Former ambassador to Israel & Egypt Amb. Daniel Kurtzer

Former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt outlines the fundamental issues topping the Egyptian protesters’ list and assesses the U.S. role in the demonstrations thus far.

In a 29-year foreign service career, Daniel Kurtzer held positions ranging from deputy director of the Office of Egyptian Affairs to serving on the U.S. peace team that brought about the Madrid Peace Conference. He also served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, fresh from his ambassador duties in Egypt, and has been a sought-after consultant to U.S. government agencies, including serving on the Iraq Study Group. In '06, after his retirement, Kurtzer joined the faculty of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.


Tavis: Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer is the former U.S. ambassador to both Egypt and Israel and now a professor of Middle Eastern and policy studies at Princeton, where he joins us tonight. Ambassador Kurtzer, good to have you on the program, sir.
Daniel Kurtzer: Thank you, Tavis. Good evening.
Tavis: Good to have you on. So the president, President Obama, that is, said earlier today that obviously Egypt has to negotiate a path forward, and “I think they’re making progress.” Do you agree with the president?
Kurtzer: Well, there certainly has been a beginning. The opening of discussions between the vice president, Omar Suleiman, and representatives of the demonstrators got off to a start. There’s some difference of view as to whether or not progress was made. Some newspapers are reporting that in fact there was some movement forward, while others are a little bit less sanguine.
I think we’re at a very early stage. I’d be hesitant about trying to characterize those talks because they have a long way to go, not only in trying to reach agreement but also at the beginning of implementation of anything that is agreed.
Tavis: With regard to those talks, what do you think – and obviously, there are many issues – but from your perspective, what’s most critical in terms of the to-do list that needs to be accomplished if those talks are going to go anywhere?
Kurtzer: Well, I think there are probably four or five things that really top the list. The first is to find out whether or not what President Mubarak offered last week, which is that he would remain in office until the next election in August and then retire, whether that’s going to be acceptable to the demonstrators.
Right now we’re at a stand-off on that issue. The military and the government are saying that that’s sufficient; the demonstrators are indicating that they would still like to see Mubarak go more immediately.
Beyond that I think you have several political and economic issues. On the political side, the question of whether the emergency laws that have been in effect since President Sadat was assassinated in 1981 will be abrogated by the government. This is a major demand of the demonstrators because it allows the government security services to arrest people without warrants and to basically take control without due process.
A second issue is opening up the political system, redoing the parliamentary elections that were held in November and were clearly not free, fair or democratic, opening up the candidacy ranks for those who wish to run for president. In other words, allowing political participation.
Finally, I would say on the economic side there has to be some dismantling of what many are calling a crony capitalist system in which the disparities in wealth have grown over the years in addition to population growth, accounting for an increase in poverty.
So there are very fundamental issues, and these are only the top of the agenda. This is a very long list of issues that have to be discussed and decided.
Tavis: I appreciate what you just said, that it is a long list, and I especially thank you for the ones you laid out just now. Let me, having said that, though, go right back to the very top of your list, the first issue you laid out, which is whether or not it is acceptable to the protestors that Mr. Mubarak would stay in office until elections in August or September, later this year.
Here’s the question. There are some, I think indeed, our own Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has raised questions, not necessarily making statements but raised questions about the wisdom of Mubarak leaving office too soon and whether or not that might bring further chaos to the country and to the region.
Your thoughts about whether or not you’re sensitive to his being asked to step down or forced out too soon, whatever that means?
Kurtzer: Well, there are at least two issues that I think underpin what the secretary of State has said. Number one, there is a question of whether or not the system itself will begin to crack if Mubarak leaves too soon, and I think that’s a concern. He is still a symbol of the longstanding nature of the regime and of the legitimacy of the regime. Not everything he did in the past 30 years was bad. He actually accomplished a few positive things as well.
There’s also a legal issue of whether or not any of the reforms that might be decided could actually be implemented in a period of the absence of a president, if you had an acting president or a vice president acting in the stead of the president.
So there are some tricky issues here. On the other side of the coin, though, because he is such a symbol for the demonstrators of all that’s wrong in Egypt, it’s hard to see how they might accept the word of Vice President Suleiman that reforms would take place if those reforms are taking place under the guidance of a president whom they don’t trust.
So I think the secretary of State and others are trying to find the right balance between not destabilizing a system which is now very fragile and at the same time trying to get these reforms jump-started so that we can see some progress toward whatever is agreed.
Tavis: From your perspective, Mr. Ambassador, assess for me two things: The way you think that the United States has handled this very delicate issue politically, and secondly, how the European nations have handled this issue political. Then I’ll come to the Middle East a little bit later.
