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How Will Latest Protests Affect Egypt’s Elections?

November 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
On Friday the Obama administration issued a statement urging Egypt's ruling military council to speed up the transition to civilian rule, as angry protesters reiterated their impatience for change. Margaret Warner discusses the latest developments with the International Crisis Group's Robert Malley and journalist Gameela Ismail.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Early this morning, the Obama administration issued its strongest statement to date, urging the military council running Egypt to speed up the transition to civilian rule.

In a written statement, the White House said, in part: “The United States strongly believes that the new Egyptian government must be empowered with real authority immediately. Egypt’s transition to democracy must continue, with elections proceeding expeditiously. We believe that the full transition of power to a civilian government must take place in a just and inclusive manner.”

MARGARET WARNER: For more from Cairo, we’re joined by phone by Gameela Ismail, a journalist, activist and politician. She is a candidate for parliament in the upcoming elections.

And, Gameela Ismail, thank you for being with us.

What is the situation now, nearly midnight in Cairo? Where do today’s events leave things?

GAMEELA ISMAIL, Egyptian political candidate: Well, today was a day, important day.

It’s sort of a conclusion to all of the violence that took place in the last week or so. Last Saturday, as you know, criminal attacks were made by the security against protesters in Tahrir. And this is why I had to stop my — and suspend my campaign. We’re having elections in the next 72 hours.

However, it was very important to be in Tahrir, which is the core of my constituency. All of these criminal attacks that took place were ended yesterday. There was a ceasefire. And protesters were still deployed at the entrances and exits of Tahrir. Today was the important announcement of two things, of a new cabinet assigned by SCAF, by the military, and another trans-cabinet, or trans-council that is going to rule as well ahead by Dr ElBaradei.

I think the first one was faced by a lot of sarcasm attacks and criticism from protesters since rumors circulated last night and said that Dr. Ganzouri is going to be heading this cabinet, since he was someone who was the prime minister back in the early ’90s.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Dr. ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize winner, he is now going to head some sort of additional transitional group? And does that satisfy activists like yourself enough to go ahead with elections?

GAMEELA ISMAIL: It’s — yes, it does satisfy many people in Tahrir, because they feel that at least their demands were met, in terms of the fact that Dr. ElBaradei and the others who form this trans sort of government where the national forces agree upon and where the activists agree upon.

Not everyone does agree, but, basically, it’s much, much acceptable than all of these attempts made by SCAF during the last few months, whereby whenever there is a protest in Tahrir or there is a big demonstration here or there, they would start suggesting and putting forward some ideas and offers that are completely opposite to what the protesters want.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask you this. Today, the White House did issue a statement urging the military rulers to speed the transition to civilian government, that it should have as much power as possible.

One, was that widely reported in Egypt? And, two, what was the reaction?

GAMEELA ISMAIL: When — what we read here was the Europeans’ warning. I haven’t read about the White House warning, but I read about the European warning, and maybe I missed the other one.

However, I don’t think many in Tahrir, where close to 1.5 million were here today, I don’t think that they really give attention to signs coming from abroad, because they are really involved in what’s happening in Tahrir. And they really believe that, like, stepping one meter back means a big loss, even if they have an excellent statement from the U.S. administration or an excellent statement from the European Parliament or the European Union.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Gameela Ismail, coming to us from Cairo, thank you so much.

GAMEELA ISMAIL: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: We get another perspective now from Robert Malley, who worked in the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. He’s now program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.

And, Rob Malley, welcome back here.

So, what do you make of the situation now, particularly after what Gameela Ismail just said?

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: Well, if in fact, Mohamed ElBaradei is going to be playing a significant role now in the coming period, that’s a major concession by the military, which proves once again what has been a pattern, that the military will make a mini-concession, and then there’s more pressure from the street, and it gives more.

And that’s been happening basically since they took power. Let’s wait and see exactly what the fine print and what Mohamed ElBaradei’s powers will be, but it would be a breakthrough which may defuse the situation if in fact it’s accurate.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, if it doesn’t pan out, does it still appear to you as if the military council, the SCAF, is determined to just plow ahead with this plan, which is get to elections Monday and start some alternative process going here?

ROBERT MALLEY: Honestly, I think the military doesn’t have a plan. And I think that’s been the other factor in all this.

They go — it’s really zigzag, ad hoc policy. Part of it is understandable. They are not used to exercising power in a more or less democratic, open system. That’s not the way they used to operate. They are trying to do what they can while holding on to their privileges.

And if you want to take a step back, it’s really the military is afraid of losing its power. The street is afraid of losing its revolution, and the Muslim Brotherhood is afraid of losing its one opportunity at winning an election or at least doing very well in an election. And all three seem to be quite confused.

But, again, when the street speaks and when you have a million people in Tahrir Square, others do have to listen.

MARGARET WARNER: Even if, by other reports, it wasn’t anywhere near a million.

ROBERT MALLEY: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: But it certainly seemed to fill the square.

ROBERT MALLEY: Hundreds of thousands are enough.

MARGARET WARNER: It certainly seemed to fill the square.

So, now, the White House statement, parse it for us. What course of action was the White House urging on the military rulers?

ROBERT MALLEY: First, I think, if you look at when the administration speaks, it’s looking at two things. How many people are on the street and how violent is the repression against them? When both of those reach a certain level, then the administration speaks publicly and more sharply.

And what they’re saying is transfer power to a civilian authority, don’t make all the decisions by yourself. You need a credible authority that going to make it. Hold on to — keep a schedule for elections which is quick enough, they say expeditiously, which may be Monday, as they’re supposed to be held, or maybe a short delay, not too much of a delay. So they’re saying get on with the transition. Don’t hold on to power. Give it to civilian authority.

MARGARET WARNER: But it raises the whole question about who would appoint the civilian authority. But…

ROBERT MALLEY: And, again, if Mohamed ElBaradei is the person they selected, they’re choosing somebody who is credible enough with the people on the street and credible enough with the political parties that he may be the ideal choice.

The military, we know, don’t really trust him, but he was the consensus candidate, or appears to have been, because you want somebody who, without having electoral legitimacy, has political legitimacy.

MARGARET WARNER: And even though he wants to run for president.

It would be an interesting development because I understand earlier today, ElBaradei was quoted as saying, “No one has ever contacted me.”

ROBERT MALLEY: Right. Right.

And again I think it shows that the military doesn’t really know what world it’s in right now. It’s used to having its own system, its own authority and working behind closed doors. And now it expects that it’s going to have popular support for what it does and then it sees that at least a sizable portion of Egyptians — we don’t even know if they’re the majority, but a sizable proportion of Egyptians is talking back, resisting and then they have to give in.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, what kind of influence does the U.S. really have? Either — we heard what Gameela said about…

ROBERT MALLEY: Wasn’t even aware of the statement.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, in terms of public opinion and in terms of the military.

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, public opinion — there is something about when the U.S. speaks, people tend to listen, even though they may be listening less and less.

And, second, the huge amount of military aid that the U.S. gives, and which it gives now to the party that is making the decisions, the SCAF. So that’s where the U.S. has influence. But the resonance it has, it is only relative. And, frankly, if you’re in Egypt today, if you’re the military, you’re looking at two things, your prerogatives and what’s happening on the street. And what the White House says matters, but it comes in a distant third.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Rob Malley, International Crisis Group, thank you.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thanks for having me.