MS. IFILL: Tumult and transformation – that’s how the president described the week in Egypt. Tumult – yes – but transformation? Not quite yet. We explain why tonight on “Washington Week.”
What began as a peaceful protest turned violent this week and now the clock is ticking as the U.S. ramps up pressure on Hosni Mubarak.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Suppression is not going to work. Engaging in violence is not going to work. Attempting to shut down information flows is not going to work. The only thing that will work is moving an orderly transition process that begins right now.
MS. IFILL: And the Egyptian leader resists, saying his departure would result in chaos. But chaos is already evident in the streets of Cairo.
MAN [Egyptian Protester]: President Obama must intervene with us. We are dying. Egyptian citizens we’re dying here.
MS. IFILL: As Egypt’s slow-motion political collapse shakes the Arab world, we explore the challenges with James Kitfield of National Journal, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, David Sanger of the New York Times, and Nancy Youssef of McCaltchy Newspapers.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill” produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Days of rage, nights of protests, and no matter how hard the U.S. tries, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak refuses to relinquish power. It’s possible to trace the evolution of this administration’s relationship with its old ally to the recent past – Cairo in 2009.
PRES. OBAMA: Government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power. You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion.
MS. IFILL: At the time, the president’s words were not meant for Egypt alone but everything changed this week as U.S. officials worked around the clock to recalibrate our relationship with Mubarak. At first, there were words of cautious support.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable.
VICE PRES. JOE BIDEN: I would not refer to him as a dictator.
MS. IFILL: Turned to clashes, stern scolding.
PRES. OBAMA: What I indicated tonight to President Mubarak is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful; it must be peaceful; and it must begin now.
SEC. CLINTON: We condemn in the strongest terms attacks on reporters covering the ongoing situation in Egypt.
MS. IFILL: Tonight, much still hangs in the balance. Why has this been so sensitive, Martha?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, I think it’s been sensitive because it happened so quickly and because the administration appeared to be strictly reactive, that they were just saying, oh, today we’ll say this. We don’t know what we’re going to say tomorrow. But I think in so many ways, it was just that. It was happening so rapidly. When you look at that speech from 2009 and you say, perhaps President Obama had something to do with. Perhaps he didn’t. It really did – I think the spark was lit in Tunisia and this is about economics in so many ways. This is about people not having jobs. This is about people not having food. This is about people seeing prices raised and Mubarak still in power. And that’s why I think the administration, in some respects – really you can understand what happened here because it was happening so rapidly.
MS. IFILL: Well, once they did get involved – and James, you saw the president making phone call; he spoke to Mubarak twice; the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs – they’ve all been on the phone burning up the wires, the vice president. And yet, they haven’t gotten the desired outcome apparently.
MR. KITFIELD: Well, they’re gotten one of the desired outcomes which is to make sure that the Egyptian military really does not turn the guns on the protesters and not take the side – and that’s really the dictator’s trump card. We’ve seen it played out time and again in these kind of crises in the Middle East. And they’ve got the military to sort of play a referee role so far. They relaxed that last night. I mean, yesterday we saw a lot of violence. Today was a much better day. They were on the street, very visible. That’s one of the key roles.
The second role is really – I mean, what’s interesting to me is they really seem to have aligned themselves with their inner idealist on this thing. They have aligned themselves with progressive democratic reforms in Egypt. That’s a tension that we always see in U.S. policy in the Middle East and traditionally it really goes to our interest versus stability. This time they’re actually taking the risk and saying, we’re for democratic change. You’ve got to have a transition government, free and fair elections, and, oh, by the way, Mubarak, it would be nice if you could leave.
MS. IFILL: They seem to take the risk only when they didn’t feel like they had much of a choice. The risk was taken for them.
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right. And the problem is in Egypt – what next? I think that’s one of the challenges in all this. How far do you push Mubarak when it’s not clear who his successor will be? Part of that is because Mubarak designed it that way – that he wouldn’t have any challenges to his regime. In the army, which is where every commander has come out – excuse me – every president has come out since 1952 and even in the political process. He made opponents fight one another in an effort to hold on to power.
