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The Challenges To Democracy In Egypt


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Today, Egypt's defense minister warned that rising conflicts and chaos in the country could result in the collapse of the state and that it poses a threat to the future of coming generations, this after days of violent anti-government protests and demonstrations in cities across Egypt, including Cairo, the capital, and Port Said, just north of the Suez Canal.

The ongoing violence represents a new challenge to the country's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, and growing distrust of fundamental institutions like the police, the judiciary and the military. Troubling but resolvable short-term issues are signs of serious problems in a still fragile democracy.

Later in the program, Paul Krugman on why the conventional wisdom on the economy has it all wrong. But first Egypt, and we begin with Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland College Park, author of the forthcoming book "The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and Reshaping of the Middle East." And he joins us from a studio at the Brookings Institution here in Washington, D.C. Nice to have you back with us.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Good to be with you.

CONAN: And I just say you just returned from a trip to Egypt. From what people were telling you, how serious a problem is this for Mr. Morsi?

TELHAMI: Very serious. I think what's become apparent, I mean even before this immediate crisis that is really extraordinary - it's extraordinary in the sense that, you know, they can't even enforce order where they declare emergency law. I think people are defiant even in the face of tanks in the same way that we had sent - the events that led to the revolution.

It's extraordinary, but what I have observed is really a deep mistrust across the board, particularly between the opposition and the government. And that mistrust, you know, went beyond what we knew. We knew Egypt was divided. It was really clear based on the elections, the first found, the presidency. We saw how divided people were, how even Morsi himself got just 26 percent of what was 46 percent of people participating.

The president the second round was very close. But what we have seen is deepening sense of mistrust, particularly after the constitutional declaration. And it was kind of interesting because it didn't have to be, it didn't seem to be going in that direction.

In fact if anything, Morsi in the initial few weeks and months seemed to actually gain more support. And he got approval for a number of things that he did, including getting rid of the head of the military, his initiative in the Sinai, which was very popular, and then his remarkable, you know, mediation of the Gaza War that won him praise from left to right within Egypt and outside.

So it's just the next step that really instead of using that as a way to build a big consensus and legitimacy, moved to consolidate power, and that scared a lot of people. And you can't miss it. It's there particularly when you go to Cairo because in fact the bulk of the opposition is in Cairo. We know that, for example, when the constitutional vote was counted, you know, over 60 percent of roughly 30 percent of the people voting supported it. But in Cairo particularly, people opposed it, and that, obviously, Cairo is the heart of Egypt.

CONAN: And what does it also say when the reaction, the response, is so similar to the responses of the previous regime, to declare curfews, states of emergency, to call out the troops, the tanks and then the police?

TELHAMI: Well, of course, you know, Egyptians are nothing if not humorous, and you can see all the jokes being cracked already across the board in Egypt and on the Internet and people who are juxtaposing a statement that - you know, a video of a statement that Morsi made before he became president, saying I will not impose martial law, and then obviously speech imposing martial law.

So clearly people are - you know, those who opposed him are opposing him more, and some of those who supported him, clearly because they didn't want his opponent to win, are now having not second thoughts about rejecting his opponent but are now a part of the mainstream opposition.

But let's not rush to judgment on the following point. We don't know if the - let's assume that there were elections held tomorrow. Would he lose? I'm not so sure. I cannot be sure of that, to be honest with you, because I think what we see here is that he has very driven, intense opposition.

We know that people in Egypt are now empowered, feel empowered, and they will not go back to anyone, on the left or the right, dictating to them. They will not accept to going back to the Mubarak era. They will not accept a military rule. They will not accept a Muslim Brotherhood rule.

And they are prepared to go to the streets, and they are prepared to risk their lives. And I think that's with us to stay. And those people are out there in the streets, particularly in Cairo but also elsewhere. We've seen that in the Suez cities where martial law was declared.

But still the president and the brotherhood still has support and even the Salafists, who are somewhat critical of him, rallying him behind him. So it - Egypt is divided, and I think Cairo itself, obviously, is more mobilized against him.

I went to see one of Morsi's advisors where I was there in the presidential palace, and I can tell you, it was kind of striking because as we approached the compound on the road leading to the presidential office, there was a gate, and it was closed, and there was a young man not in uniform standing there. And he basically said you can't go in here, you have to go all the way around. So - and then he said: And if you're going to see President Morsi - shouted so everybody could hear him - tell him the people don't want you. And of course this young man can't speak - he can't know what the people really want. He's reflective of a mood in the area. And of course it would not have happened in Mubarak's era because no one would have taken that risk to shout out loud, certainly somebody who's guarding the gate that's leading to the presidential palace.

But when I spoke with the advisor of the president, and I think he was very thoughtful, he was reflective, he was engaging, he listened, and pointed out that, you know, they are trying to deal with the constitutional issue. They understand some mistakes may have been made. He pointed out that there was almost two-thirds support for it. And I said yes, but you don't have Cairo. He said Cairo is not all of Egypt. But maybe not, but, you know, to run Egypt, you can't run Egypt without Cairo.

And so it is clear that, you know, the numbers aren't enough here, you know, to run the country, to get the legitimacy, to get the support of the institutions that run the country. And so there is a genuine crisis that they have to deal with.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, another of those we turn to to discuss these issues, Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, columnist for the Daily Star newspaper, with us by phone from his home in Beirut. And Rami, always good to have you on the program, as well.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you, glad to be with you.

CONAN: And Shibley Telhami just mentioned a critical word: legitimacy. Is the legitimacy of the government being questioned? Is it in doubt?

KHOURI: I think it's the credibility and the efficacy of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood grab for power that is being questioned mostly. The legitimacy of the presidency I don't think is in doubt, and legitimacy of Morsi is not in doubt because he is, in fact, the first legitimately elected president in modern Egypt.

And he was hailed by the people in Tahrir Square when he went and took his oath of office, symbolically, for them, not just showing that he was legitimately elected but showing that he served the people, that his legitimacy came from the people, from the street.

So I don't think his legitimacy is shot, but it is certainly dented. And I think the real problem, and you see this all over the region, you see this with Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq who was also legitimately elected, but these people, they have legitimacy because they're popularly elected in a relatively democratic way, but they haven't earned the credibility, the efficacy and the trust and the confidence that they need to govern efficiently.

So there's a real crisis, and Morsi had damaged the standing of the presidency, but that will be regained. It's not shot completely but has been damaged a little bit, it's been dented. But these institutions in Egypt are very solid. You know, the judiciary, the presidency, the army, these are powerful, old. In some ways, you know, they're modern, but they're also ancient in the way that Egypt is an ancient country. So there's great reliance on these institutions of statehood and nationhood. So I think it's a balance between legitimacy and credibility, really.

CONAN: And that other sort of barometer of democracy that we always think about, and Shibley was describing it to some degree in the case of that young man outside the presidential palace, what about freedom of speech?

KHOURI: Well, the interesting thing about Egypt, it reminds me of my days as a student in college in the United States in the 1960s when there was all this anti-war protest. And, you know, there was probably about, you know, two, three percent of Americans who were out on the streets protesting the war in Vietnam and Cambodia. But they ultimately ended the war. They forced the government, Nixon, to pull out of those wars.

So you can't measure popular sentiment by the number of people on the street. Certainly the people in the street are motivated, they're really angry, they feel betrayed, they feel that they are being subjected to a new form of autocracy and central government control and even thuggery to some extent.

The question really that we have to ask is: Where is the center of gravity of Egyptian politics, and where is the silent majority? My guess is that if Morsi were to - if there were an election now, the Muslim Brotherhood would still be the biggest party, like the plurality that was gained by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamists, the party in Tunisia who got around, say, 40 percent of the vote.

Probably that would be the same, but there's still a core support that the Muslim Brotherhood has that the people on the street demonstrating are really angry, and they will bring down the number of votes that the Muslim Brotherhood gets, but they're still probably the single biggest group.

The real point here is that we have genuine political conversations now in Egypt in the public political sphere. That's the real historic story. Whether Morsi stays or goes, if he goes he's going to go through some kind of political process, and that political process is not clear whether it'll be through elections or through - against street confrontations that lead to a political compromise.

There still has to be an election for parliament, which will clarify where the balance of power is. So there's a lot of things that still have to happen before this transition period settles down, and I think we're looking at another year or two, at least, until we can really see where the center of gravity is.

And the opposition is trying to coordinate and to act more responsibly. I think the opposition has been pretty amateurish, as Morsi has been. But you really have an opposition. They're trying to coordinate more efficiently. The people in the street are one element, but they're not the single most important element.

And these people in the street are not in every city in Egypt. So again, we don't want to exaggerate them, but we don't want to underplay them, either.

