Analysis: Egyptians Challenging President's Authority

Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt who is now a professor of global political theory at Hamilton College, talks with Steve Inskeep about the violent clashes in Egypt and the challenge to President Hosni Mubarak's authority.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Let's get some analysis of today's protests in Cairo. What we know is that tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the capital of Egypt. Egyptian security forces have responded with tear gas, batons and rubber bullets. People are protesting the decades-long rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

We're going to talk now with Edward Walker. He's a former United States ambassador to Egypt. He's following the story.

Ambassador, welcome to the program.

Mr. EDWARD WALKER (Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt): Well, thank you very much.

INSKEEP: What we have here are data points. Our correspondent is on the ground, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, and saw thousands of people protesting. We have other reports of protests around Cairo. Can you help us pull these data points together? How serious do these protests seem to you?

Mr. WALKER: These are pretty serious protests. This is reminiscent of the 1977 riots that I went through, the bread riots. And it's very frightening if you're in the middle of it. And it always seems to be worse in some senses than it actually is if you get to the outskirts. I've got friends who have called and -in other parts of Egypt that have not seem quite this reaction. But if Mubarak doesn't take it seriously, he's making a big mistake.

INSKEEP: Well, it sounds like he is, or at least his security forces are taking seriously, based on the thousands and thousands of police on the streets. How tough are the security forces in Egypt?

Mr. WALKER: They're pretty darn tough. And if they can't handle it, the army would be brought in, and the army can handle it. They don't like to bring the army in to face citizens. It's not a nice thing to do.

If I had to guess, I would guess they would get this under control in the next few days. But if they don't take it as a big, big warning sign and start making some changes, it's just going to happen again. It'll get worse each time.

INSKEEP: Our correspondent, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, described one group of thousands of people who attempted to reach Tahrir Square in Cairo. That seemed to be the square where protestors had agreed to attempt to congregate. Let's listen to her description of what the police did to block them off.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: They started lobbing tear gas and using water cannons. And they were lobbing so much tear gas that it was just spread all over the neighborhood. You could not escape it.

And there were children in this march. They were crying. Women, old women. Men. People fainting on the streets. But they were staying determined to stay there. About a a group of about 1,000 seemed to stay in place for about an hour at the time I left them.

INSKEEP: Is there a danger of a backlash if the security forces crack down too hard?

Mr. WALKER: Oh, absolutely. They can overdo it. But they've got pretty good experience with how to do this without causing too many martyrs. They will be very careful to try to avoid any use of live fire.

INSKEEP: This seems to be putting the United States in an awkward position. Americans would like to support democracy and democratic movements. And we certainly speak on behalf of them. But at the same time, the United States government has been very, very closely allied with this authoritarian government of President Hosni Mubarak. Are these protests good for the United States?

Mr. WALKER: Well, they are good for the United States if they manage to lead to some real, serious reform in Egypt. I think that the problem is - and I think the United States has been a little bit too reluctant to criticize our friends, because it is in our interests to make sure that these countries do remain stable. They can't do that if they're just going to just ignore the will and the desires of their people.

INSKEEP: And is there a possibility that this could lead to a more democratic Egypt? Because, of course, the fear is immediately raised of an Islamist government in Egypt.

Mr. WALKER: Well, you're going to have to take into account that fact that a good portion of the Egyptian people are Muslims, and that they are very religious people, and that there is going to have to be an element of Islam in any democrat government. But other countries have survived like this - Turkey, and so on. So I don't think it's impossible to arrange a compromise where Islamists have a voice, and the people have a voice.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, what would you tell President Obama to do if he called you up and asked you for a word of advice?

Mr. WALKER: I would tell him to get on the horn to Mubarak and tell him to stop this, and to start making some real changes in Egypt and promise the people that things are going to change. Otherwise, he isn't going to be around very much longer.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks very much.

Mr. WALKER: You bet.

INSKEEP: Edward Walker's a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. He's now teaching at Hamilton College in New York.

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