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Will Egypt’s Election ‘Road Map’ Help Keep Transition From Becoming Civil War?

July 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In the wake of a bloody attack on Morsi supporters in Cairo, Gwen Ifill talks with Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations and Howard University's Mervat Hatem about Egypt's chances for a political solution and how the U.S. is approaching its relationship to the country.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: A short time ago, Egypt’s interim leader, Adly Mansour, issued a decree stating that new parliamentary elections will be held no later than Feb. 2014, after amendments to the country’s suspended constitution are approved in a referendum. He also said that a presidential election will be held once the new parliament convenes.

For more, I’m joined by Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser To Tahrir Square,” and Mervat Hatem, a professor of political science at Howard University.

Steven Cook, what does this mean, this call for elections in 2014?

STEVEN COOK, Douglas Dillon Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, this is an effort to put a political process together out of this very, very difficult, uncertain and unstable situation.

The good news in it is that they are going to approach a transition in the right way. They’re going to start with a constitution, then have elections for the parliament, then have elections for the president. Previously, in the transition from Mubarak to Morsi, they had elections for the parliament. Then they tried to write a constitution. Then they tried to elect a president. This created all kinds of uncertainty and instability, for which the Egyptians are now paying.

GWEN IFILL: Mervat Hatem, do you think that this means that this will allow Egypt to avoid a civil war?

MERVAT HATEM, Professor of Political Science, Howard University: You mean this new road map?

GWEN IFILL: This new plan, this road map.

MERVAT HATEM: The fact that it does promise all these changes in a very short period of time should be reassuring, I think, for those who wanted the military to commit itself and the government to commit itself to firm dates.

And, therefore, in that respect, I think it does reassure people that this is not an open-ended — a process that allows the military to do the kinds of thing that transpired today and which obviously have a danger element, because, I mean, once you have high casualty rate and if these continue, then they assume a logic of their own.

There is a cycle of retribution, as well as sort of recrimination. And it’s very difficult to stop in a very polarized society.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the violence today. It felt like we turned a corner somehow and both sides are blaming the other, of course, for it. But what did you see?

STEVEN COOK: Well, it’s very, very hard to determine what happened. Both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have their own stories about what happened.

Clearly, the Brotherhood has been using implicitly — language implicitly about violence and martyrdom. The military has been under pressure and believes that it does have the support of the vast majority of Egyptian people, who, of course, welcome them back to the political arena, which has given them some room for maneuver to use force.

But, of course, the killing of 51 people and the injuring of 435 people is shocking to virtually everyone. I think that there is a chance that the Brotherhood will not be mollified by this new road map, this constitutional decree and there will be — they will be seeking revenge for this.

GWEN IFILL: Well, speaking of the political solution or lack of solution, this weekend we saw this weird back-and-forth about Mohamed ElBaradei and whether he would become prime minister or not.

MERVAT HATEM: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Is that important? Is that a development or is that something that is a sideshow?

MERVAT HATEM: Well, I think it was an important development, largely because Al-Nour party, the representative of the ultra-conservative Salafists, was part of basically this coalition between the military, as well as the liberal opponents that sort of deposed President Morsi.

And to try and placate that particular group, they went along with their rejection of Mohamed ElBaradei. Mohamed ElBaradei is the head of the liberal opposition that participated in the mass mobilization and therefore was never going to be acceptable to Nour party that is representing right now the Islamists current, in the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which obviously boycotted this whole process, because it’s a process that deposed a democratically elected president.

So it was very important to try and placate the Nour party by doing this.

GWEN IFILL: The United States has been tiptoeing through this. We saw today that John McCain, the senator from Arizona, said we should cut off U.S. aid to Egypt. And we saw the White House saying we think that might cause more problems than it solves.

What is the U.S.’ role here and how much of it — could it backfire?

STEVEN COOK: Well, much of Egypt thinks that the United States either supports the Muslim Brotherhood or supports the military.

In fact, the United States has been essentially surfing the new cycles. The Muslim Brotherhood was elected. The United States had been criticized for supporting an authoritarian regime for the previous 30 years and I think accommodated itself to the Muslim Brotherhood and sought to work with that government.

Now that Morsi has been deposed, Washington has to make a choice about what it’s going to do. And thus far, it hasn’t made one. The Obama administration is trying to split the difference.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a good choice to be made?

STEVEN COOK: There isn’t a good choice. And I think that the administration has made a mistake over time by not focusing on first principles about democracy, application of — equal application of the law, tolerance, accountability.

And had they done that, they would be in a much better position than they are today.

GWEN IFILL: What it sounds like they’re doing today, they’re talking about governance, talking about democratic governance, rather than an individual …

STEVEN COOK: But, of course, when they had the opportunity while Morsi was undertaking authoritarian moves himself, they were quite silent.

GWEN IFILL: Mervat Hatem, who blinks first in this?

MERVAT HATEM: Ah. Good question.

I don’t know. I mean, I think if we’re to save this transition from deteriorating into a civil war, then everybody needs to consciously agree to talk to each other and to sort of not head where this seems to be heading, which is an escalating cycle of violence.

The Muslim Brotherhood has its back to the wall. And, therefore, they are not going. They don’t see what it is that they could possibly lose after this has happened. And, therefore, it is incumbent on the others, the liberal opponents, to try and reach out to them to make sure that this transition works, because what happened today is a serious threat to its possibility.

GWEN IFILL: A step toward or away from democracy, what you have seen happen today, not only the violence?

MERVAT HATEM: Away.

GWEN IFILL: Away.

MERVAT HATEM: Definitely.

Because the army has done this one time before since 2011. Now, remember, they were in power from Feb. 2011 until 2012. And they did the same. They actually engaged in the same practices against the liberal opposition at the time. They engaged in sort of virginity checks. They sort of, like, publicly humiliated and sort of attacked the demonstrators.

They also arrested people. They sort of also provided evidence that they were engaged. This seems like deja vu.

GWEN IFILL: All over again.

MERVAT HATEM: All over again.

GWEN IFILL: Mervat Hatem from Howard University, Steven Cook from the Council on Foreign Relations, thank you both so much.

STEVEN COOK: Thank you.

MERVAT HATEM: Thank you.