Diane leads a discussion about the collection of stories which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Guest Host: Terence Smith
Ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is reportedly clinging to life in a military hospital. As uncertainty grows over who won the election to be his successor, the Egyptian military moves to extend its powers. Guest host Terence Smith and his guests examine the political and constitutional crisis facing Egypt.
- Nancy Youssef Middle East bureau chief, McClatchy Newspapers
- Samer Shehata assistant professor of Arab politics, Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
- Robin Wright journalist, joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center; and author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
MR. TERENCE SMITHThanks for joining us. I'm Terence Smith, former correspondent for PBS, CBS and The New York Times, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. One Egyptian analyst calls the current situation in Cairo very Shakespearean, another, very Egyptian. Former President Hosni Mubarak seems to have lost consciousness at the climactic moment that his successor is set to be named.
MR. TERENCE SMITHHere to talk about the growing political turmoil in Egypt: Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center and Samer Shehata of Georgetown University. Joining us by phone from Cairo is Nancy Youssef. She is the Middle East bureau chief for the McClatchy Newspapers. Nancy, are you there?
MS. NANCY YOUSSEFI'm here.
SMITHOK. Terrific. It is a pleasure to be able to talk to you from the center of things. What is the latest there?
YOUSSEFWell, it seems after being clinically dead and then on life support, Hosni Mubarak's health has allegedly improved to the point that he's now off life support. and this comes a day before Egypt expects the official results of this election. And the two presidential candidates are still arguing with each other over who won the election. A group of judges who are part of the monitoring process had a press conference today and issued their conclusion, which was the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, had won.
YOUSSEFAnd I think, most importantly, the nation is sort of bracing for some sort of confrontation between the Brotherhood and the ruling military council. There's a feeling here somewhat -- somewhere to what it was during the revolution of (word?), anxiety and anticipation about what's going to happen next. So you can -- the mood on the streets have changed, shift in the last 24 hours.
SMITHWhat's the situation in Tahrir Square?
YOUSSEFWell, it was interesting. Tahrir was pretty full. The Muslim Brotherhood really put on a show of force and garnering their supporters out there last night, I think, as a message to the military council that they had the street, if you will. And as soon as the news began to break on midnight of Mubarak's health, the square emptied within an hour, and it's been relatively quiet since then. Now, the feeling here is that the crowd will likely grow again either tomorrow, after the rulings, or Friday, which is the traditional day of protest.
SMITHAll right. And the final election results are scheduled for tomorrow. Is that correct?
YOUSSEFThat's right. And this would be the official results, and it'll end this sort of arguing back and forth here over whether Morsi or Shafiq won and really sort of set the stage for where Egypt is now headed. And so there's a lot of anticipation. There's a lot of anxiety about how Morsi supporters or Shafiq supporters will react to it.
YOUSSEFAnd I think there's a feeling here that'll begin the official sort of jockeying for political power between the ruling military council and whoever is president because, as of now, the ruling council has a sweeping amount of powers that would -- that traditionally fell to the president. And so how the winning presidential candidate tries to gain some of that support back will be very different if it's Morsi or if it's Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, his rival.
SMITHRight. I mean, from this distance, anyway, you have to ask the question, how much does it matter since the presidency has been significantly diminished by the declarations of the military?
YOUSSEFYeah. I think the feeling here, though, is that if Shafiq wins, that the military will see it as a less threatening president to their power, and that they, perhaps, might not change the constitutional declaration in the short term but might be willing to essentially put things back for under Mubarak with now Shafiq as president. Whereas, if it's Morsi, the feeling is that this could lead to sort of a confrontation that plays out in places like Tahrir Square. There's sort of a battle between the street and the authorities over where those powers should lie.
YOUSSEFSo I think that's why people are sort of anxious about these results and really waiting for them. You're right, though, in a general sense. If those powers stick, it doesn't matter who's the president because what it really suggests is somewhat of a figurehead while the military council moves the country and really governs itself and its economy and its forces without any sort of checks and balances.
SMITHRight. It's being described by some Egyptologists here as Egypt's second revolution. Does that...
SMITHDoes that term work for you?
