Egypt’s Emerging Democracy

MS. DIANE REHM

10:06:56
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In the face of public pressure, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is apparently backing a way from an attempt to dramatically expand his power. Here to talk about Egypt's fragile democracy and its new role on the world stage: Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center, Samer Shehata of Georgetown University and Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel. Joining us from a studio in Boston is Nicholas Burns of Harvard University.

MS. DIANE REHM

10:07:38
We do welcome your participation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.

MS. ROBIN WRIGHT

10:07:57
Good morning.

PROF. SAMER SHEHATA

10:07:57
Good morning.

MR. HISHAM MELHEM

10:07:58
Good morning.

PROF. NICHOLAS BURNS

10:07:58
Good morning.

REHM

10:07:59
First, joining us from Cairo is Nancy Youssef. She's Middle East bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. Good morning, Nancy. Thanks for being with us.

MS. NANCY YOUSSEF

10:08:13
Good morning.

REHM

10:08:14
The AP is reporting that there are thousands in Tahrir Square. What are you seeing?

YOUSSEF

10:08:24
That's exactly right. It's extraordinary. The square is already filled, and there are still three groups of marchers headed towards the square. And they haven't even starting moving towards downtown yet. And so it's clear that the numbers are going to be massive. And what'll be interesting is what kinds of crowds come out today, how much are they representatives of the Egyptian population.

YOUSSEF

10:08:46
Are they liberals and secularists and Christians and Morsi's traditional opposition group, or do they really represent the Egyptian population? I think that'll be the best sense in terms of whether what happens today will force Morsi to rescind his decree or whether he'll be able to wait this controversial.

REHM

10:09:09
Nancy, tell me what kind of flags they're carrying. Do you perceive that there are more in favor of Morsi or many protesting against?

YOUSSEF

10:09:25
You know, to judge the crowd is to get a sense that people are really against this, and not just against the decree, but that there's a feeling that this democratic revolution hasn't really taken shape, that instead Morsi and his former party, the Muslim Brotherhood, have really treated the election as an opportunity to go for power grabs and, in a way, keep a lot of the institutions in place this time rather than with the flavor of the regime on there, but instead with the Muslim Brotherhood, sort of stamp, if you will, on there.

REHM

10:09:58
So what about the statement that Morsi made yesterday, sort of backing away from an authoritative, all-encompassing power grab?

YOUSSEF

10:10:14
Well, what's interesting is that his spokesman, Yasser Ali, appeared on television and said that they had reached an agreement with the judiciary. And then this morning, the news was that -- from the judiciary that, in fact, there was no agreement. What's interesting in the statement is that he suggests that there's an agreement, that he particularly maintained control over sovereign matters. But what constitutes a sovereign matter? Presumably all the president does is a sovereign matter.

YOUSSEF

10:10:41
So it was hard to see what he'd really given up in this process, but Yasser Ali, the spokesman, came out and couched it as a compromise. And I think there were some attempts by the Morsi administration to suggest that he had really backed down. And -- but the word from the judiciary today was that, in fact, there was no agreement and that they still are maintaining their strike against the administration and that they will not (unintelligible) until this -- there are more changes to the seven-point decree.

REHM

10:11:16
Considering the numbers of people in the street, what do you expect to happen now?

YOUSSEF

10:11:24
Well, it'll be interesting. Essentially, there'll be one of three major paths that I think we'll come out this. Either he'll rescind the order, rate political cost to him because he had to take back things like this from the past or he will come up with a way to buy time and then be able to hold on to this major power grab, if you will. Or he will come up with some way to suggest that he has, in fact, reached a consensus, one that the judiciary embraces.

YOUSSEF

10:11:58
But today will be a decisive day for that because it will really determine whether he can wait this out or whether this will be a persistent problem until he makes some kind of changes, if not rescind the decree altogether.

REHM

10:12:12
Nancy Youssef, she is Middle East bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. Thanks for joining us, Nancy. Stay safe.

YOUSSEF

10:12:22
My pleasure. Thank you.

REHM

10:12:24
And turning to you, Robin Wright, what do you make of all this?

WRIGHT

10:12:30
Well, this was a horrendous mistake by an inexperienced politician. Remember, just eight months ago, he was an unknown engineering professor who emerged very quickly as the Arab world's, arguably, most powerful leader. But let's look at the context of these actions. The judiciary had disbanded a democratically elected parliament, and there was a widespread belief that the judiciary was about to disband or dissolve the constituent assembly that was writing the constitution.

