Another Detour On Egypt's Path To Democracy

Guests

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, foreign correspondent, NPR
Tarek Masoud, professor, Harvard University
Nathan Brown, professor, George Washington University

Even before votes were counted in Egypt's first competitive presidential election, military leaders effectively seized control of the country. The ruling military council granted itself broad powers over the government, including budget control, immunity from oversight and the power to declare war.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Even before all the votes are counted in Egypt's first free presidential election, military leaders have effectively seized control of the country. Over the weekend, the ruling military council granted itself broad powers, including control of the national budget, immunity from oversight and even the power to declare war.

The council also convened a panel to draft the new Egyptian constitution. That followed the reimposition of martial law last week, and the dissolution of the newly elected parliament by the country's Supreme Constitutional Court.

All of this poses a direct challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the majority of seats in parliament and claims victory in the presidential election, as well. If you have questions about what just happened and what may happen next, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.

Later in the program, Rodney King on the Opinion Page. If you had a conversation about him that you'd never had before, email us, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. But first to Egypt and NPR foreign correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who joins us now from Cairo. Good of you to be with us this evening.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: My pleasure.

CONAN: Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi claims he won the election. His opponent, former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, disputes that claim. Regardless, though, it seems the real power is General Tantawi.

NELSON: Absolutely, although at a press conference today, the generals tried to soften that somewhat. There were two generals who appeared, and they said that the president will, in fact, have real powers, be able to appoint his own Cabinet and even named a defense minister, which of course is a very significant post because the military in effect wants to retain control over its budget and its affairs and, as you mention be able to take part in declaring war.

But the decree, which was issued by the SCAF, as it's called, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the one that came out last night, was much more explicit about what the military plan to do, down to setting up a constitutional committee to draft a new constitution if they don't like what the current committee, which was selected by the now-defunct parliament, comes up with.

CONAN: And the military also will guard itself against any oversight by any newly elected parliament and will - would the president be able to fire any of the generals?

NELSON: Well, it does not appear so, at least not at this stage. Certainly also - I should have mentioned that the military will retain or will share, I should say, legislative power with the president since there's no parliament at the moment. But no, in the end, I think what's clear is that the generals want to sort of have the final say about anything that's of importance to them, but they want to do it from behind the scenes.

They're quite tired of being in the public light and being the source of criticism and protests just about every week.

CONAN: And what's the reaction been?

NELSON: Well, there - there's anger in terms of the runoff. Not very many people that I've talked to certainly here in Cairo were very happy about these elections. It seems like the votes they were casting were more to make the other candidate not win or fear of the other candidate rather than for the candidate they were voting for.

And they've also been somewhat stunned by the military coming out and saying that they would do the things that they're going to do. What is sort of surprising today is that the military says it will in fact step down by June 30th, which many people here are in favor of.

But (technical difficulties), people here are just, sort of, scratching their heads, wondering what happened with the revolution.

CONAN: Indeed the revolution born in Tahrir Square, did people gather there after work today?

NELSON: Well, they were there this morning, actually, when Mr. Morsi first declared his victory. Hundreds of pro-Muslim Brotherhood people came out to cheer and celebrate. At this stage there are protests being called for in the coming days, if not tonight, to protest against what the ruling generals have come up with and to also protest against each of the candidates, depending on whose side they're on.

CONAN: Depending on whose side they're on. Indeed, the question comes down to - and the Muslim Brotherhood, this is a direct challenge to them.

NELSON: Absolutely. I mean, they've had a really bad week because first you had the high constitutional court last week dissolving the parliament, which was freely elected, and it was also dominated by the Islamists, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, which held nearly half the seats. So apparently some of them did try to go into the parliament building in recent hours and were prevented from doing so, since that body has now been dissolved so that that was not a good situation and it's something that the Brotherhood sort of took in stride.

They say they don't agree with the decision but that they respect the law. But I think the announcements today by the ruling generals were perhaps more than they care to accept, and so they've been calling for protests, as well, in the coming days.

CONAN: And which raises the question: How far is the military willing to go to hang on to its power?

NELSON: Well, last week they did pass - or I should say the justice ministry - it's a military-led government, so in the end everyone always assumes that the ruling general signs off on these things - but they passed a decree that allowed military policemen, as well as intelligence services, to arrest civilians as they see fit.