YOUSSEFWell, I would -- I've used in my stories, counter-revolution, and at least asking the question over whether it's a counter-revolution. Some here called it a coup. I think some hard terms are used because, arguably, the military didn't lose any powers to therefore win back or take back, if you will. It appears to be a real power grab, though, using illegal means. Remember, the revolutionaries and even the Brotherhood may have removed Mubarak from power, but they didn't actually put a dent in the system that is the Egyptian state.
YOUSSEFAnd yet they employed state, using its legal system and whatnot to question and push forth their power. And, not surprisingly, the state won, if you will. And so, in a sense, the Egyptian state was really able to absorb the shocks of the revolution, at least it appears that way now. That said, the Brotherhood is really promising to confront the military council, using its very well-organized and broad ground support. Whether they can use that and turn it into real change and a real improvement and the powers of the president remains to be seen.
SMITHOne other question, Nancy, is the -- what's the situation on the Sinai border with Israel? There was a shooting incident with some fatalities the other day. Is that quiet at the moment?
YOUSSEFThat's right. It's quiet at the moment, but the timing of it could not be ignored. I mean, this happened just as the Brotherhood was announcing that it had won the candidacy the first time.
YOUSSEFWe've had several announcements over the past few days at around Sunday night. The Sinai is a place that, frankly, is the least governed by the state arguably in Egypt and that those hostilities broke just as the Brotherhood announced its candidacy was in a, you know, arguably another form or show of force that is by the local tribes there. They have their own court systems. They have their own sort of system of law. And I think it's something the Israelis are watching carefully.
YOUSSEFThey started moving military vehicles towards that border region. And it's quiet now, but I think it would be premature to say that it's all settled. I think it's all part of this almost chaotic feeling in Egypt that everybody is sort of jockeying for political power. It's the Brotherhood. It's Shafiq. It's the military council. It's the parliament. And it's even tribes now all sort of trying to position themselves in the (unintelligible) clear way ahead. So I think it's all part of that.
SMITHFrankly, nothing sounds very settled. Listen, Nancy Youssef, that is terrific. Thank you very much. If anything happens in the next 40 minutes in the way things are going there -- it could -- call us back.
YOUSSEFIt sure could.
YOUSSEFI'd be happy to.
SMITHThank you so much. Also joining me here in the studio is Robin Wright, a journalist and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in the Woodrow Wilson International Center. She's the author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." Samer Shehata is assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Welcome to you both. Robin, listening to Nancy, what do you think?
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTWell, what's at stake at Egypt is not just the balance of power between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The real issue is the new order, and this plays out not only in Egypt but across the Arab world right now. The last 18 months has been arguably one of the most important turning points in Arab history. And there -- the demonstration of people power everywhere has led to an epic convulsion that has toppled a series of geriatric autocrats.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTThe question now is, what succeeds them? And it's not clear in many places. It's interesting that the Islamic parties in Morocco and Tunisia, now Egypt, potentially in Libya and Yemen, some time during elections this summer as well, have emerged as the major power players. But in no place has a single Islamist party actually won the majority. And the old elites, the military, have struggled to try to retain the secular nature of the state.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTAnd it plays out over the constitution as well as who is in office. And so one of the most important things to happen over the past week is the fact that the military assumed control of the right to appoint a constituent assembly that will write the constitution and therefore frame what kind of government comes next, what the balance of powers will be among the various branches of government.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTThe irony of the presidential election in Egypt was that people went to the polls not knowing whether they were going to elect a president who was an executive president, as in the United States, or whether he was going to be a titular president and the real power was going to be in parliament as it is in so many places in Europe. And...
SMITHDo they have their answer now?
WRIGHTAnd they don't have their answer now. And in some ways, the fact the military has taken over responsibility for appointing the body that'll define that indicates that they're as concerned about it. They want -- the military ultimately wants to be above the state. It's taken away the right to oversight of the military, even its budget from parliament. And so this plays out in other places like Turkey and Pakistan. It's one of those real -- really important issues of the early 21st century in these countries trying to go through transitions.
SMITHYeah, and the very issue of civilian versus military rule.
SMITHRight. All right. Let me say welcome...
PROF. SAMER SHEHATAThank you.
SMITH...to Samer Shehata of Georgetown University. We're going to have to take a brief break, and we'll be back. And there will be more about Egypt's turmoil.
SMITHWelcome back. I'm Terence Smith, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined in a discussion of Egypt's political turmoil by Robin Wright, who is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and by Samer Shehata, who is assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
SMITHSamer, what -- this situation with Hosni Mubarak, which is a long-running soap opera here, what's your assessment of it now? How genuine are these medical reports that we get, as Robin pointed out during the break, up and down, in a coma, out of a coma, on life support, off life support? And we've even heard suggestions that, in fact, it's his family and supporters trying to improve his situation, even get him a pardon.
SHEHATAWell, that's correct. I think there are two points that need to be made at least. The first is, as you imply, the credibility of the reports and the credibility of state information. I think, now, after 16 months of the military regime's mismanagement and malice towards the situation, they've lost all credibility. And they could certainly -- and there's a lot of speculation in Egypt, manipulating this for their advantage.
SHEHATAThey don't want people out in Tahrir protesting the power grab that was announced last week, as well as this week, in terms of the Supreme Constitutional Court's rulings, dissolving the parliament, and then this week's constitutional announcement, essentially the military taking over the legislature. They'd rather have them be preoccupied with Mr. Mubarak's health condition. That's certainly a possibility.
SHEHATAThe second point is the Mubarak story right now is a sideshow. As was said previously, the primary struggle isn't -- and this is -- I agree with 99 percent of what Robin said, with the exception of one thing. It is not really an attempt by the military regime with the Mubarak regime to defend the secular nature of the state. I don't believe that they genuinely have any principles that they uphold other than their own power.
SHEHATASo in one sense, it is their own power, their own privilege, their economic control of a significant amount of the Egyptian economy, their personal safety. They don't want to be held accountable for the deaths of protesters as well as corruption charges and so on. It's their power or the military's control of the state versus popular control of the state democracy and so on.
SMITHWell, I mean, Robin, isn't that the fundamental question? In other words, is this -- have we seen a bloodless, at least so far, bloodless coup?
WRIGHTWell, I think so. I think it amounts to that. And it is true that the military wants to protect not just the long standing role it's had, really, since the 1952 revolution against the monarchy and quietly, behind the scenes, having enormous influence, even sometimes control because the president was always a former general of foreign policy, which affects regional issues like peace with Israel as well as the economy and domestic policy. We've always looked at Egypt, in the outside world, as an autocratic regime when, in fact, it's really been a military regime.
WRIGHTAnd the military wants today to protect not just those powers that is has, but the economic empire it's built since 1952 and to maintain control of its economic empire where some people estimate is a -- accounts for a third of the economy, including directly and indirectly control of land. They have to then have power. And that's, you know, a traditional role, again, that you see in Turkey, Pakistan, even in places like Iran where it's less ideological. It's really more about protecting their turf, their privilege.
SMITHSamer Shehata, would that then lead you to think that Israel would privately and quietly hope for a continuation of military control, if not literal military rule?
SHEHATAWell, there's no question about that. And, in fact, not only the Israelis, but the Israelis, the Saudis and possibly even our own government supported Mr. Mubarak, really, until the very end.
SHEHATAAnd, in fact, the Saudis were lobbying the United States and others to exert less pressure on Mubarak to leave. Those are -- that's what they're interested in. They're also not interested in an independent Egyptian foreign policy that reflects the wishes, aspirations and feelings of the Egyptian people.
SHEHATAEssentially, from the perspective of the vast majority of Egyptians, not only the Muslim Brotherhood, the Mubarak regime was a client regime of the United States. Its regional role was diminished, and its foreign policy reflected Washington's interest and not Cairo's interest, and that's not only the perspective of the Muslim Brotherhood. That is a widely-held feeling across the majority of the Egyptian political sphere.
SMITHRobin, would this then put up a challenge to the United States in deciding what to do about the $1.3 billion in military aid it provides and the alliance, informal or formal, that Samer was talking about?
WRIGHTThe United States faces a very painful choice between supporting or being seen to ally with the Ancien Regime, those who were in power and its allies for decades, or the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has refused to talk to officially until quite recently, and this is where Samer is absolutely right. The ultimate irony is that Saudi Arabia, a religious monarchy, actually would also prefer the former general, Ahmed Shafiq, to win the presidency, that very few Arabs want the Muslim Brotherhood.