CONAN: More about the situation in Egypt as the minister of defense there warns about the possibilities of chaos. Our guests, Shibley Telhami, Rami Khouri, will continue with us. We'll also speak with Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Under the Camp David Accords, the U.S. provides Egypt with $1 billion in economic and military aid per year. Just yesterday, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland addressed the delivery of F-16s to Cairo in the context of military-to-military support, part and parcel of not only Egypt's ability to defend itself, but its ability to maintain its regional security responsibilities.

The fighter planes, just one element in ongoing development - ongoing investment in a country where there's still a question of whether the seeds of democracy can flourish. With us to weigh in on that question are our guests: Shibley Telhami, the author of the forthcoming book "The World Through Arab Eyes"; and Rami Khouri, columnist for the Daily Star.

And joining us now, Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of "The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square." He's with us from studios at the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington. Good to have you back on the program.

STEVEN COOK: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And are you surprised by the extent of the difficulties that Mr. Morsi is encountering?

COOK: No, as we've seen over the course of the last years, Egypt very quickly went from exhilarating moment of national unity to a deep polarization. I think that the parliamentary of the fall of 2011 or early winter 2012, and then the presidential elections, are a clear indication that the country was divided and that no one political party was going to be able to impose its political will and political agenda on the others.

And that is the primary reason why we're seeing this political instability, these periodic spasms of violence. It seems, however, in this case - and really this is a continuation of protests and demonstrations that began in November with Morsi's decree essentially exempting himself from judicial review and exempting the constituent assembly, that was the body that was writing the constitution from judicial review - this is an extension of those demonstrations.

What's worrying is the amount of violence and the threats and the breakdown of central authority in critical parts of the country to the extent that the military has said that it is concerned about state collapse.

That's very, very important, because the military, if there is anything that they are concerned about, and that is a threat to social cohesion. I don't believe that the officers want to, once again, become responsible for governing Egypt on a day-to-day basis.

However, if they do perceive a broad breakdown of central authority that threatens chaos in the country, we could see the military take action.

CONAN: Could see the military take action. That would be unprecedented. Shibley Telhami, that would be remarkable.

TELHAMI: It would be remarkable, and I really cannot see it in any foreseeable future. For one thing, I think, you know, a lot of the opposition to Morsi, specifically, also don't want to see it. Certainly some people, very small elements, who have imagination of repeating what was there before. I just can't see it happening in the short term.

But I should say what - Steve made a point that's really important. Let's differentiate between things. The polarization that is deep and the mistrust, it's one thing, but the other thing is the loss of the aura of the state. I mean, even - the violence is horrible in and of itself. Obviously one reason why even through the polarization, a lot of people remained optimistic about Egypt is that Egypt's revolution has remained relatively peaceful by the measures of historical revolutions.

And now obviously you have a period when there is increasing violence. But more than that, the loss of control of state use of force to stop the violence and the loss of the aura of the state, as I said that's really something - that's why, you know, I see it as an immediate short-term crisis, at least.

But the deep division itself is something else. I think that was part of what we expected as normal politics. And even aside from the mistrust, there is a little bit of politics in not coming together. I mean, frankly the opposition, which as Steve said, has actually been - actually it was Rami who said that it was disorganized and in some ways relatively dysfunctional, they admit it.

I mean, it's new. They haven't been organized for long. They're trying to bring different forces together. But what they saw in the popular reaction to the constitutional decisions is an energizing force that would bring them together. And they have no interest prior to the parliamentary election, if they end up entering the parliamentary election, they had no interest, really, in looking like they're - everything is fine because they have to mobilize their public, their supporters. They have to do well in the elections.

But even those who were somewhat optimistic about doing well, they believe that the most they can do in legitimate parliamentary election - which they're well-organized and successful - is get - they would be happy to get 40 percent.

So no one really believed that they're on the verge of shifting the balance of power. But they wanted to make the point that they're there and that they can't be ignored.

COOK: Neal, can I just respond to one thing that Shibley said?

CONAN: Of course.

COOK: You know, let me just remind that, you know, two years ago, people were no doubt on your program saying that one could not imagine Hosni Mubarak being forced from office in the same way that Ben Ali did. I think that certainly there is not an appetite in Egypt for the return of military rule.

However, even well before the political ferment in Egypt, a decade or more ago, the Egyptian military had made it clear that threats to social cohesion and the stability of the state were things that would - regardless of what public opinion might be - would be things that would motivate them to intervene in the political system in some way, shape or form.

They're not eager to get back into the business of politics, but indeed if what we are seeing is a breakdown, and of course it's really limited, as Rami said, we're not looking at an entire country that is in - that is in chaos. But I think the statement on their Facebook page is a warning to all of these political parties - none of whom have a stomach for the military returning to politics - that the military is at least, at least, considering this and that it remains an option for the military.

CONAN: And Rami...

TELHAMI: Can I just say that just briefly...

CONAN: Very brief, we want to get Rami back.

TELHAMI: I agree that it's possible. But the point I made was not that it's possible the military may contemplate this, but I just - it simply can't work. I just think that the public is mobilized to reject this, just as they are mobilized to reject anyone imposing authoritarian rule.

CONAN: Let me get Rami Khouri back in the conversation, and on this point of the military. A lot of people thought effectively they were bought off when their privileges, their economic position, was enshrined, and their budget was enshrined in the constitution by the new constitution. Is this a threat to democracy?

KHOURI: You know, I think one of the things that we've seen across the region, which is very interesting, and some of this comes through in polling that people like Shibley and others have done across the region, generally in recent years, even under the autocratic systems, people had respect for the army.

They didn't like the police and the intelligence, because they're the people who beat up people and tortured them, but the army was seen as a force that was protecting the nation and giving people a secure life. And Egypt's army and the transition period had a lot of respect and legitimacy, and people were getting a little bit antsy after the thing was, you know, was drawn out for over a year.

And they wanted a transition to civilian rule that happened last June, but during the transition, people had a lot of trust for the military, as long as they didn't think the military was going to just repeat the Mubarak and Sadat years and take over everything.

So I think there's a - and there's a great yearning across the region, you know - you hear it in Iraq, you hear it everywhere - that people want stability. They just want to have a normal life. They want to be able to go to work and have their kids go to school and come home.

So the military offers this kind of stable situation, maybe revival of economic development. So there's really a picture about how people look at the military. I don't - I agree with Shibley and Steve. There's no way that the military would ever come to run the country. But if there was chaos, if there was more burning and fighting and killing in the streets of Egypt, that's clearly a situation where the military could come back as a very short-term transitional process.

And they - in a way they might repeat the situation, make the mistake they made last time, them and the political system as a whole, which is the mistake they made was to go on with these presidential elections and parliamentary elections and things, before they had a consensus on the constitution. And that's why there's such a mess in Egypt today, whereas in Tunisia it's a little bit - the rules are a little bit more clear, and the process is a little bit more smooth.

So I think the fundamental problem in Egypt today is that there is no clear constitutional agreement, and we saw it in the referendum today and other things. So it's really up in the air. I mean, you might have the military come back, briefly, if there was total chaos on the streets. Absent that, I think there is no chance for the military to take over.

But they're sending warning signs now, and the real problem in Egypt now, how do we regain the integrity of a political process, where the opposition is not even willing to sit down and have a dialogue with the president. Both of them have legitimacy of a certain kind, and both of them are acting like rank amateurs, and in some cases, some of them are acting like friends. So it's a real dilemma for this great country. And they have to get through it in a political process that is more mature and that is more effective. People want that in Egypt, but they've never done this before.

You know, none of this people, the opposition, the - President Morsi, the Muslim Brothers, the army, none of these people have ever run a democratic transition. They don't know beans about, you know, constitutional republicanism. These are all concepts that mean absolutely nothing to them in practical reality. They're learning on the job, and it's a tough learning process when you're dealing with the emotions that you have in Egypt and the economic stress and all the problems that they have. So we have to hope with the best and wish them the best and trust that they will get through this.

CONAN: Let's get Sal on the line. Sal is calling us from Los Angeles.

SAL: Yes, Neal, I'm a huge fan. And I want to thank you for having Mr. Khouri, Mr. Telhami and Mr. Cook. These are the best. When it comes to that part of the world, they're absolutely best. My question is: Are we - the West or Europe or the U.S. - expecting too much, too soon? Those nations are - have no clue what democracy is, not the same as the Western nations, been decades and decades under oppression. So it may take time to sort things out. And I think - and I'm not a fan, or any way of Mr. Morsi, or the new Libyan leadership. But I think we should give him time. Perhaps helping the opposition - the more we criticize them, I believe that could backfire. Basically, that's my thought.

CONAN: Well, let me put that to Steven Cook. You've heard - Rami Khouri just mentioned what might be termed rookie mistakes by both the government and the opposition.

