Egypt Uprising Lacks Leader And Unified Agenda
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Nobody can be sure if the crowds in Egypt reached the million mark, but huge numbers gathered to demand that Egyptian Hosni Mubarak step down. Big protests assembled in Cairo and several other Egyptian cities, and, well, it's impossible to monitor every place. By all reports, the demonstrations were peaceful and celebratory.
Meanwhile, representatives from many opposition groups met in an effort to organize. Like the country itself, the Egyptian opposition is diverse: long-established parties and new movements, left and right, secular and religious. No clear leader has emerged.
And while all the opposition groups agree Mubarak must go, their goals beyond that are less clear.
So who is the opposition? What questions do you have about the protests and the people participating in them? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, who's responsible when a crowd of rock fans, or religious pilgrims, or bargain-hunters becomes a fatal crush?
But first, the latest from Cairo, and we begin with Hannah Allam. She's the Cairo bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, and nice to have you back on the program today.
Ms. HANNAH ALLAM (Cairo Bureau Chief, McClatchy Newspapers): Hi, good evening.
CONAN: And I know you're in a hotel that overlooks Tahrir Square, where protestors gathered today, but I also understand some of the big news is coming via television.
Ms. ALLAM: That's right. We're just hearing on the Al Arabiya Arabic-language satellite channel, that Mubarak is supposed to announce momentarily that he will not run again, that he will step down by the time of the vote scheduled for later this year, I think sometime in the fall the presidential elections were scheduled.
We're hearing that he is not going to run, he is going to step down, and now we're just waiting to hear from members of the opposition, from activists down in Tahrir, whether this will suffice, whether this will meet their demands, because, of course, they've been calling for his immediate resignation.
CONAN: So, in effect, that he would form his own transition to leave power with a modicum of grace?
Ms. ALLAM: Right. This bides him some time. Perhaps this is viewed as not enough for some of the activists who've been camped out at Tahrir Square for a week now. And perhaps, for others, this is a good compromise, where there's not an immediate power vacuum, and it could be a smoother transition. So we'll just have to see how it plays out.
CONAN: And obviously too early to get reaction. He hasn't even spoken yet. But in the meantime, it's been curious that the president himself has not appeared to speak in this week of crisis.
Ms. ALLAM: That's right. State television has mostly just shown him projecting a very sort of statesman-like image on the TV, meeting with defense ministers, swearing in some of his new officials from his new Cabinet which, by the way, were mostly just from the old guard, shuffled around.
So no, this will be his first major speech since he announced the reshuffling of his Cabinet or the dismissal of his government last week.
CONAN: And tell us: How did things go today? And how are things going tonight?
Ms. ALLAM: People are still down in the square. I'm not sure if the news has hit yet, down there, about the expected announcement, because I would imagine that we'd hear a great sort of roar, reaction or some applause or some sort of reaction there.
I haven't heard that yet, but I'm on the 15th floor. So we're listening. But today went remarkably smoothly. Egyptians were in charge of their own crowd control. It was the most organized and, of course, by far the biggest crowds that we've seen in these eight days of protests.
CONAN: And everything, as we've heard, went very smoothly, celebratory atmosphere. What were relations like between the members of the protest crowd and the army?
Ms. ALLAM: Oh, it was a festival down there. People were climbing on tanks, writing their names on tanks, taking pictures, the military smiling waving, hanging back on the edges of the square and really letting the people have their moment. And they certainly seized it.
There were people banging on drums and dancing. On another corner of the square, people were praying. In another corner, they were chanting. I noticed a group of young men on a microphone making up chants off the top of their head, playing with rhymes and puns, almost like freestyle rappers in the United States. It was really quite a scene down there.
CONAN: There is supposed to be a curfew that was in effect several hours ago there now. Has there been any friction about that?
Ms. ALLAM: No, the curfew's really been ignored ever since it was imposed. The crowd has thinned. I can see that from where I'm - from my balcony. But there's still several thousand people down there.
But crowds today, earlier, were estimated at hundreds of thousands. A lot of first-time protestors who felt that this was really the moment to come out today, this was going to be the defining moment, and they wanted to be a part of it.
And once they saw on TV, you know, maybe they waited a couple hours, saw on TV that things were going peacefully, nobody sent in riot police, the military hung back. And then they brought their children, they brought snacks, they brought blankets, and they spent the entire day there. And indeed, now, it's 9 o'clock at night, and they're still down there celebrating and dancing and chanting and praying.
CONAN: You told us, yesterday, the crowd was comprised of, well, all age groups, lower-class people, upper-class people, professionals, every walk of life, every profession. Yes, political activists, but people, as you suggest, who are new to this game. And today sounds even more so.