WRIGHTI mean, Arab regimes want the Muslim Brotherhood to win because they see this as the kind of tipping point. And remember, Egypt accounts for one quarter of the Arab world's population spread out in 22 states. It's always been the intellectual heart and soul of the Arab world. And whatever happens in Egypt spills over, defines foreign policy, regional policy, ultimately, relations with Israel -- relations with the West. And so everybody's watching what happens in Egypt, and this is why this turmoil is so important.
WRIGHTYou have the two contrasting examples of Tunisia, which has gone fairly smoothly, and Egypt, which is much bigger, much more important, influential across the region that is facing an almost unbelievable sequence of challenges and moves by the military, the latest, you know, with Mubarak, in which you have to be cynical. He's not a well man. We've known that for a long time. But you have to be very cynical about the timing.
WRIGHTThree weeks after he was sentenced to life imprisonment for not preventing the death of some 800 people during the uprising, when he reportedly wept and begged not to be taken back to the prison or to the hospital -- not taken to the prison hospital from the government hospital where he had been detained. And now, he's back at that government hospital. It's all a little orchestrated.
WRIGHTNow, clearly, his health is going to be up and down, but you have to be cynical that, yesterday, he was declared dead, then clinically dead, then in a coma, now off life support in a very brief span of time at this, as you pointed out, Shakespearian moment, the climax of -- the eve of an announcement of who Hosni Mubarak's successor will be.
SMITHMm hmm. Samer Shehata, the -- Robin has pointed out the very difficult, delicate situation the United States is in. Talk a little bit about Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and whether that -- in the classic phrase, someone they can do business with.
SHEHATAWell, I think it is someone they can do business with, and we've seen that over the last six or eight months with a number of a string of American officials meeting with Mohamed Morsi and others and the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat El-Shater and so on. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Sen. Kerry, Assistant Secretary Burns and so on have all met these individuals and have dealt with them and gotten to know them. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood sent a delegation to the United States several months ago, and they met with National Security Council officials in the White House.
SHEHATAThe Muslim Brotherhood, as well as many other parties in Egypt after Mr. Mubarak was removed from power, stated immediately that they would respect all international treaties, including the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Now, I don't think that, in the short term, there is a major threat to American interests if the Muslim Brotherhood were to take the presidency, let alone whether the presidency is a real institution or whether his privileges extend only to greeting foreign dignitaries at the airport.
SHEHATAIn the medium and long term, however, I think, when Egyptian foreign policy and institutions take shape, when foreign policy reflects public opinion to a large extent and Egypt's national interest, then, I think, there are going to be points of tension, not life or death, but points of tension. For example, Egypt's relationship with Hamas, Gaza, the Palestinians, how far they are willing to push Israel to accept international law, stop settlement building, whatever it might be, if there were to be a conflict with Iran, what Egypt's position would be on that issue and a number of others.
SHEHATASo there are serious issues there. But in other countries, as in Turkey, when we've had democratically elected parties that are Islamists, albeit different Islamists and so on, we have been able to do business with, and they -- it has not been as bad as many people fear.
SMITHMm hmm. Robin, yes.
WRIGHTOne of the most interesting things about this debate over the Brotherhood is not so much about the politicians, but the whole issue, for those of us in the West, having struggled with what is Islam and democracy, what about militant Islam really since the 1970s. There's a lot of focus on Islamic law and to what degree will the Muslim Brotherhood or any of the other Islamist parties impose practices or traditions that limit the rights of women or Christians and other minorities, to what degree will it restrict societies at the very moment that they want to open up.
WRIGHTAnd the interesting thing about the Muslim Brotherhood is that it has said it will honor the constitution, the language in the constitution written by Anwar Sadat in the early 1980s that said that Egypt is an Islamic Arab state and that all legislation should be compatible with Islam. The question is, how do you implement that? And during the series of generals, there wasn't any enforcement, really, of Islamic codes or Islamic penal codes, for example.