Kurtzer: Sure. Well, Tavis, I think the United States has done a good job in several respects. Number one, we do have contradictory interests with respect to Egypt. Egypt has been a very strong and positive ally of ours for 30 years with respect to the peace process, with respect to strategic and military cooperation, with respect to intelligence sharing, and it’s hard to put a price tag on that, but it’s also hard to understand how we would have achieved as much as we’ve achieved in the Middle East without this alliance with Egypt.
On the other hand, we’re a nation that has values with respect to the promotion of democracy and the expansion of political freedoms, and Egypt has not exactly been a poster child of success in that regard.
So the administration has had a challenge in finding a voice which was comfortable standing in both of these camps, and I think the administration has done a good job. Some of the back-and-forth and toing-and-froing suggests that it hasn’t been an easy line to adhere to, but I think by and large, as you look back over the past 14 or so days.
The administration, I think, has made both messages quite clear. We don’t want to see our relationship with Egypt end, but we do want to see the expansion of political freedoms. The Europeans, I think, have also done a relatively good job in finding their voice. Europe, I think, is a little bit out front of the United States with respect to the question of democratization and political freedoms, but Europe in one sense also doesn’t have the kind of strategic needs and the strategic relationship with Egypt that we’ve had.
So there’s a slightly different set of imperatives on the part of Europe, but nonetheless they’ve also had to live with what I call this contradictory set of interests.
Tavis: To the Middle East now, one of the reasons why I’m so honored to have you on the program is because you are that rare individual who has done two jobs that one might think are diametrically in opposition to each other, and that is being our ambassador to Egypt on the one hand, but at another point in time being our ambassador to Israel.
So I don’t want to color this question too much, but I’m curious from your perspective as to what is at stake here specifically with regard to what Egypt will do or won’t do, will become or won’t become in the future in the Middle East.
Kurtzer: Well, Tavis, let me start with what I think is not at stake. There’s been a lot of breathless analysis that somehow the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel may be up for grabs. People are looking at this question quite carefully.
I don’t believe that that’s the case. Almost any scenario, a successor regime in Egypt to that of Hosni Mubarak will find it in its own interest to maintain the peace treaty with Israel. As you know, that treaty hasn’t necessarily been characterized by the friendliest of relations.
Some have called it a cold peace. But there has never been a single violation of the crucial security arrangements that are included in that treaty, and there’s no reason to believe that that would occur under a successor regime.
So I don’t think there’s a concern; in fact, I don’t believe there’s a concern with respect to the nature of the treaty, but Israeli-Egyptian cooperation on issues related to security around Gaza, security of the Israeli-Egyptian border, do require a kind of mutual trust that will be tested in the period ahead. Any Egyptian government is going to have its hands full with domestic internal reforms and may not be able to devote the kind of resources that are necessary to contain, for example, the problems in Gaza.
Egypt has suffered from terrorism emanating from Gaza into the Sinai Peninsula, and that’s going to be something that will be watched very carefully in the period ahead, as will be the degree of Israeli-Egyptian cooperation in maintaining their security relationship.
Tavis: You’re now teaching at Princeton and I want to ask you a question about youth and youthful engagement, maybe youthful engagement at the epicenter of this struggle, you tell me.
You’re now teaching at Princeton so you’re engaging young people every day. I’ve been reading a lot over the past few days, as I’m sure you have, Mr. Ambassador, about the role or lack thereof that social media played in this uprising.
But beyond that debate, talk to me about what you see, what your sense is of the role that young people have played or are playing in this particular uprising.
Kurtzer: Well, I think this is one of the most interesting phenomena of the past two weeks. You basically had a political and economic system that had become terribly stratified. A lot of elderly people had remained in positions of power and influence and dominance and there wasn’t a lot of room for the kind of upward mobility within the system that we’re used to in this country, through merit and through promotions and so forth.
So in addition to the real social, economic and political dislocations, you had this very stratified system that didn’t allow the rejuvenation of politics and the economy through the entry of new participants. Because there were social media available, a lot of people found themselves being able to talk to each other, to share stories, to use the various social media to communicate in ways that they had not had before. This was something that came together, in a sense, as the backdrop for what has happened.
At the same time, Tavis, it’s important to remember that the regime had also maintained the capability of cutting off those social media. You remember during the course of these 14 days the Internet has been down for several days. A lot of the social media that had been available before the demonstrations were cut off.
In other words, the regime was aware of the consequences of allowing too much communications freedom and retained the ability to basically shut it off when necessary. Things seem to be back online now, but it tells you that this is all very tenuous.
Tavis: Right quick, are you hopeful about the next few weeks or months?
Kurtzer: Well, I think in the first instance we have to be hopeful that a dialogue has started. A lot remains to be done, but to the degree that the government can persuade the demonstrators that the dialogue is serious, yes, I think maybe the demonstrations will end and they can get down to the business of implementing reforms.
Tavis: Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador both to Egypt and to Israel from the United States. Ambassador Kurtzer, thanks for your time and thanks for sharing your insights. I appreciate it.
Kurtzer: Thank you, Tavis.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm