Op-Ed: U.S. Should Embrace Change In Egypt

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Unlike in many demonstrations in the Middle East, protesters in Egypt are not denouncing the U.S. American officials have not fully embraced the protests. But Time magazine editor-at-large Romesh Ratnesar says the Obama administration should not fear the instability democracy may bring to Egypt.

NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the Opinion Page. The mass demonstrations in Egypt over the past week have been compared with the popular uprising that led to the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979, but with some important differences. There are no chants of death to America in the streets of Cairo, and many anti-government protesters say they want support from Washington. While the Obama administration has cautiously backed away from President Hosni Mubarak, Time magazine editor-at-large Romesh Ratnesar argues it's time to embrace change in Egypt or get run over by it.

Should the United States embrace the opposition in Egypt? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. There, you can also find a link to Romesh Ratnesar's piece in Time. He joins us here in Studio 3-A.

Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. ROMESH RATNESAR (Editor-at-Large, Time Magazine): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And why should the United States embrace the demonstrators, the opposition in Egypt? We supported the Mubarak regime, which has made peace with Israel, and been a stable factor through the region for decades.

Mr. RATNESAR: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a lot of argument for the policies that the administration is pursuing. I mean, they're walking a very delicate line, and there are great challenges and risks pretty much in any direction they choose to go down. But I think there's something to be said for being on the right side of history here.

And I think it's pretty clear that when you look and listen to what the people in the streets of Cairo are saying, they really do want the United States to more openly back their aspirations. And I think we have, for so long, backed away from supporting those kinds of forces in the Middle East in the name of stability. And I think what we're seeing now is that the stability that we've bought for many decades seems to be falling apart, and I think it's time to start to move in a different direction.

CONAN: Yet, as you mentioned, there are - the future is fraught. If it's not Mubarak, then who? And there's a wide range of groups involved in the protests. There were in Iran, as well, yet what we got was something that was distinctly anti-American.

Mr. RATNESAR: You know, I think that's obviously a risk. I think that's something that the administration is very cognizant of, the parallels between Iran of '79 and Cairo today. I think there are differences. I think the population in Egypt doesn't seem to be as strongly anti-American as I think some of the forces were in Iran in 1979.

I think the public opinion polls that you look at, that have been taken in the last few years show that, actually, America's popularity in Egypt is on the upswing, in many ways. So, you know, I think there's going to be a period in which you're going to have people who may come to power, who do not necessarily share exactly the same views that we do. But on the other hand, I think over time, we're better off dealing with a government in Egypt that is broadly representative of the hopes and aspirations of the people, as opposed to one that seems to be suppressing their future.

CONAN: One of the concerns is that, well, it's not just Egypt that we've supported over the past decades, but any number of other governments who were -could also be described as monarchies, autocracies, dictatorships, and nevertheless those people are going to be nervous. Is the United States fickle? What does this support mean?

Mr. RATNESAR: I think that there are going to be questions, certainly, in the region, and a reconsideration of what American support means and what the ramifications of it are. Again, I think that our policies have bought us a certain amount of time in the region.

But I think what we're seeing is if you look at Tunisia, a country that has one of the highest per capita GDPs of any country in the region, and then you look at Egypt, which is the largest country in the region, has one of the strongest militaries, and in both of these places - very different countries - you see these massive uprisings that the authorities really are incapable of putting down. I think that suggests that what we are seeing in those is a sign of things to come and as a sign of some of the forces that are, sort of, bubbling and simmering beneath the surface that we have to reckon with.

And I think better to acknowledge that reality and try to work with it rather than trying to suppress it.

CONAN: The Obama administration has called for a transition to democracy. It has called for reforms to be initiated. It's not clear that the United States plays all that important a role at this point other than rhetorically. What more could it do?

Mr. RATNESAR: I think that's right. I think that we can't really shape events in Egypt right now. I think they're taking on, certainly, a momentum of their own. I do think that rhetoric matters. And I think that we can earn some good will and some trust among a generation of people in the region who, I think, are really yearning for change. I think the administration could be more explicit in saying that we believe that the Egyptian people have a right to choose the government that they want and that it's time for a change.

And I think saying that, you know, we hope that the current government will institute the reforms that we're looking for and that there needs to be an orderly transition, I think is certainly a smart, wise sort of strategic position. But I just don't think it reflects the reality of what's going on there.