WRIGHTThe question now is, OK, you can have that same language, but it can mean something very different. And so while we talk about the various individuals who are being elected or the parties, the bigger question is the system. And the Muslim Brotherhood has used the right kind of language for those of us in the outside world in saying, we don't intend to change things.
WRIGHTTheir -- frankly, their primary concern is creating jobs because, unless they produce for their people, they're not going to be re-elected. They know that they have to deliver now for the first time after begging for a role in the political system for over 80 years. But the outside world will probably judge it more in terms of what it does on this question of Islamic law.
SMITHYou know, just days ago, the Egypt -- Egypt's highest court dissolved the lower house of parliament, professor. What -- so, I mean, there was a clear act of exerting control over the Muslim Brotherhood, which had the majority in that house.
SHEHATAYes. Well, they had a plurality. They had about 43 percent of seats, but Islamists overall -- other Islamists control another 25 percent, so Islamists control the majority. The -- looking at the Supreme Constitutional Court's decision to dissolve parliament exposes the absurdity of the situation in Egypt right now. Here we had supposedly a revolution, supposedly a revolution in January and February 2011.
SHEHATAWe had then a democratically elected parliament. There were minor irregularities that didn't affect the outcome, a democratically elected parliament. And here we have a Mubarak-dominated Supreme Constitutional Court with the head of the court a Mubarak appointee and the deputy head a Mubarak appointee. And so on dissolving the parliament? It's absurd. It makes no sense.
SHEHATAThe Supreme Constitutional Court lacks legitimacy. The military council lacks legitimacy. And, in fact, the only institution -- if we can say it -- that really has legitimacy in the eyes of many Egyptians is Tahrir Square. And that is why Mohamed Morsi -- who is Egypt's next president by many independent news organization tallies of the counts and so on -- said that he is happy to take the oath of office in Tahrir Square and not in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court. And I think there's some logic there.
SMITHAnd that certainly shows where the power lies, Robin.
WRIGHTOh, absolutely. This is where people power is really redefining what's going on in the region, and the military has to take that into account. I think it's, in some ways, as nervous about Tahrir Square as it is about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood because these are things that it can't confront. And it also has to recognize that many of the people in its military are either young or have cousins, brothers who are part of that movement.
WRIGHTThere is a generational shift politically, and it plays out in every institution. And the irony is it even plays out within the Muslim Brotherhood, that when we talk about it, it is not one force anymore. It's at least four different factions. And I went to see, during the parliamentary elections, a couple who had both run for the Brotherhood office for parliament, husband and wife. And the husband said, you know, there are really 20 factions, at least, in the Muslim Brotherhood. And even my wife and I don't agree on issues.
WRIGHTAnd you -- so we seem to lump -- and we have for decades -- anybody who espouses anything about Islam into one basket when, in fact, there is a -- an enormous spectrum that has emerged and many of them not violent. They are looking for values, and their focus is on less corruption, the kinds of things that, actually, that are good governance. That's the irony of it all. They've learned, many of these groups through experience, that extremist tactics and extremist rhetoric doesn't always pay off in trying to win the support of the majority. And that's what they have to have now.
SMITHWell, and you've heard the notion of revolution fatigue among the Egyptian population. This is a very large country. What is it, 80, 90 million people? And you can't generalize, I know. But are there people, significant groups of people in the country that are simply tired of it all.
SHEHATAOh, yes. There's no question about that. I mean, there is something in Egypt called the couch party. And, you know, it's -- people refer to it as the couch party, people who sit at home and watch television talk shows and so on and who are now fed up with the unsettling -- unsettled state of affairs. Not to mention that there has been a serious economic hit that the country has suffered as a result of the unrest.
SHEHATATourism revenues are down. The country is bleeding foreign currency. Foreign reserves are down. There's no foreign direct investment. There are now limitations on capital exit from Egypt and so on. And so there are serious economic issues. And I would -- we know that the majority of Egyptians have actually had a deterioration in their income since the revolution.
SHEHATAAnd many people, of course, who aren't primarily concerned about high principles of politics, want more money in their pockets and more meat to feed their children and so on. And I think they have seen -- unfortunately, they have viewed the protest in Tahrir and the political unrest as threatening economic recovery.
