Middle East specialist Tarek Masoud

Middle East specialist assesses post-Mubarak Egypt and offers his thoughts on whether the military will actually hand over power to a civilian authority.

A political scientist and Middle East specialist, Tarek Masoud is an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. His current research focuses on the politics of religion in the Islamic world, and his articles/reviews have appeared in the Journal of Democracy, Foreign Policy and the International Journal of Middle East Studies, among others. Masoud received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale and recently returned from a three-month trip to Egypt where he was researching opposition politics.


Tavis: Tarek Masoud is an assistant professional of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who has as many friends and family living in Egypt. He joins us tonight from Boston. Professor Masoud, good to have you on this program, sir.
Professor Tarek Masoud: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Let me start by asking about your family in Egypt.
Masoud: They’re well. They had some pretty rough days. My mother and younger brother live there and there were some pretty rough days early on in the protest, when the Internet was shut off and during those nights of chaos. But they’re doing well and they’re pretty happy right now.
Tavis: Happy about what, specifically? I think I know, but I don’t want to assume.
Masoud: (Laughter) Happy that Mubarak is gone, happy that Egypt seems to have taken a really important first step on the road to what I think everybody there hopes will be a genuine and lasting democracy.
Tavis: Is it a first step in the right direction?
Masoud: I think it was a necessary step. There were ways that perhaps you could have gotten to democracy if Mubarak had maybe early on made some reforms when the protestors were asking for them. But by the end of this it just became really clear that he didn’t want to let go of power, and so it really was an obstacle to any kind of reform and I think had to go in order for this process to be initiated.
The hope is that it will continue. The hope is that the military, which is now running the country, will follow through on its promise to midwife a real democratic reform.
Tavis: I want to ask you in just a moment whether or not, with regard to that midwifing, whether or not the military can be trusted. Put a pin in that for just a second, because I want to ask a quick question about Mubarak, since you referenced him a moment ago.
I’m always fascinated by this love of power, and again, I’m not naïve about this but I am curious as to your take on it – was it just about the power? Because I’m trying to figure out how a guy who’s 82 years old, has been the leader for 30 years, hears these footsteps in the dark and refuses initially to get out of town.
Is it just being drunk with power? Because at 82 and three decades of leadership, what are you holding on for?
Masoud: That’s a great question, and it’s fundamentally a kind of philosophical question. One of the things that we’re hearing now is that he wasn’t really getting good information, that apparently he was relying too much on one of his sons who was kind of being groomed for power, and that that kept him from really understanding the gravity of the situation.
But I’ve got to tell you, when he finally did step down I had this feeling of elation on the one hand, that finally this part of the nightmare was over and that Egypt could actually begin moving towards democracy, but I also had this enormous sense of depression, because I thought this is a guy who 18 days ago could have made this move, and he could have actually left with some of his integrity intact and without bringing Egypt to ruin.
This is a man who really brought Egypt in two weeks to economic ruin. He shut off the Internet, he did all of these terrible things, and I thought there’s this concept that we have in Islam, there’s a story in the Qur’an about this man who owns a garden, and he’s so arrogant and happy about his garden.
In the Qur’an, it says this man entered is garden and he was bragging about it, and he was being unjust to himself by bragging, because this arrogance, fundamentally, it’s an injustice to yourself.
I think Mubarak committed all kinds of injustices to the Egyptian people but in the end he also committed a grave injustice to himself. He could have left and people would have said he was a flawed leader but at least he let go at the right time. But he just didn’t.
Tavis: Beyond letting go at the right time – and again, nobody’s having a pity party for Hosni Mubarak tonight – but beyond leaving – not leaving, as it were, Tarek – at the right time, how will this absolutely not just color but stain his legacy?
I ask that because the thing that’s fascinating for me is that whether you like or loathe this guy, there was some good that he accomplished in this 30-year rule and I don’t think that any of that is ever going to be remembered, given how it came crashing down at the end.
Masoud: I think that if you had asked us 18 days ago about Mubarak’s legacy, we absolutely would have said what you just said. But I think what he did during those 18 days really exposed the nature of his regime. This is a guy who at the end of the day was reliant on force and when he saw that the people didn’t want him he concluded it was kill or be killed and he tried to kill.
Almost 400 people, they say, have died in these protests. Maybe the number is even higher. I think that absolutely any incidental good that might have been done during his regime, and there were some economic reforms that lots of people disagree about but some people think were necessary – anything that was remotely good done during his 30 years in power he completely obliterated.
Tavis: Back to your point, then, about the military midwifing. Can the military be trusted to play that role?
Masoud: That’s a very good question. I tend to be a kind of skeptical guy, and when it comes to things like this I think the military controls 40 percent of the economy, why would they want to let go of that? The military obviously is concerned about stability; they’re concerned about that a democratically elected leader might perhaps make statements that cause Israel to feel nervous and the military doesn’t want to get into a conflict on that front.
So there are reasons that I, as a kind of skeptical, fat academic think, well, the military is not going to follow through. But when I talk to people in Egypt – my family, my friends – they all really believe firmly that the military is going to follow through on its promise to initiate democratic reforms, to have constitutional amendments in two months, to have elections in six months. They just believe it wholeheartedly, and they believe – yeah.
Tavis: I’m sorry, not to cut you off – and yet you have to juxtapose, it seems to me, that hopefulness with the reality, which is that Egypt – every leader they’ve ever had has been a military leader, has come out of the military.
Masoud: Right, that’s this regime, the Mubarak regime that they were trying to unseat, was a military regime. Look, we have examples of militaries actually handing over power in Portugal in 1974; you have it in Sudan, which is Egypt’s neighbor to the south. In 1985, General Swaredahab stayed one year and left.
Then, of course, a few years later the military then conducted a coup that is still – that junta still rules. But the point is there are examples of militaries handing over power, and people have said that the Egyptian military doesn’t want to actually rule. It wants to reign, but it doesn’t want to govern on a day-to-day basis. So people are relying on that impulse to hopefully – hope the military gets out of the way.
Tavis: So then we know from the coverage of this explosion in Egypt that there is no at the moment a leader, and I’m not necessarily sure that’s a bad thing. The way it keeps getting covered in the press is who’s the leader? The opposition doesn’t have a leader. Tell me how you assess that. Is that a good thing, is that a bad thing? How are you reading that?
Masoud: I think that the opposition will need to coordinate in such a way that they can have somebody who can negotiate on their behalf with this military. It’s not clear yet whether they do have that, but I have no doubt about their ability to do it.
I worry, of course, that those who don’t want to see the opposition’s goals achieved might try to manage and manipulate and split them by fomenting disagreement among them, because this is a kind of broad movement and they’ve got a lot of different ideas and different positions.
But I think that yeah, I think that they’re going to need to figure out who represents them and come up with their list of demands and push the military to follow through on them.
Tavis: I’ve got a quick 30 seconds here, finally – what are we to make of these new protestors who are emerging? We’re talking state employees, et cetera. There’s a new batch of protestors now.
Masoud: Yeah, well, because a lot of people’s grievances are not simply political grievances. They’re not simply about democracy and an end to police oppression and arbitrary behavior. They’re also about serious economic grievances that people have in that country, and that’s the real challenge, is that by getting rid of Mubarak you can respond to some of the political grievances, but you’re going to also need to respond to these economic grievances.
The way the military has responded so far, by calling for these protests to stop, isn’t very hopeful. What we really need is these economic grievances to be addressed as well.
Tavis: Harvard Kennedy School’s Professor Tarek Masoud. Professor Masoud, thanks for sharing your insight. It’s good to have you on the program tonight, sir.
Masoud: Thanks for having me.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm