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Turmoil Grips Egypt as Mubarak Plots Next Move

February 3, 2011 at 5:15 PM EST
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Chaos continued to escalate in Egypt as President Hosni Mubarak told ABC News that stepping down now would create further turmoil. Judy Woodruff has more with Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, Samer Shehata of Georgetown University and Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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JIM LEHRER: Violence raged again in Egypt today, but President Mubarak stuck to his plan to stay in office until September. He told ABC News that he’s fed up and he wants to go. But he said if he stepped down now, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood would take power and cause greater chaos.

Separately, newly named Vice President Omar Suleiman said he has invited the Muslim Brotherhood to join talks on reform.

And in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Clinton appealed anew for the new regime to listen to its people.

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: And I urge the government to and a broad and credible representation of Egypt’s opposition, civil society and political factions to begin immediately serious negotiations on a peaceful and orderly transition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Beyond Egypt there were large-scale, new protests in Yemen today. Thousands of people marched in cities across the country against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Witnesses said police opened fire and used tear gas, and several people were wounded.

And the government of Algeria said that it will lift a state of emergency imposed 19 years ago. That could open the way to legal protest marches there.

Well, we get more on today’s news out of Egypt from Steve Clemons — he’s senior fellow at the New America Foundation and publisher of the blog The Washington Note — Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, and Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Thank you, all three, for being here.

I just want to report to you and our audience, we have just learned that Vice President Biden has been on the phone in the last hour or so calling the new Egyptian vice president urging restraint on both sides. We are — the wires are reporting the White House is saying — saying that the Egyptian government is responsible for ensuring peaceful demonstrations don’t lead to violence.

Now, Samer Shehata, what is the level of concern here in the United States about where things are headed?

SAMER SHEHATA, Georgetown University: Well, I think people are very concerned, both in Egypt and in the United States.

As the report mentioned, tomorrow is supposed to be the day, as far as the protesters are concerned, all different types of protesters, from the April 6 movement to the Muslim Brotherhood. And they’re going to try to get to Cairo and get to Midan Tahrir, Liberation Square, in large numbers.

And they’re hoping that that will be the end of Mr. Mubarak, and that he will either resign or leave. In fact, one group is calling it his day of departure.

And the fear, of course, is that if they are met with what we saw today, and even possibly worse with regards to regime repression.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steven Cook, if — since the Mubarak government, President Mubarak himself, the officials around him are saying the violence is due to others, to — being egged on by foreigners, that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind it, why is the vice president of the United States calling the Egyptian vice president to say you have responsibility in the government?

STEVEN COOK, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, because it’s clear, as your colleague Margaret Warner pointed out in her report, that nobody believes that this is anything but a regime-inspired violence intended to sow chaos and desperation among large groups of demonstrators, so that they peel off from the hard-core groups that remain in the square.

The whole objective of this is to convince those who’ve come out only recently into the streets that they have much to be feared, that there’s much to fear from coming out once again. And I think it’s important that it’s impressed upon Omar Suleiman and President Mubarak how important this is.

But it strikes me that we are now in existential territory for President Mubarak and even Vice President Suleiman, the now-presumptive successor to — to President Mubarak, that they have now pulled out all the stops in order to rescue the regime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Clemons, we did hear President Mubarak say in this off-camera interview with Christiane Amanpour of ABC that, essentially, he’s defiant. He says he’s going to stay in power until September.

Do we know what gives him the confidence to believe that he can do this? How big a gamble is it?

STEVEN CLEMONS, New America Foundation: I mean, I think — I think it’s a large gamble on one sense.

But to some degree, what you have seen President Mubarak and also his Gamal do in the last election in December 2010 is essentially go through a period of battening down the hatches, reinvigorating their controls in the state. They delivered 96 percent of the seats in the last Parliament. And they feel that they can last out this storm.

And I think one of the things that’s going on that’s quite sad is that, despite what we may be seeing in shocking images on the street, the establishment in Egypt is still watching Mubarak hold on and the Mubarak franchise have greater survivability than many of us think they might have and that they’re hedging their bets. They don’t think Mubarak is gone.

And Vice President Suleiman, despite being representative of — of at least the army’s choice, is not making a definitive difference between himself and Mubarak.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m sorry.

STEVEN CLEMONS: And that — and that is — is confusing things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who are you saying is hedging their bets?

STEVEN CLEMONS: I would say the Egyptian establishment, the elites in Egypt, that the — those that have held jobs, that are stakeholders.