SMITHComing up, your calls and questions for our guests. Please stay tuned.
SMITHWelcome back. I'm Terence Smith, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We have two experts on the situation in Egypt in Robin Wright, journalist and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center and Samer Shehata, who is assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. So let me ask you both a question that has been brought up.
SMITHYou've talked about all the divisions within the general Egyptian public, even within those who might subscribe to the Muslim Brotherhood. Is there any possibility that all of this turmoil will result in a combining or a combination of those -- some of those parties?
WRIGHTWell, of course, it depends on who wins the presidency, but -- and where the power actually lies. This is where so much is unsettled. But I wouldn't be surprised at all if whether it's the president or the prime minister under the Muslim Brotherhood reached out to -- whether it's a secular party to try to signal that they're trying -- that they want to bring wider Egypt into the governing process, that they don't want to monopolize power, perhaps give them a key post.
WRIGHTThere's even been talk of Amr Moussa as, you know, who is a presidential candidate himself becoming a foreign minister, which he was under Hosni Mubarak. The irony is, too, that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest single party in Egypt according to parliament, actually looks at the other Islamic party as a rival. They're not necessarily natural allies.
WRIGHTSo when we talk about what numbers the Islamists have, we have to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood looks at the ultra-conservative Salafis and says, you know, they're extremist. They're radical rhetoric. They're naive and young. They only formed the party last summer. Whereas the ultra-conservative Salafis in the Nour party look at the Muslim Brotherhood and said, they've sold out their Islamic principles. They're yuppies. They've compromised.
WRIGHTAnd so there's a tension between them as well. So I think we don't want to automatically assume that any new government, if indeed Mohamed Morsi wins or you get another constitutional or parliamentary election and the brotherhood as well, that they are going to dominate every single branch of government. I think they -- that they've shown a little bit of maturity in trying to acknowledge other parties.
SMITHI'm going to take a question here from a listener. Mohammad (sp?) in Dearborn, Mich., you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome.
MOHAMMADGood morning. Thank you for taking my call. I just have a quick question about the Iranian attempt of taking kind of the spotlight. You hear about them, you know, their plans of naming a street in Tehran after (word?), the guy who first died and sparked the whole revolution. I found yesterday they hosted over some families of the people who died in the revolution and honoring them.
MOHAMMADAnd, you know, we hear about, you know, Shiites from, like, Azhar or some Shiites in Egypt, Ali Hasan, for example, (unintelligible) I'm sorry, are saying that we have to stand for the Shiites' attempt to spread chasm in Egypt. What are the angles on that, and what do you think the Egyptians can do to stop that?
SMITHOK. That's a very good question. Professor?
SHEHATASure. Well, there's no question that immediately after Mr. Mubarak left power, there was an attempt by the Iranian government to have a rap-rosh-ma with Egypt. Mubarak was opposed to the Iranian regime, as were the Saudis, supposedly in the camp of the so-called moderate Arab states. And we saw a number of delegations of Egyptians invited to Iran.
SHEHATAThe Egyptians allowed two Iranian military vessels to pass through the Suez Canal, the first time since the Iranian revolution that was -- that happened. And there was a hope on the Iranian side that now that Mubarak was gone, Egypt's regional alignment would change.
SHEHATAThat really has come to not for a couple of reasons. The first is in the end, Egypt and Iran are major players in the region, and they are competitors for influence and power and not natural allies. And, in fact, the history of Egypt and Iran in relations in the 20th century has been mostly adversarial, with a very brief moment when President Sadat and the shah of Iran overlapped and both were pro the United States in which they were good relations.
SHEHATAAnd then, as the caller mentioned -- and this isn't the primary reason, but there are, of course, differences in religion and interpretation of religion. A in fact, there's a fear among many in Egypt that -- and I think this is not really, well, too well-founded -- that there is an attempt to export Shiite Islam to Egypt, which is, of course, a Sunni Muslim country, at least the majority of its citizens.
WRIGHTNo, I agree. I mean, I laughed about the street name because as I recall, the Iranians actually have a street named after the man who assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981. So that's not something that's new.
SMITHAnd yet the Iranian role or influence is interesting to think about and vice versa. It's interesting to think about the Egyptian influence, such as it may prove to be, on the larger tensions between Iran and the West.
