MSNBC Q&A on Egypt

Q: Which countries in the region share similar economic, political, demographic and social conditions to those that have ignited unrest in Tunisia and Egypt?

A: Most Arab countries share these problems. However, some are more susceptible to these kinds of uprisings than others. For example, in Syria, civil society is weaker and the secret police are stronger. In Saudi Arabia and the smaller emirates of the Gulf, they can buy off much of the opposition. However, I would not be surprised to see an upsurge in pro-democracy protests in Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.

Q: Separately, which of the countries in the region have the greatest economic and strategic importance to the U.S. – and why?

these kinds of uprisings than others. For example, in Syria, civil society is weaker and the secret police are stronger. In Saudi Arabia and the smaller emirates of the Gulf, they can buy off much of the opposition. However, I would not be surprised to see an upsurge in pro-democracy protests in Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.
Q: Separately, which of the countries in the region have the greatest economic and strategic importance to the U.S. – and why?
A: Israel, of course, is traditionally America’s strongest ally. Egypt is the most important Arab ally in terms of strategic cooperation. Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil wealth, is most important economically. Iraq continues to be the biggest worry, given the ongoing violence and instability and the domination of the government by hard-line Shiite parties, some of which have ties to Iran. In general, while the prospects of democratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere may result in their pursuing policies that are less amenable to the United States, international financial institutions, and other Western powers than the current pro-Western dictators, in the long term, I would argue that greater democratization in the Arab world is beneficial to America’s economic and security interests: When people can address their grievances nonviolently through an established political process, they are far less prone to embrace extremist ideologies and terrorism.
Q: What can you tell us about how widespread the support is for the uprising among Egyptians?
A: One thing that’s struck me about this uprising is its breadth — old-young, men-women, Christian-Muslim, secular-poor and middle class; factory workers and intellectuals. Though the initial instigators were young and middle class, it’s one of the broadest based uprisings of its kind I’ve ever seen. If there were a free election held today I’d be surprised if Mubarak got more that 20-23 percent of the vote. Of course, he wouldn’t hold free elections and all the elections held in the past have been rigged.
Q: I know this situation has a very long history, but can you tell us what has spurred this to happen now?
A: Frustration with the Mubarak regime has been growing, but no doubt the democratic revolution in Tunisia played a role. Indeed, recent decades have seen scores of unarmed insurrections against corrupt autocratic regimes from the Philippines to Poland, from Chile to Serbia, from Maldives to Mali.
Q: What are the basics that the people are demanding? That is, for what are they struggling/fighting?
A: Freedom of speech, press, assembly, free/honest elections, etc. which they believe is impossible as long as Mubarak (or his son) is in power. Also, greater economic justice; poverty and inequality are growing. Liberalizing the economy while not liberalizing the political system is a dangerous combination.
Q: Given that this is happening in more than one Arab country, what do you think the likelihood is that this could spread to Saudi Arabia? Is the House of Fahd any better positioned to deal with an uprising than Mubarak?
A: Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, will probably be among the last to change. As an oil-rich … state, they can buy off a lot of potential opponents. In addition, the power of the hard-line Wahabbi clerics may make pro-democracy elements nervous about challenging the monarchy for fear at what might replace it.
Q: What role do you believe the Muslim Brotherhood is playing in the Egypt protests and does that organization enjoy broad support among the Egyptian people?
A: The demonstrations are led primarily by young people who are not only anti-regime, but find the aging leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood as out of touch with their day-to-day realities as the government. There seems little support for the more extreme Islamists either. The Brotherhood’s refusal to endorse the protests until after they started and were clearly gaining support was clearly opportunistic and doesn’t help their standing.
Q: Does Iran play any part in this … behind the scenes?
A: Iran has very little influence in Egyptian politics.
Q: With the U.S. support of Mubarak, how can they expect anyone that replaces him to be friendly to the U.S. It seems like the U.S. once again has provided an excuse to an Islamic state to hate them.
A: While I don’t expect a post-Mubarak government to be fanatically anti-American or dominated by Islamist radicals, there is understandable disappointment among most Egyptians at the longstanding support from Washington of the Mubarak dictatorship. A democratic Egyptian government would likely be somewhat more independent from the U.S. and the IMF, but not overtly hostile.
Q: Is there popular support for Mohamed ElBaradei? What aspirations does he have?
both secular nationalists and moderate Islamists. Has strong democratic credentials.
Q: How do these protests affect other moderate governments in the region, such as Jordan?
A: I think authoritarian governments throughout the region, whether they are pro- or anti-American, are probably pretty nervous right now.
Q: Does Mubarak still enjoy support from the military, or is their allegiance leaning towards the protesters?
A: The military leadership still supports him, but there are serious questions as to whether ordinary soldiers will be willing to suppress the protesters.
Q: Do you think people in Egypt will be able to accomplish anything out of this protest? Even with the strict government they have?
A: Egypt will never be the same. The apathy and feelings of powerlessness have been shattered. Even if Mubarak survives the current round of protests, Egyptian civil society has been re-awakened. His days in power are numbered. It’s a reminder that if democracy comes to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Western capitals, but from the people themselves.
Q: Is the safety of Israel at risk if the government is toppled, and what would happen to the world’s oil supply’s ability to make it thru the Suez Canal?
A: The people of Egypt want social and economic justice and would not be inclined to get in a war with Israel or risk a confrontation with the international community around oil supplies. These protests are about domestic issues, about freedom and justice. While there is certainly broad sympathy for the Palestinian cause, they have more pressing matters at home to deal with.
Q: Is this an uprising more rooted in oppression from the government rather than a religious ideology?
