How Do Recent Egypt Protests Impact U.S. Relations?

Melissa Block speaks with Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, about U.S. policy toward Egypt in light of the weekend's protests and the upcoming elections. Dunne is a former Middle East specialist for the U.S. State Department.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm joined now here in the studio by Michele Dunne. She directs the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and served for many years in the State Department under both Democratic and Republican presidents. Welcome back to the program.

MICHELE DUNNE: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: What does it mean to you to have the Egyptian Cabinet submit its resignation today?

DUNNE: What the Cabinet resignation says to me is that the military council feels it needs to at least make a show of making some kind of a political change. But this is not the change that the demonstrators are looking for. They're not in the streets demonstrating against the performance of the Cabinet. What they're demonstrating against is the military's holding on to executive power and unwillingness to turn it over to civilians.

BLOCK: And as you've seen these protests building over the last few days, over the weekend, huge protests in Tahrir Square and the bloody military crackdown, is this saying to you, this is what we feared would happen when Mubarak was swept from power and we saw this military council replace him?

DUNNE: Yes, I think so. The Egyptian demonstrators decided back in February not to carry out a full revolution but really to provoke a military coup, and then to entrust the military with leading things toward free elections. What they've seen over the ensuing nine months is that while the military is willing to hold parliamentary elections - they're supposed to begin November 28th - that they want to postpone holding a presidential election until they get certain guarantees in the constitution of a continued political role for the military.

In addition to that, the military council has badly mismanaged many aspects of the transition, whether it is security, economic, sectarian violence. Really, they're getting bad reviews all around on how they've handled things.

BLOCK: As these forces collide, as we're seeing them do right now in Egypt, where does the U.S. position itself and where should it position itself on the way forward?

DUNNE: It's extremely important that the United States stand clearly for a real democratic transition in Egypt. The United States has had a longstanding assistance relationship with Egypt including a great deal of military assistance, $1.3 billion a year. That makes Egyptians assume that the United States would be happier to see the military in control. That's not necessarily the U.S. government's real position, but I think the U.S. government has been a bit ambivalent in the way it has expressed its position.

I mean, for example, Secretary of State Clinton gave a speech a couple of weeks ago in which she clearly signaled that it won't be a good thing if unelected officials are the ones who remain in control. But then today, we saw a statement from the White House basically just calling on all sides to exercise restraint, which I think sends the wrong signal to Egyptians.

BLOCK: So what should happen with that aid, including the $1.3 billion in military aid that you mentioned?

DUNNE: I think it's time for the United States to say clearly both to the Egyptian military privately and also publicly that we would like to continue our support, but we can only do that in a situation where the military is really helping a democratic transition go forward.

BLOCK: The State Department does say, in defending the aid that is given now without conditions, that Egypt is pivotal for broader U.S. regional interests including the relationship with Israel or taking on Iran, for example, and that imposing conditions would put those broader interests at risk.

DUNNE: It's also true, though, that those broader interests will be put at risk by an Egypt that is unstable, dominated by unelected military officials. Look at the situation in Pakistan. It really could lead to a very ugly situation in which the Egyptian military runs affairs kind of behind a veneer of elected civilian institutions, and that's a recipe for trouble.

BLOCK: Michele Dunne, thank you for coming in.

DUNNE: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Michele Dunne directs the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East here in Washington.

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