No Way Back For Egypt And The Region

The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that are threatening to spread across the Middle East and North Africa present a foreign policy nightmare for the United States. What do they mean for the Obama administration and will countries like Syria and Iran benefit in the long run? Former Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher, now of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, addresses the ongoing protests in his home country Jordan and explains how Western countries must position themselves as governments they call allies face upheaval.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

We have a diverse array of subjects for you today. Natalie Stewart was one-half of the iconic soul duo called Floetry. They not only hit it big with their own albums, but also penned songs for Michael Jackson. But they broke up. And now Natalie, who is called the Floacist, is back before the mic with a new solo CD, and we will hear from her later in the program.

But first, we turn back to the political upheaval in Egypt that is spreading across North Africa and the Middle East. Some leaders of Egypt's democracy movement met with Egyptian officials Sunday. A meeting with the government of President Hosni Mubarak claimed it was a step of transition. Here's President Barack Obama talking about Mubarak in a pre-Super Bowl interview yesterday on Fox.

President BARACK OBAMA: Only he knows what he's going to do. But here's what we know, is that Egypt is not going to go back to what it was.

MARTIN: The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have sparked similar protests in other countries, like Jordan, where King Abdullah fired his cabinet last week and ordered a new prime minister to pursue political reforms.

Over the past couple of days we've been consulting a diverse array of people with deep knowledge of the region for their insights. Today we're pleased to have with us a former deputy prime minister of Jordan. Marwan Muasher was also foreign minister at one time. He has a deep background in diplomacy. He's also served as an ambassador to the United States. He's now a vice president for Middle East studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and he's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MARWAN MUASHER (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Pleasure.

MARTIN: Could I first ask you if you agree with President Obama's assessment that there is no way back now, that the genie is out of the bottle, Egypt is changed forever?

Mr. MUASHER: Absolutely. I don't think there's a way back just for Egypt, but for the whole region in general. I think the, you know, fact that people have gone to the street is a new phenomenon in the Middle East. The Arab state has not sort of protested or called for a leader's change in a very long time in the region. And whereas different countries will react differently according to their different circumstances, I don't think any country today is immune from what is going on. A wave of change is sweeping across the Middle East and this is something, in my view, that is positive, although it will not be smooth by any chance.

MARTIN: But why do you say that, given that part of your portfolio when you were deputy prime minister was to push for changes in governance? That's one of your tasks. You were, in fact, in part appointed to press for reforms. And by your own accounting, they didn't listen. So why do you think now is different?

Mr. MUASHER: Well, I don't know that it is different. I hope that countries are drawing the right lessons. Certainly this is not an economic crisis. Although it might have been triggered by the economy, the uprisings that we are seeing. Clearly there is an underlying theme that cuts across all the countries that we have seen so far, which is the low quality of governance(ph). People are not happy about that quality and they want better government. They want better delivery of services.

Regimes so far have not been serious about the reform process. They have either been engaged in ad hoc programs that, you know, do small things here and there but don't add up to a sustained and serious process. Hopefully this time, hopefully things will be different, because as I've always been saying, governments have today two choices - either they lead the reform from above or they watch it unfold in the street. But the status quo is simply not sustainable any longer.

MARTIN: What convinces you that governance is at the heart of these uprisings? We are going to talk about global food prices in a minute, later in the program, which had been a factor for some months now. And as we know, in Tunisia part of the triggering event was a man who set himself on fire, in part because he couldn't find a job and when tried to open a cart, you know, he was treated very poorly by the authorities.

But what convinces you that this is indeed about governance and a desire for, you know, respect and involvement in society, as opposed to economic issues, which are, in fact, real as well?

Mr. MUASHER: Well, as I said, it might have been triggered by the economy. But look at all the slogans, both in Tunisia and in Egypt. People want change of regime. People want a new parliament. People want a new election law that is more representative, where they feel they have more of a say in the running of their own affairs. People want to fight corruption. All these are, you know, political reform slogans, if you want. They're not about the economy only.

I've been convinced for a while in the Arab world that people are ready to take painful measures on economic reform if it is coupled by political reform and by a feeling that they are sharing in the decision-making process. Otherwise economic reform without political reform is being seen by people in the region as reform that is - whose benefits are going to very small business and political elite and not to the country at large. And so economic reform only, without political reform, in fact has now very bad negative connotations in the Arab world.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Marwan Muasher, former deputy prime minister, former foreign minister of Jordan, one of the countries affected by the unrest in Egypt. He's currently a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

I do want to ask about your assessment of the U.S. role in a minute. But before we do, I want to get to Jordan. I mean, King Abdullah is a very attractive figure in the West, in the United States. He seems to be respected, or at least liked, by the country, and yet that there have been demonstrations there. Do you think - first, I'd like to ask you, just looking at Jordan specifically as a case study, why do you think that the reforms that you are talking about have not taken hold there, and do you think that there's a chance that they will now?