A: There are Christians and Muslims and secularists all out of the street. This is very much about resisting government oppression and its mismanagement of the economy than about religion.
Q: How do the riots affect us here in the U.S.? Why should we care?
A: The United States has been the major economic, political and military supporter of the Mubarak regime for nearly 30 years. This has hurt our standing. Much of the anti-Americanism in the Middle East is not because they “hate our freedom” but because our policies have, unfortunately, been less about freedom than about supporting dictators like Mubarak. This needs to change if we are to have any credibility in that part of the world.
Q: Do you think that regional unrest will prompt U.S. military action? Will it prompt any economic sanctions or other penalties?
A: Not likely. Military force paradoxically doesn’t work very well against hundreds of thousands of unarmed demonstrators. In addition, I would assume that the Obama administration would recognize it would put us on the wrong side of history. U.S. intervention will probably be limited to the diplomatic front. So far there have been no threats of suspending U.S. military aid.
Q: What sort of time frame are you expecting in terms of transition in Egypt? And, what other power players might try to muscle in?
A: No telling. Obviously lots of domestic and foreign elements will try to take advantage of the situation, but it will be the Egyptian people on the streets who will ultimately determine the nation’s future.
Q: Would whatever type of regime that arises from this keep similar relations that Israel and Egypt currently have, or could this lead to a step back?
A: I would guess that a democratic Egyptian government might be more outspokenly critical of certain Israeli policies, but I don’t think there’s any realistic chance of breaking off the peace treaty or anything like that.
Q: Are we seeing signs of broader support from the Egyptian middle class or the intellectual community and how important is that to the success of the protesters in this situation?
A: Yes, there is growing opposition across class lines. And, even if the protests are initially suppressed, I think it will embolden Egyptian intellectuals to be more outspoken in their opposition.
Q: Is this similar to the protests in Iran, i.e., the government will slowly squash it?
A: The Egyptian government could, like the Iranian regime in 2009, successfully crush the rebellion this round. However, the Egyptian regime has a much smaller social base than the Iranian regime, and is therefore far more vulnerable in the longer term.
Q: How will this affect control of the Suez canal – thus the price of oil?
A: It shouldn’t affect the normal operations of the Suez Canal, unless the canal operators joined a general strike. Even in that case, the impact on oil prices would be minimal, since most supertankers are too big for the canal anyway.
Q: If Hosni Mubarak steps down, how likely is it that his son, Gamal Mubarak, (or perhaps his other son) would take over and be accepted by the people? … Do the Egyptian citizens view the sons any differently than the father? (Editor’s note: BBC News reported Saturday that the elder Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Alaa, had flown to London; Egypt’s state-run television denied the report.)
A: Gamal is disliked even more than his father. I was one of those predicting an uprising like we are seeing now if he was named president. Even in Hosni Mubarak can hold on for awhile longer, I think it’s safe to say at this point that Gamal’s career is finished.
Q: Why is Gamal more disliked than his father?
A: Gamal is seen as a spoiled brat and not particularly competent. In addition, the 1952 revolution was to overthrow a monarchy and establish a republic, so hereditary succession is seen as something of an anachronism.
Q: How will this unrest affect U.S. citizens who want to travel to Egypt?
A: I don’t think they have to worry about their personal safety in terms of being attacked for being Americans. However, normal travel could be disrupted because of demonstrations, etc.
Q: What is the “best case” scenario for this demonstration?
A: Best case scenario in my view would be a speedy transition to an interim government under ElBaradei or similar credible figure with free elections some time in the next few months.
Q: Is it probable that Mubarak will agree to at least some of the protesters’ demands? And, are the protesters likely to accept?
A: Mubarak may try to accede to some of the protesters demands, but at this point he may need to be thinking more in terms of sooner or later going into exile. His credibility is shot at this point.
Q: What role are women playing in the protests? Are Muslim and Christian women taking to the streets?
A: Women have not been as visible as during the Tunisian protests, but they have been present, particularly during the more nonviolent protests during daylight. And there have been both Christians and Muslims, both with headscarves and without.
Q: Do you see a warmer peace with Israel if Mubarak falls? I would describe the current peace as a cold peace.
A: At least while the current right-wing Israeli government is in power, it will more likely continue to be a cold peace. Things could warm up with a more moderate Israeli leadership, however.
Q: What do you think the U.S. response should be?
A: I have been disappointed in the Obama administration’s failure to more openly challenge the Mubarak regime and more openly support the pro-democracy movement. I would advocate, for example, for a suspension of U.S. military aid.
Q: Does the wave of activism in north Africa prompt the populations of Iran and Syria to respond in a similar manner? Are there benevolent monarchies in the region that have earned a viable relationship with their citizenry, thereby mitigating the populist uprisings?
A: Civil society is weaker in Syria and their secret police are stronger, but there is still a lot of discontent with Assad. I do expect to see another round of protests in Iran at some point, not because of North Africa, but because the grievances with the Iranian regime are as strong as ever. Kuwait, in part because of major nonviolent protests a few years ago, has opened up politically. The monarchy is still ultimately in charge, but the parliament has some real power as well.
Q: In light of the events in Egypt, how significant is it that Jordan’s King Abdullah sacked his government? How do you rate the likelihood of a “domino effect” toppling other strongmen in the region?
A: It is indicative that even under a monarchy, people power can lead to changes in unpopular appointees and unpopular policies. Whether the monarchy itself is threatened is unclear at this time. There is little question that events in Tunisia and Egypt will inspire pro- democracy movements throughout the region. Egypt is particularly significant, given that it is not only by far the largest Arab country, but traditionally the center of media, scholarship, and popular culture.
Regimes will be forced to make substantial reforms in order to survive. Those that don’t could be putting themselves in jeopardy. Indeed, 2011 could be to the Middle East what 1989 was to Eastern Europe.