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As Protests Continue in Egypt, How Should U.S. Respond?

January 27, 2011 at 4:35 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown talks to Graeme Bannerman of the Middle East Institute and Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch about how the United States should proceed in light of the unrest in Egypt and whether the anti-government sentiment cropping up in several countries could have a domino effect in others.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how should the U.S. respond to the wave of protests that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt and Yemen, with protests also hitting Algeria and Mauritania?

We pick up on the comments of Vice President Biden, with Graeme Bannerman, a former Middle East analyst at the State and Defense departments. He’s now a scholar at the Middle East Institute. And Tom Malinowski is Washington director of Human Rights Watch. He served on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the Clinton administration.

Welcome to both of you.

TOM MALINOWSKI, Human Rights Watch: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Bannerman, first, you listened to Vice President Biden. Is this an easy call, which side the U.S. should be on?

GRAEME BANNERMAN, Middle East Institute: I don’t think this is a question of which side. I think there’s nobody who disagrees that the government of Egypt has been slow to address the economic, social and political problems they face.

The question for the United States is what can they do at this time to facilitate the government of Egypt doing that?

JEFFREY BROWN: And what — and when you listen to the vice president, what strikes you?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Well, he was struggling to balance the competing interests and thoughts that he must have been thinking about.

But, look, I think this is a — it’s a very dramatic moment. And I think what it tells us is that societies like this are inherently unstable, authoritarian societies like Egypt. There will be change in Egypt. Whether it’s tomorrow or in six months or a year, we don’t know.

And the big question is whether that change comes through violence and upheaval, which, obviously, the United States has an interest in avoiding, or whether it comes through a process of dialogue and discussion leading to democratic change.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what should the U.S. do right now? What should our posture be?

TOM MALINOWSKI: I think the U.S. — I think American voice, the public voice is incredibly important right now.

Those people that you saw out in the streets, most of them are incredibly cynical about where the United States stands. They believe in their hearts that the United States is afraid of change in Egypt and in the Arab world, that we will stick by dictators like Mubarak until the bitter end.

And to the extent that we can say in clear terms that that’s not the case, that we do want reform, we do want to see free elections, we don’t approve of beatings and tear-gassing of demonstrators, that changes the psychology of the situation on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what are your fears or concerns about going too far in support of the demonstrators?

GRAEME BANNERMAN: Well, the problem is for us in the Middle East is that American policies in the region with regard to the Palestinians, to Iraq, to anti-Islamic feelings, economic crisis in the world, are very unpopular in the region.

So, as a government, we face the situation that, if you have truly popular governments in these areas, you’re likely to elect people who are much less sympathetic to the United States, which creates a whole series of political problems for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: For example? I mean, you mean what comes after Mubarak, for example?

GRAEME BANNERMAN: Exactly. We don’t know where that’s going.

Now, do we want reform in Egypt? Absolutely. That’s in our interest. And I couldn’t agree more with Tom. But how you get there is very difficult.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — so, what would you advise the president at this point?

GRAEME BANNERMAN: Well, at this point, I think we need to encourage the government of Egypt to make the changes that are necessary, because the government of Egypt is there.

If that is not satisfactory, they will have to adjust their policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you mean not speak to the demonstrators and not interact with the opposition?

GRAEME BANNERMAN: No, I think we need to be sympathetic to the demonstrators’ goals. And, clearly, that’s necessary.

But we also have to understand that, at this point, only the government of Egypt can make the changes, and I think we should encourage them to do so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sympathetic, but it sounds like you say we should be doing more, in terms of speaking — lending support to the opposition?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Well, I don’t mean lending concrete support for overthrowing Mubarak, for example. I mean, it’s not our business who rules Egypt.

But we do have a stake in how Egypt is ruled. And I don’t think we have that much more time for the Mubarak government to meet what the vice president called the legitimate demands and aspirations of the Egyptian people, which begin with free and inclusive elections this year to determine who the president of Egypt will be.

And I think they do need to be explicitly calling on Mubarak to hold those kinds of elections for once.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about this question of we don’t know what comes next, right? How concerned should we be about that, about — especially about some of the possibilities of the past, where — were not the results we wanted, right?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Well, we never know what comes next in history.

