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Mubarak Supporters’ Offensive Heightens Volatility in Egypt

February 2, 2011 at 4:07 PM EDT
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Supporters of President Mubarak and Egypt's ruling party went on an offensive Wednesday. The ensuing clashes left hundreds injured. Jeffrey Brown discusses the volatility of the situation with Nader Hashemi of the University of Denver, Leslie Campbell of the National Democratic Institute and Cornell Law School's Chantal Thomas.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we get more now on all of today’s developments from Nader Hashemi, an assistant professor of Middle East politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver; Leslie Campbell, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Democratic Institute; and Chantal Thomas, former head of the Law Department at the American University in Cairo. She’s a professor at Cornell Law School and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton.

Nader Hashemi, I will start with you.

How serious are today’s clashes in Cairo? How — how — how volatile is the situation now?

NADER HASHEMI, University of Denver: It’s very volatile and very serious.

I mean, what we’re seeing is an attempt by the Mubarak regime, in this last phase, to attempt a rearguard action to retain control of a society that it has lost control over. So, I think this does not bode well for the future of Egypt, and it suggests that the Mubarak regime is willing to sink to very deep depths of depravity to prevent a democratic transition from happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chantal Thomas, what are — what are you seeing from where you are? How — how — what’s your sense of how organized the pro-Mubarak forces are at this point?

CHANTAL THOMAS, Cornell Law School: Well, I think the sense is very much that the pro-Mubarak forces, sense of the average folks in Cairo is that they’re very much organized and, in fact, they are essentially plainclothes policemen who have been armed by Mubarak and by the police with tear gas, with horses, with camels, with resources to try to crack down on anti-Mubarak protests.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Leslie Campbell, how much wider support does President Mubarak have at this point? I mean, he’s been in power a long time, right? So there’s a whole sort of regime there that is used to him.

LESLIE CAMPBELL, National Democratic Institute: Right.

It’s not terribly surprising that a ruling party that controlled and does control still every aspect of Egyptian society, every institution, the police force, some of the labor unions, the business, and so it’s not too surprising that that ruling party didn’t give up quite so easily.

I think that some of the protesters maybe saw Ben Ali of Tunisia leave after only a few weeks of protests, and perhaps they were naive in thinking that the ruling apparatus of Egypt would give up so quickly.

But I agree. These are serious, but I think the protesters are probably not going to be put off this easily. But what I’m afraid is, we will see many days of high tension and, unfortunately, probably some violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it — staying with you for a moment, is it possible to tell about the wider society, a kind of silent majority out there, where — where they would come down, pro- or anti- — anti-Mubarak?

LESLIE CAMPBELL: I don’t know if there’s any scientific way of knowing.

The Egyptians — many Egyptians, the educational level is not that high. There’s a lot of illiteracy. There’s a lot of poverty. One of the — well, more than one report — many reports today of the thugs that were sent in to break up these demonstrations is that a number of them were clearly from a lower socioeconomic class.

It’s possible they were, for example, paid a small sum of money. But what we have been hearing — and I think this is very serious — is that people are tired of the disruption. Food supplies are low. In fact, the government of Egypt subsidizes staples: flour, bread, cooking oil, those sorts of things. And they can control the flow of some of those staple foods. And people do want to go back to normal life.

JEFFREY BROWN: That would suggest, Nader Hashemi, that’s pressure, and perhaps a strategy to put pressure on demonstrators to — to allow things to get back to normal. Do you that is a — that is a plan from the government?

NADER HASHEMI: Absolutely. I think it’s a deliberate strategy, really, to, you know, divide and conquer, in a sense, to — to send a message that, look, if these protests continue, if you go into the street, that you won’t be able to feed your families.

And this is part of, I think, a broader strategy of trying to encourage people not to leave their homes to join the pro-democracy protests. And it’s part and parcel of just a — of what I mentioned before, a rearguard action, a desperate attempt by a regime that is in its final phases to reassert control. So, I see this as very orchestrated and deliberate.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you see — staying with you for a moment, do you see this — the president, President Mubarak, counting on reaching this larger majority of people out there that are not the ones in Tahrir Square? Can he — is — can he count on — on any support from people like that?

NADER HASHEMI: No, I don’t think that’s what he’s attempting to do. I think he’s — what he’s attempting to do is reach out to that segment of society to intimidate them, to send a clear message that, look, if you come into the street, you will get a Molotov cocktail thrown at you, that you could get beaten up.