Ms. ALLAM: Yeah, more of the same. The Islamists had, I think, a noticeably larger contingent today, and for the first time, there were volunteers checking women, as well as men. There were rows of women volunteers.
I'm not sure what movement they were from. There were several clerics out. A fellow journalist friend told me she saw a Christian priest and a Muslim sheik being hoisted up by the crowd, chanting about the Quran and the Bible being against oppression, and so Mubarak should step down, that it's irreligious for him to hang on to power. There were scenes like that all throughout the square all day long.
CONAN: And we also know that there was a meeting held earlier today, amongst members of various groups in the opposition. They were trying to come up with a common agenda and perhaps even agree on one leader to act as a spokesman. Is there anything, any news to report from that?
Ms. ALLAM: All I've really heard is that they were insisting that they didn't want to negotiate while Mubarak was in power. I have not been able to reach many people, today, on that.
The phones have been spotty again, whether by, you know, system overload or by design from the government, the phones haven't been working very well today, and everyone in the square, it's sort of impossible to sort of pin down leaders down there, things were so hectic. So no, I don't really have much information on that.
I did hear that the Muslim Brotherhood put forth some - which of course is the Islamist group that's one of the backbones of the opposition here - that they said, you know, that they would prefer the chief justice of the constitutional court, Egypt's highest court, to serve as an interim leader; that they didn't want to - that they would respect all of Egypt's international treaties and that they would not negotiate with the military or with Vice President Omar Suleiman or any of the other governmental figures until Mubarak goes.
CONAN: Respect all of Egypt's treaties, of course that, an indirect reference, not going to fool many people, to the treaty with Israel.
Ms. ALLAM: Absolutely, yeah. That was perhaps the most significant of the demands.
I have not even been able to see those myself on the Internet. My editor had to read them to me because, of course, we're still here in our, I don't know, fourth, fifth day now with no Internet service.
CONAN: Because the government has cut off Internet service to make it more difficult for people to coordinate protests.
Ms. ALLAM: Yes, along with train service, the crackdown on journalists, the phones going down, the curfew, the banks shuttering. Yes, they've put roadblock after roadblock, and yet tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people came out today.
CONAN: And again, you're in a hotel there overlooking Tahrir Square, but it's important to emphasize this is not just Cairo, this is around the country.
Ms. ALLAM: That's right, big protests in Alexandria, the big port city, Egypt's second-biggest city. Also, we're hearing in Suez, another port city and in other cities around the country. Who knows? Perhaps those people would have liked to have joined the big protest that was supposed to be a million-strong protest in Cairo, no way to tell how big it actually was, but of course the government shut down the train service yesterday to prevent people from coming and building a mass like that.
CONAN: And if you're just joining us, we need to reiterate the news of the evening: President Mubarak of Egypt tonight expected to announce that he will not run again. The presidential elections I believe are scheduled for next September, and he will not stand as a candidate, in effect would be stepping down as of that election date. Whether that's going to be enough to placate his opposition, well, that remains to be seen, but this news just emerging on television in Egypt tonight, that after another massive demonstration, a week of massive demonstrations.
And Hannah Allam, it's hard to re-emphasize just how significant and swift all of this has been. It has taken, well, not just the world, but I suspect a lot of Cairenes by surprise as well.
Ms. ALLAM: Absolutely. You even hear, in some quarters, you know, I heard my doorman's wife saying: It's just too fast. It's just too fast. I mean, this is a place that has had political stagnation for basically 30 years.
And suddenly, in the space of a week, there's a vice president for the first time. The interior minister, a very widely detested figure, was sacked. Now we're hearing the president is forced to make these concessions or to possibly, even, to step down.
This is a whole lot to take in for Egyptians who just a month ago, perhaps even a week or so ago, would have been scared, or hesitant at least, to criticize Mubarak in a public square. And today we're seeing tens of thousands, if not more, people doing just that - hanging him in effigy from a traffic light, depicting him as Hitler, the devil. I mean, these are images that just weren't acceptable in Cairo.
I mean, I remember last year a friend of mine criticizing the president in a coffee shop and looking around to make sure we weren't being...
CONAN: Hannah Allam, we'll let you get back to work. She's the Cairo bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers, reporting to us from a hotel room overlooking Tahrir Square in Cairo where, well, many thousands gather today. Stay with us. This is NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Reports from Cairo say that President Mubarak will announce tonight that he will not run for president when elections are held there come the fall, September, effectively announcing that he will step down as president of Egypt within the next few months.