This is something, of course, that is very much opposed here by Egyptians. They lived under nearly 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's having a state-of-emergency law, which basically suspended civil rights here. And so this is sort of seen as a return to that, and certainly the military has made it clear they're not going to put up with anything that they see as a threat to this country, and that includes pro-democracy protests.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR foreign correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She's with us from Cairo, where she's been covering the dramatic events of the past couple of weeks, the election and the announcements by the military that it has effectively seized control of the government. If you have questions about what has happened and what may happen, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And let's go first to John(ph), John with us from Minneapolis.

JOHN: Yes, good afternoon. I was wondering: If they staged mass demonstrations, mass public protests like they did to get Mr. Mubarak out, could they also force the civilian - I mean the military government to change courses and to switch to another civilian form of government?

NELSON: Well, they certainly have given the military pause in the past. I mean, certain things they've sort of smoothed out or backed off from. But the military has made it pretty clear that protests alone are not going to be something that make them change course.

I mean, they've been in charge for six decades, and they're not likely to give that up easily. They have denounced people who come out and speak against them as being foreign agents or being basically funded by foreign countries or foreign organizations. This is why we had the trial of American NGOs and other international NGOs here not so long ago, and that's still ongoing.

So it doesn't seem like protests alone are going to make them walk away. But having said that, I don't think that they're really looking for mass bloodshed. I mean, this isn't Iran. This is Egypt, and the military realizes that they have to maintain good relations with the United States and other Western countries and that there's not likely to be a lot of support for any kind of real crackdown that's going to cause a lot of bloodshed.

CONAN: But in the end, the military - in the demonstrations that John was talking about - the military declined to open fire at the protests, and that left Mr. Mubarak with no options. Will they - we don't know the answer to this question. I guess the answer is - how tough are they ready to be to hang on to power this time around?

NELSON: Well, that was a calculated assessment, I think, on their part. They decided that Mr. Mubarak was just - he couldn't win at this point. I mean, they had to do something. So they allowed it to happen. I think it's a whole different ballgame when you're talking about making the military be responsive to a civilian government and having to give up the power that they've wielded for six decades, which is a lot longer than Mr. Mubarak was around.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the phone call.

JOHN: Oh, thanks a lot.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tom(ph), Tom with us from Baltimore.

TOM: Hi, this is a sincere question: We've seen, over the years, military takeovers and various takeovers that have had the support of the American CIA, and I'm wondering, is there - what are the odds that five years from now we're going to find out that this military takeover had the covert support of the American CIA? I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks.

NELSON: That's a question that I honestly don't know the answer to. I mean, it's clear - I don't think that the American has many - I'm sorry, made any secret of the fact that they support the government here. They are pushing for a transition to democracy, but they also understand Egypt's strategic importance. I mean, it's on the border with Israel, it has a treaty with Israel. It's the largest Arab nation.

Having Egypt sort of sink into civil war, I mean not that that would happen, but, you know, having it basically fall apart or having it be unstable or fertile ground for terrorist groups, I mean, this is something that's just not in the American appetite or interest.

And so, they understand that they need to support the military government. And so they really haven't made too much of a secret of the fact that they are supporting the transition - what they call the transition here. They're urging that there be a swift transition to democracy. But there hasn't been a whole lot of pushback when the military has done things like put civilians on trial or in jail or tortured people or like the whole controversial virginity test thing on female protestors, et cetera, et cetera.

So, you know, I can't really speak to covert operations or, you know, whether the CIA is involved or not. Certainly that's what the military has been using as an excuse, as they stoke xenophobia in a bid to deflect criticism from themselves. But it's - again, America has not really made a secret of being supportive of the military-led government here.

CONAN: You mentioned Egypt is the largest Arab country. The Arab spring started in Tunisia, not Egypt, but in many ways this was the headiest moment of the Arab spring. This really changes things, doesn't it?

NELSON: Yes, it does. I mean, this is really a very sad time, especially for a lot of these youth groups that spearheaded the movement, that lost a lot of people. They just don't understand what it was all for, and they don't understand why people aren't coming out to support them.

But even they didn't show up. I mean, when the parliament was dissolved last week, it was very striking that Tahrir Square only had a few hundred people in there protesting, and no one ever really came to follow up on it. I mean, it is summer, so you're not going to find millions of people in the middle of the day hanging out in Tahrir Square, because it's just not feasible.

But on the other hand, the large crowds we saw in the evening even a few weeks back, they're just not out there right now. And even the elections, I mean, this democracy, something that people pushed for, we still have to see what the official figures are. But certainly, anecdotally and based on our own reporting that we've done extensively over the last couple days, the turnout was much lower.

People are - they're just fed up. And they're like fine, if it takes the military coming back in, taking over so that we can have security and a better economy and a better life, then so be it.

