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In Egypt, Who Will Emerge to Negotiate Over Nation’s Political Future?

February 1, 2011 at 5:52 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown looks at the makeup of the opposition in Egypt with Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Mona Eltahawy, a longtime reporter in the Middle East; and Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University who just returned from Egypt.
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JEFFREY BROWN: More now from Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the online journal The Arab Reform Bulletin. She’s served at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff. Mona Eltahawy is a longtime reporter in the Middle East, now an award-winning columnist and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. And Tarek Masoud is an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University. He just returned from a three-month trip to Egypt where he was researching opposition politics.

Mona Eltahawy, I will start with you. I just was reading a report that Mohammed ElBaradei has given an interview in which he referred to President Mubarak’s speech tonight as a — quote — “trick” to stay in power.

Do you think that that will be the reaction from demonstrators and opposition groups?

MONA ELTAHAWY, journalist and commentator: Oh, absolutely. That was the reaction that was coming out in real time as people in Tahrir Square, thousands upon thousands of them, were listening to Mubarak address the nation.

And they very angrily made clear that they weren’t buying any of it. It was very clear that he was basically trying to make it seem like he wanted to save the country from this crisis that he himself had created for the country. And then this idea that he wouldn’t run again, and that he had never intended to run again, nobody in Egypt buys this.

And you could hear very clearly — I was watching Al-Jazeera English online — people were saying, “Leave, leave,” (SPEAKING ARABIC) in Arabic. And they — they made it very clear they were not going to leave and most of them want to stay in — in Tahrir Square. And they were telling him that, you’re the one who is going to leave, not us.

Egyptians are not buying this. And I think what is more worrying is that pro-Mubarak thugs then entered some cities, Alexandria and Cairo, I’m hearing reports, to fight with the anti-Mubarak protesters. So, I think Mubarak must be held responsible for what happens going forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michele Dunne, we talk a lot about, how organized is the opposition here? When the president speaks, President Mubarak tonight, who — who — who speaks back to him? Who do we expect to hear from, and how organized is that message?

MICHELE DUNNE, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, there are different kinds of opposition in Egypt.

There are some legal political parties. Some of them are rather discredited by having worked with the Egyptian regime over the years. There are some big opposition movements, and they have tried to form a kind of a committee here.

And Mohammed ElBaradei is somewhat of a spokesman for them to — in order to react in an — in an organized way and to offer the Egyptian government someone with whom to negotiate. They say they want to negotiate with the military after Mubarak leaves.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you see ElBaradei as having the credibility for these groups to coalesce around?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, I think he has a great deal of credibility. I’m not sure he’s going to get 100 percent support from every group.

Don’t forget that some of these groups have very complicated relationships with the security services and so forth. But I think the major groups are — are going to allow Mohammed ElBaradei to be something of a focal point, not their leader, but — but a focal point for this purpose.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tarek Masoud, when you — when you look at the opposition groups out there and the demonstrators, is there an agenda that one can see beyond getting rid of President Mubarak, and particularly a question — the important question now, as we look at this — whatever this interim period is?

TAREK MASOUD, Harvard University: I think, yes, there absolutely is a unified opposition agenda.

If you look at the National Association for Change, which Mohammed ElBaradei founded and which most opposition groups participated in, they had a very concrete list of changes that they wanted to see.

If you look at the protests, the protests were about, you know, not simply unseating Mubarak but an end to injustice, arbitrary detention. They want, you know, obviously some economic justice.

But, also, there are concrete reforms that they want to make to the constitution to trim the powers of the presidency. Now, so that’s the — the broad agenda. The problem is right now that it’s not simply what — who on the opposition side is doing the negotiating. It’s who are they going to negotiate with?

Are they simply going to negotiate with the military? And if that’s the case, can the military — will the military somehow try to control this process?

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see to that, Mona Eltahawy? Who — who negotiates now? Who — who speaks at this point to whom?

MONA ELTAHAWY: You know, I think that the fact that we have seen up to a million people, if not more, in Egypt today, from all walks of life, I think that really speaks to the kind of democracy that Egyptians have wanted all along and that the Mubarak regime claimed didn’t exist, because it always positioned itself as either us or the Islamists.

And I think it’s absolutely imperative that the young people who have been at the — the — the lead of — of these incredible protests that I have never seen anything the like of in my life — I was born in Egypt — I’m 43 years old — it’s absolutely unprecedented.