So the question becomes when do you push Mubarak out and how do you shape a successful transition such that it doesn’t lead to more instability in Egypt? And I know, talking to my family who are there, that’s their primary concern. They’ll say, we all want Mubarak out, but what next?
MS. IFILL: It was interesting to listen – David, I want you to respond to this – the president today at his news conference at the White House. It was not a softening of his language but he was almost speaking to the psyche of Hosni Mubarak when he talked about his legacy.
PRES. OBAMA: Once the president himself announced that he was not going to be running again, and since his term is up relatively shortly, the key question he should be asking himself is how do I leave a legacy behind in which Egypt is able to get through this transformative period? And my hope is is that he will end up making the right decision.
MS. IFILL: I suspect the protesters in the street, David, don’t think that’s relatively swiftly him leaving office in September as he’s promised to do. But still, when you hear one world leader talk to another about legacy, you’re talking about the end, not the beginning.
MR. SANGER: Well, they’ve hit the point in the White House now where they recognize that this is the end but the end may be playing out over weeks or months. And I think one of the big differences from a week ago is that they’ve now come to the recognition this isn’t a sprint they’re running with the Egyptians. This is a marathon. And the result of that is that they’re not entirely sure that they want to push Mubarak to ultimately resignation until it’s clear what the next result was, for all the reasons Nancy laid out.
So I’ve begun to hear some other scenarios spin out, which we’re reporting on in tomorrow’s paper. One possibility is that rather than resign immediately, which would bring the leader of the parliament into power, which they’re not entirely sure would be the best outcome here, the thought is that maybe President Mubarak goes out to Sharm el-Sheikh where he’s got a very lovely house, and thinks about doing a little bit of gardening and some other work.
MS. RADDATZ: The resort option.
MR. SANGER: The resort option.
MS. RADDATZ: I see. Yes. Okay.
MR. SANGER: There’s another option which is that President Mubarak every year goes to Germany for some medical treatment. And there’s the thought underway that it may be getting near time to go do that. Now, what would this accomplish?
MS. IFILL: And stay in office?
MS. RADDATZ: You’re talking about face saving. That’s what all this is about.
MR. SANGER: Right. Well, it’s not only face saving. It’s space creating because what they would like to do at this point is to get him out of the political center so that Vice President Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, and some others can begin to get into this dialogue with the people on the street, with Mohamed ElBaradei, who’s emerged as the only serious opposition leader, in hopes that they can get a discussion going about reforming the constitution without Mubarak there.
MS. IFILL: I want to ask about who else is in line. But I’m also curious – there were a lot of efforts that were made this week to try to head this off. And Frank Wisner, who is the envoy that they sent, who is great, good friends with Hosni Mubarak, was supposed to talk him into leaving. Was that mission just a complete failure?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, he’s not gone yet, is he?
MR. KITFIELD: Yes, but I mean, shortly after that he announced that he would not run. These things move so fast we sort of pocket that and say, that’s no big deal. But that was a pretty big deal to say that neither he, and within 24 hours, or his son were going to be line of succession. That was pretty critical. So I think it wasn’t totally lost. Would they like Mubarak to do something more dramatic? I think clearly so. On your point on elections though, I mean, the last time a president got behind a freedom agenda was in 2005, George W. Bush, and he pushed for elections in the Palestinian territories and Hamas won. That is the sort of cautionary tale they’re looking at.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. KITFIELD: They want to make sure that however this plays out, it doesn’t get hijacked by Islamic extremists; that is, the Muslim Brotherhood don’t come to dominate. They’ll be a voice but not the voice. And that and the Iranian revolution, the cautionary tale.
MS. RADDATZ: You’re also dealing with Mubarak who at this point an official I spoke to today said he’s basically not sleeping. He’s fairly unstable. One day he’ll say, I’m not leaving. It will create chaos. And a few minutes later he’ll say, I’m done. I’m done. Nobody appreciates me. I’m out of here. So they’re sort of balancing that too which we haven’t heard a lot about.
MS. YOUSSEF: I wanted to address this idea of whether Islamists who take over – we hear this a lot. There’s a very important distinction to be made about Egypt relative to other countries in the Middle East, and that is that Egypt needs the Western world. You know, Iran has oil. Egypt does not. Egypt depends on tourism, on traffic through the Suez Canal, on U.S. aid coming through. And so anyone who takes over will have to certainly keep that in mind just for Egypt’s economy to survive in the post-Mubarak period.