A report from the New York Times says President Obama told the embattled president of Egypt that he should pledge, publicly, not to run for another term, effectively withdrawing American support from its closest Arab ally. The Times cites American diplomats in Cairo and in Washington as the sources of that report.
Joining us in the studio is Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. SAMER SHEHATA (Assistant Professor of Arab Politics, Georgetown University): Thank you.
CONAN: And also with us from Cairo is the correspondent of the New York Times, Anthony Shadid. Anthony Shadid, good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (Foreign Correspondent, New York Times): My pleasure.
CONAN: And can you confirm the news out of Cairo, that President Mubarak is not going to run again for election?
Mr. SHADID: Well, events are moving here, really quickly, and it's unclear exactly the timing of the speech. What we understand is that is a formula that's being worked out, that Mr. Mubarak will announce elections and that he will not stand in those elections, and an interim government will be in place, although Mr. Mubarak appears to be, as it's formulated right now, will still be the head of that government.
CONAN: Still be the head of the government for the period between now and election day.
Mr. SHADID: That's right.
CONAN: And is there any way to gauge how well this may go down with the opposition groups?
Mr. SHADID: You know, I think what's remarkable about this, is if this speech was perhaps made on Friday, it may have changed the intensity of the protest, the intensity of this uprising. But events have moved very quickly since Friday.
And I think what we saw in Liberation Square today, was one of the more remarkable scenes in recent Egyptian history. Hundreds of thousands of people were in the square. It was a cross-section of Egyptian society, cutting across lines of piety, of ideology, of class.
And there was a very clear demand that Mubarak had to fall now, that it was an immediate resignation of the president. So whether this speech will meet those demands, you know, it remains to be seen. But I think from the tenor of the protest, the sense of the uprising right now that we're seeing it, is that it will not, that we're looking for more immediate change, more dramatic change, and the half-hearted steps we've seen so far from the government aren't going to go far enough.
CONAN: Samer Shehata, too little, too late?
Prof. SHEHATA: Much too little and 30 years too late, really. I think as Anthony said, many people were expecting President Mubarak in last Friday's speech to announce his resignation, which of course might have been accepted if he made it at that time.
And in fact, I mean, the irony of all of this is that if President Mubarak had appointed a vice president, anyone, really, six months ago, before the events of Tunisia, I don't think what we're seeing in Egypt would have happened.
But this is much too little, much too late. And I think that as Anthony said, things have changed between Friday and between last week and now. And what we're hearing from people in many parts of Egypt, including in Tahrir, is that now they want not only for the president to step down, but they want to try the president.
They want to hold him accountable, not just for the last 29 years of autocratic rule, but for the incredible damage that has been done to Egypt and the loss of life over the last week.
There have been over 150 people who have been killed. There has been tremendous damage to infrastructure. And most people place the responsibility with President Mubarak.
CONAN: And just to clarify, Tahrir Square - Liberation Square, that's the same place. It's a translation, and some refer to it by one name, some to the other, but it's the same location.
Mr. SHADID: Can you hear me now?
CONAN: Anthony Shadid, yes, I was just going to ask you: I know that you've been also trying to sort out if the opposition has been able to coalesce in any meaningful way, all these disparate groups.
Mr. SHADID: I'm hearing you.
CONAN: You're hearing me?
Mr. SHADID: Are you hearing me?
CONAN: We'll take Anthony out until we're sure that we've established communications with him. In the meantime, we've heard, Samer Shehata, some about the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic group that has been a nonviolent group, at least in Egypt, for the past few decades. But there are other groups involved. The April Sixth Coalition, for example, is a relatively new group. Can you tell us who they are?
Prof. SHEHATA: Sure. Well, the April Sixth movement was established in 2008, at the time of major labor protests in Egypt. There was a strike scheduled for April 6th, 2008, in the delta town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra. It's the center of the Egyptian textile industry.
And over the last five years or so, there have been major, a kind of tsunami of labor and economic protests. This group, mostly young people organized via the Internet to stand in solidarity with the striking workers at the time, but they also had other demands: an end to torture, a health care system that actually was functioning, better education, dignity and so on.
That's the April Sixth group, and they were one of the primary groups that organized the January 25th demonstrations, that is last Tuesday's demonstrations. But other groups were involved, as well.
CONAN: One of them, perhaps the Wafd Party, W-A-F-D. This is I guess the oldest opposition party in Egypt.
Prof. SHEHATA: That's right. The Wafd actually didn't participate or didn't call for the demonstrations on January 25th. They later, like the Muslim Brotherhood, after the initial days of protest and the numbers of people who went out onto the street, then lent their support to the protests.
But the Kefaya Movement, certainly, kefaya means enough, the enough-to-Mubarak movement, which was established in 2004, was also calling for protests initially on January 25th, and so was the National Association for Change, Mohamed ElBaradei's group.
CONAN: And Anthony Shadid is back with us on the line from Cairo, the New York Times correspondent. And Anthony, one of the questions has been whether these groups have been able to agree on an agenda and a common spokesman.
Mr. SHADID: Well, you know, I missed what Samer said, but my sense on this, and I think what's been remarkable to a lot of people here, is how much this uprising outpaced, not only the traditional opposition but also the Muslim Brotherhood, pretty much every part of civil society in this country.
This was an uprising that was driven by youthful activists, and it was also energized, I think, by the legions of the young and dispossessed here. That's been the force behind it.
I think what you see in the protests today, in Liberation Square, for instance, is in some ways a leaderless movement that is united around the unanimity of their demands about Mr. Mubarak's fall and, as Samer pointed out, the trial of Mr. Mubarak, as well.
But it is not an uprising that has necessarily found a movement or a leader to articulate its voice at this point.
CONAN: In a piece in today's Times, in fact, you quote some people in the protest saying: We want no parties, we want no leaders, we want Mubarak out.
Mr. SHADID: And I think what you're seeing, as this uprising moves forward - I mean, people call it a revolution at this point, that's what the protestors are describing it as - is I don't want to say radicalization because that has a negative connotation, but I think you hear people pressing for far greater demands, that it's in some ways, well, I think, in a way, the old order, that there is a desire, a deep desire here, for change that is fundamental in the society. And that means getting rid of the ruling party, getting rid of the cronies around Mr. Mubarak, bringing, you know, a true democracy to this country that can, in some ways, create a new leadership.
CONAN: But let me ask you, Samer Shehata, 30 years in power, Mr. Mubarak must have some supporters.
Prof. SHEHATA: Yes, I think that there are probably some elements in the military, of course. We had many large and successful business people who were associated with the regime, kind of crony capitalists, some of whom fled the country yesterday or two days ago on private jets, including the hated Ahmed Ezz, a steel mogul, and also one of the people in charge of the ruling party.
So there were some people who were in charge who supporting Mubarak. But the point is that, over the last 25 years or so, the bases of the regime have changed. They have shed workers, they have shed farmers, they have shed civil society, middle-class people as bases of support because of the elimination of subsidies and privatization and so on. And they have taken, instead, large capital as the basis of support, in addition to the military and, of course, the foreign backers, the international community.
CONAN: What do you want to know about the protests and the protestors? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And we'll start with Lauren(ph) and Lauren with us from Palm Beach.
LAUREN (Caller): Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I was just wondering, I know that there's lots of speculation on the causes that sparked this, but I was wondering if, on the ground, there's a different kind of reasoning or if it's similar to what we're reading in our media and how much the Arab media actually - how much of the Arab media was covering the Tunisian protests and how much of that was reaching everyday Egyptians on the street?
CONAN: Anthony Shadid, can you help us out there?
Mr. SHADID: Everyone in the Arab world knows about what happened in Tunisia, and, I think to a far greater degree, everyone in the Arab world knows about what's happening in Egypt. They're captivated by this uprising, by this revolution. It is going to have reverberations across the Arab world.
You know, what struck me this morning was, you know, for the first time I think in a generation, the Arab world is looking again to Egypt for leadership. And I think that's why we're seeing such a momentous event.
This is something that is going to be transformative, not only for this country - in the way that it's ruled and the way that people relate to the people who have ruled them - but also in terms of the American-backed order in the rest of the Arab world, countries like Jordan, Yemen. There - I think there are changes in store for a status quo that we've been dealing with for a generation now.
CONAN: And Lauren, thanks very much for the call. Anthony Shadid, we spoke with you, I guess a couple of weeks ago, just after the events in Tunisia, before Egypt had gathered momentum. But you talked about the feeling that much of the Arab world was in this Arab stultification, that nothing was ever going to change. In the past couple of weeks, I suspect all of that has changed.
Mr. SHADID: You know - and what's remarkable about that, Neal, is it's not only is that kind of a sense you had across the region, but it's the sentiment that you often hear from protesters today on Liberation Square. And it's hard to overstate what that scene in Liberation Square was. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of people. And like I said earlier, cutting across all the entrenched lines that divide this country right now. This is a popular protest in a remarkable fashion.
And several people I talked to actually made that point. That just before this uprising happened, they felt that they were the lowest points of their lives. They're looking for visas to other countries. They didn't feel part of this country. They didn't feel part of the society itself. And I think this is what - when you use the word revolution, I think this is what you notice on the streets today is people are taking ownership again of this country.
