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What Would a Political ‘Transition’ in Egypt Look Like?

January 31, 2011 at 6:19 PM EDT
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Amid the calls for leadership change in Egypt are questions of what a new government would look like and who would lead it. Margaret Warner explores the possibilities with Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Egypt, Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund.
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MARGARET WARNER: We turn to how the Obama administration’s call for an orderly transition will play out in the streets and halls of government in Egypt.

To examine that, we go to Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001 — he’s now a professor at Princeton University — Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Ian Lesser, a onetime State Department staffer, now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

Welcome to all of you.

Marina Ottaway, I will begin with you.

You had two big developments today. First of all, the army said they wouldn’t fire on peaceful protesters. And late in the day, the vice president — the new vice president said President Mubarak wanted to have a dialogue — wanted him to have a dialogue with these protesters.

What do you think is going on here?

MARINA OTTAWAY, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, first of all, I think the military probably feels that it cannot shoot on the protesters.

It’s an army of conscripts. Many of those young men in the army now in a few months will be out — finished in the military service, they will be out in the streets facing the same problem the people who are demonstrating now.

So, I think it would be a very risky decision for the military to decide to shoot on the protesters. So, if they want to bring some control in the country without shooting, without doing a Tiananmen Square, essentially they have to start a dialogue. They have to start negotiating with the protesters.

The question is whether they will accept Suleiman as the interlocutor on the other side…

MARGARET WARNER: You mean whether the protesters will?

MARINA OTTAWAY: The protesters will accept that.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think, Ian Lesser? How do you interpret these two events?

IAN LESSER, German Marshall Fund: Well, I agree.

And I think it’s very important for the military to come out of this crisis or to try to come out of this crisis with its power and prestige and legitimacy in the society intact. The military has played such an important role in Egypt for so long.

So, I think they’re trying to calculate very carefully what they can do at this point. To me, it does really look as if the — the military general staff has taken a deliberate decision not to go the route of using overwhelming force to put this down.

I think they see the risks of that. So, I think they’re very much looking ahead to how this crisis is going to play itself out.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Kurtzer how do you see today’s developments? I mean, do you think the military is driving this? Do you think Mubarak is still in charge?

DANIEL KURTZER, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt: Well, Mubarak is still clearly in charge. And he’s still in charge of the military.

The military ultimately will be the arbiter of what happens in this society and is going — it’s going to be very careful not to overstep the bounds of what’s acceptable. But the public understands this is as well. We have seen in the past couple of days, when the demonstrators have tried to reach out to the troops that have been deployed on the streets.

So far, it appears that the military remains loyal to Mubarak, but within certain bounds. And I think today’s events suggest that the bounds are that they will simply not engage in a major confrontation with the public.

While that’s happening, we’re also seeing, as you noted, the vice president Omar Suleiman’s call for a dialogue. I think, in the next few days, you’re likely to see additional announcements of some potential political reforms, perhaps some economic reforms, in other words, a kind of carrot-and-stick approach in which Mubarak tries to hold on to power, the military becomes the mediator or arbitrator and tries to determine whether that will pacify and satisfy the demonstrators.

MARGARET WARNER: But Marina Ottaway, it was still a very interesting political signal for the military to come out and say publicly: We’re not going to fire on peaceful protesters.

MARINA OTTAWAY: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: I mean, why would they say that publicly?

MARINA OTTAWAY: Because I think that they’re trying to calm the situation down. I think it would be — the crowds are huge, and even bigger crowds are expected tomorrow.

MARGARET WARNER: Tomorrow.

MARINA OTTAWAY: And I think it would be a bloodbath if they decide to use force. So, I think that they were trying to send a signal to try also to keep the situation calm as much as possible to try and ensure a peaceful protest.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ian Lesser, do you think what — what both Hillary — Secretary Clinton and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs today were calling for an orderly transition, do you think that is still possible, that that is possible here?

MARINA OTTAWAY: Well, I think it is possible.

Now, I think you can see, with the steps that the military is taking and other things that are being done, this call for dialogue and so on, to try to — to try move this along in a way without coming to massive bloodshed.

But the risks are clearly still there, not least because there are powerful forces in the opposition in Egypt who really don’t see eye to eye, different elements, Islamist elements, secular elements, young, middle-class elements, elements of the old guard, of the elite, who are jealous of their prerogatives, economic and otherwise.

So, at a certain point, all of these competing interests in the future of Egypt are going to have to be reconciled.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, isn’t there also a question, Marina Ottaway — and then I’m going to get back to Ambassador Kurtzer — of who will rule the country during whatever transition unfolds? I mean, who do you think that would be?

MARINA OTTAWAY: There has to be some sort of a government of national unity, some sort of transitional government.

I don’t think it’s conceivable to have the Mubarak regime essentially leading the country to credible elections. There have to be too many changes taking place, including the writing of a new constitution.

