Week In Politics: Revolution In Egypt
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
And the tumultuous events in Egypt give us plenty to talk about with our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to you both.
Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Commentator, The Washington Post): Thank you.
Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Commentator, The New York Times): Good to be here.
BLOCK: David, let's start with you. Your reaction to these events in Egypt over the last 24 hours?
Mr. BROOKS: History making. Am I the first to say that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BROOKS: I mean, you think about it, what are the epochal Middle Eastern countries that really have had a huge cultural and political effect on the rest of the region? It's Iraq and Egypt. And Iraq has sort of a struggling democracy. Egypt is going to spend the next couple of years struggling toward democracy and that's bound to have a huge effect culturally, politically, intellectually on every other region in the country.
And it's going to be a project for us and for them. But it's - it could spread. I mean, it could be, you know, when - we can talk about President Bush, but when he dreamed of a transforming Middle East, he wasn't involved in this, but this may have a huge effect.
BLOCK: E.J. Dionne, though, obviously a lot of questions still about what happens with Egypt now after this day of euphoria that we've been hearing.
Mr. DIONNE: Yeah. But before we do that, I want to celebrate this fantastic day too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DIONNE: I mean, today is the anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran. They call it Islamic Revolution Victory Day. Perhaps from now on, February 11th will be called democratic revolution victory day. My Brookings Institution colleague, Steve Grand, made a wonderful suggestion that we might view 2/11 as a bookend to 9/11.
After 9/11, we were so inclined to see the Arab and Muslim world in light of a terrible terrorist event or a set of terrorist events. From now on, we can see the Arab/Muslim world through the eyes of brave democrats who fought for liberty. And as President Obama said in his statement, this peaceful revolution is, in its way, an antidote for terrorism. And now we can go to all the problems we face. But I do think this is an extraordinary day that we should celebrate.
BLOCK: Well, let's listen to a bit more of what President Obama had to say at the White House this afternoon. He said that while the sights and sounds that we've been seeing are entirely Egyptian, he said there are echoes of history.
President BARACK OBAMA: Echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, there's something in the soul that cries out for freedom. Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square. And the entire world has taken note.
BLOCK: David Brooks, what about the tone of the president's remarks today? Especially since he seemed to jump the gun a little bit yesterday anticipating regime change that didn't happen for another day.
Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. But he's absolutely right. Since Portuguese military dictatorship fell in the mid-'70s, 85 autocracies have fallen all around the world and now, finally, it's happening in the Middle East. And so there is this trend. People have a sense of a template in their minds all over the world or, what is a normal country? What kind of countries can give me dignity? And it's a democratic open country.
I guess I hope the president will be more aggressive going forward than he has been in the last couple years in promoting democratic groups in Egypt and promoting civil society and really having faith that autocratic regimes are inherently unstable regimes and democratic regimes are more stable. And they had a big fight in the administration this week between those favoring stability, those favoring democracy, and I hope the president leans a little more on the democracy side.
BLOCK: Well, it's interesting, E.J., I mean, of course the U.S. has such a tangled history here. Hosni Mubarak was our autocrat for many, many years.
Mr. DIONNE: Right. And we've had a lot of them around the world. No, that's true. And there was a great fear when this all started that, ah-ha, this is going to go down the Iranian road. We are going to end up with an Islamic regime. It'll be hostile to us. It'll be hostile to the Israelis. Although my impression is that the White House began to switch fairly early. At the very least, I think they realized fairly early on that there was a very good chance that Mubarak would fall.
And while I agree with David that as a general proposition, I would've liked them to speak out stronger and earlier on democracy. And I do think they made a mistake in kind of cutting the funding for those democratic groups in Egypt. We might've had better information than we had if we hadn't caught that funding. Nonetheless, in the end, you were going to judge them by their results. And so far, this balancing act between realism and advocacy for democratic change seems to have allowed us to have some influence, especially on the Egyptian army.
And I think one thing that we probably did help with is we pushed the army to prevent a bloodbath there. And I think that was one place where we may - we the United States - may have been helpful.
BLOCK: I want to ask you about something that David, one of your colleagues, Nick Kristof, wrote on his blog today. He said that his Facebook fan page - on his Facebook fan page, he asked his fans before the protest began in Egypt, what the next Tunisia would be. A surprising number said Egypt. If you were among them, Nick Kristof writes, you apparently did better than our intelligence community, which seemed to not see this coming.
Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. There's a group of American scholars called the Working Group on Egypt, including a colleague of E.J.'s named Robert Kagan and Michele Dunne from the Carnegie Endowment. For 10 months they've been warning this. And this is a bipartisan group. They've been way ahead of the U.S. government. They've been issuing clear policy statements and, really, it's indictment of our government and our intelligence service that they've been so far behind these bipartisan scholars on the outside.
And I just hope the administration will express a little more confidence in this sort of change. I'm moderately optimistic about what's going to happen, in part, because of the incredible responsibility of the crowds. And, second, if you look at the World Bank reports and the IMF reports on the institutions of Egypt, they're reasonably healthy for an autocratic regime. The civil service is reasonably responsible.
And I mentioned 85 autocracies have fallen. Only about 30 have turned into democracies. The rest are sort of stuck in the middle. It's the power of those governing institutions that really determine how they do.
BLOCK: On this question of intelligence, E.J., there was a bizarre situation yesterday where you had Leon Panetta, the CIA director, on Capitol Hill, saying pretty authoritatively that he had heard that there would be a regime change that night and then, later having to backtrack and say, well, I'm basically getting that from what I'm hearing on the news. One would hope the CIA director would do a little bit better than that, wouldn't you think?
Mr. DIONNE: Well, now the CIA director can say, I was right, it just took the Egyptians a little time to catch up. And of course they were very careful to say, well, he was actually attributing this to media sources. But as soon as the head of the CIA says this, people hear the head of the CIA saying this, you know, somebody I know at the CIA said, look, we're pretty good at secrets, we're not very good at mysteries.
And his argument was that a lot of people were wrong in seeing Mubarak being more stable than he turned out to be. And I think, in fact, on things like this, on big social changes that are going on, people other than the intelligence community are often ahead of the intelligence community, which is why the group that David mentioned, may have been more in touch with the people on the ground.
But, again, I think we probably didn't have enough ties to this nascent democratic movement in Egypt. And that's one reason why we may have been behind the curve.
Mr. BROOKS: You know, I've asked several presidents, you know, you have access to all this intelligence, does the world look very different to you than it does to us on the outside? And the general answer I get is, nah, we have more detail, but it doesn't look that different.
BLOCK: We'll leave it there. Thanks to you both.
Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.
Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.
BLOCK: David Brooks of The New York Times. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.
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