One person in the protest told me that, you know, a woman who had thrown trash in the streets only a few weeks ago was sweeping the streets today. In Liberation Square itself, people are organizing their own defense. They're sweeping the streets. They're delivering food and water. Popular committees have been set up across the capital to secure it.
And I don't want to overstate it what the impact might be, but I think you are seeing a popular mobilization to some degree that, again, it's going to add another wrinkle to this transition period, and it's going to add another element of pressure on whatever kind of opposition tries to emerge and articulate these sentiments of the protesters out there.
CONAN: Yet, if they have indeed succeeded in convincing Mr. Mubarak to step down, at least as of next September, there are other unmet demands, and the aims of these groups are very different and other than Mubarak must go, it's going to be difficult to agree on a great deal.
Mr. SHADID: You know, we're in a moment of flux. And again, I do want to caution on Mr. Mubarak. This is what we're hearing from diplomats as we're hearing from people that we've talked to, but, you know, if the speech happens tonight, it may arrive in - we haven't even confirmed that the speech will actually happen tonight yet, though. But that is the sense out there.
But I think if it does happen, you know, like I said earlier, I think we're in a moment of flux here. This is a - it's a pivotal moment. I know the word is overused in events like these, but it does feel, it does feel like things are very undecided and very much in transition.
CONAN: Anthony Shadid, sadly, we have to let you go work for your newspaper, but we thank you for your time this evening.
Mr. SHADID: Well, it's always a pleasure to join you. Thank you.
CONAN: Anthony Shadid, the foreign correspondent for The New York Times, with us from Cairo, and again, his newspaper, the Times, is reporting that President Obama has told Hosni Mubarak, the embattled president of Egypt, that he should plead publicly not to run for another term this fall, effectively withdrawing American support for its closest Arab ally, that according to American diplomats in Cairo and Washington and The New York Times. And again, there are reports out of Cairo that Mr. Mubarak will announce just that on television this evening. It has yet to happen.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let me re-introduce our guest here with us in the studio - in Studio 3A. Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, a native of Alexandria in Egypt and visits often his family there. So let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to - this is Nora, and Nora is with us from Atlanta.
NORA (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
NORA: I am a Coptic Christian that was born and raised in this country, and I understand that this uprising is a popular uprising. It has nothing to do with religion. It's not Islamic, and I can understand that. But given the fact that Coptic Christians in Egypt have been second class citizens for a number of years and generations - which I'm keenly aware of - I'm just wondering is there anyone speaking for them? Anyone with their voice to make sure that whatever comes out of this, whatever government comes out of this, does not continue to treat them with such inequity?
CONAN: The Copts, of course, are a Christian sect that have been in Egypt for thousands of years, and their numbers of the population -correct me if I'm wrong - some are Shiatists - something about 10 to 15 percent of the population.
Prof. SHEHATA: That's exactly correct.
CONAN: And what about the - is there a voice for them in these uprisings?
Prof. SHEHATA: I think there is. There's no question that the uprisings and the protesters have included Christians and Muslims. We just heard today that there was a Coptic priest and a Muslim scholar who were raised in the crowd in Tahrir and both paraded around.
And I think it's also interesting to note and compare where Egypt is now from where it was at the time of the Alexandria bombing, just earlier in this month, which was really a low point, this terrible tragedy targeting a church in Alexandria - a suicide bomber killing, you know, many, many innocent people.
And previously, the previous month, there was a confrontation between the Egyptian security forces and Christians on the outskirts of Cairo. We don't see any of those divisions now. We don't see any of the things that divided people, either with regard to Islamist politics and secular politics, different economic demands and so on. Of course, those things are likely to come up in the coming period - the post-Mubarak period, but right now, I think there's a great deal of unity.
And in fact, some of the people who have been leaders of the protesters and so on are committed liberals. I mean, Mr. Baradei, for example, is a secular liberal. Amunoor(ph) also his name has been put forward as part of a kind of interim working committee, secular liberal. Osama Ghazali Harb, head of the Democratic Front, also committed to equality and universal citizenship.
So I understand the concerns with regard to Copts and their status in Egypt. Of course, all of us have been the victims of the regime, Muslim and Christian, but Copts have suffered, I think, especially with regard to issues of freedom of religion and so on but...
CONAN: It can't be overlooked. There was a bombing in Alexandria just a few weeks ago in which...
NORA: Twenty-one people were killed.
CONAN: Twenty-one - I was trying to remember...
Prof. SHEHATA: Probably more, I think, actually. I think it was more. I think it was upwards of 40, and the injuries were even greater. So...
