Mubarak Era Spans Three Decades In Egypt
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
In Egypt, anti-government protesters took to the streets for a third straight day, defying a government ban. They're calling for a mass rally tomorrow, after Friday prayers.
The activists, many of them young, educated Egyptians, have been demanding a number of reforms, including a higher minimum wage and an end to the state of emergency. Many are going further, calling for an end to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. He's been in power since 1981. He's now 82 years old.
For some background on what Mubarak's presidency has meant for Egypt, we've brought in Shibley Telhami. He's professor of International Relations and Middle East Politics at the University of Maryland. Thanks for coming in.
P: My pleasure.
BLOCK: These three decades that Hosni Mubarak has been in power, how would you characterize this regime? You can see privately in diplomatic cables that U.S. officials call him a dictator. How would you describe...
P: Well, he's definitely an autocrat. There's no question that he's the central authority. Egypt has certain freedoms that are allowed, including more freedom of expression than many states that we consider dictatorships. But there is no question that the bulk of the decisions pertaining to national security, to foreign policy, to the constitution of the government are in the hands, ultimately, of the president.
And so, in that sense there's a lot of frustration, particularly among the new generation, that want to see change. They know something is going to happen, needs to happen. They don't think it's going to happen under this government and they don't know when the transition will happen. And they don't know what will follow the transition. So there is that kind of frustration that is very pervasive across the different segments of Egyptian society.
BLOCK: One of the demands of the protestors is an end to Emergency Law. What does Emergency Law in Egypt mean? What has that translated to?
P: It suspends a lot of freedoms that - a lot of rights just come out of the constitution. But it also gives state security free hand in arresting people and holding them, and in preempting organizations or events that are threatening to the state. So, clearly that has been an issue.
BLOCK: In the three decades that Hosni Mubarak has been president, have you seen Egypt change? How has Egypt changed?
P: No question. Every decade has been different, really. The 1980s were a very important decade because Mubarak established himself as a credible leader who was able to bring about stability following the assassination of Sadat. He brought Egypt back to the Arab fold. He started opening up the economy. In the 1990s, he benefited from globalization, Egyptian integration into the global economy, the role he was playing at a time when peace was possible.
But really, by the late 1990s and since then, there's been stagnation both in terms of how Egyptians see the role of Egypt in the region at the expense of other players, as well as internally. And there's been a lot of pressure and we know that had predated anything the U.S. had done, there was an indigenous democratic movement within Egypt itself.
BLOCK: Hosni Mubarak rose up through the military. How vital is the military in supporting his regime?
P: Absolutely critical. I think there's no question that the military is an anchor of the Egyptian government right now. After all, it was a military coup in 1952, and to this day, it's absolutely central.
BLOCK: If you look at who's protesting, it does seem to be quite widespread, it's not just youth. It's women, it's the middle-class, it's students, it's the under class, and it's not just in Cairo. Are you surprised by the wide - the broad nature of that opposition movement?
P: Yes, I am. And what makes it more effective and harder to deal with is that it's decentralized. And when you have - if it were a Muslim Brotherhood kind of initiative, you know exactly who to go after. You arrest leaders. You go after groups. You can break the organization, and that's what has happened in the past.
Now, when it's faceless, when it's nameless, you don't know how to deal with it. You're at a loss where to start.
BLOCK: Tonight, a key opposition figure, Mohamed ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Prize as a nuclear watchdog, returned to Egypt. And he's calling for regime change as a leader of the opposition. Does he have widespread support, do you think?
P: You know, a lot of people rallied behind him, particularly when they're hoping that somebody would run against the president, in the context of an orderly election that would compete with President Mubarak. Now, that is very different from seeing someone as a leader of a change in a completely changed environment, where they're going to the extent of calling for, essentially, the removal of the president.
There's a lot at stake for him. We'll see how he plays his cards. We'll see how people respond to him.
BLOCK: Shibley Telhami, thanks for coming in.
P: A pleasure.
BLOCK: Shibley Telhami is professor of International Relations and Middle East Politics at the University of Maryland.
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