CONAN: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, we'll let you get back to work. More on the situation in Cairo later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Thanks very much.

NELSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR foreign correspondent, with us from Cairo. When we come back, Egypt stumbled on its path to democracy over the weekend. We're talking about who's in charge now and what it all means for the future of a country that once served as a model for the Arab spring. If you have questions about what happened and what may happen next, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about recent moves by Egypt's military rulers to grant themselves more power and maintain their hold on control of the country, moves a Pentagon spokesman today called deeply concerning.

If you have questions about what just happened in Cairo and what may happen next, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.

Tarek Masoud is professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he specializes in political development in the Middle East. He joins us by phone from his office in Cambridge. Nice to have you back on the program.

TAREK MASOUD: Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And, well, this is a coup, no?

MASOUD: Well, it depends on how you look at it. It certainly is a thwarting of the will of the people. The dissolution of parliament was not a democratic act, but I'm not sure we could call it a military coup. I think that basically what's happened in Egypt is that the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the sort of dominant force in the parliament during these past several months, sort of almost alienated every important constituency in Egypt.

So it alienated the other liberals, it alienated the judiciary, it obviously alienated the military council. And I think what happened was that the judges, who had plenty of reasons to be annoyed with the Muslim Brotherhood, took this as a kind of opportunity to clip the movement's wings.

But I don't know that this is something planned centrally by the SCAF in order to seize back power on the eve of the scheduled handover.

CONAN: The SCAF again, the ruling military council.

MASOUD: Yes.

CONAN: And as you look at the powers, though, the military has granted itself, it stands apart, until there's an elected parliament, it's in control of legislation along with the president. It can declare war or not. It can prevent anybody from looking over its records. It's got this huge economic part of the Egyptian economy, and it's accountable to nobody.

MASOUD: Well, so, I mean, first of all, you've got to remember none of this is new. So after Mubarak was overthrown, the military suspended the constitution, and then shortly thereafter, after a long kind of Byzantine process we don't need to get into, the military came out with something called a constitutional declaration, an interim constitution, in which it accorded itself legislative and executive authority until a parliament was elected, until a president was elected.

So there is this precedent for this. now, the point that you make about the military also being above oversight, this is something that they have been - the military has been trying to get into the constitution for a while, and back in November, they actually floated a document with one of these - with these provisions as potential articles.

So none of this is terribly surprising, but I'd also submit that none of it is a huge change from the reality of politics in Egypt over the last 18 months.

CONAN: But somebody who was in Tahrir Square 16 months ago can say: What happened to the revolution?

MASOUD: Well, right, although if they were, you know, being - you know, sharp at the time, they would have noted that, you know, the revolution never fully succeeded, right. It was the military that took over after Mubarak left. So you could have asked the question what happened to the revolution back in - on February 11, 2011.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, author of the book "When Victory is Not An Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics." He's with us by phone from his home in Virginia. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

NATHAN BROWN: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And this is, as mentioned earlier, a direct challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood.

BROWN: Oh absolutely. I mean, the Muslim Brotherhood has first lost a parliament where it was the largest party. It's got a significant presence in the constitutional assembly that the old parliament elected, and that constitutional assembly may be about to be dissolved and re-formed by the military. And it stands on the brink of gaining the presidency.

We do not have final results, but a lot of indications are that Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood's candidate, may have won the race, and what these latest moves do is eat in a little bit to the powers of the presidency.

CONAN: So how is the Brotherhood likely to respond?

BROWN: Well, that's unclear. I mean, historically the Brotherhood's pattern has been that it's a little bit risk-averse, and it would rather have a bird in the hand than two in the bush. And so as long as it's got some stake, I think the most likely outcome would be that the Brotherhood would play a little bit of a game of chicken, especially with the military: complain a lot, thunder a lot. They're even talking, for instance, about gathering parliament that the military now says and the constitutional court has been dissolved, gathering that parliament, says no, it still exists.

Tomorrow - they're talking a lot of these things, but if they get the presidency, then my suspicion is what they will try and do will be to sit down and figure out how they can work the levers that they do have, rather than upset the entire system.

CONAN: And then there are the Salafists, the other big Islamic party that did well in the parliamentary elections and, well, big rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood.

BROWN: Absolutely they're rivals. They also don't have the same kind of coherence and the same kind of political experience that the Brotherhood has. In a sense they've lost an awful lot, too. They had a major presence in the parliament. They also had a major presence in the constitution-writing assembly that is not threatened. But their reaction is a little bit less certain. They're not quite sure who their friends and enemies and who their allies are. And so their behavior is a little bit less consistent and a little bit less coherent.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Ed's(ph) on the line from San Francisco.