WRIGHTOne of the major themes at this juncture throughout the region is not just the overwhelming challenge to autocratic rule. It's the emerging rivalry playing out in tangible ways between Sunni and Shiite, Saudi Arabia versus Iran. This is something that will define, I think, U.S. policy as well. We look at Iran in terms of its nuclear potential, with a weapon down the road and -- but the Saudis concerned about the nuclear weapon but also see it primarily in the hands or the power of any kind in the hands of Shiites.
WRIGHTAnd so if we were to identify two trends at the moment, what will preoccupy U.S. policy for the next decade, it is this turbulent transition to democracy or to different political systems anyway in the Arab world and the tension that plays out between Sunni, Shiite or Arab-Persian. It has both ethnic and religious overtones.
SHEHATAWell, I agree with this idea that the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and Syria and elsewhere and so on, for the most part, threaten Iran and Iranian -- Iran's position in the region. I mean, these are popular protests, people demonstrating, democratic elections, calling for freedom. And, of course, the Iranian regime is an authoritarian one. I disagree somewhat with Robin with regard to what the fault line is. I don't think the fault line is primarily religion.
SHEHATAI mean, the major regional alliance in the Middle East over the last 25 years has been between a supposedly Arab nationalist Bathist regime in Syria -- first Hafez al-Assad, then Bashar al-Assad -- and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
SHEHATAAnd so I think it's really power and influence, that the Arab states dominated by Saudi Arabia in the Gulf, which are, of course, non-democratic and so on versus Iranian and, of course, what's called the access of resistance opposed to American foreign policy. So I think it's more having to do with power as opposed to religion.
SMITHLet's take another call. David is in Tallahassee, Fla. David, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DAVIDThanks for having me on. My question is around on the framing of the U.S. foreign policy -- and maybe this is connected to the previous conversation.
DAVIDBut Miss Wright (word?) the frame U.S. policy towards the -- between the military and the Brotherhood, and it seems like to me that foreign policy is much more complex than that. I don't know if this is a product of this binary vision of how the Mid East is being split. I don't know if you could elaborate a little bit more and discuss a little bit more about what -- U.S. only has so much influence. What, I mean, what choices does it really have? Is it that easy, that black and white?
WRIGHTNo, it isn't at all.
WRIGHTAnd it's a very fair point. The irony is at this moment, this epic moment in the region that the United States has limited influence arguably the last time was a very long time, maybe even in decades, because in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is disillusionment with the United States. The intervention in Iraq, actually for a period, kind of discredited democracy because of the uncertainty and chaos it produced and that -- what looked for a little while like it might be a civil war in Iraq.
WRIGHTPeople throughout the region were nervous about, uh oh, when you topple dictators, what follows? And I think that's one of the reasons you find uncertainty about Syria because no one knows what will come next, and this is another key player. So the United States doesn't have as much influence, and this is all -- the uprisings were also very much about seizing the initiative, getting control of one's fate.
WRIGHTAnd the message was as much to the outside world, primarily the United States, as it was to the dictators: we want to be the ones to decide. This was in some ways an end to the colonial era. What many Egypt will look at, for example, as an end to the period began by Napoleon's invasion, you know, two centuries ago that this is -- this was a moment where they're saying, we want to be the ones to decide our fate at every level without outside influence.
WRIGHTSo the United States can try to, primarily through words and perhaps economic aid, you know, try to help steer Egypt toward a road where there is focus on job creation and economic reform and being part of the international community because Egypt has enormous potential that its just hasn't delivered on. But the idea that the United States can play a role in helping form the democracy through non-government organizations or USAID, I think, is an illusion.
WRIGHTThe big question as you pointed out earlier is, what to do about the $1.3 billion we provide the military, and do we continue that? And I suspect that there are those in Congress, and that's already been suggested by Sen. Leahy, may re-examine how much aid to give and what kind of weapon systems do we want to be giving, for example, teargas that the government or security forces use against protesters. This is a point that has been brought up time and again by people who turn out in Tahrir Square, and they actually hold up the canisters that say made in USA.