There is no way in which you can have competitive elections in September, when the elections are scheduled, on the basis of the present constitution, because almost nobody can — almost nobody can run, except they are in the National Democratic Party.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ambassador Kurtzer, that puts that question squarely — I’m going to put it squarely before you. I mean, one, you dealt with President Mubarak for three years as U.S. ambassador. Do you think he would peacefully relinquish power? And, two, do you — do you think there is a scenario in which he could remain in power during this — quote — “transition”?

DANIEL KURTZER: There’s nothing in his background to suggest that he’s going to walk away from the presidency. And I would suggest there’s nothing in his background that suggests that he believes that he can’t prevail.

I think the steps he’s taken in the last couple of days, the appointment of a vice president, the first time he’s done that in 30 years of his rule, the appointment of a new Cabinet, the announcement today of the national dialogue, the announcement, which was clearly made with his understanding that the army is not going to fire on demonstrators, suggests that he’s trying to find a pathway in which he can remain in power, but some of the demands of the demonstrators get met, people go home, and then there’s a process of transition which is overseen by him and the army which still supports him.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see that scenario unfolding?

IAN LESSER: Well, I certainly think — I agree it’s the scenario that President Mubarak would like to pursue, and everything in his background suggests that this is what he’s going to try to do.

I’m less sanguine about whether he can be successful with this. I think, if you look, if you feel at what the society really is demanding in Egypt, very few people at this point, I think, are going to — are going to be willing to accept an outcome that includes Mubarak still in power at the end of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Marina Ottaway, that is the case that the one thing that seems to unify all these people in the squares is that Mubarak has to go.

But, otherwise — and you raised this earlier — I mean, is there even anyone, do you think, who is recognized by enough of them to negotiate? Some of them got together and said Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But do you think the people in the street are going to follow that lead?

MARINA OTTAWAY: I think — no, I don’t think it’s going to be that simple, because Mohamed ElBaradei got the support of the major political organization, except for the Muslim Brothers, who essentially are still holding back. I think they want a place at the table when the negotiations take place.

Also, the political parties that are willing to endorse ElBaradei do not represent the crowds in the streets. The secular political parties in Egypt don’t have the resolute constituencies. So, yes, they will have to be involved, but in the end that they will be the ones who are going to talk. It’s not the 20-year-olds who organized the demonstrations.

But they have to try and speak for more than the old political parties. And that is going to be really difficult.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you think — back to you, Ian Lesser — do you think the prospects are for the Muslim Brotherhood? I mean, at what point do you think they’re going to want to have a significant role here?

IAN LESSER: Well, I think they’re going to want to have a significant role, you know, very soon. But of course they’re going to want to see what the — what the — what the future holds over the next weeks and months. They’re going to want a role.

They do feel that they represent the strongest base of opposition in the country. And in many ways, that’s probably true. You can see this in Tunisia, where, you know, within a few weeks of — of Ben Ali leaving, the head of the Islamist movement, who had been living in exile for many years, just came back, to rapturous reception in Tunis today.

So, I mean, these are — these are powerful forces that somehow are going to have to get represented as this is resolved.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Kurtzer, another tidbit that came out today is that one of your predecessors, Frank Wisner, who was U.S. ambassador in the early ’90s, is now on the ground in Cairo to speak with members of the Egyptian government. This announcement was made by the State Department. So, he’s clearly there on some kind of semi-official mission.

What do you think is going on there?

DANIEL KURTZER: Well, you know, the administration has been communicating with the Mubarak government and with the Egyptian people largely through public announcements until now, presidential statements, Robert Gibbs’ announcements, secretary of state activities.

And I think the administration has now chosen a very well-respected former ambassador, one who had a very good relationship with Mubarak but also had a very good feel for what was happening in Egyptian society, to try to get a — a real on-the-ground pulse-taking of what’s happening. The ability that Frank Wisner has to talk to everybody in this society, from president on down, I think is unmatched.

So this is a — I think, a wise move on the part of an administration which has done a pretty good job until now of trying to navigate this very challenging course of maintaining our fealty to our principles and our values, while also not abandoning a friend and an ally who has done a great deal to support U.S. interests.

MARGARET WARNER: Quick final word. Do you agree that the administration has chart — kept to — I don’t remember Ambassador Kurtzer’s exact phrase here, but hewed a good course?

MARINA OTTAWAY: I think the administration tried to do the impossible.

They tried — you have a — the protesters who are at loggerhead with the government. And the administration tried to be on the side of both at the same time. They have the — the — the statements made by Hillary Clinton were very clear yesterday: We are on the side of the demonstration, but also Mubarak is the strategic ally.

You have to choose at some point.

MARGARET WARNER: And we have to leave it there.

Marina Ottaway, Ian Lesser and Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, thank you all.