Broader U.S. Implications If Egyptian President Resigns

Demonstrations continue to gain momentum in Egypt, as the organizers there call for a million people to hit the streets Tuesday. The protesters hope the mass demonstrations will increase pressure for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign and leave the country. Host Michel Martin speaks with Professor Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics about the aspirations of the Egyptian protesters and if Mubarak steps down, what is next for the African nation that is a vital ally to the United States.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to hear from young Egyptian-Americans about their thoughts on the ongoing protests and political crisis in Egypt. Many have hit the streets of U.S. cities to voice their displeasure with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And many are also voicing displeasure with long-term U.S. policy in Egypt. We'll hear from two demonstrators in a few minutes.

But first, the news. Egypt's opposition movement is calling for a million people to hit the streets tomorrow in another push to force President Mubarak out. That as the country's police forces regrouped and were once again a presence in this city.

On Saturday, President Hosni Mubarak appointed a new vice president, Omar Suleiman. But on Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters defied curfews and continued to demand that Mubarak step down. Here is just a short clip.

Unidentified Man: We need to change. We need to change at least. Please, Hosni, go. Go by peace. Go by peace. And reach (unintelligible). Please, Hosni, go.

MARTIN: That protester was saying: Please, Hosni, go. Go by peace. Please, Hosni go.

Now, this is a fast-moving story, so we're going to begin with perspective from Fawaz Gerges. He is the professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics. And he joins us from the BBC studios in London.

Professor Gerges, thank you so much for joining us.

Professor FAWAZ GERGES (Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations, London School of Economics): It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: This is about the 7th day of protests by our reckoning here. But it's puzzling, I think, to some, how it is that Mubarak can continue to - not to understand the scope of the problem? Does that sound right?

Prof. GERGES: I think he understands, I mean, intensity and also the danger of the situation, but he is determined to stay in power. This is about, really, relinquishing power. He does not want to give up power after 30 years at the helm.

I think what we need to remind our listeners is that the authority, President Mubarak, has suffered a catastrophic defeat, catastrophic setback. Whether he weather the violent storms or not, I think he's fatally wounded. And I believe based on everything that I know that Hosni Mubarak has become a liability not just for Egypt, but even for the army.

The army institution finds itself pressed between Iraq, that is, the unwillingness of President Mubarak to leave peacefully and, also, the aspirations and the hopes of Egyptians who would like to have a democratic government. The question is how will the military conduct itself in the next few days will determine the future of Egypt.

MARTIN: Given that they have such an expensive security apparatus, one of the noteworthy aspects to this point seems to be that they do not seem to have been able to assert control over what's happening on the streets even though we know that there have been some very visible signs of abuse of people on the street. And we've seen people being beaten. We've seen journalists being targeted and so forth.

But that's my question is that they don't seem to be able to assert control over this.

Prof. GERGES: You're absolutely correct. Not only, I mean, remember, almost, we have 100 people killed. We have thousands of people injured. This was a major confrontation against protesters. But what does it tell you? It speaks volumes about the political will that the protesters have had. There is a struggle, political wills between the Mubarak regime on the one hand and the, what I call the rainbow coalition of opposition forces of all kinds, of all ages, men and women of all political persuasions, centrists, democrats, liberal-leaning individuals, and nationalists, Islamists.

Truly, this is one of the most comprehensive, broadly-based coalition of opposition forces in the history of Egypt. And I think Egyptians are determined to basically shape their own future. And that's why I believe that the situation in Egypt will not likely improve as long as President Mubarak remains in power.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, would you please give a sense of this - what it is that the protesters want? Given that it is such a broadly-based movement, because one can imagine that the people who are out on the streets have rather different visions of what they want for Egypt.

Prof. GERGES: You're absolutely correct. It is a rainbow coalition of forces. You have centrists. You have liberals. You have nationalists. You have leftists. You have Islamists. But I think there is one particular fundamental goal that unites all protesters. That is basically the ouster of President Mubarak and the establishment of a national unity government or a front that basically prepares for elections, transparent elections, that lifts the emergency laws that Egypt has been, as you well know, governed by emergency laws since 1981.

And also for the writing of the constitution, a constitution that presents the dreams and the hopes and the aspirations of the Egyptian people. So, it's about really changing the power structure that exists in Egypt and the replacement of the authoritarian system with a more pluralistic government.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Professor Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics about the ongoing protest and political crisis in Egypt.

One of the things, you know, we've heard is that the economy in Egypt, despite the fact that there are these, you know, large infusions of aid from the U.S., which chiefly go to the military apparatus, but that the economy there is not able to keep pace with the number of students who are well-educated and coming out, you know, year after year and can't find meaningful work.

