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Guest Host: Terence Smith
Egypt’s generals continue to crack down on dissent. Yesterday they arrested spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood on charges that include inciting murder. In the six weeks of massive protests that followed the ouster of democratically elected Islamist president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, an estimated 1000 people have been killed. Mr. Morsi is said to be in jail. US allies in the region including Saudi Arabia have are publicly supporting the Egyptian military’s action. So far the Obama administration has not. Please join us for an update on the violent political power struggle in Egypt and debate over US policy
- Jay Solomon foreign affairs correspondent at The Wall Street Journal.
- Michael Rubin resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at Naval Postgraduate School and author of the forthcoming book, "Dancing with the Devil" (Encounter, 2013).
- Nadia Bilbassy senior correspondent at Al Arabiya.
MR. TERENCE SMITHThanks for joining us. I'm Terence Smith, former correspondent for The New York Times, CBS and PBS, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is getting a voice treatment and then is going on vacation. She'll be back mid-September. In the six weeks since the Egyptian military ousted the democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist, an estimated 1,000 people have been killed. U.S. allies in the region are strongly supporting the military.
MR. TERENCE SMITHJoining me to talk about U.S. strategy options and their implications, Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent at Al Arabiyah, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute and Jay Solomon of The Wall Street Journal. Welcome to all three of you. Jay, bring us up to date on what's happening in Egypt right now. There is news this morning about the legal situation of former President Mubarak.
MR. JAY SOLOMONYeah. Well, a court ordered that president -- former President Mubarak could be released as early as Thursday. This is still being appealed, but it's another step or another kind of move in what feels like a reconstitution of the old Egyptian order. You've got the military in charge. You've got generals being, you know, sent off to provinces to run them.
MR. JAY SOLOMONIt's -- it really does feel like the old order is being reconstituted. And the situation with Mr. Mubarak is a prime example of this, and at the same time, you're seeing a continued crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The leader has been arrested, which is another sort of...
SMITHThe spiritual leader.
SOLOMONYes, the spiritual leader, which is another real landmark in just how far the Egyptian military is willing to go after the Muslim Brotherhood. And internationally, you just -- you have a real split now between the U.S. and its main allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the Israelis in a lot of ways on what to do next as this crackdown looks like it's going to continue.
SMITHNadia, what would you imagine would be the public reaction in the street and elsewhere if indeed former President Mubarak is released?
MS. NADIA BILBASSYThere's going to be an outrage. Let me just add that, number one, the -- just because the court released him, it doesn't mean that he's a free man. He's basically going to be acquainted one of the last charges, which is embezzlement, corruption. There's some deal called the presence and basically, the judge, which is they're saying is a legal case, not political case, saying that he can go and stay, I presume, in -- under house arrest or in a location that's known to the court.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYBut he still faces serious charges of involvement in giving orders to the killing of 11 protesters during the initial days of the revolution. Now, the Egyptian street is divided. There is people who are -- obviously, it's very polarized. So people are going to be really enraged that the fact that the former president who has been governed the country under one-party rule more or less for 40 years is going to be set free, and a new president who has been elected by the government -- and he's been in power for one year -- is going to face trial.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYAnd the irony of it all is not just him, but although more or less the top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, their former president and Mubarak might face trial altogether at the same time. But there is a chance that Mubarak might be released.
SMITHOK. And. Michael Rubin, what would be the -- first of all, we know where the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, is being held or the conditions or anything about that.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINMohammed Morsi is more or less disappeared from the scene. And while certain people have been asking to see him or to have a better sense of whereabouts, the Egyptian government is being rather coy about this. However, one of the big differences when we look at the arrested figures, when we look at the cast that's going on the Middle East, one of the biggest differences between the violence in Egypt and the violence, for example, in a place like Syria is that in Egypt, you have for the most part Muslim Brotherhood supporters and Egyptian military and security forces and interior ministry clashing in the streets.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINWe don't see the mass disappearances, if you will, to the same extent that we've seen in Syria where if you look at the United Nations casualty counts what they don't say is just as many people have simply disappeared. And somehow, I don't think they're lost, wandering around in the desert. The other thing we have not seen in Egypt when it comes to the violence is the real red line in Syria was the murder, if you will, of a 13-year-old boy named Hamza Ali al-Khateeb who the Syrian regime turned on in order to try -- I mean, go after the children to try to intimidate the parents.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINWe haven't yet seen that red line crossed inside Egypt as we look at this violence developing and as we look at the arrests but not the "disappearances" of some of these leaders.