They may not be in the streets, but they — where they go also matters. And I think it — there’s a big difference if they see the Mubarak franchise shut down, whether that means Mubarak stays and has no power or leaves the government. But, right now, they see them maintaining control and at least keeping their — their talons in, if you will, what Suleiman is doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re shaking your head, Samer Shehata.

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, I think that it’s become clear to many, to most Egyptians, and hopefully to most people in the military establishment in Egypt, that President Mubarak is now a liability.

He is not something that benefits their continuation, because, as long as he is there, as long as he is there as president, or as long as he is in the country, the protests are going to continue, and the image of Egypt is going to be tarnished. There’s a potential possibility of the Egyptian-U.S. relationship taking a new form in terms of military aid and so on.

So, he is a liability. And I would hope that they would realize that their continuation, their continuation — the continuation of their — of the regime, to some extent, which might not bode well for democracy, would be furthered if he were to exit the scene immediately.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Cook, go ahead. You look like you want to say something before I ask a question.

STEVEN COOK: Well, I think it’s — it’s — we’d like to hope that the military brass has come to the conclusion that he is a liability, and we do see a succession under way, with the naming of Omar Suleiman the vice president.

But, to this point, we have seen a unity of command, and we have not yet seen the military break from Mubarak. These are loyal — Mubarak loyalists. And as Samer suggested, they are deeply intertwined with the regime. Their goal is to save the regime.

They may at some point be looking for an opportunity for Mubarak’s graceful exit, so that the regime can go on under some other military figure. Right now, the candidate seems to be Omar Suleiman.

But I think, in answer to your original question, there is unity among the senior people, whether that is Suleiman, Mubarak, the chief of staff, Sami Annan, the head of the presidential guards, and the prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, an air force commander.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and let me just continue, though.

When the vice president says, Steve Cook, that he is prepared to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood to begin negotiations, do we take him at his word, given what’s been going on?

STEVEN COOK: I would not take him at his word.

I think that this is part of a broader strategy to undermine the opposition, to deflect the opposition, and to sow divisions among the opposition. Omar Suleiman, as the director of the General Intelligence Service, along with President Mubarak, have been two of the people most responsible for maintaining this authoritarian stability and repressing different political movements in Egypt, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood.

So, there’s no reason to believe that they’re very serious about this, other than that it being part of a strategy to undermine and sow divisions among — among the opposition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Clemons, do we have any better understanding after the last few days of — of the opposition, the strength of the opposition?

STEVEN CLEMONS: I think that the — our State Department and — and European governments have done a very good job very fast of tooling up, reaching out, trying to get a much better sense and gauge of what’s happening in the streets.

I think that there is still serious miscommunication going on, sometimes purposeful, on what the Egyptian leadership is choosing to hear from those trying to give it inputs on how — how to move.

I mean, we’re talking about negotiations here with the opposition. That seems to me to be ridiculous and a charade. What needs to happen is the immediate appointment of a committee to sort of promote and push forward free and fair elections that very clearly includes those who were rivals and antithetical to the Mubarak regime.

And there is — that’s not a negotiation. That’s immediate empowerment of other stakeholders for the moment. That would instantly take a lot of wind out of this storm, and this government is choosing not to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and back to what we started out talking about here, Samer Shehata. Tomorrow, the urgent question is, what’s going to happen, and how much resistance are we going to see from the government and from pro-Mubarak forces?

SAMER SHEHATA: Right.

I mean, I wish I knew the answer to that question. I think that there are a number of different questions. The first question is, will protesters in the opposition manage to get large numbers of people, possibly as many people as we saw in the million-person demonstration that exceeded the million number several days ago? That will be the first question.

The second question is will the Mubarak thugs and the Interior Ministry folks use repression against them? And then the third question, I think, is will it make any difference? In other words, if they do demonstrate in the millions all across the country, will this cause Mubarak or people around him to reconsider, to entertain the possibility of either resignation, which is one course, or his departure, which is what many people are calling for?

It gets very, very complicated, because what might be best for democracy in Egypt, much more fundamental change, really a complete change of the regime, is not necessarily in — is perceived to be in the interest of the United States, this orderly transition to Omar Suleiman, his vice president, who the WikiLeaks documents clearly indicate that he has no interest in democracy, no interest in allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to participate, no interest in human rights and so on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, those are all questions to keep in mind as we watch events unfold overnight and into tomorrow.

Samer Shehata, Steve Clemons, Steve Cook, we thank you, all three.

SAMER SHEHATA: Thank you.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Thank you.

STEVEN COOK: Thank you.