WRIGHT

10:13:05
And this would have meant going back basically to square one and electing a new parliament, and then from that body, forming a constituent assembly to then spend another year writing a constitution. And Egypt has an extraordinary array of very practical daily problems, everything from vast unemployment and economic problems to picking up garbage.

WRIGHT

10:13:27
And there was a fear that also the forces of the ancien regime, the old order, whether it was in the military or in the media or in the judiciary might be trying to use extrajudicial means or whatever leverage they had to take back power from the Muslim Brotherhood. And we see these protests reflect the deep polarization within Egypt but really across the region between the Islamist forces and secular forces, between the forces of today's politics and yesterday's politics. And this is not likely to end anytime soon.

REHM

10:14:05
Samer Shehata, not likely to end anytime soon?

SHEHATA

10:14:11
Well, we'll see. I mean, it depends on how many people show up in Tahrir today. The protests were scheduled for five o'clock. And as the reporter said, there are people still getting to Tahrir. So if the protests are massive today, which I think they will be because...

REHM

10:14:28
Thousands are -- will be there.

SHEHATA

10:14:28
There will be hundreds of thousands...

REHM

10:14:30
Yeah.

SHEHATA

10:14:30
...hundreds of thousands by the end of the day.

REHM

10:14:30
All right.

SHEHATA

10:14:32
And if they manage to sustain that level of protests tomorrow and the next day, then I think Morsi might be forced to compromise even more. However, the Brotherhood was supposed to and supporters of Morsi were supposed to also protest today. They canceled those protests because they didn't want clashes to occur between the different sides, and they're likely to stage demonstrations on Friday as well. So we'll have to see. I mean, Robin is right.

SHEHATA

10:15:00
I mean, there is a tremendous polarization in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world between -- I wouldn't say the forces of yesterday and the forces of tomorrow, but Islamists and supposed liberals and secular forces. And when it really comes down to it, the central issue with regard to these constitutional -- this constitutional region is the constituent assembly and the constitution. That's really the most important point here.

SHEHATA

10:15:26
And there is a major conflict going on about the writing of the constitution where a third of the elected representatives, mostly secular individuals, liberal individuals, representatives of the Coptic church and so on have withdrawn in protest because the constitution is not being written as a consensus document to ensure personal freedoms and the rights of minorities and the rights of women, and it's being really framed as a framework by the Islamist majority who dominate the constituent assembly.

REHM

10:16:01
But, Hisham Melhem, last week, it looked as though Morsi was in a good place, certainly the U.S., and then after that agreement to support a truce between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then he declared himself virtually in charge of everything. Why did he take that step? Was it as Robin says the act of an inexperienced politician or something else?

MELHEM

10:16:41
It is something else, and it's more complex. The timing is related to the Gaza cease-fire, but this decision must have been under preparation for a long time, obviously. This is -- it's true that the Muslim Brotherhood is not as disciplined and as hierarchal as the Nazi party or the communist party under Stalin. But they have a vision, and they have a plan. And they have a history of 80 years of struggle, mostly underground. These people know what they want, and Morsi and company are true believers, and they would like to steer Egypt -- the future of Egypt into a more of an Islamist state.

REHM

10:17:19
You're not truly comparing the Muslim Brotherhood to the Nazi party.

MELHEM

10:17:24
No, no, no. no. I'm talking about ideologies that are encompassing, you know? I think what you have here is a leader who gave himself authorities that have never been enjoyed by his four military predecessors or by any monarch -- in fact, by any leader in the modern history of Egypt. And I think this is deliberate. And if you look at every decision he made since he was elected, it is toward consolidating more and more power into his hand and giving power to the Islamists and to his party.

MELHEM

10:18:03
This is not the action of a, you know, this is not -- this is a very deliberate action by a man who represents the political party, very well organized in Egypt, and he wants to, you know, as I said, turn Egypt into that direction. One could argue that he was concerned about some of the holdovers from the ancien regime, especially in the judiciary. There is an argument to be made there, but it doesn't mean that the constituent assembly could not have been changed without resorting to these draconian measures.

REHM

10:18:34
Hisham Melhem, he's Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel. When we come back, you'll hear from Nick Burns, professor of diplomacy, international politics at Harvard University.

REHM

10:20:05
And welcome back. We are talking about Egypt, what's happening there in terms of power grabbing or power holding or power shifting. Here with me in the studio: Robin Wright, she is the author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World," Samer Shehata, he is assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, and Hisham Melhem, he is Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel.

REHM

10:20:45
And joining us now from Harvard University in Boston where he is professor diplomacy and international politics, Nicholas Burns. Nick Burns, I'd like your impression and your reaction to what is happening in Egypt.