But we do know, for example, that if there’s a bloodbath on the streets of Cairo tomorrow, when all of these people come out again, and, inevitably, a week later, the United States has to sit down and work with Mubarak on the Middle East peace process and all of our other interests, that will be awful for us.

It would be an awful position for the United States to be in. So, clearly, everything that we have in terms of influence with the Egyptian government, which is not inconsiderable, hundreds of millions of dollars of aid a year, all of that influence needs to be brought to bear now to prevent that kind of action by the Egyptian government.

JEFFREY BROWN: And if they resist?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Well, if they resist, then, you know, I think that aid needs to be on the table.

I think American interests are very profoundly tied up with what’s happening on the streets right now and the outcome of this process. And, you know, in terms of the outcome, a year or two, two years down the road President Mubarak for years, has liked to frighten us with this specter that, if he leaves power, the only alternative to his rule is the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical — the more radical Islamic organization in Egypt.

But the fascinating thing about these protests over the last few days is that they have not been led by the Muslim Brotherhood. These are young people, middle-class people, who want a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives. This is not a radical, anti-American movement.

But if the United States were to be seen as backing Mubarak against them, it might turn into a radical movement that’s against the United States, leading to exactly outcome that we fear.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. You wanted to jump in here.

GRAEME BANNERMAN: I would like to say that we don’t know where it’s going.

And for those of us — if you read Leslie Gelb’s blog this morning, he very — points out that revolutions start, and you never know where they end up. The moderates were in the Russian Revolution. The French Revolution was more moderate before the reign of terror. And, clearly, the Iranian Revolution, we thought the liberal Democrats, if anybody in Washington, was going to take over. Instead…

JEFFREY BROWN: You were playing a role in watching that.

GRAEME BANNERMAN: I was watching that very closely, and we missed the whole thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Missed — you got it wrong?

GRAEME BANNERMAN: Got it wrong, because we didn’t see this wave of Islamic fundamentalism coming along.

So, therefore, when we start these things, it’s going to happen. But the other thing that is important, I think, is the government of Egypt, by the nature of the society, has to be tough if they’re pressured. The one way to make them not want to compromise is for the United States to come in and say, you have to make these changes.

Then you make them look weak in front of their own people, and they’re not going to do that. The way they make the change is if President Mubarak is strong and gives the changes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you one more thing, going back to Vice President Biden.

He clearly delineated differences between countries. And I’m just wondering if you think, as a practical matter, does it make more sense to make our decisions country-specific, or is it better to have a kind of general stance, a more overarching response, the U.S. speaking to the Arab world, or the whole world, for that matter, on where we come down on these matters of principle?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Well, actually, I think they have had an overarching response, to their credit. I think they have said pretty consistently in the last few days that, in all these countries, the solution is for governments to listen to legitimate demands of their people.

The president said it in the State of the Union. The vice president just said it. They haven’t been for regime change and overthrowing governments, but in every case, they have said, listen to these demands before it’s too late, because I think they understand that, you know, yes, they’re all different countries, but they do have this in common: that the longer these governments wait to give their people a say in the way their government — governed, the more unstable they’re going to be, and the greater the chance of violence and upheaval that hurts everyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about that question?

GRAEME BANNERMAN: I think we have a bad record at this, because when you have had the two countries where you’ve had the freest and fairest elections, would be the Palestinian Authority and in Lebanon, in each case, what we have done is distanced ourselves from the winners of the elections.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pushed for the elections and then distanced themselves.

GRAEME BANNERMAN: And then distanced ourselves from the people.


GRAEME BANNERMAN: Where are the Hezbollah members of Parliament who won from the West Bank today? They’re in Israeli jails — I mean, not Hezbollah — I mean Hamas.


GRAEME BANNERMAN: And in Lebanon, now that we have this government that has a greater Hezbollah influence, what’s the talk in town, is to cut aid to Lebanon.

So, our credibility is very mixed here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will have to leave it there.

Graeme Bannerman, Tom Malinowski, thank you both very much.