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Remembering Jan. 25: How Will Mubarak-Era Tension Shape Egypt’s Future?

January 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
One year after the start of their revolution, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to Tahrir Square again on Wednesday. Margaret Warner and guests discuss how remnants from Hosni Mubarak's rule could translate into continuing tensions for the country.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the state of the Egyptian revolution, one year on, we turn to two longtime Middle East watchers who have just returned from Egypt. Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, served in the State Department and on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. He’s now vice president at the Brookings Institution. And Tarek Masoud is an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University. He specializes in Islamic political parties and their role in governance.

Welcome to you both.

Professor Masoud, beginning with you, what’s your assessment of the state of the revolution today?

TAREK MASOUD, Harvard University: Well, I think we’re right in the middle of a democratic transition in Egypt.

And as with any kind of transition, there are some things that are very promising and there are other things that are maybe a bit discouraging. On the discouraging side, of course, one year after the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, Egypt is ruled by the military.

And that’s a far cry from the democracy for which so many fought and some died in Tahrir and in other squares around Egypt. Also on the discouraging side is the fact that many of the economic grievances that animated the revolution remain in place, and some are even getting worse.

But then, on the positive side, Egypt just elected a parliament for the first time in Egypt’s modern history actually seems to represent the will of the Egyptian people. And though some might be discouraged that that parliament is dominated by Islamists who are not liberals, it’s nonetheless something that’s really extraordinary.

So this is a time of intense dynamism in Egypt, a country that, for the last 30 years, had been completely stagnant. Now things are in flux. We don’t know where the revolution will end up, but there’s a great deal of promise, as well as peril.

MARGARET WARNER: Martin, I see you, Martin Indyk, nodding your head. Bring in what we saw today in the square, the Islamists on one side of the square, and the liberal secular moderate forces on the other. What does that tell you about the state of play?

MARTIN INDYK, Brookings Institution: Well, politics have broken out in Egypt.

And there are people now, parliamentarians, who represent the will of the people, who have legitimacy. And they, I think, have a real stake, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the most seats, but not quite a majority.

And they have a real stake in converting square politics into party politics, and getting on with the stuff of that politics, which is electing a speaker, which they’ve now done, a Muslim Brotherhood speaker, and then engaging in, I think, a negotiation with the military about getting the military out of the government, this interim government, and establishing powers for the parliament and the presidency. And then there’ll be elections for the presidency.

MARGARET WARNER: One of the major points of disagreement in the square — in fact, it seemed that was the major point today — was how quickly does the military need to step out of it?

Now, you talk to all the players there. What is your sense of the balance of power and the relationship between the Brotherhood and the military?

MARTIN INDYK: I think that there’s a common interest among all of these parties from left to right in getting the military out.

But I think the Muslim Brotherhood, after 80 years in the wilderness, is ready for some pragmatic compromises with the military that some of the others, the Salafis on — to their right and the liberals to their left, will not be prepared to make.

They’re — I think they’re talking about cutting a deal with the military about protecting the military’s interest, which is, for the liberals in the game, unacceptable, particularly the revolutionary youth.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about . . . prerogatives and perks.

MARTIN INDYK: Right, and then also the question of who would be the president.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not running a candidate, but the suspicion is in the air in Cairo that the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are going to deal for a candidate — to elect a candidate who will be beholden to them, in effect, their marionette, as one of the liberal leaders said to me.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Masoud, weigh in on the — both the historic nature of the Brotherhood being long oppressed, being the dominant party, and where you think — do they have a consensus on where they want to lead this country?

TAREK MASOUD: Well, you’re absolutely right.

And as Martin mentioned, the Muslim Brotherhood is an organization that was founded in 1928. And though its fortunes in Egypt have sort of ebbed and flowed over the years, it very much was in the wilderness. So this is a kind of — an intensely emotional moment for them to actually be almost, although not quite, in the majority in Parliament.

In terms of where they want to take Egypt, I think that their primary focus now is, as Martin said, on getting the military out of power. And though there is — there may be reasons to be discouraged that the Muslim Brothers represent such a large portion of parliament. So we don’t really — Egypt has never had a parliament and doesn’t now have a parliament that is full of a variety of groups that are evenly matched, right?

In the Mubarak period, you had a ruling party that dominated. Now you have Islamists who dominate. And this is a little bit discouraging, but, at the same time, if you have to cut a deal with the military to get them out of power and to make them feel secure enough that the deal will stick, it actually might be useful to have a party that dominates the parliament, because that’s a group that the military could trust to follow through on promises.

That’s where the brothers are focusing.

MARGARET WARNER: Very quick follow-up to both of you, what about the secular moderates, the ones who sparked this revolution a year ago? They have less than 10 percent of the seats.

Do they have any real influence on the course of events, Tarek Masoud?

TAREK MASOUD: Well, they have about 20 percent of the seats, the liberals.

And it’s worth noting that on the Muslim Brotherhood list, there are about 10 or so liberals that were elected, including individuals from Ayman Nour’s party, Ayman Nour being a prominent liberal. So I think the liberals are present in parliament. And they didn’t do as well as we thought they would have — we would have hoped they would do, but that’s because the debate about politics was tilted in the Muslim Brotherhood’s favor.

There was a lot of talk about what’s the role of religion. And once you make that the national conversation, Islamists are poised to win. But as the conversation moves towards the economy, to jobs, to, you know, deepening Egyptian democracy, the liberals have a real chance.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Martin Indyk, how much pressure does the worsening economy put on all these political players? And we haven’t even mentioned the Salafists, the fundamentalist Islamists.

MARTIN INDYK: There’s one number that they all have to think about, and that is 87 million — 87 million Egyptians that need food and jobs and housing.

And that is really playing on their minds, because they don’t have oil, like the Iranians had after their revolution, like the Iraqis have to fight about. And so they all have to focus on the fact that, now that they’re elected, they are accountable. And they have to meet the needs of the people.

So there’s a striking pragmatism that one hears from left to right amongst the elected parliamentarians that now they have to focus on putting bread on the table.

MARGARET WARNER: Martin Indyk and Tarek Masoud, thank you so much.

TAREK MASOUD: Thank you.