NORA: So we're talking about a population that's been subdued and their rights to practice and their rights to repair churches and their rights in government and their rights in education.
Prof. SHEHATA: Yes. That's exactly correct. And of course, you know, President Mubarak handled those kinds of issues abysmally. He handled those kinds of issues by repression, by repressing political space, by repressing all opposition groups, including the Muslim brotherhood.
But I think it is fair to say now that the groups that have been organizing these protests and the people who have been participating them well beyond the membership of these groups represent a huge segment of Egyptian society - Christians, as well as Muslims.
CONAN: Nora, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.
NORA: Thank you.
CONAN: We had scheduled a conversation with John Seabrook of the New Yorker magazine about crowd control, a fascinating article he wrote about an incident that happened at a Black Friday shopping bargain at Wal-Mart on Long Island a couple of years ago, and that he's expanded into a study of how crowds react in certain kinds of situations when people are trampled or crushed to death. We're going to - given the dramatic events in Cairo today - reschedule that conversation for another time.
And when we come back, we're going to continue with Samer Shehata of Georgetown University. 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, of course, we're following the story in Egypt right now. Events there are fluid. According to The New York Times, President Obama has urged President Hosni Mubarak not to run again. There are reports on Al Alarabiya television this evening, citing unnamed sources, that President Mubarak may speak this evening to announce he will not run for another term. Again, the elections in Egypt scheduled for next September. We're also hearing a report from Reuters that President Obama's special envoy met President Mubarak in Cairo on Tuesday night. That's former ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, who arrived there earlier today.
With us here in the studio in Washington is Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. And let's see if we can get some more calls in on the conversation. Let's go next to Al, and Al is with us from San Antonio.
AL (Caller): Why did President Obama make a special effort to include the Muslim Brotherhood and the guests that he insisted come to his 2009 Cairo speech? The Muslim Brotherhood spinoffs include al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah and in this country, CAIR, MSA and other organizations. Many of these organizations, President Obama has invited to the White House. The pundits on TV and radio announced, say, oh, we hope the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an Islamic radical organization, we hope they don't take over Egypt. Why did President Obama insist that they come to his speech in Cairo?
CONAN: I wonder if you could address that, Samer Shehata.
Prof. SHEHATA: Sure. I certainly can. President Obama did not insist that the Muslim Brotherhood attend his speech in Cairo several years ago. What he did insist is that members of parliament, elected members of the Egyptian parliament, should be present. And in fact, there are some members or there were some members in the previous parliament between 2005 and 2010 who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood. And some of them did attend, and a number of them have met American officials. A few of them have been to the America embassy at different occasions.
And in the past, the U.S. has had some informal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood. With regard to the second point or the second part of the factual inaccuracy, the Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with al-Qaeda or al-Qaida as some people refer to is as. The Muslim Brotherhood is not a radical militant organization. It is not led by clerics. And the Muslim Brotherhood is widely considered among those people who study the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States and so on and Europe as a moderate Islamist organization.
They might not be to the liking of me or you, Neal, or some other people with regard to some of their issues, but they don't throw bombs. They renounced violence 40 or 50 years ago. They're an integral part of Egyptian society, and they have been at the forefront of criticizing this regime, pointing out, you know, human rights violations and really bearing a lot of the brunt of the repression of the Mubarak regime also over the last 25, 30 years.
CONAN: Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number in al-Qaida, a product of the Muslim Brotherhood, no?
Prof. SHEHATA: Well, he was a product of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Muslim Brotherhood ideas in an earlier period. I mean, without delving into the details, in the 1960s, of course, there was a major split in the brotherhood, possibly as a result of the repression that was used against them by the regime of Abdel Nasser. And this is when, of course, Sayyid Qutb write the famous inspirational ideologue of the more radical elements like Islamic jihad and so on, the group that eventually killed Sadat, left the organization.
The brotherhood renounced violence. There's a very famous book that the brotherhood published at the time in which they said that they not only renounce violence but they believe in peaceful political activity and really propagation of their ideas by all sorts of means in society -doing good services, engaging in the political process and so on. So they really, you know - unfortunately, there's this incredible misunderstanding about the Muslim Brotherhood. They reject the Iranian model completely. They are more interested in the Turkish model, the model of the AKP party and Recep Erdogan and so on.
So, you know, like I said, we might not accept - and I certainly don't accept all of the Muslim Brotherhood's ideas - but they are - they have, in print and in practice, committed themselves to peaceful protestation, the participation in elections, rule of law, constitutionalism, separation of powers and so on.
CONAN: Now let's go next to Helen, and Helen with us from Grand Rapids.