CONAN: You talked about Egypt's strategic importance, not only its population but Egypt controls the Suez Canal, which is a vital economic link for the oil that comes to Europe through that body and, you know, important for any number of other reasons as well. And, indeed, Egypt is the lynchpin of American policy regarding Israel. As long Egypt had a peace treaty with Israel, it was almost impossible for the other Arab nations to start a war.

Mr. RATNESAR: Yeah. I mean, hugely important fact. I think that for the last 32 years, Egypt has had what we would call a cold peace with Israel that has been able to be one of the lynchpins of stability in the region. There would be some risk that that peace could heat up. On the other hand, I think there are some signs that some of the forces in Egypt who might be in position to take over or succeed the Mubarak government would be at least willing to, for some foreseeable period, sustain its relations with Israel. So, you know, I think there's a risk of that. But I also think that's something that we have to be prepared to deal with.

CONAN: We're talking with Romesh Ratnesar, editor-at-large at Time magazine on the opinion page.

800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Ralph(ph) is on the line calling from Charlotte.

RALPH (Caller): Hey. How are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

RALPH: I just wanted to make the comment that I think that by supporting the autocratic regimes in the area, what we really have done is created a situation that is inherently unstable and it could lead to what we've seen in Tunis, which is a rapid collapse of government. And then we really wouldn't know what was going to happen. Whereas, if they have a more measured - you know, there are elections coming up Egypt already. And if they had a democratic process where the opposition could come in as a group, then maybe you wouldn't have the rapid collapse leading to, you know, Bolshevik or Iranian-style revolution.

CONAN: Ralph, a lot of people say that the situation is not going to wait for elections come September.

RALPH: That is a very interesting point. But I think that Mohamed ElBaradei and that group have sort of offered something of an interim solution where, as I've heard from the news, at least the Muslim Brotherhood for one and some other opposition groups have agreed that they would, in the hopes of having an interim regime, support him and the more moderate voices being heard right now.

CONAN: Unclear as yet as to which group will be identified or any leader being identified by the opposition. There's supposed to be a meeting in Cairo tomorrow morning to talk about that. But, of course, Romesh Ratnesar, the -Mohamed ElBaradei is the former head of the IAEA and a Nobel laureate for his efforts with the International Atomic Energy Agency and very familiar to a lot of people regarding the situation in Iraq and then later after that with Iran. So he is, though, believed to have very little base of support of his own in Egypt. He has mostly lived in Vienna over the last couple of decades.

Mr. RATNESAR: That's right. I mean, he's, obviously, a figure of considerable stature. I think is - has a high profile in Egypt. And I think has a lot of respect. But I think you're right, has very little sort of popular support at the grassroots level. On the other hand, I do think that he could be the kind of figure who could be a kind of unifying individual who might be able to serve in a sort of transition period until you get to an election, which probably would bring into power a group like the Muslim Brotherhood that does have views that are, in many ways, inimical to our traditional policies in the Middle East.

But, again, I think ElBaradei is a figure who has credibility in part because he has been critical of the United States in the past when he was at the IAEA. And I think that helps him despite the fact that he's been out of the country as long as he has helps him sort of unify some of these other forces that have been working within Egypt for the last several years.

CONAN: Ralph, thanks very much for the call. And you mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, probably the best organized of the opposition groups in part because it has been so routinely cracked down upon by the Mubarak regime, and before it the Sadat regime. And this is the organization that spawned some of the ideologues who inspired Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawihiri, whos his number two and some would argue the brains of al-Qaida. And youre okay with the idea that they might be elected come September?

Mr. RATNESAR: Well, I think the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt at least, I think, has evolved from some of its more radical positions that it held even, you know, a decade ago, in part because the Brotherhood now does have a presence in the Egyptian parliament. They have had to enter, to some extent, the political mainstream. And that tends to moderate some of the positions of these kinds of groups once they actually have some responsibility and have to deliver on their promises.

I think there would be a rocky period; I think theres no question. But the alternative is a continued situation of basic unrest and potentially an even more dangerous outcome if Mubarak or folks associated with Mubarak continue to stay in power and use force to preserve it.

