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As Egypt’s Protests Spread, All Eyes on Army’s Allegiance, Next Moves

January 28, 2011 at 5:56 PM EST
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Judy Woodruff examines the U.S. response to the crisis in Egypt with Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, who just returned from Egypt; 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.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we come back to the turmoil in Egypt.

At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs repeated pleas for both sides to avoid violence and said now is the time for the Mubarak government to reform.

But he went further, with a warning that Washington will review its financial assistance to Egypt. The U.S. provided $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid in fiscal year 2010.

Gibbs spoke to reporters before President Mubarak addressed his country this evening.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: The security personnel in Egypt need to refrain from violence. Protesters should refrain from violence as well.

The legitimate grievances that have festered for quite some time in Egypt have to be addressed by the Egyptian government immediately, and violence is not the response.

QUESTION: What’s the United States doing about aid?

ROBERT GIBBS: Obviously, we will be reviewing our assistance posture based on — based on events now and in the coming days.

QUESTION: I’m wondering why this message that you are delivering from the podium, or we heard from Secretary of State Clinton earlier today, why the president isn’t himself making those same comments on the phone call? I mean, it seems that it would be more powerful if the president can pick up the phone, call President Mubarak, and make the same remarks?

ROBERT GIBBS: Well, again — again, I think it’s important to understand that we have — we are in continual contact with — throughout levels of our government, with the Egyptian government.

And I think what’s also very important is we have not waited for the events of the past several days to bring up our concerns and the concerns of the Egyptian people about — about what I said: association, assembly, freedom of expression, freedom — Internet freedoms.

Those are discussions that are had at every opportunity when anybody from our government meets with the Egyptian government.

Yes, ma’am?

QUESTION: You have repeatedly said that the U.S. is urging for reform in Egypt.

ROBERT GIBBS: Yes.

QUESTION: But, concretely, what types of reforms are you urging for? And also is this realistic, I mean given that the same regime has been in power there for 30 years?

ROBERT GIBBS: Well, I — let me — I outlined a couple of things yesterday and repeated them today, the types of things that we certainly would envision.

I think — and I will repeat those. Obviously, I mentioned free and fair elections. I mentioned our condemnation of the extension of emergency law and that that should be ended.

But the grievances of the people have to be addressed directly by the government, and I think there has to be a significant and thorough dialogue to address, again, a whole host of individual rights that the people rightly believe are lacking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The State Department, meanwhile, issued warnings urging U.S. citizens to postpone nonessential travel there and said Americans in Egypt should stay indoors.

For more on this very dramatic day, we turn to Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations — he just returned last night from a trip to Egypt, where he met with members of the government, as well as protesters; Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University; and Mary-Jane Deeb. She is chief of the African and Middle East Division at the Library of Congress. The views she expresses here are her own.

Thank you all for being with us.

Let me start with you, Steven Cook, because you are just back. You have listened to President Mubarak’s statement. What did you make of it? He’s staying in place. He’s defiant.

STEVEN COOK, Council on Foreign Relations: My first reaction is that it’s stunningly deluded.

From the very beginning, when these protests began on Tuesday afternoon in Cairo, the first demand of these protesters is that Mubarak must go. When I was in Tahrir Square on Tuesday night, they were screaming that Mubarak should join Ben Ali in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

This is not about the government. It’s not about Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. It’s not about the ministers. It’s about President Mubarak, his son Gamal Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party. The vast majority of Egyptians who are now out on the streets want significant change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Mary-Jane Deeb he is saying he wants reforms. He wasn’t specific about what he wants. He talked about dealing with poverty, economic reform. But he kept stressing security.

MARY-JANE DEEB, Library of Congress: Well, that’s — that’s the way he is protecting himself. He’s claiming that all the — all the things that he’s doing, the clamping down on people, is for security and law and order.

But the Egyptians know that this is a way of preventing them from getting what they want. So, they’re not giving in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Samer Shehata, when you listened to President Mubarak, did you hear anything different, anything out of character for him?

SAMER SHEHATA, Georgetown University: There was a little bit of out-of-character statements.

I mean, it was interesting that he began immediately by expressing some sadness about the death of the protesters. And he also said and confirmed, supposedly — but of course no one believes this — his commitment to peaceful protest and the right to do so.

So, I think that was an interesting out-of-character remark. But with regards to credibility…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wait a minute. Let me stop you there. Why do you say no one believes this?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, the Mubarak regime lacks credibility, and Mr. Mubarak lacks credibility.

As Steven was saying, the demand has been that Mr. Mubarak leave, an end to this regime. This is a president who in 1981 said that he would only be a one-term president. This is a president who has repeatedly said that the emergency law would be rescinded time and time again. This is a law that has been in place for over 30 years.

And this is a president who has promised on multiple occasions to have free and fair elections. And the only things that are certain, unfortunately, about Egyptian elections is that they are not free and fair.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Steven Cook, the military is in the — the police were in the streets, security forces. Now the military is in the streets. We were just seeing on the wires that the tanks have moved into the central square in Cairo. What further can the protesters do?

STEVEN COOK: Well, they can continue to protest.

As we heard in the reports, some protesters are continuing to oppose the — the — the army, and others are welcoming them, as a shield between them and the reviled police. Now Mubarak is really doubling down by sending the army out.

