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Egypt Faces ‘Fateful Turning Point’ With Elections in Jeopardy

November 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Clashes between police and protesters moved into a third day in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Monday. Ray Suarez discusses the increasingly deadly mix of politics and violence in Egypt with GlobalPost's Charles Sennott.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on this increasingly deadly mix of politics and violence, we go to Charles Sennott, a veteran Middle East correspondent and now executive editor of our partner GlobalPost, the international news website. Most recently, he has directed a team of 17 young Egyptian and American journalists in Egypt. Their reporting is featured on the GlobalPost website.

And Charles Sennott joins us now from Boston.

Charles, how does what we saw over the weekend and continues through today resemble, and how is it different, from the mounting revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak?

CHARLES SENNOTT, GlobalPost: Well, I think what happened in January and February was such an extraordinary moment in Egypt’s history. It was so full of hope.

There really was a sense of a nonviolent movement, largely nonviolent movement, that took to the streets, toppled a 30-year dictator, and wanted to push forward. I think what we’re seeing on the streets today is the frustration that has just erupted around, as you pointed out, the slow pace of change, the way in which the elections appear to be being thwarted by the military.

The movement toward drafting a constitution is also, many different political factions feel, being thwarted by the military. And so the military, which was such a — such — really seen as heroic during the first days of those demonstrations that toppled Mubarak is now being questioned.

And the fear, I think, that you sense in Egypt is, many people are wondering if this really is a revolution after all, or is it ending up as a sort of popularly supported military coup?

RAY SUAREZ: Are the coming parliamentary elections, in your view, in jeopardy?

CHARLES SENNOTT: I think they are. I mean, I think that’s being discussed in Egypt.

We have heard that, on national television, some of the anchors of the nightly newscasts have suggested that there is a question in the air as to whether or not these elections will go forward starting on Nov. 28, continuing over a six-week period, a very complex, confusing set of elections and runoffs that will put a new Parliament in place.

There’s very much a question looming in the air as to whether or not they will go forward. It looks like, for now, they will. The Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political party in Egypt right now, which, by conservative estimates, will take 30 percent of the vote, is saying that it’s going to demand that those elections go forward, and push very hard for them.

RAY SUAREZ: Even if they do go forward, the selection of a new president has been pushed far off into the future. Are people starting to doubt that the military will leave?

And let’s recall I’m asking this on the same day as the — all the civilians, remaining civilians in the cabinet quit en masse.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Yes, I think this is very much fateful turning point right now for Egypt.

You know, the military, as I said, was so trusted in that first phase of the popular uprisings that toppled Mubarak. If you remember, the shout in Tahrir Square was “The people, the army, one hand.”

The dramatic change that’s happened in the nine months since then is — is really extraordinary, to see the military slide in public opinion, to see the way it’s really cracked down on protests that have erupted, the way it’s imposed military tribunals, the way it’s really tried to exert its control, at one point sort of using some of the leverages of power to suggest that they would be immune to transparency, and not put under the same level of scrutiny of civilian control under a constitutional guarantee, sort of setting up a military state within a state, genuine fears, I think, by many aspects of the political opposition.

The religious, the Muslim Brotherhood, and also the secular movements and the more liberal parties are together, I think, in their expression of concern on, what is the role of the military going forward in Egypt?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you have got team of young reporters. What are they telling you about the mood on the streets of the country?

CHARLES SENNOTT: Yes, we had an extraordinary chance to work with these young correspondents. There were 16 of them. Eight of them were Egyptian. Eight of them were American. All of them were extremely talented.

And what they learned in sort of fanning out across Egypt and looking at all these different aspects of art and economics, of looking at the tourism sector, trying to really get at the — you know, the sort of everyday stories, the human narratives of Egypt, I think what they heard was a creeping cynicism, a sense that — fear that this revolution is slipping away from the Egyptian people.

We were really hearing that through these reporters. Open Hands Initiative, which promoted this, which supported this project, really looks for people-to-people understanding. And the reporting that the Egyptians and Americans did together really was interesting to see how it deepened that sense of getting to those human stories.

And, as I say, I think the most enduring theme that came out of their reporting was a feeling that the revolution is slipping away and that the Egyptian people are impatient about claiming it, and not allowing the military to impose its will, but to really push for democracy, so I think very much a fateful moment in Egypt’s history right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the United States has stepped very gingerly since the earliest days of the Arab spring. What’s the American stake here in what happens next, whatever it is, in Egypt?

CHARLES SENNOTT: Well, I think the stakes are quite high.

I mean, if you think about Egypt as the most populous country of the Arab world, if you think about the expression that the Arab world is a tent with two poles, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, how this plays out in Egypt is of tremendous importance in terms of what’s going to happen in the Arab spring. What kind of precedent will these elections set?

I think also a tremendous challenge to U.S. foreign policy here — you know, American foreign policy has talked about democracy in the region, but it’s favored stability. And it’s talked about supporting the popular will of the people, but it’s very wary of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And I think that our ideals run right up against sort of the will of the people in Egypt. And I think we’re going to have to really think this through, you know, as American people will have to think it through, but I think the U.S. government and foreign policy advisers have a very tough equation on the streets of Egypt right now.

There needs to be support for a nascent democracy, but, of course, there are great regional concerns, not the least among them, what will happen if an Islamist government does emerge? What if the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, a more sort of extreme fringe of the Islamist movement there, take control of that parliament and shape the constitution in a way that is not to the liking of the United States?

What about relationship — the relationship with Israel and the Camp David Accords? All of these questions are bound up in what’s going to happen in Egypt and what’s going to happen in this next election.

RAY SUAREZ: Charles Sennott joined us from Boston. He’s with GlobalPost.

Good to talk to you, Charles.

CHARLES SENNOTT: Thank you.