COOK: Well, certainly, this is all new to all of these political actors in Egypt. I think in response to your caller, transitions from one form of government to another do take time. It has only been two years since Mubarak's fall. And Egypt in particular is a country where questions about the kind of government, the kind of society, the relationship between religion and state, none of these issues have ever really been settled. And now in the more open political environment, the lines have been drawn. People are not, as Rami said, have not embraced and not necessarily very good at republican constitutionalism. I think he said: They don't know a hill of beans. I'd agree with that.

And so what we are seeing in Egypt is the settling of major questions. This is going to take years to work itself out. I think it was Rami who said it might take one to two years. I think it might take more than that, the better part of a decade. The stakes are extraordinarily high for all of these political actors. And there is a tendency on the part - for people who have power to try to resolve their problems through authoritarian means. And you see that in what the Muslim Brotherhood has been doing over the course of the last six months or more. They have a particularly majoritarian view of politics, and as a result, have resorted to authoritarianism. But clearly, Egyptians aren't going to take this lying down. It's too reminiscent of the Mubarak era.

TELHAMI: Can I add one more thing?

CONAN: I have to say that Rami Khouri is with us, also Shibley Telhami and Steven Cook. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Shibley Telhami, I'm sorry I cut you off.

TELHAMI: Yeah. Just on the democracy issue, there's no question, you know, everybody is right on this. You know, it's new. But, you know, it is interesting to watch the freedom of the press, even though, obviously, there are - many people are worried about measures that the government is putting in place that could limit it. But the government is very fond of saying that, you know, 75 percent of the press has been critical of the government, and it has been open, and I hope it remains to be open press.

But the problem goes beyond an experiment in democracy. Remember, the Muslim Brotherhood is the big party right now that is ruling, and they've been a repressed party for 80 years. They don't really have experts, and that's so obvious in every level. And given the mistrust of the existing elites, most of whom had to work with the previous regime, they are really struggling at almost every level, from the police, to the bureaucracy, to - everywhere. They can't - they don't have the well-trained people who have the experience to govern, and they don't trust people from the outside. It's really a problem for them in the short term.

CONAN: Steven Cook, let me ask you about another barometer of democracy, and that is the rights of minorities. And in the Arab context, we have to ask about the rights of women.

COOK: Well, these are both issues of considerable concern to Egyptian Copts, Christians, and women in Egypt. There are members of the Muslim Brotherhood who clearly have retrograde views of these two groups, and it's not just the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, which is relatively open to - in some ways, to women being part of the political system in the life of country, are being pushed by Salafist groups who have very different views of women and Copts and their role in society.

And there is a clear competition between these Salafist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has forced the Brotherhood into positions that it might not - and let me emphasize - might not have taken previously. But clearly, Copts and women are deeply concerned what their status will be if there's a consolidation of Islamist political power in Egypt.

CONAN: And Shibley, I'm going to give you the last two minutes, because the critical issue we have not mentioned, no power and no democratically elected president, no matter how firm the institution, is going to be popular if the economy stinks. And the Egyptian economy stinks.

TELHAMI: Yeah, and absolutely. And I think the anarchy will hurt it more, because there was a lot of reliance on tourism. Tourism has gone down by more than 60 percent in the country, and there's no evidence it's coming back. Obviously, the Egyptians are reliant, in large part, on foreign aide. They've become highly dependent on Qatar, who's bailed them out with billions of dollars in support, and obviously, the IMF issue, granting them a loan for over $5 billion stand. And that is a critical issue in the relationship with the U.S.

So as the Egyptians would like to, and that President Morsi would like to plan for a trip here, it's become very difficult because, obviously, there are certain things in the relationship that the administration wants to see, and certain things the Egyptians want to see - and one of them, obviously, this economic aid, which has become a critical issue for them.

CONAN: And that's not helped by the taped comments he made about - very anti-Semitic comments that he made in years past, before he was elected president. So, anyway, thanks to you all for being with us today. And we hope you're right and this settles down very quickly, because the stakes, as you say, are enormously high.

Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. And his book is "The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square." Thanks very much.

COOK: Oh, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Thanks, Rami, as always.

KHOURI: Thank you.

CONAN: And Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, College Park and among things, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much.

TELHAMI: It's always my pleasure.

CONAN: And when we come back, an unexpected argument against - forget austerity. Let's spend our way out of a bad economy. Paul Krugman will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.