The army is a professional organization. It does not relish keeping the streets of Egypt quiet. But they are deeply entwined with this regime. They have benefited from this regime. And clearly, they maintain the trust in President Mubarak. And that’s why they’re willing to go out into the streets and try to calm this situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mary-Jane Deeb, who is Mubarak listening to now? How is he making these decisions?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Well, he has advisers around him.

But with the issue of the army — and I think it’s a very important issue — it depends who is advising the president. And the top — the top brass of the army are advising him.

But the rest of the army is really a cross-section of the Egyptian people. Because of conscription, young men from all classes, from all groups of society, educated, and, you know, past high school, get into the army. So, which way the army is going to go will define this uprising.

If the young people in the army go with the protesters, then Mubarak is going to fall. If the top brass succeeds in keeping the army fighting the young people in the street, then Mubarak stays.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any way to know, Samer Shehata, which way the army will go?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, there’s no way to know right now. I think we’re going to see tomorrow, however, because the protesters are going to continue to protest.

People were expecting in Egypt this evening, listening to President Mubarak, for him to say that he was going to either resign or not run in the scheduled presidential elections in 2011. That was the minimum that people might be willing to accept.

So, the question now is — because people are going to go out into the streets tomorrow and continue their protest until something major happens, until this regime possibly falls, so, the question now becomes is what will the army do tomorrow when the protesters are out there? Are they going to do what they are doing now, which is guarding public buildings, or are they going to open fire on their countrymen?

And this is not what the Egyptian army does. They’re not deployed on to the streets. And that’s why they have a great deal more respect and admiration among ordinary Egyptians. They’re a national institution. They are not the boot of the regime against the Egyptian people, which is what the Interior Ministry, the police and the security forces are.

STEVEN COOK: It’s interesting. The military has gone out into the streets before in 1977, during the bread rise that shook the Sadat regime. But they extracted a concession from Sadat.

He had wanted to cut subsidies. And before going out into the streets, the military said, you must restore those subsidies before we put down this popular unrest. In 1986, they came out into the streets to put down riots by the security forces.

But this is not, as Samer said, the jackboot of the regime. It is the Interior Ministry forces that have done the dirty work of keeping Egypt’s streets quiet.

There’s…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re shaking your head.

SAMER SHEHATA: There’s a major difference between the army’s presence on the street in ’86 and earlier with the food riots. Those were not politically motivated demonstrations and protests. Those were economically based…

STEVEN COOK: That’s correct.

SAMER SHEHATA: … and in the case of the security forces — these demonstrations, unlike any we have seen in Egypt over the past three or four decades, are political in nature. They are about removing this regime, a regime that has been in place for 29 years, three months and 20 some days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mary-Jane Deeb, you know, we keep hearing there’s very little organization among the protesters. We heard the correspondents in Cairo saying they didn’t seem to know what they are going to do tomorrow.

Are they as disorganized and spontaneous as what we are watching?

MARY-JANE DEEB: Not really. We have been looking at some of the blogs. And some of the blogs have manifestos. They try to define who they are, what they want. They have specific demands.

The first, of course, is the political demand, to get rid of the government, to have free and fair elections. But they also address economic issues. They also address issues of poverty. They address the issue of young people coming, graduating from universities and not finding jobs. And they want a safety net for those young people coming out.

So, they are addressing specific issues. And they are coming out in blogs, and then calling — calling neighbors to organize. They even have maps where demonstrators should be going down and demonstrating. They have specific locations that need to be attacked. So, I have seen some of the blogs, and they’re fascinating.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if they’re organized, are there — who are the leaders of the opposition?

STEVEN COOK: Well, that’s the thing. There is no central organizing group or node here.

This — what transpired on Tuesday and continued on Wednesday was essentially flash-mob protests. It was done through social media. It was done through Facebook and blogs and Twitter, in which people were communicating with each other where to go, where people were meeting up, and then suddenly…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now that’s been shut down, a lot of that.

STEVEN COOK: And now that has been shut down. So — but that was a much smaller crowd. Now you have a wider and deeper section of Egyptian society out on the streets. There isn’t real need for coordination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final question about the roll the U.S. is playing in all this. We heard Robert Gibbs saying very clearly, we’re looking at aid to Egypt in how President Mubarak handles this.

What bearing will that have on what happens there?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, I hope it has a bearing, but, so far, from listening to President Mubarak’s speech, it seems not to have had a bearing. The U.S.’s position has seemed to have evolved on this over the last few days.

You will remember Secretary Clinton said that she believed that the Egyptian government was stable, and then somehow said that both sides need to show restraint. President Obama’s remarks yesterday showed a focus — the importance of this issue. And then Mr. Gibbs’s remarks emphasized the need of peaceful protest and — and emphasized the right of Egyptians to protest.

And it was really a warning to Mr. Mubarak, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m just being told that there’s a new wire report that President Obama did speak with President Mubarak today, I’m told, for half-an-hour. And we’re also told to expect a statement from President Obama shortly. So, we will see where that heads.

Well, it’s clearly a fast-moving story, and we want to thank all three of you for being with us.

Mary-Jane Deeb, Steven Cook, Samer Shehata, thank you very much.

STEVEN COOK: You’re welcome.

SAMER SHEHATA: Thank you.

MARY-JANE DEEB: Thank you.