BURNS

10:21:09
Well, Diane, I certainly agree with many of the comments made so far. This is power struggle underway between the Islamist parties, Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, the liberal secularist parties on the other. It's a power struggle between President Morsi and the Mubarak appointed judges. And for the United States, this presents a real challenge.

BURNS

10:21:29
You saw that the Obama administration reacted very carefully, very quietly to these events over the weekend because since the start of the Egyptian revolution, President Obama has been juggling, I think, quite well with competing American interest. On the one hand, of course, we support democracy taking route if it can in Egypt and nurturing that because that will have, we hope, a beneficial impact in many Arab countries.

BURNS

10:21:52
But we also want to preserve our influence. And so they're trying to, I think, work behind the scenes, not be too critical and directly critical of President Morsi in public because we need a strong partner in Egypt. We need Egypt to help us preserve the Camp David Accords, the peace between Israel and Egypt negotiated by Jimmy Carter in 1979.

BURNS

10:22:12
We need Egypt now, and we saw this last week, Diane, as a conduit to Hamas, to keep that border quiet, Gaza-Israeli border. We certainly will need Egypt as a strong voice countering Iran as the Iran nuclear problem goes forward, and we need them on counterterrorism. So the United States is being very practical here, wanting to support democracy, of course, but wanting to preserve our influence at the same time.

REHM

10:22:36
So why do you believe Morsi took the steps that he did? What did he hope to achieve, and do the Egyptian people believe he'll give back those powers if he achieves what he wants to achieve?

BURNS

10:22:57
Well, I do agree with Robin that this was a colossal political misjudgment by President Morsi. He had, of course, the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. They were going to have a competing demonstration today, which has been called off. I think he felt that his opposition was divided as it has been divided for most of the last year and a half. But we've seen that many of these disputatious politicians of a liberal sort have united over this issue, and they really forced him to back down.

BURNS

10:23:27
So, on this issue, I think he's going to have to tread very carefully. It will -- a lot will depend on whether this protest movement can be sustained in the streets of Cairo and Alexander. And that's an open question because we've seen these protests fizzle out in the past. I think he'll wait to see if he needs to make any further moves.

REHM

10:23:45
Samer.

SHEHATA

10:23:46
Well, that's correct, and he's tried to yesterday, with regard to his meeting with the Supreme Judicial Council and the statements, to back down quite a bit and to say that not only are these powers limited in time but that his edicts that are not subject to judicial oversight only relate to matters of national sovereignty. Of course, that's not clarified what that means.

SHEHATA

10:24:12
Now, again, the key motivating factor for Morsi to undertake this measure was the fear, the real fear that the supreme juridical -- the constitutional court would nullify the constituent assembly, and then everything would have to start from scratch all over again. I mean, the key point here is that Egypt's so-called transition to democracy has been a complete mess. Before, it was messy. Now, it's a mess.

SHEHATA

10:24:39
And there is no consensus about the process or the sequence of moving forward, whether it's constitution first, elections first. How do you write a constitution? Who gets to write it? What kind of a document is it going to be? And there is a struggle, as has been discussed by everyone here, between Islamists and non-Islamists forces about the constitution and about what the Egypt of the future is going to be particularly with regard to the relationship between religion and state.

REHM

10:25:10
Robin.

WRIGHT

10:25:11
We all know about the fog of war. This is the fog of transition. And it is this moment where Morsi, I think, was talking about a very limited timeframe, maybe four months. The constitution is due by February. And then it goes -- you know, then Egypt can move on. It can have new elections. All of these countries when they had their elections for new parliaments were just for a year or so while new constitutions were written. And then people go to the polls again, and that's the process that, I think, Morsi was trying to energize and make sure stayed on schedule because there is also another reality.

WRIGHT

10:25:53
People are increasingly disillusioned with the new leaders, and this preceded this particular moment or this particular action. They're all very frustrated that jobs haven't been created, resources haven't been redistributed, and they want to get on with life. The -- this -- remember, the uprisings began because a young fruit vendor wanted a job, not because he wanted to vote for a liberal democratic party. That's what preoccupies people throughout the Arab world.

REHM

10:26:21
Hisham, Samer Shehata talked about religion and state, and the question is whether one is going to dominate or whether there can be a satisfactory blending of the two.

MELHEM

10:26:42
We've been having intellectual and political debates in the Arab world since the mid-18th century about the relationship between religion and state, about the relationship between the Arab world and the West, by the relationship between the state and the citizen, about issues of women's rights, you know, and empowerment and rights of minorities. We've been discussing this. We've been there and we've done that. Now, these are real issues, and we continue to deal with them, obviously.