SMITHJay Solomon, there's news this morning out of Syria that the opposition claimed that the Assad forces have used chemical weapons extensively, and that there are extensive civilian casualties, not confirmed yet, but that report is there. It's a reminder if we needed one that Syria, the problems remain grave.
SOLOMONYeah. I mean, these alleged attacks come as the U.N. investigators are actually inside Syria, you know, trying to confirm these reports of chemical weapons uses in the past. I think whenever the opposition makes claims, the Syrian government denies it, and then there's this kind of gray area that I mean what's been interesting in some of my reporting in recent weeks is a lot of Western Arab intelligence believe that there's been actually been dozens of chemical weapons attacks.
SOLOMONI mean, it's -- they haven't really seen a government use chemical weapons in this way. You know, Saddam Hussein kind of used them in a mass way against Kurds and Shias inside Iraq that here they really think the Assad regime is using them tactically, sort of very small dosages in various -- to clear out areas to push out the rebels.
SOLOMONThis sounds like what it would be one of the biggest actual attacks, unlike the last ones that are being investigated. That seemed to have been very small and used in tactical ways just to push out rebels from different areas, and you didn't have what we're hearing here which is potentially hundreds of dead. But like you said, none of this has been confirmed yet.
SMITHIt has. Nadia, if it is, this has been described by President Obama as a red line.
SMITHAnd it -- might it change U.S. involvement in Syria?
BILBASSYWell, I really cannot predict how the administration is going to react, but I can tell you that the Syrian opposition this morning held a press conference in Istanbul, and they talked about President Obama and the administration's red line and saying that we expect the international community to say exactly the same old thing because these chemical weapons, as Jay said, has been used tactically.
BILBASSYHe's been using it on a small scale largely because many people believe he use conventional weapons to reach his target, which is, you know, cities have been destroyed like Homs and Hama, 100,000 dead. So there's no need really to use chemical weapons. But today, the opposition described what happened in a place outside of Damascus, which is kind of the rural area of Damascus called (unintelligible). They call it as the biggest massacre so far using...
BILBASSY...chemical weapons. They described it as 1,300 dead, and the number is rising as well. So now, they're demanding that the U.N. Security Council should be held. The French has asked that. The British has been asking. The Saudis has been asking. The head of the coalition, which is the Ahmad Jarba, as well has been asking. So I think we're going to see international reaction into this because this is -- it looks like the biggest. It happened this morning, and I think the administration will be forced to react.
SMITHOK. We'll see because if indeed it has taken place on that scale, then this will be unavoidable and a major confrontation. But we don't have confirmation.
SMITHSo let me -- Michael Rubin, let me take the conversation back to Egypt here. There's another arrest and charge of great significance. Mohamed el-Baradei, who's abroad, has -- the Nobel Prize winner, he quit the government last Wednesday. And now, he is facing treason charges. I'm wondering what you think of that and whether it is in fact a tactic to keep him out of the country or how that seems to play out.
RUBINWith regard to Mohamed el-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel Peace laureate, the important thing to remember is that he is very much popular outside of Egypt than necessarily within Egypt, although he's certainly does have his constituents. An analogy would be, for example, to Mikhail Gorbachev, the former premier of the Soviet Union, who tends to be much popular in Western circles and diplomatic circles and so forth.
RUBINSo if they really do go after Mohamed el-Baradei, what that's going to do is draw a line in the sand, not necessarily for the Egyptian people whose focus is elsewhere but rather for the international community who's sitting on the sidelines hemming and howling. The problem with neutrality and this is a position which the United States and the Obama administration has tried to take and we see this, for example, in the state -- in the secretary of state, John Kerry, where he will talk about having both sides get together, have a dialogue.
RUBINThat -- what appears in the West to be neutrality is perceived differently inside Egypt where the attitude persists you're either with us or against us. So that if you're not with us, secretly you must be helping our enemy. The targeting of Mohamed el-Baradei is only going to add confusion because on one hand when the Obama administration suspends the F-16 sale, the Muslim Brotherhood will say, oh, this shows that they're shifting back to us.
RUBINOn the other hand, when Mohamed el-Baradei is targeted, if people get away with that, then the Egyptian army is going to say, see, they're secretly supporting us because they're not raising the red flag or doing anything substantive against this.
