Steve said it correctly. In these regimes, you never see the spark until the spark occurs.


JIM LEHRER: Too late.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Exactly. And that’s the problem. And that’s exactly the problem.

However, we have to recognize the fact that the Egyptian people don’t have yet a variety of political voices to whom to listen and whom to follow. That has now to be encouraged. And I wish, for example, the Republican Institute, the Democratic Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, the human rights groups, would be engaged as soon as possible in promoting, in effect, the civic organization of the Egyptian people.

But the great uncertainty in all of this is that there could be a collision, a spark. Something sets things off, there’s gunfire, lots of people get killed, and the whole thing erupts. And I have no way of predicting that.

I’m also perplexed, somewhat, by the reporting we’re getting, because what strikes me about the reporting is that it’s totally concentrated on one square in a large city of 15 million people, one square.


ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: And that’s all we have seen. And we have seen it now for 10 days.

But what about the rest of the country? Even what about the rest of Cairo? What’s happening there?


ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I wish our correspondents would talk to some of the other people, because we don’t really know what’s going on. We have essentially a focus on a narrow, highly congested, combustible situation.

But we don’t have a sense of what is really happening elsewhere in the country. In some places, it could be worse. For example, people have talked about Alexandria erupting. But, in many parts of the country, and maybe even in Cairo, it’s much less volatile. So, we don’t really have a good grasp, visually, and therefore intellectually, of what is really happening.

JIM LEHRER: You share that concern?

STEPHEN HADLEY: Yes. I think, though, tomorrow will be an interesting test, as Margaret Warner suggested.

Given the reaction in the square and, perhaps more broadly, to the speech today, it will be interesting to see how many people come out and where they come out tomorrow. I think that will tell us something about the strength of this movement. And then the question will be how, will the government respond?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: And the army, particularly the army.

You have to watch the army, because that’s the only national organization in Egypt today that’s really viable, that is an organization. There is the vox populi on the square and maybe elsewhere. There are the passive masses, but only one organized institution.

If there’s a collision, all bets are off. If there isn’t, then probably the action with Mubarak, as so proposed, is going to become reality, and maybe in a slightly faster fashion.

JIM LEHRER: Some — I’m going to pick up on a point of Dr. Brzezinski’s. Some — Margaret has done some reporting outside on the NewsHour and that…

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Yes, I noticed that. That was interesting, yes.

JIM LEHRER: … that there is a concern about people who are not in the square who want to go back to work, where they have got their shops open, but there’s nobody there to buy anything. They are — they were — in fact, she had a — had a — we had a piece on that the other — and that — that’s the — is that the majority, or do you think the majority is ready for — we don’t know, do we?


JIM LEHRER: Ready for this thing to go, to blow, if it need be?

STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, there — certainly, the majority, I think, at this point is watching.

But my expectation is they are spellbound by what is going on. And you see that in the deference that even President Mubarak gave to what is happening in the role of the young people in his speech. The military, I think, is the institution to watch. I think they do not want to crack down; they do not want to take over control in the country.

They’ve actually played this very well. They were not involved in the initial crackdown. That was done by the central security forces. They are now viewed as on the side of the people. They have talked about protecting the country, but also supporting the legitimate demands of the Egyptian people.

So, for the moment, the army is heroes. They are going to be loathe to give that up. And I think we do need to watch the army, but I think the army is pulling for a resolution well short of putting them charge.

JIM LEHRER: Well, we will see what we’re talking about 24 hours from now.



Thank you both.