Unrest Spreads Through Middle East

Host Scott Simon speaks with political scientist Marc Lynch about the continuing protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Marc Lynch joins us in our studios. He's director of Middle East studies at George Washington University and - been closely watching the situation in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor MARC LYNCH (Director, Middle East Studies, George Washington University): Yeah, thanks for inviting me.

SIMON: What are your feelings? Whose side is the army on?

Mr. LYNCH: Well, no one knows whose side the army is on, and I'm not even sure they, themselves, know yet. I think one of the big things that everybody's been trying to do is not just to know what the army will do, but to try and shape what the army will do. And I think if you listen carefully to what Hillary Clinton said, what President Obama said, I think there's a very clear effort going on to try and shape their calculations - to let them know that using violence would be unacceptable, and that there's a real need to move on.

SIMON: There have been so many protests against the Mubarak regime for years. What's your assessment now about what's made this different?

Mr. LYNCH: You know, this has been so remarkable for us all to watch because we've been watching these protests go on for nearly 10 years now, ever since the second intifada broke out. And there's this idea that because of Tunisia, suddenly the Arab street woke up. But that's really not the case.

I think that if you look at Egypt, this has been an extremely turbulent decade. But the problem is that each time they started to crest and they started to put pressure, they got beaten back and...

SIMON: Literally so.

Mr. LYNCH: Literally beaten back. And you remember very clearly the journalists, the protesters, the bloggers - people being beaten up and arrested. And there was this sense of almost like a tide coming in. And the waves would hit the beachhead, but it would never quite be enough. I think the difference this time is the demonstration effect from Tunisia and the idea that this is actually possible.

You can't understate the impact of hope and fear on the other side. Suddenly, the regime knows that it could lose and suddenly, the protesters feel that it's worth making the sacrifices because they could win.

SIMON: That raises the question: Is this 1989 for the Middle East?

Mr. LYNCH: Well, it could be. It's way too soon to know. I think that if you're inside Hosni Mubarak's head, he has to be thinking that if he can just ride out this fever then it'll break, and then he'll be able to go back to ruling the way he was before.

Again, you have to remember that these leaders are used to being illegitimate. They're used to their people not liking them. They're used to all of these kinds of compromise that they have to make to stay on the throne, and they're very determined to stay on the throne.

One of the lessons you could draw from Tunisia is that you have to start listening more to your people. But what seems clear is that Mubarak at least, the lesson he has drawn, is don't make concessions. Don't back down. Be tough. But it doesn't mean that it's going to work. And I think that when I listened to Hosni Mubarak's speech last night - which was delayed by many hours -there's a very real sense of unreality around it. I don't think it's going to work. I don't think that it's going to stop the protesters.

SIMON: And help us understand the finesse of U.S. policy in a situation like this.

Mr. LYNCH: Well, the United States, as you know, has an extremely difficult balancing act to walk. Protesters - and most Arabs - want Obama to come out very forcefully in favor of the people, in favor of change. Obama, on the other hand, has to balance the fact that Mubarak has been a close ally of the United States for 30 years, and everybody else in the region is watching how he responds to what's going on right now.

And so I think many people would like him to simply, you know, as they say, throw Mubarak under the bus. But imagine how it would look to the rest of the region if Obama had ditched Mubarak without even making a phone call? It really wouldn't...

SIMON: You mean, how it would look in Saudi Arabia, how it would...

Mr. LYNCH: In Saudi Arabia, in Jordan - across the region. So I think that what Obama's trying to do is to, on the one hand, show that he values this relationship and that he's giving Mubarak a chance. But if you listened carefully to his speech last night, he was not being lenient. There was a very clear and firm message that he expects to see change right now.

Clinton, Obama both sent very strong messages to the military about violence and not wanting to see large-scale, bloody repression. And there has been -sighting some pretty clear signs. If you listen to what people are talking about in the Arab media, a very clear sense that there are intense deliberations going on inside the regime right now about how to move on, and how to find some kind of soft exit for Mubarak.

SIMON: Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. LYNCH: Thank you.

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