Expert: Protests In The Region Linked Guy Raz talks with Robert Malley from the International Crisis Group about growing tensions in Egypt and the Middle East region. Malley says that the United States has long supported tight-fisted undemocratic regimes to promote stability, but that now it is paying the price for that support.
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Expert: Protests In The Region Linked

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Expert: Protests In The Region Linked

Expert: Protests In The Region Linked

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Unidentified Group: Mubarak has to go. Hey, hey, ho, ho, Mubarak has to go.

RAZ: That's a crowd outside the Egyptian embassy here in Washington, D.C., today. They were calling on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Now, many of those who turned out have family in Egypt - including Karim Ali(ph), who's been in sporadic contact with relatives in Cairo.

Mr. KARIM ALI: You know, the Internet and cell phones were down yesterday but this morning, cell phones are working and we're able to communicate with them. And thank God they were all doing very well.

RAZ: Loay Yusef(ph) has family there, too, many of whom are taking part in the street demonstrations.

Mr. LOAY YUSEF: My father-in-law went out for about 10 minutes. He couldn't hang with the young guys. So he went up - gone back inside the apartment. But he said it's getting pretty bad there.

RAZ: One protester we met at the embassy, Mohamed Hafa(ph), says he hasn't yet been able to reach his family back home.

Mr. MOHAMED HAFA: It scares me a little, but I - at the same time, I feel like, you know, everybody in Egypt is working hard and - to end this regime. And I'm sure that they are some of the people that are doing that, and I wish them luck. And, you know - hold onto this whole thing will be successful and I will hear from them again.

RAZ: Demonstrators outside the Egyptian embassy here in Washington.

Robert Malley worked the Mideast desk at the National Security Council under President Clinton. He's now the program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. He says all of the protests in the region and Egypt and in Tunisia and even Yemen are, in many ways, linked.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Program Director for Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group): I think what we're seeing in Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen and elsewhere is not just protest about living conditions, about poverty, about...

RAZ: Regimes.

Mr. MALLEY: ...about regimes. It's also the symptom of a sense of powerlessness, of impotence, of humiliation, lack of dignity that the Arabs have felt now for a long time but in particular over the last period, where you've seen the war in Iraq, we have seen the dismantlement of the Palestine Authority during the second uprising intifada. You now see the humiliation of the Palestinians, who are not able to get anything from Israel.

Step after step, you've seen Arab as being the past - expected on history. And I think that, as much as anything else, is what is propelling people who've been unhappy about the lack of bread and jobs and a voice for decades. There's nothing new. What's new is that right now, they have no hope that their leaders can give them any sense of dignity of nationhood.

RAZ: And what's new, of course, is that there is this medium, primarily Al Jazeera...

Mr. MALLEY: Right.

RAZ: ...that millions can see and they can watch, and they can find out what's happening...

Mr. MALLEY: Right.

RAZ: ...elsewhere.

Mr. MALLEY: And I mean, this has been, obviously, a boom for Al Jazeera - very great few weeks for them. They were the ones who really covered the Tunisian uprising, and perhaps helped it in a significant way. And they're now on the air showing what's happening in Egypt. This has been an Al Jazeera moment.

RAZ: There's a lot of talk about stability in Egypt. I wonder: If that government were to collapse and, say, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the only real credible opposition in Egypt, were to fill that power vacuum, would that bring about the kind of stability that the United States would want to see?

Mr. MALLEY: It's doubtful that it's the kind of stability the U.S. would want to see. I think that's precisely why Hillary Clinton and others are being very caged about this.

RAZ: They're afraid. They're afraid of that.

Mr. MALLEY: They're afraid of that scenario. It's President Mubarak's playbook. Every time there's a threat, he says it's a threat from the Muslim Brotherhood; it's a threat from the Islamists and therefore, Islamic radicalism. And therefore, the U.S. has to be on its side.

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. MALLEY: This time, it seemed at one point, you know, it wasn't going to work. The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with the demonstrations earlier in the week.

RAZ: You worked at the National Security Council once, right...

Mr. MALLEY: Right.

RAZ: ...under President Clinton. What are the options that the administration now has?

Mr. MALLEY: First, I think they're trying to gather as much information as they can - which everyone is trying to do, and it's not so easy. And second, I think, really, they're trying to calibrate what should they say. Because they know that what they say, people pay attention to. And they know that what they say or don't say can get them in trouble. So I think it's really at that level - what are we trying to do, what are we saying to the regimes themselves? What are we encouraging them to do, and what are going to say publicly?

It's a very delicate balancing act, and it's sort of the price of decades and decades of a - unhealthy bargain. By dealing with regimes that are repressive, yes, but pro-American, we get what we want. And that bargain is now collapsing because we can't have everything we want. We could side with regimes at great cost -our reputation in the region and perhaps at great cost, our interest in the future. Or we could side with the protesters. And that, too, could come with great peril.

RAZ: That's Robert Malley. He's a former Middle East peace negotiator with the State Department, and now the program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. His latest article, co-authored with Hussein Agha, can be found in the New York Review. It's called "Who's Afraid of the Palestinians?"

Robert Malley, thank you.

Mr. MALLEY: My pleasure.

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