MELHEM

10:27:06
The problem with Morsi's edict -- one of the problems is the issue of temporarily. You know, this is a temporary measure. I remind you that Arab leaders in the last few decades have imposed "temporary emergency laws" that have been temporary for decades. What is temporary today in the Middle East is permanent tomorrow. And I do not trust people like Morsi who are driven by certain ideological impulses and tendencies. They have an ideology.

MELHEM

10:27:36
I didn't compare them with the Nazis and the communists, but they have an overall -- overarching ideology. They want Egypt to be an Islamist state. There is a debate here, and there is -- we know that there is polarization in Egypt, but also the secularist and the democrats and the progressives and then Islamists, let's put it this way, are terribly afraid and they should be because of the tenet of the debate that is taking place.

MELHEM

10:28:00
There are powerful voices in Egypt that are calling for a religious state, not a civil state, and the debate is here. And these guys have been driven out of the constituent assembly that is supposed to write the new constitution. So they are afraid that the Islamists, not only the brotherhood but the Salafis, are trying to determine the future of Egypt and set it as, you know, in the course of an Islamist state. And they have very good reason to be afraid.

REHM

10:28:26
Nick Burns.

BURNS

10:28:28
Well, I was just -- I certainly agree with much of what Hisham has said. But I would say one thing. We saw a very pragmatic side of Morsi last week when he restrained Hamas, when he worked through Hillary Clinton very well with the Israeli government, when he saw the need to bring that terrible barrage of artillery on both sides where civilian suffered to an end. And sometimes people surprise us. And I never agreed with some of our own commentators here in the States who say we can't work with the Muslim Brotherhood.

BURNS

10:29:00
I think President Obama and Secretary Clinton have shown they can work with him on a pragmatic basis. And I think the Obama administration has been smart to be a little bit standoffish here and not appear to be trying to direct events in Egypt. We can't. We can't control these forces. We can have some influence in the margins. And I think a little bit of distance from us publicly is probably the right perspective right now.

REHM

10:29:23
But, Nick, how will what's happening in Egypt have an impact or not on what's happening in Israel?

BURNS

10:29:36
Well, the Israelis -- if you look at, Diane, the events of the last now nearly two years, the Israelis have had a very serious setback for all their strategic interests. Their northern border on -- is Syria, and the Golan has been destabilized. They're very worried about potential instability in Jordan, to their east, and now they have a much more dangerous relationship with an emboldened Hamas.

BURNS

10:29:59
So they are counting on developing, maintaining some type of effective, pragmatic, behind-the-scenes relationship with Egypt to control some of these forces. I think Egypt has become -- Egypt's been revived as the great power of the Arab world and now is the dealmaker of the Arab world. So Morsi may have trouble at home this week, but he is a considerable figure internationally.

REHM

10:30:23
Robin.

WRIGHT

10:30:25
Yes. I think actually that Morsi has proven to be as powerful as any Egyptian leader in the past or certainly is pivotal in terms of defining what happens next. Remember, he did not declare jihad. He did not break off relations with Israel. And he moved rather expeditiously to make sure that Hamas, which is a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged out of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, actually engaged in a cease-fire with Israel.

WRIGHT

10:30:53
And there are, as unlikely as it may seem, there are those within the Muslim Brotherhood who say they will be more effective in negotiating a peace deal, long term, with Israel than Hosni Mubarak had. Mubarak was invested in keeping instability 'cause this is the way he got both foreign aid and power in terms of his standing, whether it was in the international community or in the Arab world, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood still has to prove its bona fides.

WRIGHT

10:31:18
Now, it's still not going to be easy, but there is a sense, because of these transitions across the Arab world, that for the first time, most of them are less interested in energizing or supporting a conflict because they have so many pressures at home. They have to deliver, and that's where their focus is. And there is a sense that let's move on. Let's get beyond this.

REHM

10:31:39
Hisham.

MELHEM

10:31:40
I think Morsi's so-called pragmatism should not blind us to the history and the practices of the Muslim Brotherhood. We're talking about a movement that's been there for 80 years. They have "compromised" with a lot of Egyptian rulers. They play the game. They know if the wind is too strong, they lean with it. They don't stand up against it because it will break them. They are shrewd in that sense, and they are pragmatic in that sense.

MELHEM

10:32:05
Nobody expected the Muslim Brotherhood to declare jihad on Israel. Egypt today is a country on the verge of economic bankruptcy. Egypt today, as all of us agree here, is a society that is deeply polarized. Egypt today is a weak reed still, notwithstanding the, you know, the great achievement of the cease-fire. When he did the cease-fire, his calculus was raison d'etre.