SMITHSamer Shehata, there's an old saying in Israel that you can't have war in the Middle East without Egypt, and you can't have peace without Syria. I wonder what the effect of all this is on the region. The region itself is in turmoil. The Israelis have said they are receiving this rocket attacks and reserving all options. I wonder, for example, if they would seize the opportunity of turmoil in Egypt in order to impose some military punishment on Gaza.
SHEHATAWell, yes, that's certainly a possibility. And, you know, one of the things that needs to be stated is that since Mubarak was deposed, there has been Syria's deterioration in security in Egypt overall, an increase in crime and particularly in Sinai and across the boarders. There are every day daily reports of not only light arms but, in fact, heavy arms, in some cases, surface-to-air missiles that are -- that have been ceased by the Egyptian security forces coming in through Libya or other places.
SHEHATAAnd there has been a decrease in security and the state's control of events in Sinai. And, of course, groups can take advantage of this. And the Israelis also are concerned about what this could mean for Hamas and Gaza. So these are very serious issues.
SMITHI'm Terence Smith. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take another call. This is from Steven in Ann Arbor, Mich. Steven, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
STEVENHi. Thanks for having me on. I just wanted to raise one point concerning what the two panelists were talking about earlier concerning the divide. And it's really, in my opinion, much more generational than anything. When you look at the graffiti in -- whether it's Tunisia or Egypt, or even going back a couple years in 2006, I want to say, to the Green Revolution in Tehran, you have all this graffiti saying, merci Facebook, thank you, Facebook.
STEVENAnd I think that the use -- having access by the Internet to a lot of Western thoughts and ideas are really providing the catalyst. And, I mean, the use across the entire broader Islamic world, whether it's in Tehran or Cairo are really the -- like I said before, the catalyst for a change. And I can take my answer off the air. Thanks for having me.
SMITHWell, that's a very good point, Steven. Robin.
WRIGHTSteven from Ann Arbor, my hometown, yes, demographics clearly was one of the four flashpoints that produced the uprisings. Along with the fact that the majority of Egyptians, particularly among the young, are today literate, and that takes them beyond their village, their town, and it gives them a sense in a globalizing era of the bigger world. And what's happened elsewhere over the last 25 years, technology has facilitated it. And it's not just the idea of having access to the Internet or to Twitter or Facebook.
WRIGHTIt's also the fact that, in 1996, Al-Jazeera emerged as the first satellite television station that countered or got beyond state control of the media and, in their own language, gave people a sense of the broader world.
SMITHI was just...
WRIGHTToday, you have 500 satellite television stations in the region and that has introduced the idea of diversity. And this generation has grown up understanding that there are different opinions, be it about what Islamic law is or what women's rights and roles are in society. And, to them, there is not just one vision of the truth.
WRIGHTThere are multiple visions of the truth, from the clerics, from their cultural situations, other views of society. And so demographics really is huge when you think that in every society in the region, you have 60 to 65 percent under the age of 30. It's just an entirely different dynamic than 25 years ago.
SMITHSamer Shehata, you're nodding your head.
SHEHATAWell, that's completely correct. And, in addition to the generational struggle between youth and those who are in power now, in many of these organizations, in Muslim Brotherhood, as Robin mentioned earlier, as well as in the both old and new political parties in Egypt, there is a generational divide between the younger members who are much more liberal, much more willing to work across ideological lines, much less patient, which is a good thing, I think, much less willing to, you know, make deals, make corrupt deals and so on and the older generations.
SHEHATAAnd this is true of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. I mean, you know, Mr. Morsi actually is considered to be one of the -- in the conservative element group in the Muslim Brotherhood. And there are many Muslim Brotherhood younger members who actually left the organization at the end of the revolution because they were disgruntled with the hierarchy and with the unwillingness to kind of confront the military authorities and so on head on, and they founded a different political party. So the generational issue is very important, and it also works within the oppositional groups.
SMITHI want to thank Robin Wright and Samer Shehata for bringing us up to the moment -- and Nancy Youssef of McClatchy newspapers for bringing us up to the moment on a situation that is changing so fast that, I guess, the only really good advice is stay tuned. I'm Terence Smith, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
MS. MAUREEN FIEDLER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Meghan Merritt, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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