I think it’s imperative that those young people are involved in whatever negotiations take place, because if they are not, they’re going to feel let down. And they must not — whoever emerges as either a focal point, as Michele said or some kind of committee, they must not forget who was pushing this.

And I think it’s imperative also for the U.S. administration to understand that it’s a good thing that there isn’t this one person behind the protests, because that says clearly that Egyptian society is now stepping forward and — and wants to be this kind of robust democracy that represents all points of view.

The neighborhood watch committees we have seen rise up or kind of form organically against these thugs who — who are out on the streets, I mean, that says to me that Egyptians are there being civil, taking care of their own neighborhoods, saying we are ready to assume responsibility for our country.

And finally, the fact that we haven’t had the police on the streets for so many days, and yet it’s been incredibly peaceful, barring the thugs that the Mubarak regime sent out, that is a good sign for me. So, I think it’s good that we don’t have this one person driving it but many people who must be included.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Michele Dunne, I mean, you have been looking at this possible reform movement or transformation even before all this started.

But now here we are, on a night when President Mubarak says he won’t run again. But what happens next?

MICHELE DUNNE: That’s really — yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What are the possibilities? Because I know it’s a hard question.

MICHELE DUNNE: That’s really unclear.

I think that the — sort of the package that President Mubarak offered today, that he won’t run, that he would sponsor some amendments to the constitution to open up the presidential race, that he would have the police trim back human rights abuses and so forth, would have been very acceptable a year ago, two years ago, or possibly even a week ago, when this first started.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mm-hmm.

MICHELE DUNNE: But I really have the sense right now that this is not going to be enough. Certainly, for the organized opposition groups, it’s not going to be enough.

We will have to wait and see over the next couple of days whether it will take sort of the wind out of the sails of the demonstrations at all, whether we will see smaller numbers, because they were calling for a very big demonstration on Friday and saying that that’s the decisive day, that’s the deadline. By then, Mubarak has to leave.

So, it’s really going to be interesting. I agree with what Mona said, that the initial reactions that we’re hearing is that what Mubarak has offered has really inflamed sentiment, rather than mollified people, and that, you know, that opens up the risk for, you know — and the longer these demonstrations go on, the demonstrators’ demands kind of escalate, and the — the more the possibility of violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tarek Masoud, what — what do you look for in the — in the — well, the hours and days ahead? Because all this is unfolding by the hour. What do you look for to see how this will play out among the opposition groups and the demonstrators?

TAREK MASOUD: Well, one question that I’m wondering about is what is the role of the current Egyptian constitution in all of this? So, if Mubarak accedes to the demands, the legitimate demands of the demonstrators and their completely understandable demands and leaves, well, the current Egyptian constitution mandates an election for the president within 60 days.

And it’s possible, of course, that you would then have this election, and opposition parties would participate in it, but it’s an election for a presidency that has a large number of really, you know, dictatorial powers.

So, having this presidential election before you first amend the constitution seems to me to be difficult. Now, how do you amend the constitution? Well, only the Parliament can do that. But the Parliament is a National Democratic Party Parliament. It’s Mubarak’s Parliament. So, you would have to first dissolve them.

And the opposition looks at this process and thinks, we want to shortcut this. We want to get rid of Mubarak, suspend the constitution, have a dialogue with the military, and — and create a — an alternative constitution. And that could be — that could work, but it could also be an opportunity for the military to draw this out and consolidate its hold.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and, Mona Eltahawy, were there any hints at all that in the speech that you heard — president Mubarak did talk about the constitution in his speech — any hints that — to help us understand where this may go?

MONA ELTAHAWY: He referred to two articles in the constitution that have to do with what kind of candidate can run. And this has been a longstanding problem in the Egyptian constitution.

Basically, after protests in 2005 in Egypt and pressure by the then Bush administration, Mubarak changed — amended, rather, the constitution to allow other candidates to run. And that’s how Ayman Nour ran against him. But the way it’s worded, basically, it — it — it prohibits any independent candidate from running.

So, Mubarak addressed that today. But I have to stress that Mubarak has been totally outpaced by what has been happening on the streets of Egypt. It’s very clear that the — the demonstrations and this million man march today has outpaced both Mubarak and the U.S. administration.

And I think it’s imperative that the U.S. administration joins Senator Kerry and makes it very clear to Mubarak that it is now a case of Mubarak versus the country of Egypt. And — and, for the sake of the stability of Egypt and its people, Mubarak must step down. I think this is absolutely crucial for the Obama administration to understand.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Mona Eltahawy, Michele Dunne and Tarek Masoud, thank you all three very much.