MELHEM

10:32:28
Egypt has the same strategic interest, whether it is ruled by a pharaoh or a turbaned man or a Mubarak or a bearded pharaoh like Morsi. He was playing by Egyptian rule and Egyptian interest. It is in his own interest to do that. He is still consolidating power. While consolidating power, you cannot challenge a strong state like Israel.

REHM

10:32:51
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm going to open the phones. We have a number of callers. 800-433-8850. First to Hamlin, N.Y. Good morning, John.

JOHN

10:33:10
Good morning, Diane.

REHM

10:33:11
Hi there.

JOHN

10:33:12
How're you doing?

REHM

10:33:13
Good. Thanks. Go right ahead, sir.

JOHN

10:33:16
Well, I like hearing the conversation you're having. I'll just confess I'm not an expert, but, I mean, I understand from reading the nays and the progressives over the years of Mubarak's rule that, I mean, he got a lot of funds from the U.S. and stuff and propped him off than anything. But, really, did anything happen to help change the Palestinian situation? I don't really think so because he still wanted to have money.

JOHN

10:33:40
I would hope that Morsi is going to help change that kind of stalemate that's been happening, the settlements that have been happening and stuff like that and create something where the Palestinians are finally able to have, you know, a better relationship with the Israelis and stuff and work things out. I mean, it's just sad to see, you know, all this trouble that's been going on. I like the fact that it was a peaceful -- I mean, pretty much a nonviolent uprising in Israel that tore down Mubarak, so...

REHM

10:34:13
All right. Samer.

SHEHATA

10:34:15
Well, I think the caller has a point. I mean, the idea is, of course, that if you have democratic states in the Arab world, democratic leaders in the Arab world that are accountable to their populations, and those populations are sympathetic with the suffering of the Palestinian people and their dispossession and so on, then those governments are going to more forcefully press on Israel to negotiate a settlement that is just for the Palestinians.

SHEHATA

10:34:43
Mr. Mubarak, of course, was more interested in staying in power and suppressing Islamist challengers and also suppressing Islamists in the West Bank and in Gaza than he was in supporting Palestinian rights. So the idea is, of course, that democratic governments in Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and elsewhere will somehow provide more symmetry in terms of balance of power, and that will, in the end, help Palestinians.

SHEHATA

10:35:11
We saw, for example, the first time a Tunisian government delegation enter Gaza to support the Palestinians. We saw Arab ministers. We saw the Egyptian prime minister go to Gaza during the fighting and so on. And that, hopefully, will provide some balance in this incredibly asymmetrical conflict.

REHM

10:35:31
All right. To Miami, Fla. Hi there, Marilyn.

MARILYN

10:35:36
Hi, Diane. I just want to say that I absolutely love your show...

REHM

10:35:39
Thank you.

MARILYN

10:35:39
...and I've been trying to speak with you. But I -- you know, I'm a student at FIU and acquiring a certificate in Middle Eastern studies. I -- you know, I have a question, which I -- when this whole Arab Spring came about and the incident with Tunisia and Egypt, you know, is truly getting rid of Hosni Mubarak was truly, you know, to the advantage of the Egyptian state? Because, now, one -- like one of your panels said, basically they're -- it was a -- it was kind of messy before, but now it's just a mess.

REHM

10:36:11
All right. Nick Burns.

BURNS

10:36:13
Well, I would say, Diane, in answer to Marilyn's question, that I don't think President Obama had a choice, in early February of 2011, about disavowing President Mubarak because Mubarak had lost his credibility in Egypt. He'd lost control of the streets. He'd lost control of his own security apparatus and government. So I think the president, our president, had to make this very important decision to throw his support behind those very idealistic young people in Tahrir Square.

BURNS

10:36:42
But I would say this: The 30 years where the United States dealt with Mubarak was not a total loss to the United States. His fatal flaw, of course, was the authoritarian nature of his government. But Mubarak did secure the peace agreement, Camp David Accords, with Israel. That gave us three decades of stability between those two states.

BURNS

10:37:00
And he was a very important partner of the United States in confronting the al-Qaidas of the world. So it wasn't -- I think the United States had some of its interests met in those years, but we're in a better position now to try to work with these young, untested governments to see if we can help them on the margins to secure a democratic future. And I think the United States is well positioned to do that.

REHM

10:37:23
Nicholas Burns, professor at Harvard University. We'll take a short break here. Marilyn, thank you for your call. We'll take more when we come back.