HELEN (Caller): My question is, just what does historical precedent tells us about the likelihood that a revolt like that's happening in Egypt, especially without any strong and experienced leadership in the -like, they're not even really a revolting party. What are the chances that this would actually going to turn out well, that there's going to end up being some form of stable government or actual organized elections or whatever? Neal, I can take my answer off the air.
CONAN: Helen, thanks for the call.
Prof. SHEHATA: Well, it's a great question. And I think that people are going - if President Mubarak gets on television and announce his resignation, there will be some celebration. Certainly, a great feat has been accomplished. But that's nowhere close to a democracy, certainly. And in fact, it's probably not going to be even acceptable to the vast majority of protesters.
If President Mubarak were simply to announce his resignation but he wanted to stay in power until the September 2011 regularly scheduled elections - which would be simply another really small concession, tactical concession to hold on in a way - there would still be some really big issues. He would still be in power for seven months, until the 2011 elections.
The presidential post, according to the constitution, has sweeping powers. So that's also a problem. The constitution, which has been amended several times by the ruling party for its own interests, is in place still and is not, certainly, a democratic document. And then the regime itself lacks credibility. So the point is that we don't want to see - most Egyptians don't want to see the Mubarak regime without Mubarak. They want a fundamentally different type of politics, democratic politics. And I'm afraid that the resignation of Mubarak isn't enough.
CONAN: And we had heard, of course, before these events, news were released of plans for a dynasty that President Mubarak's son was likely to be the next president of Egypt. That seems to be out of the question at this point.
Prof. SHEHATA: Yes. Gamal Mubarak's political future died on January 25th, or ended on January 25th, 2011. And you're right that for the last 10 years at least there has been tremendous speculation about his hopes to become president. He's moved up into the - in the ruling - in the ranks of the ruling party from 2000 until the present, where he was, really, second in command in a way of the ruling party. His public visibility increased tremendously, his role in economic decision-making, his visibility, his trips to Washington and the White House, also, under the Bush administration. And, of course, now, thankfully, that has all come to an end.
CONAN: And let's go next to Linda, and Linda with us with - from Princeton.
LINDA (Caller): Hello.
LINDA: I'd like to ask - I've heard on the BBC in the last couple of days that the bulk of U.S. aid to Egypt was to the military, largely for fighter jets, et cetera. And that what should have gone to the midlevel army, in fact, went to the secret police under martial law. Can you comment on that? And also, do you believe that 1.3 billion covers the entire package? Or do you believe that there are other operations such as CIA, et cetera, that are not covered under that 1.3 billion? Thank you.
CONAN: Linda, I saw the number 1.5 billion, one billion which is covered under the Camp David Accords. As part of that agreement, both Israel and Egypt get $1 billion a year. But can you help us out on (unintelligible).
Prof. SHEHATA: Sure, a little bit. I mean, of course, there's some gray areas and, you know, we don't really know for certainty. But technically, of course, no. Only a very small percentage of that money is supposedly going to the interior ministry, right? That's kind of the repressive state apparatus, the boot of the Egyptian regime, on the back of the Egyptian people. And the majority of that money was supposed to go to the military.
Of course, in the past, some years ago, the amount of economic aid to Egypt was significantly higher, almost matching the amount of military aid. But over the last number of years, economic aid has gone down while military aid has continued, about the same levels.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Mitra(ph). Mitra with us from Miami.
MITRA (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon and thank you for taking my call. Actually, I want to make a comment, not so much of a question. You know, when I was listening to your analyst and your expert, I couldn't help but remember what's happening in Egypt in 1979 Iranian resolution, in which people of all life, left, right, young, old, rich and poor, decided to remove the shah. But when he left, they had no idea what to do and who would take over. So as a result, the one who was willing to use them with brutal force, won. This really doesn't, certainly, mean that you're going to have a Islamic fundamentalist government come in. But it certainly does lead to a position in which you could have radicalization, secular radicalization, military radicalization and brutal force.
And regardless of who comes in, I think one can pretty much argue, seriously, that the next government would not be so openly for U.S., because part of the reasons they are protesting, if I'm not mistaken, is because of the shah - of the Arab humiliation, of the, you know, the -Mr. Mubarak's treatment with the West and not so much of the economy. That was just my comment.
CONAN: All right, Mitra. Thanks very much for the call. And, of course, she's not alone in citing the Iranian precedent, among others, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel. But Samer Shehata, go ahead.
Prof. SHEHATA: Yes. It's a completely false analogy. That was in 1979. We're talking about more than 30 years later. The Iranian model in the Arab world and throughout the world, including among Islamist groups, has been completely rejected. No one believes, including the Muslim Brotherhood, that Iran is a successful case of anything.
