Would-Be Egypt Crisis Broker Finds It Heavy Going

BY Margaret Warner  February 5, 2011 at 7:58 PM EST


Ahmed Zewail and Margaret Warner

CAIRO, Egypt | We’re sitting in the lobby lounge of an upscale Cairo hotel, littered with road-weary journalists and private security personnel. Holding court in one corner is the 1999 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, Caltech physics and chemistry department chairman Ahmed Zewail. He’s a NewsHour fan, and invites us to join him for tea.

It’s like sitting in public with Bono and Einstein combined. We no sooner begin talking, than people begin interrupting. Ahmed, a gel-coiffed young man, rushes up flashing the V for victory sign. “Whatever you decide to do, I’m with you,” he shouts. Zewail — a dual U.S. and Egyptian citizen who is the source of tremendous national pride here — is being pressed by opposition groups to run for president. “I’m a scientist,” he demurs. “I want to serve my country that way.”

At the moment Zewail, who lives in California, has been pressed into service as an unofficial mediator between the “kids” who led the Facebook-inspired movement on Tahrir Square, and the government. He’s met with President Hosni Mubarak’s newly appointed vice president Omar Suleiman. And today he spent 3 ½ hours meeting with the Tahrir Square leaders. “This is an historic moment,” Zewail says. “This could bring new hope to Egypt. But it has to be handled very wisely.” Zewail volunteered his time to meet with the opposing forces, he says, “to see if we can find a way to get through this with a sensible transition. I don’t know if we can.”

That’s the rub. Everyone we’ve spoken to here agrees that the President Hosni Mubarak Era is “over.” Mubarak himself acknowledged that last Tuesday when he said that he won’t run for re-election in the fall, and that his son Gamal won’t try to succeed him either. There’s also wide agreement that the next chapter has to be the product of a far more open, pluralistic democratic political system, without the heavy handed censorship and political rigging that typified the current regime. But there’s wide debate on how to get from here to there.


Wael Newara at demonstrations in Tahrir Square

I tell Zewail about my conversation Friday evening with Wael Nawara, the No. 2 man at the opposition El Ghad (“Tomorrow”) Party founded by once-jailed parliamentarian Ayman Nour. Nawara had sounded eminently moderate. After 12 days of economy-paralyzing demonstrations, he said, perhaps the opposition should consider adjusting its tactics, dialing back to just one or two protest rallies a week in Tahrir Square. That way people can get back to work, grocery stores can re-stock their shelves and bank ATMs start dispensing cash again. “We don’t want to lose popular support.”

Zewail listened to my tale, then gave me a long, hard look. “I’m afraid that after the meetings I had today,” he said, “that’s not the picture I get.” The Tahrir Square leaders are adamant that President Hosni Mubarak must go now, he said, and they’re insisting they won’t accept a transition led by any member of the Mubarak regime, including Suleiman. To further complicate matters, most of the players say they want to follow the Egyptian Constitution, which is an impenetrable thicket in itself. “There’s not an easy answer,” Zewail says with a sigh.

As night falls, on the eve of a new work week beginning Sunday, a new face-off is emerging. It’s not just between the protestors and the government. It’s also between the youthful demonstrators and the vast middle of Egyptian society, the folks making $100 a month as waiters and salespeople who haven’t shared in the riches that Egypt’s economic liberalization has generated for many of the business-sector elite. The average folks have seen their lives grind to a halt these past 12 days, and worry that their meager livelihoods will follow. “It’s time to get back to work,” said a 30-something waiter and father of two at a Heliopolis hotel that depends on the tourist trade. He’s no particular fan of Mubarak, but said “if this doesn’t stop, a lot of us will be told to take unpaid vacation.”

Saturday the top leadership of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party — accused of stealing last December’s parliamentary elections — resigned. But President Mubarak himself held a well-publicized meeting with his top economic advisors. Dina Shehata of the Al Ahram Center think tank here says it was a message “that he’s still in charge.” She believes it was Mubarak’s way of signaling that he won’t go along with the scenario being pushed by some in Cairo — and reportedly in Washington — that he take an early retirement to satisfy the protestors’ demands, and defer powers to someone else.


Dina Shehata as seen through our camera’s viewfinder

“It’s hard to tell who’s calling the shots these days” Shehata says. But in the midst of this chaos, “everyone wants to stick to the Egyptian Constitution.” That complicates matters, since the Constitution requires that if an Egyptian president resigns, new elections must be held within 60 days, whether the opposition is ready or not.

The Founding Pharoahs never envisioned a moment like this.

Watch for more of Margaret Warner’s reports on the NewsHour this week. View all of our Egypt coverage here.