REHM

10:40:05
And welcome back. As we talk about the ongoing struggle in Egypt especially after President Morsi proclaimed new powers to himself, Samer Shehata, there is a new constitution that must be written. What is the latest on that process?

SHEHATA

10:40:30
Well, the process is ongoing, and the constitutional drafting committee was supposed to come up with a finalized draft constitution this month and then put it to referendum.

SHEHATA

10:40:44
But the problem has been that there is intense factionalism and disagreement largely between Islamists -- different types of Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and then the more extreme Salafis -- and liberal and secular elements who don't feel that the constitution is a progressive document, that the constitution guarantees freedoms, that the constitution is based on the principle of equality of all citizens regardless of gender and so on and protection of other minorities.

SHEHATA

10:41:16
And so there have been, as was mentioned previously, several dozen people who have withdrawn in protest from the constituent assembly, liberals and secular forces: Amr Moussa, former secretary general of the Arab League, Ayman Nour, once an opposition figure to Mr. Mubarak, representatives of the Coptic church, other well-known Egyptian journalists who are liberals and so on.

SHEHATA

10:41:42
And there are some major concerns about the legitimacy of this document. And, unfortunately, it is likely, if the current make-up of the constituent assembly is to continue, that we're going to get a document that really falls far short of what many of us hoped would be a post-Mubarak Egypt.

REHM

10:42:01
And, Robin, is that, in part, the reason Morsi declared these authoritative new powers?

WRIGHT

10:42:11
Yes, and the idea, as I said earlier, was to have this be a short-term process to kind of nudge everybody onward. A couple of things, first of all, one of the problems is who should write the constitution, and that's really what you get down to. And the fact is people went to the polls in Egypt and they elected a parliament that was dominated by Islamists. Two different parties got 70 percent. They took 60 percent of the seats in the constituent assembly.

WRIGHT

10:42:37
Now, there is a lot of, oh, wait a minute, you know, they shouldn't have the right to dominate the constitutional writing process. But the core issue was reflected in a statement from the Justice Ministry yesterday who said the tragedy is that Egyptians in a new Democracy don't know how to talk to each other. And that's one of the problems you find across the Arab world. It's true in Libya, in Tunisia, all the countries undergoing transitions.

WRIGHT

10:43:00
The big thing is that constitutions are far more difficult and far more important in determining the new order than the first democratic elections. We tend to think who wins elections and then what happens, but it's -- it happened during the Iranian Revolution. It was the moment that the clerics came back and said that the secular parties are killing each other literally. And there are 6,400 amendments offered for that constitution.

WRIGHT

10:43:31
And so Ayatollah Khomeini came back and said, we have to oversee this process, and that's unfortunately where it got stuck. Now, there three issues that will divide as they look to the future. One is the role of Islam in the state, and that's why the Muslim Brotherhood and the rival secular groups are duking it out in a way, at least politically, because each has a different vision of the future.

WRIGHT

10:43:49
The second is women's rights and minority rights because for the first time, women are one of the two engines of change across the Middle East. And the third is the issue of blasphemy, and we saw how sensitive issues of criticizing either Islam or the Prophet Muhammad can be in the tragic attack on the American consulate or mission in Benghazi which cost the life of Chris Stevens and then the -- and as well the embassy in Tunisia.

REHM

10:44:15
Would the new constitution include any kind of term limits?

WRIGHT

10:44:21
Well, that's one of the things that are being discussed. There are a lot of things on the table. And, you know, welcome to democracy. It's diversity. And people have different opinions. And the interesting thing is that after this kind of disillusionment had lead to a lethargy in Egypt, you now see people into the streets again. This is democracy. People are getting out -- yes. You know, people are being hurt. Unfortunately, three people have been killed now, but it's really interesting to see that we've only seen phase one of the uprisings of the revolution. There are other phases to go.

REHM

10:44:54
Samer.

SHEHATA

10:44:54
Yes. The answer to your question is the term limit for the president has been set for two terms, and the term has been shortened from six years to four years. Remember, Mr. Mubarak was president for 29-plus years, and there were no term limits. Another good thing, of course, is that the ability or restrictions on nominating oneself for the presidency have been greatly reduced, making real competition possible.

SHEHATA

10:45:18
The problem, however, as Robin said, is this -- again, and I would put the question of women in minorities under the rubric of religion and state because if you have a constitution that says that the state will safeguard and protect ethics and public morals, what does that mean? If you have a constitution that says as article 68 now says that there will be equality between men and women as long as it doesn't contravene the Shariah, what does that mean?