ED: Hi. I agree with your guest before last that definitely I do not want to see an Islamic Egypt. I definitely - definitely - do not want to see the Muslim Brotherhood in charge. I don't even want the Muslim Brotherhood to hold the presidency. Egypt always was progressive, and women in Egypt play a big role.

The 1919 revolution was led by women, and they defeated the British. And I would also like to say the old flag of Egypt, before Nassir changed in the 1950s, it was a crescent with three stars. It was - each star stood for - one star stood for Christianity, one for Islam and one for Judaism. I don't want Egypt Islamic.

When I left Egypt in the '60s, all my friends at the University of Cairo, women, were dressed in miniskirts, and nobody had to cover their face. Look at it today. I am disgusted when I see all of these women dressed in all of these head covers, which is not Egypt at all. I do not want the Muslim Brotherhood...

CONAN: Ed, I'm hearing what you don't want, but if the majority of people in Egypt vote for the Brotherhood, shouldn't they get what they want?

ED: No, no, I think the majority of well-educated Egyptians do not want at all. And the Muslim Brotherhood also have a dark side, by the way, which I have explained myself when I was Egypt in the - before I left in 1964. They are not really at all a group you want rule the great country of Egypt at all. We're going to have a lot of repercussion. I even prefer the military rule over the Muslim Brotherhood taking over this beautiful country of Egypt.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, Ed, appreciate it. And let's see if we can ask Tarek Massoud, as you look at the - well, are we going to have a confrontation between the Brotherhood and the military?

MASOUD: Well, that is certainly possible, particularly if - you know, getting back to what Nathan said, if the Brotherhood decides to play chicken, or if they're pushed by the fact that - look, I mean, the Brotherhood have always had this reputation of being a little bit, as Nathan said, risk-averse, as being ready to betray the revolution in order to secure gains for the movement.

If the Brotherhood continues to do that kind of thing, and if they are seen to be sitting down with the military to work out a modus vivendi, then a lot of these liberal revolutionary people, who voted for the Brotherhood in this election, would then defect from the Brotherhood, and we could see sort of the Brotherhood on the side of the military against these revolutionaries.

I think the Brotherhood, knowing that, is likely to push a more confrontational line with the military than it has in the past, and thus we could see some conflict.

But I did want to just get back to the point that your caller had made, which was that, you know - in which he said that Egyptians don't - the majority of the Egyptians don't want Islamic politics. And the only thing I would say about this election is let's say that the result turns out to be right, and Mohamed Morsi gets 52 percent of the vote, remember that's not all people who voted for Morsi because they want the Muslim Brotherhood's program.

A lot of those people voted for Morsi because they didn't want Shafiq. The better number is look at what Morsi got in the first round; he only got a quarter of the votes. Those are the people who want more Islam.

CONAN: Let's go next to Margie(ph), Margie calling from St. Louis.

MARGIE: Hi, how are you? Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Good, thanks, go ahead, please.

MARGIE: I have two sons that were in Tahrir Square, both from St. Louis, and they were registered to study abroad at AUC. So they've since gone on to study at the American University of Beirut. My son George(ph) just returned. And so things in Beirut aren't going very well, either, because of Syria. So he wants to return to AUC and has been accepted for the start of grad school in August.

So as a parent, after going through three days during the Tahrir Square, they had to be air-vacced out, embassy flights to Turkey, I'm just really concerned. I guess, there's no crystal ball to see how this is all going to play out in Egypt. But I just really didn't know if it was going to end up being like a Tunisia where there's just going to be fighting. I know Egypt is not armed like these other countries, but I'm just really concerned about, you know, students studying abroad, again, at AUC if this is, you know, just going to turn itself back into, you know, Tahrir Square being on fire and, you know, how serious they think it really is going to be if the people don't get what they want.

CONAN: And, Nathan Brown, in answering that question for our caller, Margie, can you also - tourism is a huge part of Egypt's economy. Tourists aren't going to be coming back if there's political unrest too.

BROWN: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, there are sort of two questions here - first, how safe is it for tourism visitors, and second, how safe is Egypt's reputation. Those are in a sense separate questions. The first is a little bit harder to answer - how safe is it for visitors, for individuals. And the caller is asking us, almost as a parent - and Tarek and I are both parents so I guess that kind of hits us both a little bit, personally. What I would say is this, I mean, I would expect a period of political instability in Egypt, but that political instability doesn't necessarily express itself in very violent form by the standards of revolutionary changes. In fact, what has happened in Egypt over the past year and a half has been fairly peaceful.