So I think as we think going forward that’s a very important factor in terms of who will come out next and the balancing act that that person will have to do. It’s also important as talk about Israel and the future relationship Egypt will have with Israel, because that’s a factor and Egypt cannot ignore the Western world going forward.
MS. IFILL: Well, I want to talk about the transition because we don’t know – you’re right – where Mubarak is from day to day. We don’t know who his deputy is. We don’t know what the line of succession really would be. Is there a plan for some sort of transition or some ideas that are – is that what’s really happening behind the scenes where people are thinking, what about this guy? How about that guy? How about that group?
MR. SANGER: Well, a plan would be a strong word because, first of all, it’s moving so fast. Secondly, we’ve heard President Obama say in public many times – and I’m told by his aides says in private to his own staff – look, this isn’t about us. We can’t be imposing who the next leader is. Every time the United States has gone in to do that in the Middle East and many other places, it hasn’t worked out so well. And anybody who –
MS. IFILL: Which is what we’ve been talking about. Right.
MR. SANGER: Or look at Iran in the 1950s, something in that same speech in Cairo in 2009 the president admitted was a mistake when the U.S. basically ran a coup. So he’s acutely aware of that. At the same time, there are some models out there that are the opposite of what James pointed out in those previous elections that are worthwhile. And one of them is South Korea, a country that was run by authoritarian generals for 40 years. Finally, there was a slow transition to democracy. Generals ran in the first few elections and won. And then, over time, civilians began to win. Now, different culture, different economic growth.
MS. IFILL: Yes. That was my next question.
MR. SANGER: Yes.
MS. IFILL: And in fact that was part of what Mubarak says – our culture is different. They won’t accept this. Now, I don’t know whether he was just saying that as a way, but you wonder whether these things are transferable.
MR. KITFIELD: I’m sorry. I was just going to say that, again, the military is key on this. I think Turkey is – the model they’re looking at is Turkey which is closer to home for Egypt, another big, powerful country in that part of the region where the military is sort of the guarantor of the secular democracy, run by Islamists, overwhelming an Islamic country, just like Egypt. And I think that they want to have the military be the rock that sort of anchors Egypt through this period, get everyone in a room. They’re talking about getting all the voices in a room and cobble together something that gets you to September and we have elections.
MS. RADDATZ: The military wants to be – wants to be seen as a respected organization and a respected institution, because they are. I mean, that’s what you saw in the streets this week, too.
MR. KITFIELD: Exactly.
MS. RADDATZ: The military stayed back for a while. On Friday and today clearly they separated the sides and the violence went down. But the military is acting in its own interest as well. They want to see this go forward with a smooth transition.
MR. SANGER: The defense minister wandered right into the middle of Tahrir Square today.
MS. RADDATZ: First time we’ve seen him. Yes.
MR. SANGER: First time we’ve seen him – aligned himself more with the protesters than with Mubarak. That was a pretty remarkable moment when they peeled him away.
MS. RADDATZ: Kind of like the Obama moment, which side should I go on?
MS. IFILL: The people who were on the horses with the whips and the camels were not the military. They were the police.
MS. YOUSSEF: Yes. And that’s an important thing to talk about because what we saw this week was Mubarak try to counter in his own way. Now, the interesting thing is we don’t know who exactly those people are, but it is very fair to say that some of them were brought there by the Mubarak government. They massed for hours and they moved almost in unison at around 2:15 p.m. And those were some of the ones riding the camels from the pyramids. But there also may be people we don’t know in the population who want Mubarak to stay, at least perhaps until September or lead a transition. Interestingly –
MS. RADDATZ: There are 80 million people there after all.
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right. That’s right. And interestingly, it backfired against the Mubarak regime because what Mubarak is trying to say is the choice is between chaos and me, civility. And then he brings chaos into the streets and says, you see, you now need me. And people didn’t fall for it. They said, you can’t bring the chaos and then say you’re the face of civility.
