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Are Latest Protests and Ultimatum a Game-Changer for Egypt’s Political System?

July 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
An outpouring of dissent by millions of Egyptians prompted a threat of intervention by the Supreme Military Council. Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council and Hussein Ibish, a Middle East commentator, join Margaret Warner to discuss the protests, the military's ultimatum and what it all means for Egypt and the United States.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the latest protests and the military’s ultimatum, we turn to Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council Center for the Middle East, and Hussein Ibish, a commentator and blogger who writes a weekly column on the Middle East for “Foreign Policy” and The Daily Beast.

Welcome to you both.

As we all know, there have been many protests since President Morsi took office. How significant, Michele Dunne, is this latest turn of events and the military’s ultimatum today?

MICHELE DUNNE, Atlantic Council Center for the Middle East: The protests that started in Egypt yesterday seem to be the largest that have ever has taken place in the country, even larger than those that displaced Mubarak.

And then following on that, the military statement today giving a 48-hour deadline after which we they will impose in kind of political plan, to me, this says it’s perhaps already over …

MARGARET WARNER: You mean President Morsi’s …

MICHELE DUNNE: … that the military seems to have made a decision that they’re very, very likely, I think, to move President Morsi out of the way and to impose some other kind of a political process.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it as that sort of drastic, the last 48 hours?

HUSSEIN IBISH, Middle East commentator: I do. I do. It’s a game-changer. What happened yesterday is extraordinary.

And there’s no recovering for the president. What exactly the armed forces has in mind is not clear. And I think they have given Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood some space, that 48 hours, which is now down to about 39 or 38 hours.

The clock is ticking, to do something, to extricate themselves from this, would be essentially to give up a great deal of the power that they have accumulated by forming some kind of national coalition unity government, by announcing new presidential elections by some kind of date certain, responding to the dissatisfaction of the public.

I think they’re very unlikely to do that because the Muslim Brothers and the president have proven unwilling to compromise. They’re not conciliatory people. But that I think is the only thing that could save them from some imposed solution by the military.

MARGARET WARNER: Why has — Michele Dunne, why has the military intervened now? I mean, there have been — I take your point.

The protests have been nowhere this large, but they have stood by through a lot of ups and downs in the past year, a lot of unrest.

MICHELE DUNNE: I think in order to understand what’s going on in Egypt, we have to see there are more than two players here. You have the Islamists. You have the secular opposition camp. You also have the institutions of the Egyptian state, of the Mubarak state, who are still there and were not really changed by the Egyptian revolution.

MARGARET WARNER: By that, you mean?

MICHELE DUNNE: By that, I mean — I mean, the military is part of that, the police, the judiciary, the state media, all the ministries. There are six or seven million bureaucrats in Egypt.

Those parts of the state have been becoming more and more disenchanted with the Muslim Brotherhood over the year that Morsi has been in power.

And what we have seen is they have started to come over to the side of the secular opposition more and more.

And the last straw I think was the military. The military had a deal with the Brotherhood with Morsi. They were sticking with them.

But I read that statement today as saying, our deal is done and that they’re switching sides.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Yes.

MICHELE DUNNE: And once the state has switched over to the side of the opposition, then the handwriting is on the wall for the Brotherhood and for Morsi.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Yes, I think that’s exactly right.

I mean, look, here’s the thing. What you saw yesterday was another kind of democracy. It was millions and millions of Egyptians essentially doing what amounts to a petition recall referendum that we might have in a state.

Now, basically, they’re demanding a do-over. There is a huge outpouring of national buyer’s remorse regarding President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

And I agree with Michele. The military has basically that something has got to be done about this.

The amount of power and authority that’s been accumulated by the presidency, by the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies is too much for ordinary Egyptians, their heavy-handedness, the way they have broken all their promises and the way in which they have been moving the country in their direction bit by bit is just — it’s overreaching. It’s overreaching.

It’s too much. And it’s gone too far.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Michele Dunne, do you think if the economy were cooking along and conditions of daily life weren’t as dire as they are, that you would still have this political outcry?

In other words, how much of it is that this government has not delivered and, in fact, life is worse? And how much of it is political disenchantment and a power struggle still between existing forces who have been opposed for a long time?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, these are the three elements, right? As Hussein said, there is this element of overreach by the Brotherhood and failure to compromise and to include other forces.

There is the element of the old state trying to come back after the revolution, which normally happens after revolutions. And then there’s this element of the breakdown of the economy and frankly problems that anybody who was president of Egypt right now would face, that they haven’t been able to get back on track.

But I want to add an important note of caution, that the Brotherhood is not going to disappear, even if Morsi is removed from office.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Right.

MICHELE DUNNE: And I’m very worried about the possibility of ongoing unrest and violence by Islamists if there is — if Morsi is removed from office.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get you both to turn your attention on the United States here.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: You had President Obama making a statement today. And you had the Joint Chiefs chairman, Martin Dempsey, calling his sort of counterpart in Egypt.

What is the U.S.’ number-one interest here and how should this administration be dealing with the situation now?

HUSSEIN IBISH: I think we need to be very clear, much clearer than we have been, with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and around the Middle East about what our values are and our interests are, and to not be fascinated by trying to understand them. They are not that difficult to understand. They are the religious right of the Arab world and they want power.

So, for example, one of the things we really need to stress is that the only way out of this situation for Egypt — and this is a message for the Muslim Brothers and the president, and it’s a message to the military — is an election. Clearly, there was one, but clearly the Egyptian public is not satisfied. We don’t have a stable situation.

We don’t really have a workable constitution. We don’t have a functioning parliament. All of those things require the will of the people to be respected.

And also we need to make the point again and again that not only do we have our interests, but also our values are not democracy as majoritarianism.

There are individual rights, human rights, women’s rights, minority rights that have to be respected even by 50 percent plus one.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Michele Dunne, if you’re President Obama right now, you’re confronted with this situation, one, what are U.S. interests, but, two, how do you handle this?

MICHELE DUNNE: When the United States looks at Egypt, security is always first and foremost. Right?

Egypt borders Israel. We have this very troublesome Sinai Peninsula in which there are terrorists and weapons and all kinds of things. The United States is going to think first of keeping a relationship with whoever is in power in Egypt in order to secure those interests.

Beyond that, I hope that in dealing with Egyptian military leaders who, you know, are likely, I think, to bring about a political change in the coming days, I hope the United States is saying to them, please, hand over power to civilians promptly.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Absolutely.

MICHELE DUNNE: Promote a consensus process, a roundtable process. Don’t hang on to power the way you did last time. Last time the military hung on to power for 18 months. It wasn’t pretty.

And it put — the United States was in a really uncomfortable position because we give billions of dollars of assistance to the Egyptian military.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Also, we made a very big mistake in reacting tepidly to Morsi’s enormous power grab a few months ago. We must not do the same with the military this time.

There needs to be an election. The Egyptian people have to decide.

MARGARET WARNER: Hussein Ibish and Michele Dunne, thank you both.

MICHELE DUNNE: Thank you, Margaret.