The places where there have been violence and have some casualties have been, for the most part, predictable, and AUC is way far from the center of Cairo. So, I obviously, can't make any guarantees, but political instability is not necessarily the same as threatening individuals. At the same time, for people trying to plan trips six months in advance, what they will see is if they see the same kind of political instability, Egypt is in the headlines for a very confusing situation which nobody seems to be in charge, and the effects on tourism have already been fairly dramatic.

And this is the major blow to Egypt's economy. What this protracted crisis does, I think, is just postponed still further the point at which you will have an effective government able to confront Egypt's economic problems, and that's not good news for anybody.

CONAN: Margie, we hope your sons are OK.

MARGIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Here's an email question from Brian in Dallas: What are the chances the military engineered Mubarak's ouster? I recall they did not fire on protesters last year. To what end are they pursuing their strategy? Tarek Masoud, they seemed to throw the former president under the bus.

MASOUD: Well, as Soraya said in the first part of the hour, they only did so and it really looked like they had absolutely no other alternative. And, you know, some of the days of greatest violence against protesters in the square happened under the watchful eye of the military. So I think the military was neutral until the very last minute. They were as neutral as they could be for as long as they could be. I think, just in general, we tend to view everything that happened in Egypt through the lens of this kind of theory of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces being evil geniuses orchestrating every democratic setback, but I really think that that's probably not the case.

They certainly take advantage of the mistakes of other players, but the other players, including - and most specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, have made plenty of mistakes for the military leaders to take advantage of.

CONAN: Tarek Masoud, professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; also with us, Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Ali is on the line, calling from Minneapolis.

ALI: Hello.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ALI: Hi there. Yeah. I just want to say that whatever the Egyptian people elect should be respected, and I think Muslim Brotherhood should be given a chance and see how they govern. And the last caller, it's not about what he wants. It's about what the Egyptian people wants. And they elected a president. They elected a parliament, and we should respect that.

CONAN: And, Nathan Brown, we don't know what a Muslim Brotherhood presidency or dominated parliament, if that's what it turns out to be, how they would govern, but in the speech in which he claimed the victory in the presidential election, Mr. Morsi seemed to reach out to a lot of those groups you were saying the Brotherhood had alienated.

BROWN: Yes. I mean, I think we're not quite clear on what the Brotherhood would do in power, partly because we're not quite sure what those levers of power are for the presidency right now. We're not quite sure how much room to maneuver the president has. And the second thing is that the Brotherhood has in sense two kinds of impulses. One is to reach out to other groups, and the other is to say, look, any time we have an election, we turn out on top. We're the natural leader of the people.

The first - the second tendency was winning out a little bit, in terms of their strategizing over the last year, and it's what has resulted in a Brotherhood that is a little bit politically isolated right now. When the parliament was dissolved, in a sense, the Brotherhood was the biggest loser, and they didn't have an awful lot of friends to draw on to stick up for this parliament. So it could be that they decided to learn a lesson, and the lesson is that they have to reach out and build broader alliances. But they may reach the exact opposite conclusion, is - in a sense, what Tarek Masoud was suggesting, that this is a time to sit down and cut a separate deal with the military, that they will be able to administer, say, education, health and perhaps parts of the economy as long as they allow the military oversight over security and foreign affairs.

CONAN: Tarek Masoud, does that seem the most likely outcome to you?

MASOUD: I think that, you know, I couldn't have said it better than Nathan Brown. It really is up in the air. The only thing - the only player that - whose preferences we need to also consider are these other liberal and revolutionary forces, and are they going to have the trust in the Brotherhood if the Brotherhood came hat in hand trying to reach out to them and rebuild this alliance or have they - has the Brotherhood broken faith with them just too many times.

CONAN: And finally, Tarek Masoud, just a few seconds left, but does keeping hearing questions about the American role in this, if any, does the United States have a lot of influence in Egypt right now?

MASOUD: Oh, well, I'm sure that the United States has a lot of influence with the military council, but the Egyptian politics at this moment are so Byzantine, and there are so many players here with different interests that, I think, it's actually not wise for the U.S. at this moment to try to assert any influence on the process. I think we just let events take their course.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

MASOUD: Thank you.

CONAN: Tarek Masoud of the Kennedy - Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. And our thanks as well to Nathan Brown, whose book is "When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics," thanks very much.

BROWN: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, we're going to be talking about the legacy of - I'm sorry - Rodney King, and we want to hear about the conversations that his story prompted - conversations that you may not ever had before. Call us, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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