But then you've also told us about this extensive, you know, security apparatus which exists to, you know, ferret out in opposition. And I wanted to ask how, which of those factors do you think most touches people's lives?

Prof. GERGES: I think you're asking a very critical, very complex question. That is really, what are the triggers? What are the drivers behind the social upheaval? There are two variables that really must be taken into account. It is the oppressive nature of the political system that exists in Egypt, and also the dismal social conditions.

Egypt is a country of 80 million people. It's the most populous Arab state. Forty percent of the 82 million people live either in poverty or below the poverty line - that is on less than $2 a day. You have millions of Egyptians wait for hours every day in order to get six subsidized loaves of bread. Unemployment is extremely high. In fact, unemployment among the young educated is one of the highest in the world.

So, if there is a particular term I would give the revolution that's taking place in Egypt, I call it a bread and butter revolution and a freedom revolution. It's about political freedom; freedom and bread and butter and unemployment. The crisis in Egypt is structural because you have a president who has been in power for 30 years. He has almost decimated all institutions in Egypt and he has also failed to deliver the goods and that's why you have deep grievances that you see on the streets in the last few days in Egypt.

MARTIN: And then of course there's the question of what role the United States is and should be playing at this critical moment. Let me just play a short clip of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on NBC's "Meet the Press" and then I'll get your views. Here it is.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): I want the Egyptian people to have the chance to chart a new future. It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy, not faux democracy, like the elections we saw in Iran two years ago. And we believe that President Mubarak, his government, civil society, political activists need to be part of a national dialogue to bring that about.

MARTIN: So, needless to say, there are many opinions about the proper course of action for the U.S. So I'm asking yours.

Prof. GERGES: Yes. If you read carefully the statements by the Obama administration over the last seven days, you realize that the administration has come a long way. That the administration is trying to find the right balance between not sending the wrong signal either to the Mubarak government or the protesters. Because the question in Washington, what if Mubarak survives the violent storm? What if the protesters succeed in toppling President Mubarak?

So, what the administration is trying to do is to walk a fine line between sending the right signals to the army and the protesters. I would like the United States to be much more vocal in its support of the hopes and the aspirations of young people not just in Egypt but throughout the Arab world.

MARTIN: But it is also the case that democracy movements have sometimes yielded regimes which are very hostile to the United States, like, for example, Hezbollah and the Palestinian territories, which I don't many people would disagree is democratically elected. Rather, sorry, Hamas, forgive me. I think that it is also the case though that democracy movements have yielded regimes which are hostile to the United States, like Hamas and the Palestinian territories.

Prof. GERGES: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So, how, then, should the United States mediate that real possibility?

Prof. GERGES: Basically the United States playing politics by the same rule, not by different rules. At the end of the day, there is no escape. A democracy requires taking risks on social and political forces in that part of the world. Yes, Hezbollah, you might say, gained some credibility during the elections. But if Hezbollah violates the values of the Lebanese people, I would argue that the Lebanese people would not vote for Hezbollah the second time or the third time, and the same case with Hamas in Gaza as well.

The reality is the United States has limited options in Egypt. At the end of the day, political change in Egypt will be determined by Egyptians. All the United States can do is to basically send the right signals and also take position - a position that shows the values of America in terms of human rights and the rule of law.

No one is suggesting that the United States should basically take sides in the unfolding crisis in Egypt. But I think United States should be clearly on the sides of the rule of law, on the sides of civil society, on the side of transparent elections, on the side of Democrats, not oppressive leaders and oppressive dictators in that part of the world.

MARTIN: And, finally, let's look to the rest of the region and we only have about a minute left, but looking to the rest of the region, what are your thoughts about, as these events in Egypt unfold, are there other countries which are similarly affected by the political developments there, that we should be keeping an eye on?

Prof. GERGES: Truly, Egypt is one of the most pivotal states in the Arab world. It holds the key to the entire region. If Egypt goes, the entire region goes. I would argue the Tunisian and now the Egyptian virus has the potential to mutate and fertilize the entire region. I would say that almost every Arab state will be affected by the democratic wave that's sweeping the Arab world, whether it's Algeria or Jordan or Yemen or Saudi Arabia, there is no escape that the Arab world has finally reached the democratic wave.

The authoritarian wall in the Arab world has fallen. The barrier of fear has basically removed. It's really the Arab world's Berlin wall moment. It's a very promising moment. I'm not saying it's not dangerous. I'm not saying it's not volatile. But it is one of the promising moments in the Arab world's modern history.

MARTIN: Fawaz Gerges is professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics. Thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. GERGES: It's my pleasure, Michel.

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