MS. IFILL: Let’s do some comparisons because we saw what – we saw lots of unrest which led to this point. And how is what happened in – is happening in Egypt different from what we saw play out in Tunisia, play out in Yemen, play out in Jordan?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, there are some very simple things here. In Tunisia, they wanted their authoritarian president out, they got him out. In Yemen it’s not so much about the president, even though the president made a little preemptive strike there saying he wouldn’t run again in 2013.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MS. RADDATZ: But that’s more about economics there. That again is about poverty. That again is about we need things. But I think Yemen in particular – and Jordan, we’ve also got – there were protests today. But Yemen in particular, they’re very concerned about because just like Egypt, just like Tunisia, you just don’t know what’s going to change that dynamic instantly.
MR. SANGER: Look, I’ve gone back and tried to talk to a couple of American officials about what they thought triggered things in Tunisia. And it’s interesting. Several senior officials – very senior officials have said to me they thought WikiLeaks had more to do with than we know. And I was thinking about this because in the initial WikiLeaks –
MS. IFILL: Because there were cables.
MR. SANGER: Cables that got published in the New York Times. We didn’t even look at Tunisia. It didn’t strike us that that would be that vital. But those cables ended up making it clear to the Tunisians that everybody in the world, including the American diplomats, knew about the swimming pools and the parties and the caviar at the president’s palace. And I think that embarrassment factor –
MS. RADDATZ: The public humiliation. Yes.
MR. SANGER: – on top of all.
MS. RADDATZ: And the fact, you would think they would have that in Yemen, too, because in Yemen, the president was said on WikiLeaks to say, you know, I’ll cover for you these drone strikes and these missile strikes. Don’t worry. I’ll say it’s us.
MR. SANGER: But that doesn’t appear oddly enough to be a –
MS. RADDATZ: No. It doesn’t appear. So I think it’s hard to say this is what’s happening here and this is what’s happening there. So it’s sort of hard to blame people.
MS. IFILL: Yes. The comparison.
MR. KITFIELD: One key similarity though, if you looked at Yemen, you looked – they’re worried about, obviously, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt – poor countries with big youth (pools ?). You know, you go to the Gulf States, they’re very stable still because they have a lot of wealth to spread around, buy happiness from people. Some of the highest GDPs – I think Saudi Arabia probably is insulated from this because of the same reasons and also their place in the Islamic world – as the head of the Islamic world. But if you’re a poor country, you had an autocratic rule for a long time and this thing is spreading, I think you’re feeling pretty uneasy.
MS. IFILL: And you wrote today about the devil’s bargain which the U.S. has cut with a lot of these allies who – we haven’t looked the other way exactly, but we’ve been aware of some of these pressures which were happening but because we had – they were allies of ours in wars and other things, we had kind of not really weighed in before now.
MR. KITFIELD: And that’s another rather unsettling similarity is most of these countries so far that we’re talking about are fairly aligned with us on our war against terror, fairly aligned with us on the Israeli peace. They have relationships with Israel. Jordan and Egypt are the anchors of that. If this things spreads in a way that it looks like it’s a real liability to be allied with the United States, it’s not a good thing for us.
MS. RADDATZ: Yes, the whole region, David. I mean, you can talk about this. That whole region could change so dramatically in how everything is done over there.
MS. YOUSSEF: I think it already has because what Tunisia did was break down that barricade of fear that it was a patina that sort of hung over the Middle East. People have been frustrated for decades, for generations in some case. And it was – it’s still astonishing how quickly Tunisia’s president left and so the whole region – whatever happens going forward, the region has changed. You talk to Egyptians now and they can’t believe it. We’re not afraid anymore. We’re being heard now. So the region’s already changed.
MS. IFILL: And if you’re Israel?