MELHEM

10:45:44
Exactly. That's the point.

SHEHATA

10:45:46
And if you have, then, further explication of that the Shariah means in a way that is different that what I think the Shariah means, then you have a real problem here. So the constitution, again, is at the heart of this matter. Why Morsi made the constitutional declaration was because he knew the Supreme Constitutional Court, all holdovers from the Mubarak regime, and the judiciary is infested, unfortunately, with Mubarak, was going to nullify the constituent assembly.

REHM

10:46:16
Nick Burns.

BURNS

10:46:17
Well, I'm looking for the silver lining. And the silver lining is we're seeing real politics emerge in Egypt for the first time in a very long time where public opinion matters. This is positive, but it's also turbulent, messy, somewhat dysfunctional, looks a lot sometimes like our own system, so...

REHM

10:46:35
You are indeed an optimist, I must say.

BURNS

10:46:40
Trying to look -- trying to appreciate the complexity of the situation. That, you know, if you look at us, we emerged from Yorktown. It took us well over a decade to get through the Articles of Confederation to George Washington as our first president. We need to be patient. This is going to be a rollercoaster of political emotion and in-fighting. We just need to stay engaged, appreciate what's happening and support the democratic process.

REHM

10:47:05
Hisham.

MELHEM

10:47:05
I wish we have in Egypt the founding brothers that we have in this country. Look, if you look at the constitutions of a number of Arab states, they are nice documents. Even now, even in the so-called autocratic repressive regimes, they are nice, but they were never taken seriously. What makes these -- the process of writing constitutions in Egypt and in Tunisia and in other places, the first time, we have real powers representing real people trying to come up with a new draft and a new constitution that works.

MELHEM

10:47:34
And that's why -- if we talk about diversity, there are people who are -- who believe -- in Egypt, the secularist and the nationalist and the non-Islamist, let's say -- who are saying essentially that if we don't challenge the Islamist, they will impose their own vision on us. And then we will end up in an Islamist state.

MELHEM

10:47:58
Unless the constitution talks about equality among genders and, you know, equality among -- the rights of citizens, OK -- without giving us this opaque, ambiguous reference to Shariah, because then we are, you know, we will be susceptible to all source of interpretations, then we are going to have a problem. And I think this is a real fight.

MELHEM

10:48:23
Yes, they had the majority but it doesn't mean that the majority is going to impose or should be allowed to impose its vision on everybody in society. Majoritarianism is not democracy. And this is a primitive view in the Muslim world that I have the majority, I can do whatever I want, and I'm above the law. This is a very serious thing.

SHEHATA

10:48:45
I agree with some of what Hisham said, but not all of what Hisham said. Clearly, citizenship and absolute equality between all citizens needs to be mandated. However, the idea of the Shariah being in the constitution, as it was in article two, as it is in many states, is largely or should be largely a symbolic aspect of politics. That is that the majority of Egyptians are Muslim and, in fact, no one, not even the Coptic Church, not even secular figures and liberals or Muhammad (word?) objects to that.

SHEHATA

10:49:20
What we do object to is saying something like the Shariah mean this, that women aren't equal to men or that the state needs to protect the ethics and the public morals of people based on this Shariah. So it's not that the Shariah needs to be excluded from the constitution. It's that the constitution, as you said, should not be a document that puts in place the vision of the majority. But the most important part of all constitutions are to protect freedoms, to protect rights and especially to protect the rights of minorities.

REHM

10:49:53
Let me understand, under President Mubarak, how did women fair, Robin?

WRIGHT

10:50:03
Well, there were reforms that dealt with sensitive issues such as female genital mutilation. This was legally banned even though it continued as a practice. There were women who are brought into the political system but as a quota. And so there were initiatives. But the interesting thing is that women were as much a part of this revolution as men were. And they were on the frontlines often. And, you know, I actually share Nick's undermining, I mean, underlying optimism about the long term.

WRIGHT

10:50:39
The short term, it's going to be awful. The next decade is going to be more turbulent than the last one. But the fact is they began a process. And when you look at how long when from -- everyone is crazy about the movie "Lincoln." And it took a century for us to go from a civil war to enacting the Voting Rights Act.

REHM

10:50:58
But...

WRIGHT

10:50:58
This takes time. You know, things don't sort themselves out overnight, you know, particularly in a society that's lived under for 5,000 years, autocratic rule in different forms.

REHM

10:51:08
At the same time, having seen "Lincoln," I recognized that news did not travel as quickly back then as it does now. And seeing people gathering in the streets, seeing people denied rights, that news travels very quickly, Samer.