Moreover, as I mentioned, the Muslim Brotherhood, whatever we like -think of it, is not a group that is based or is led by clerics. They don't believe in clerical law, clerical rule. There is nothing like the concept of velayat-e faqih, right rule of the clerics, as part of the Iranian revolution. In the case of Egypt, the army is a thoroughly secular institution, and they have the tanks and so on that you're seeing on the streets. That was the first part of the question.
Your caller, however, is correct, completely correct; that we are likely to see - if there were to be a democratic politics in Egypt, we are likely to see a different outlook and orientation towards the United States. Not necessarily anti-American by any means, but it isn't - I think we're going to have a politics and a foreign policy that is more in line with the wishes and the aspirations and the feelings of the great majority of Egyptians. What does that mean? That means, for example, that they might think once and twice about allowing the United States to have free access in terms of over-flight rights. Or it might mean, for example, voting in the United Nation.
CONAN: Overflight in terms of military flights...
Prof. SHEHATA: Military.
CONAN: ...you're talking about, not commercial flights.
Prof. SHEHATA: Of course - military, which, you know, the United States benefits from tremendously. Or the passage of nuclear vessels through the Suez Canal. I think I'm not mistaken in saying that the United States is the only country that is allowed to have its nuclear vessels pass through the Suez Canal, or something like the blockade of Gaza.
Now, right now, Egypt is participating in essentially a blockade of 1.5 million people in Gaza, not allowing anything to go into the area, and so. I can't imagine that if the Egyptian people had their way that that would be the policy. I'm not saying that they would, you know, support Hamas or give them weapons, no. But I think that they will allow commodities, everything from, you know - from gasoline to diapers - to be allowed to go into Gaza. So those were some of the differences.
CONAN: Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, with us here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Mike, and Mike with us from Pound in Wisconsin.
MIKE (Caller): Yes. First, I'd like to make a comment. We just returned from a trip to Egypt and found that the people there seem to sincerely like Americans. We were treated very, very well wherever we went. My question is more related to Saudi Arabia. I have a son who is going to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and I'm certainly very concerned about what may happen as a result of the things going on in Egypt, how that may flow over into Saudi Arabia. And I'll take my comments offline.
CONAN: Mike, we wish your son the best. Thanks very much for the call.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: And we've heard, Samer Shehata, obviously about Tunisia, still protests in Algeria. We've heard about Jordan, again, King Abdullah today dismissed his prime minister and his cabinet in response to demonstrations there. But a lot of people wonder, Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, what is going on there?
Prof. SHEHATA: Right. Well, I think certainly that, you know, people in Saudi Arabia have been watching the events in Tunisia and Egypt. And what happened in Tunisia and what's happening in Egypt has been inspirational, really, for many people, the idea that what was previously thought impossible, right, overthrowing an autocratic regime, was very much possible.
However, there is a major difference between states in the region. There is a difference between the oil-rich states of the Gulf, like Saudi Arabia, that have significantly higher levels of income and so on, and the oil-poor states of Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen. There's also a major difference between the monarchies, dynastic monarchies, and republics.
So I don't think that Saudi Arabia is, you know, on the verge of collapse, or this will certainly cause some pressure. But I don't think that we're going to have a regime change or a popular revolution in Saudi Arabia anytime soon.
CONAN: Just to remind you of some of the developments of the day, hundreds of thousands, perhaps million, gathered in cities across Egypt today to protest the Mubarak government, to demand that the Egyptian president leave, resign his post and take his government with them. The protests were peaceful, celebratory in atmosphere - though obviously you cannot monitor every situation everywhere.
Nevertheless, the relations with the police and army were very respectful. Now, tonight, we have news that the Frank Wisner, the former U.S. ambassador to the - Egypt has arrived there as President Obama's special envoy and has met with President Mubarak. We're hearing reports from The New York Times that President Obama is urging President Mubarak to step down and not run again as a candidate for president in the elections scheduled for September.
We're hearing now from Al Arabiya, from Egyptian state television is reporting that Mr. Mubarak is about to speak, will be speaking tonight. Al Arabiya and CNN and other news agencies are reporting that he will announce that he will be following that time schedule and step down as of September.
Again, whether that's going to be acceptable to the various protestors who've been flocking to Tahrir Square in Cairo and protesting for the last week, that remains to be seen. Stay tuned to NPR for the latest developments as they continue throughout the day.
Samer Shehata, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Prof. SHEHATA: You're very welcome.
CONAN: Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. And he joined us here in Studio 3A. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.