CONAN: Romesh Ratnesar, editor at large at Time magazine, with us on the Opinion Page. Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And lets see if we can go next to this is Joseph(ph), Joseph with us from Lacrosse in Wisconsin.

JOSEPH (Caller): Yes. Thank you so much. I think one of the things we sometimes lack in our situation is clarity. I think our best interest is served when we say, hey, listen, we support an open and democratic process thats reasonably done, that meets reasonable expectations for the representation of the people come what may, right? I think we have to say were open to whatever you decide is your future. But that said, I think we can be clear and say, here are some things we can support, here are some things we cant. We cant support you if youre going to be oppressive, if youre going to come down on freedom of the press, on freedom of speech, on freedom of religion.

I think we all too often draw a line in the sand that say well support this government, but I think were never really clear about what parts of it were okay with and what parts were not okay, because were unwilling to draw a line in the sand and say this is whats important to us as a nation, and we cant support you and wont support if you start to take on those attributes that the Mubarak government already obviously has and who's created this situation.

CONAN: Egypt is the number two recipient of U.S. foreign aid, behind the state of Israel. A great percentage of that almost all of it, in fact is a direct result of the Camp David peace agreement with Israel. And of course both governments get about I think $1 billion a year as a result of that agreement to keep it in place.

JOSEPH: And I think what happens is we dont foresee the consequences of our support, and then when they show up we sit there surprised, going, boy, this isnt what we asked for. We didnt think Hamas would come to power. We didnt think the Brotherhood would come to power. I think we need to say you can have anybody you want in power, but were not going to play the same game on the same terms with different governments. Theres going to be consequences for your decisions, and we simply need to be clear about what they are as a nation.

CONAN: Romesh Ratnesar?

Mr. RATNESAR: Well, a couple of points. One is that I think the caller is right that when you are seen to be supporting a regime that is autocratic, thats suppressing basic liberties and political freedoms, you tend to be guilty by association. And I think what were seeing in Egypt today is that despite the fact that the Obama administration is making an attempt to reach out to the people and say that we are on the side of reform and openness in democracy, until there is a clear break from Mubarak, I think people assume that we are still hedging our bets and basically still supporting him. And that is a real problem for us going forward.

I think the other point is also correct, which is that the stability that we ostensibly have tried to promote in the region has been a illusion, because the regimes like the Mubarak regime have maintained their power in part by suppressing opposition groups and fueling exactly the kind of radicalization that we want to avoid.

CONAN: Joseph, thanks very much for the call. Lets go next to this is Hetty(ph) I hope Im pronouncing that correctly. With us from Coral Springs.

JEFF(ph) (Caller): Yes. This is Jeff in Florida.

CONAN: Oh, go ahead, please.

JEFF: But my question is very simple. This was done during the first Bush administration. We guaranteed that part of the world, our military, to back up the local, powerful regimes, and thats why they trade U.S. dollars for oil.

If in fact we dont back that up, theyre going to change they could easily change to a different currency. Once they do that, the United States has no value left at all for their currency. So I just want to I dont know the answer to anything for that, but I just know that its a fact about this stuff. You follow what Im saying?

CONAN: The oil is demarcated in dollars, not in euros or anything else. But is that a factor?

JEFF: Everywhere in the world you want to buy oil, youve got to transfer it for U.S. dollars. And for that, we gave them back we promised their regimes that we will make sure they have military backing. We dont have any more gold for them. We have nothing to give them except military backing.

CONAN: All right.

JEFF: Im sorry.

CONAN: Jeff, well just get a response because were running out of time here.

Mr. RATNESAR: I think that theres a great deal of truth in what hes saying. You know, our one of our principal strategic interests in the Middle East is protecting the supply of oil. I think thats not as big a factor in our alliance with Egypt. I think Israel is a bigger factor in that.

CONAN: Egypt, in fact, produces very little oil. Its an importer.

Mr. RATNESAR: Yeah. And but, on the other hand, I think that the fact that this is a region that controls so much of the worlds oil supply is a big reason why we have such great interest there and why I think its in our interests to promote governments that more closely reflect our values.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the phone call. And Romesh Ratnesar, thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. RATNESAR: Thank you.

CONAN: Romesh Ratnesar, editor-at-large for Time magazine, with us here in Studio 3A. Tomorrow, more on Egypt and the protests. Stay with us for that tomorrow. This is NPR News.

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