MR. SANGER: Well, if you’re Israel, you’re worried about a couple of things here. First, the Egyptians have been as close to an Arab ally as they’re going to get. They have very deep relations with the intelligence service. The cut-off of Gaza is all involved with the Egyptians. And, of course, the peace treaty which others were supposed to follow. It didn’t work out that way. The second thing that Israel is quite concerned about, of course, is Iran. And these other Arab states in addition to all of the other things on the list have either stood up to or allowed a containment effort against Iran. And if they go democratic, it’s not at all clear that that alliance with the West and with the U.S. against Iran and with Israel is going to hold up. In fact, it probably won’t.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk a little bit before we run out of time about the human rights aspects here because there have been questions raised about the human rights record of Egypt and other allies in the region for years. And we have not really spoken to it. And this week, when they started kidnapping and beating and shoveling around journalists, we started hearing sharp words from the president and the secretary of state. How much of that is driving some of the stepped up involvement on the part of the U.S.?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, I think it’s important to note that the Western journalists who were arrested, their Egyptian translators were beaten. They were told that they were not with the Mubarak regime, that they were going against the state. And that’s an important distinction to be made. I think this was an effort – you know, we talk about how this started. One of the ways it started was the information war. It started on Facebook. It started with the images of people coming to Tahrir Square. And the Mubarak regime feels like the Western press is agitating their people. And so this was again another effort after the pro-Mubarak protesters essentially failed to sway people on Wednesday, this was another effort to get them on board. And it really kind of reinforced and exposed the thuggish ways that the Mubarak regime operates. It will say one thing and then do something else.
MS. RADDATZ: Because it’s also in public. I mean, it is all in public. I – writing a story this week and saying and the U.S. is concerned about intelligence gathering and maybe the next leader there will not help us in intelligence. I’m thinking, how do they get some of that intelligence? They get some of that intelligence in Egypt because they torture people. And we have benefited from that in that sense, but that’s never really done out in public. These beatings of reporters – and there’s a remarkable story in David’s paper this weekend about two reporters who witnessed all of this and who witnessed others being tortured while they were detained this past week by the secret police.
MR. SANGER: There were also elements here of an Egyptian leadership that was clueless to the new world. I mean, for one thing, they didn’t know what happened in Tunisia could come to them just days before it did come to them. But, secondly, when was the last time that you saw wall to wall coverage of something going on in the streets in Cairo? There would be – you know, Cairo –
MS. RADDATZ: Or any foreign country here.
MR. SANGER: Right. But there would be reports on the evening news and so forth. But to be watching 24/7 what’s happening and to see the guys with the clubs with the nails sticking out –
MS. IFILL: In fact, this is not the first time we’ve seen protests in the center of Cairo. A couple of years ago it didn’t come to this point, but certainly we should not have been completely caught flatfooted by this.
MR. KITFIELD: You know, I actually think human rights gets kind of at the core of this thing. You know, I talk about the devil’s bargain that we’ve supported all these autocrats who have terrible human rights records, and we’ve done it because they did our bidding in a number of things that were of interest to us, like the war on terror, or like Israel, et cetera. But it was – it created a double standard. We were hated throughout the region because we propped these guys up. It was one of al Qaeda’s core grievances about us. You know, here’s a chance I think – Condi Rice said it herself, we always chose stability over democracy. Well, it’s chosen itself now. Stability is off the table, so why not get on the side for a change on something that really aligns ourselves with our own values?
MR. SANGER: We’ve also redefined stability in the past week. You know, the stability clip that you heard from Secretary of State Clinton was just 10 days ago when she thought the status quo was stable.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. SANGER: By the time you got to the middle of this week, stability meant Mubarak moving out of the scene.
MS. YOUSSEF: You know, David raised an important point that is worth discussing which is because this came out through information, I think one of the things we have to watch for going forward is if the Mubarak regime holds on or if Suleiman holds on, how’s to say that they won’t crack down on information going out as a way to make sure that this doesn’t happen to the next regime? I think we assume that everything going forward will come out positive, but a personal fear that I have is that things will get harder for Egyptians in terms of learning about things, in terms of the police and the secret police on them because of the ways that this happened. This was an information war. And if the Egyptian government feels like it lost it and the remnants of the old government hang on, there’s a very real possibility they’ll tighten their control on that.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, we’re going to be watching this obviously closely as the week comes because it’s changed so much from last week to this week. Who knows what’s going to happen by this time next week? We’ll be watching. Thank you everybody. We got through as much as we could. But if you, like we, are hungry for more, check out our “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where we’ll pick up where we left off here. You can find us at pbs.org. So keep up on daily developments from Egypt and around the world every night on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we will wrap it all up again around the table next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.