Egypt's Military Plays Neutral Role In Protests

So far during the massive demonstrations in Egypt, the country's military has held its fire. Shadi Hamid, studies Islamic political parties and democratic reform in the Middle East. He's director of research at the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar, and talks to Steve Inskeep about Egypt's military.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's talk more about Egypt's military now with Shadi Hamid. He follows the region for the Brookings Institution. We found him in Doha, Qatar, in the Persian Gulf.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. SHADI HAMID (Brookings Institution): Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: And we were just talking about the Egyptian military and the immense aid that they receive from the United States. Many people have wondered over the last several days what game exactly the military is playing - the way that they've come out onto the streets, the way that they've held their fire, they way that they've said they're supporting the people. What exactly are they doing?

Dr. HAMID: Well, so far, they've played a largely neutral role. They've refrained from getting involved and taking clear sides here. They've focused on securing major buildings and installations, but that's about it.

So, at this point, the military really could be the kingmaker. Right now, we're at an impasse. The protestors are not going to back down. They want Mubarak to step down. Mubarak doesn't want to step down. So we may be at the point where some outside force is needed to tip the balance one way or the other.

INSKEEP: Outside force. Who could that - meaning the military itself.

Dr. HAMID: Yes, the military is one possibility, and then the U.S. and the international community would be another option. It's worth noting that the U.S. does have considerable leverage here. As Ambassador Mack noted, the U.S. gives the Egyptian military $1.3 billion a year. There are close relationships between senior military staff in Egypt and their counterpart at the Pentagon. So in that sense, if the U.S. really did want to put pressure on the military, it could.

INSKEEP: And that's an interesting point, because when you hear about the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the way that they have seemed to have taken over the square in recent days, it's hard not to think of a little bit of history and think of Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, where it seemed that the protestors had taken over. And then the moment came when the government moved in, when the tanks moved in, when the military moved in, and it was all over.

That would be a complicated decision for the Egyptian army to change its tactics, wouldn't it, because it's receiving so much aid for the United States.

Dr. HAMID: Yeah. Well, that type of massacre scenario looks less likely now. I think there was a lot of concern that was in the offing yesterday. But the momentum really now is with the protestors. If the military did decide to shoot, it would - it's difficult to do that when the whole world is watching, when the international community has made clear that massacres of this sort would be a red line.

It's a very risky move for the military. And do they want to be remembered as the military that defended the old order and prevented Egypt from moving forward and becoming a democracy?

I think the Tunisian model is instructive here. The Tunisian military, during their uprising, protected the people and actually forced the president to leave. So I think the Egyptian military here has a replicable model, if they want one.

INSKEEP: One other question in a few seconds, Mr. Hamid. There have been so many revolutions and uprisings, and some of them have turned out well, and some of them have evolved into dictatorships of different kinds, or authoritarian governments that replaced the old autocrats. Do you think that the leaders of the opposition movement here can be trusted to push for the right outcome, or even to succeed in getting a good outcome?

Dr. HAMID: They can certainly be trusted to do that more than the current regime. The current regime is one of the most autocratic in the region. It's made almost no progress. It's gotten worse over the last three decades. Of course, U.S. policymakers are going to be afraid that the Brotherhood will have growing influence in a new government.

INSKEEP: The Muslim Brotherhood.

Dr. HAMID: But Brotherhood isn't as - yeah, the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition force in Egypt. But they aren't as scary as, I think, sometimes people make them out to be. They are nonviolent. They are committed to the democratic process. They work with other secular opposition groups and cooperate with them.

INSKEEP: Okay.

Dr. HAMID: And, in any case, they'll be only one part of the future of Egypt.

INSKEEP: Okay, Mr. Hamid, thanks very much.

Dr. HAMID: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Institution, analyzing the situation this morning from Doha, Qatar.

This is NPR News.

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