SHEHATA

10:51:32
Well, that's correct. I mean, and just to be, you know, to make something -- to state something explicitly, I have no, of course, fondness or nostalgia for Mubarak here. And I think it would be absurd to think somehow that, you know, that this is worse than what it is. And I am optimistic also in the medium and long term for Egypt, but the transition to democracy is not easy.

SHEHATA

10:51:53
And, unfortunately, the contentious divisive politics are obstacles to forward progress to some kind of stability to addressing the questions that matter the most to 99 percent of Egyptians, which are jobs, which are security in the streets, which are economic development, which are schools that actually function and hospitals and health care institutions that actually are capable of providing health care.

SHEHATA

10:52:19
And, unfortunately, these political battles, which are occupying, of course, the attention of the elite political class, are getting in the way of addressing those major foundational issues that will really determine whether Egypt progresses or not in the future.

REHM

10:52:33
All right. I want to take a call from San Antonio, Texas. Good morning, Lily.

LILY

10:52:41
Good morning, Diane. I'm calling -- you had a little exchange -- and Hisham said she's -- he's not going to compare the Muslim Brotherhood to Nazi. I sort of want to remind you of Iranian revolution. The conversation came up a couple of times and I compare them. I went through the Iranian revolution, and I remember distinctly how Robin Wright tried to excuse and make excuses and explain away. And I see the same thing happening little by little going through, and I think the same dogmatic -- I agree totally with what Hisham said.

LILY

10:53:32
I can see just how it's going through and how they're going to use, you know, Islamic -- we, in Iran, we had a better constitution before the revolution, and, of course, it was kind of ignored. But then, you know, they promised such a glorious thing in Islamic blah, blah, blah and, you know, they spread all over those, you know, and they made a ridiculous constitution that they can use even, you know, even if they ignore that. I'm not that articulate, I'm sorry, at all.

REHM

10:54:06
I think you've been very articulate, Lily. Thank you for your call. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I guess it's all in the eye of the beholder and the experience of some who've lived through these revolutions. Robin.

WRIGHT

10:54:27
There's no question that Iran's democratic revolution in 1979 was hijacked by the clerics. The constitution is actually based on French and Belgium law. It is a republican constitution. And one of the most important thing that's happening in the Arab world is the fact that Islamist parties that are dominating the political -- the new political horizon are actually turning to right republican constitutions as well. They're not doing -- they're not using Saudi Arabia as a model where Shariah is the basis of law.

WRIGHT

10:54:55
I agree, the clerics have failed the Iranian people in colossal ways, and that's one of the tragedies. But it was also the division among the political parties in Iran that provided the context or the opportunity for the clerics to move in and seize power.

REHM

10:55:11
Samer.

SHEHATA

10:55:11
Well, the problem, unfortunately, are these comparisons are inappropriate. I mean, the idea that somehow the Muslim Brotherhood is similar to the Nazi Party in Germany or that the Egyptian revolution in 2011 is similar to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which was an incredibly violent revolution, led to a civil war with immediately dozens, if not hundreds, of public executions and summary justice, is completely inappropriate.

SHEHATA

10:55:35
Now, that doesn't mean that this revolution is rosy and wonderful and we all can -- and hold hands and so on. But the comparisons do more damage to our understanding than elucidate what is really going on.

MELHEM

10:55:47
Just quickly, when I made the comparison, I was just talking about the structure and the discipline. I was not talking about ideologies or whatever. And these are different historical epochs and this should go without, you know, saying. Obviously, everybody knows that I have a jaundiced view of the Islamists. I don't trust what they say. I do not believe in their outlook, this current outlook, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

MELHEM

10:56:10
And I think the Salafis are beyond the pale as far I am concerned because they live in a different century and a different parallel universe. As long as they don't undergo a serious reform about how they see women in particular, how they see minorities in particular -- I'm talking about all the Islamist movement, whether -- we're talking about Ennahda in Tunisia or the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis in Egypt and other places -- unless they have that kind of serious reform, they have a problem.

MELHEM

10:56:36
Muslims -- I mean, Islamist regimes and Islamist political parties have a serious problem with women. They don't see them as equal. And they have a serious problem with non-Muslim minorities. And unless we deal with these issues squarely and honestly and bluntly, we should not trust their intentions.

REHM

10:56:56
And that is the last word. Hisham Melhem, Samer Shehata, Robin Wright, Nicholas Burns, thank you all so much. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

ANNOUNCER

10:57:12
"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Jill Colgan. 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 drshow@wamu.org, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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