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As Egypt Announces New Measures to Quell Protests, U.S. Considers Influence

July 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Egyptian interim government may take violent measures to combat protest. Is this move reminiscent of the Egyptian government's repressive history? How should the Obama administration respond? Margaret Warner gets analysis from Michelle Dunne of the Atlantic Council and Samer Shehata from the University of Oklahoma.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on today’s announcement by Egypt’s new government, and how the U.S. is handling the turmoil there, I’m joined by Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Center for the Middle East, and Samer Shehata, associate professor of international studies at the University of Oklahoma.

And welcome back to both of you.

Samer Shehata, let me start with you. What is behind the new government’s decision to make this announcement and make it clear they’re not even going to allow peaceful demonstrations?

SAMER SHEHATA, University of Oklahoma: Well, I think they have come to the conclusion that the continued sit-ins are an obstacle to the transition plan that they have put forward and an obstacle, also, for Egypt regaining some kind of stability.

So, that means international investment, the wheels of commerce and the economy moving forward, and that they need to end the sit-ins, and I think some believe or hope to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood from Egyptian politics.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think they’re trying to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in this, not just quell the demonstrations, let traffic flow again, but actually put them out of business?

MICHELE DUNNE, Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East: Well, that seems to be the effort.

Several of the senior leaders of the Brotherhood today were charged with some serious crimes. There’s been talk of even outlawing the Brotherhood as a movement. It was outlawed in the past. So that seems to be the case. Now, there may be an effort here to put on enough pressure to get the Brotherhood to just accept the new reality, accept that Morsi was removed and that the political game moves on. However…

MARGARET WARNER: And it’s time for them to get in the game, which is what the government is saying.

MICHELE DUNNE: Right. Right. But it seems unlikely that the Brotherhood is going to accept that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this new government, though the military general, al-Sisi, is — clearly has a central role, they did put in — there is the civilian government. People like Mohamed ElBaradei, who is vice president, are they behind this? Or is the military running the show?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, I think clearly General al-Sisi is running the show, and they are behind it to a certain extent.

But somebody like Mr. ElBaradei is in a difficult position. He’s already criticized the excessive use of force used against Muslim Brotherhood protesters last Saturday. And there are — there’s talk that he has threatened to resign. And, again, I think there’s another point that needs to be made here, which is a number of ministers in the government are Mubarak era holdovers that have reemerged, so there is a real fear among some that parts of the Mubarak regime are reconstituting themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: So, is this going to lead to more violence, as the Brotherhood, Essam El-Erian just said today?

MICHELE DUNNE: Unfortunately, that seems extremely likely.

This will be — if they do crack down on the sit-in, this will be the third time. Right? We have had two other sit-ins where they — the police used a great deal of force, and somewhere between 50 and 80 people were killed the first time, somewhere between 80 and 120 the second time. And, you know, what we’re hearing is that these pro-Morsi demonstrators have no intention of leaving.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how has the Brotherhood been handling this? There were reports in mid-July, about 10 days after Morsi was ousted, that, privately, there were talks going on between some of the Brotherhood senior leadership and the military about reaching some accommodation. Has that just broken down, or was that for real?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, it’s not clear what kind of a dialogue is taking place between the Brotherhood current rulers of Egypt.

But, as you know, Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign secretary, was there, and she met with both the Brotherhood people as well as people in the government. And there is likely that there is some negotiation. I think Michele is right. Both sides are flexing their muscle and they are trying to reach some kind of a deal.

I think it’s unlikely, but nevertheless, there is something going on there. The Brotherhood doesn’t to be banned. They don’t want their political leadership imprisoned. They don’t want their funds confiscated. They want a role in politics. At the same time, they have to get on board that this is a post-Morsi world.

MARGARET WARNER: And what I’m being told is that the Brotherhood is saying their non-negotiable demand is, though, that Morsi has to be reinstated or at least there has to be some sort of a fig leaf?

MICHELE DUNNE: The Brotherhood is trying to hold on to the moral high ground that they feel they have, that they had a democratically elected president who was removed by coup. And they’re not going to let that go easily at all.

Now, there are some initiatives to, for example, allow there to be a referendum or some kind of a vote. The Brotherhood might agree to something like that, but so far, we have had no indication that the military, which is, as Samer said, calling the shots, would be willing to do something like that.

MARGARET WARNER: So, to both of you, who does this do to the quandary, the fine line the U.S. has been trying to walk now really for nearly a month, since July 3, not calling this a coup, not cutting off aid, a lot of back-channel communications, right, between defense secretary, secretary of state, and their counterparts?

I mean, is the U.S. having any influence at all? What does today’s development do to their ability to keep that balancing act going?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, I think that the United States really has to make it clear — not necessarily publicly, but certainly privately — that if the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is going to be maintained, human rights have to be recognized, and there can’t be an excessive use of force against any protesters, whether it’s the Brotherhood or others.

And I hope that message is being made at the highest level.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that it’s getting through?

MICHELE DUNNE: It doesn’t seem that the Egyptian military leadership has taken any of the advice the U.S. has given, you know, as this whole thing has unfolded over the last few weeks.

Look, Egypt is a big, important country. It’s next door to Israel. The United States is very reluctant to kind of cut Egypt loose. That’s what they feel we would be doing by suspending assistance. But the United States is going to be facing a whole different question in the coming weeks.

If there really is this full-on confrontation between the Brotherhood and the military and a real crackdown, the question for the United States is going to become, can we be complicit in this? Can we continue to send aid to a military that is carrying out this kind of repression?

MARGARET WARNER: Michele Dunne, the Brotherhood is accusing — is basically saying now this new government, supposedly representing democratic forces, is just reverting to the old repression of the Mubarak era?

Are they right about that? Is that a fair charge?

MICHELE DUNNE: The interior minister has made some really troubling statements in the last few days.

As Samer indicated, this cabinet is a real mix. You have some liberals and so forth, some old Mubarak people, but the interior minister has been saying things about basically we’re back and the secret police are back, and we’re going to start monitoring politics and religion and so forth, as we did in the Mubarak era.

MARGARET WARNER: What is your thought on it?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, this is the tragedy of the situation, that I think we are further away from the aspirations of the uprising that led to the overthrow of Mubarak now than we ever have been.

We wanted a society that was based on the rule of law, recognition of political rights, the police to recognize the dignity of citizens, and not to abuse them regularly, as was the case, civilian control of the military and security forces. And we’re not seeing that.

MARGARET WARNER: Samer Shehata, Michele Dunne, thank you.


MICHELE DUNNE: You’re welcome.