Mr. MUASHER: Well, the demonstrations in Jordan that have happened in the last few weeks were not against the king. They were against the government so far in Jordan, whose a monarchy. The king rules through the government and not directly, if you want. But having said that, of course, successive governments have not really implemented the very reform measures that the king has asked them to do in the last 10 years.

I think in Jordan, as elsewhere in the Arab world, there is a political elite that is benefiting from (unintelligible) system that buys off loyalty with favors. Such an elite is not interested in any reform that would transform that to a merit-based system, basically. I have seen that firsthand when I was in government, arguing for the need for a gradual by - certainly a gradual process. You cannot, you know, implement reform overnight and you cannot bring democracy overnight without first instituting all the pillars of that democracy in the culture of the state, but a serious reform process nonetheless.

I have argued the need for that for many years. And I was resisted first and foremost by this political elite who were not interested in doing so. I think we are seeing the same thing in Egypt. There was a political and business elite around the regime who benefited greatly from economic reform, who did not want to open up the political system.

And I think that in many ways this era is over. That does not mean it will be over overnight. But I think that this dominance by the executive, by the political and business elite over the running of affairs in the Arab world, is not going to be the same as it was before.

MARTIN: I'm interested in your views on the U.S. role in this. On the one hand some are characterizing this administration as being appropriately cautious. On the other hand, there are many people who are very angry that they feel that this government in particular should have been much more outspoken in support of the demonstrators. I'll just give you a short clip from former diplomat sent to Egypt by the White House as a go-between, Frank Wisner, suggested over the weekend that Mubarak needs to stay in office for a transition to a new government. I'll just play that clip. Here it is.

Mr. FRANK WISNER (Former Diplomat): The president in particular needs to provide the leadership that would take the changes that would permit an orderly transition to his parliament, make constitutional corrections if those are necessary and lead Egypt through this path. So President Mubarak's role remains utterly critical in the days ahead.

MARTIN: And of course the White House has since backed away from this. But what is your assessment of this?

Mr. MUASHER: Well, let me say two things. The problem today is that the people have lost trust that the government under the leadership of Mubarak is going to institute the reforms that are being talked about. There is no trust that such a transition, if people go back to their homes, there is no trust that they will not be pursued after by the regime, and that the regime will not renege on the reforms that have been - whatever reforms have been agreed to with the opposition.

I think this is the dilemma that exists today for why people are asking for President Mubarak to leave. But on the U.S. role, I think, frankly, in blunt terms, the U.S. missed the boat on Egypt. I think that for some time now, whether it is the Bush administration approach, which has tried to basically impose reform from the outside and was resisted in the Arab world to a great extent. Or the Obama administration approach, which went the other way and did not prioritize the reform issue at all and gave countries of the region the impression that this administration does not care about this issue.

Both approaches, I think, are the wrong approaches. We have seen in the last week or so, attempts by the Obama administration to correct, you know, its policies. No administration can openly say, you know, we want the leader to leave. That is a decision up to the population itself.

But I think that at this stage in time in Egypt, whatever is happening in Egypt, I don't think that the people on the street, you know, are paying much attention to what the U.S. is saying. I think that the U.S. needs to, you know, to have it right on other countries of the region.

MARTIN: And, finally, we only have about a half minute left. And I did want to ask you about Iran. I mean, the latest news out of Iran, which of course crushed an uprising in its own - among its own people a year ago is said to be encouraged by these events. Why would that be?

Mr. MUASHER: I wouldn't be encouraged if I was Iran. I mean I think that this wave is not going to stir Iran in any way. We, in fact, Iran in many ways started this a year or two ago. So I would not be encouraged. I think people, you know, in the region are saying no to bad governance, whether that governance is coming from Arab countries or from Iran.

MARTIN: Marwan Muasher is a former deputy prime minister of Jordan. He's a former foreign minister as well as a long-time diplomat. He now oversees the Middle East programs in Washington and Beirut for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And he was kind enough to join us here in our studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MUASHER: Thank you.

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