It’s to really send a message that law and order is slipping away, and it is in your own personal interest to remain at home and not to join the protests. So, I think — I don’t think it’s trying to ideologically win any supporters. I think those days are long past, after 30 years of dictatorship. It’s really to instill fear, and — and — and, by instilling fear, to hope to — the hope is to regain control.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Chantal Thomas, is it a kind of a stalemate? What — what breaks it? What is the — what are the calculations by both sides here?

CHANTAL THOMAS: Well, you know, I have to disagree a bit with some of my colleagues here.

I do think, in talking to friends and colleagues there in Cairo, that, you know, I think the — the majority do want a peaceful transition. They are frustrated with the status quo. They would like to see change. But I do agree as well that the strategy here is to try to wear down popular support for a change in power domestically, and also, frankly, to try to convince the international community to continue to support Mubarak in order to maintain stability, not only in Egypt but in the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, you — you — we did hear the international community with pretty sharp rebukes of President Mubarak today. Do you think that has any impact?

CHANTAL THOMAS: We would hope. We would hope. We would hope that, as well, that what leaders in the international community and our own government are saying to news cameras and explicitly also tracks with what they may be saying behind closed doors.

I certainly am not casting any aspersions here, but it’s very true that Mubarak has been a key ally in the region, and he knows that a big part of his authority, domestically and internationally, has been promising stability. So, I do think that, although there is vocal criticism of what Mubarak has been up to in the past few days, that we still have some ways to go before we see a really decisive change, in terms of pressure in the international community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Leslie Campbell, what do you make of the army’s stance today, apparently allowing the pro-Mubarak forces in on horse, on camel, and — and in large numbers, standing by…


JEFFREY BROWN: … but not taking action for one side or the other?

LESLIE CAMPBELL: It’s disturbing, because one of the positive narratives of the last few days of protests was — the narrative was that the army was professional, it was neutral. Perhaps some of the protesters thought even perhaps the army was on their side.

And there was a sense, I think, yesterday sort of euphoria after the large protests of yesterday that the army was sort of standing by in a sense to safeguard a transition.

But what we saw today — and I think it’s ironic — maybe that is not a strong enough word — it was tragic that, after President Mubarak promised a transition, the first step appeared to be to unleash the thugs on the protesters.

And then the army, in their first real test, stood by and allowed this violence to occur. So, I think what the protesters are going home tonight thinking is, wow, if that’s the first day of transition to something new, that’s terrible.

And I would amplify this — this idea about the international community. I think they have to make it loud and make their views known loud and clear that transition to something new doesn’t start with unleashing violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nader Hashemi, what do you think about the army’s role today and — and going forward? I mean, they’re still a major player in whatever kind of transition takes place, right?

NADER HASHEMI: Right. They are.

Yesterday, it’s important to point out that the army did issue a statement on — on television, Egyptian television, that it wants the protests to end, that they have gone on for too long. And there’s an indication that it may start to take a more determined position in terms of how these protests are playing out.

Events today, I think, raise a lot of questions. There’s been an analysis that the army is on the side of the people. I think the best case that can be made about where the army stands right now, that it is at least the people on the streets, these soldiers on the streets, are neutral.

And it’s pretty clear, from my reading of it, that the senior officer corps, the upper echelons, are still very loyal to Mubarak. So, I don’t see the army playing any sort of positive role here in terms of promoting a democratic transition, at least not in the near future.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, Chantal Thomas, we — we talked last night about the various opposition groups. In light of what’s happened today, do you have any sense of how much they’re able to coalesce, to have a kind of single agenda or a single response to the government?

CHANTAL THOMAS: Well, what we’re seeing is so unprecedented, it’s really hard to say. This revolution, as it — it looks like it will be, or may well turn out to be, really started out completely unorganized, really a sort of 21st century through new technology, of course, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest of it, with no clear leaders.

I think now what we’re seeing is an attempt to find some kind of an organization through political opposition leaders who have been on the scene for a while and new ones who are emerging. But whether they will be able to come together and forgo their internal divisions in order to add to the pressure for Mubarak to step down, I think it’s a bit too early to call.


Chantal Thomas, Leslie Campbell and Nader Hashemi, thank you all very much.