SMITHJay Solomon, there are reports that the military is considering banning the Muslim Brotherhood. What would that mean? What would be the significance? It's a suggestion along the lines of what you said at the outset. This is a different reaction.
SOLOMONYeah. I think they could take that step, but I think the general analysis or consensus about Egypt is if you suppress these guys, it's going to -- you're not going to wiped them out. They're going to manifest themselves in different ways. You're going to see sort of them go underground. You're going to see, you know, they have. They've operated like...
SMITHThey did this for decades.
SOLOMONYeah. And even when they were in government, people would complain they operated almost like a communist party and sells -- secretively, they'd communicate between themselves but no one else. But I think if they do ban them, then there's this, you know, there's this real fear that they'll go underground.
SOLOMONYou'll see kind of a return to some of the really horrific terrorism you saw inside Egypt. And, you know, the Brotherhood is a regional body. It operates in many different countries. So, you know, if they decide -- if it turns militant, it could -- the fallout could be beyond just Egypt. That's for sure.
SMITHAnd yet, Nadia Bilbassy, the lead story in The Washington Post today, suggests that the Brotherhood is in -- to your their word -- disarray.
SMITHWelcome back. I'm Terence Smith, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about the situation in Egypt and Syria, but in Egypt especially. And the guests in the studio with me are Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent for Al Arabiya, Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Jay Solomon, foreign affairs correspondent with The Wall Street Journal. Nadia, we cut you off here as you were trying to make a point.
BILBASSYNo, that's OK. First, I just wanted to refer to ElBaradei. Technically, he was not charged with treason. It was something called a breach in public trust. Basically, what -- they're saying that you abandoned us at the time of need, that we needed somebody like you, and you decided to resign. And I think, in a way, the military wanted to add the civilian cover on the takeover and they needed ElBaradei. So that was just a small clarification. For the Muslim Brotherhood, yes, they're in disarray now because the army took a decision that they reached an impasse.
BILBASSYThere is no more they're going to negotiate. Although Secretary Kerry said the situation is harder now but there is a chance, I believe that the situation has gone towards escalation. The army took a decision that, once and for all, they wanted to destroy them. And therefore, we have seen the continuous arrest of every leader. So when we -- they arrested yesterday Mohammed Badie, who was a spiritual leader, they paraded him in front of television screens, trying to humiliate him in public, and there was no need for that, in my opinion. They already arrested him.
BILBASSYBut the Muslim Brotherhood immediately came and said, we have a new leader. So don't worry about us. But the fact that now most of -- there is a division between them because some people within the movement advocate nonviolence and others who advocate violence. So the fact that the demonstrations have a high casualty numbers of a thousand, it is also a hundred among them security service.
BILBASSYAnd some people are saying that there are people who used arms. You know, they have been seen and even documented by human rights organizations that they are either sympathizers with the Muslim Brotherhood or other parties that they took the opportunity to fire on the security service. So it wasn't entirely people who were just demanding that President Morsi should be retained back. But in general, I think that will affect the Muslim Brotherhood for the time being and maybe on the long run in terms of organizational structure, the fact that their leaders are in jail now.
BILBASSYAnd they're going to face serious allegation of incitement that might lead to them being again -- once again, as Jay said, outlawed and they're going to go underground, and we might see a splinter within the organization to breed, again, another organizations like we have seen in the '80s, the Islamic Jihad, and ultimately led to the rise of al-Qaida.
SMITHMichael Rubin, this is obviously a sustained and major crackdown by the military. Let's talk for a moment about the U.S. role in all of this. There were many conversations back and forth, many U.S. officials, emissaries, envoys urging the generals to exercise restraint in dealing with the Brotherhood. Some 17 phone calls are reported between Secretary of Defense Hagel and Gen. Al-Sisi, the military head. So a great deal of involvement, but very little response so far.
RUBINIndeed. We need, as the United States, to use all the arrows in our quiver. There's been a great deal about using aid as leverage, but that really is a sideshow when we're talking about $1.6 billion in aid and the Saudis, the Kuwaitis and the Emiratis go ahead and give $12 billion. You know, one of the ironies about Egypt is Egypt -- the only other country that can think like this is Pakistan where the face of American diplomacy traditionally hasn't been the State Department so much as the Defense Department.
RUBINAnd, therefore, what we need to look at is not simply the whole issue of whether or not we provide military aid, but who in the United States is best able to provide the diplomatic leverage or at least get the message across. Now, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi the head of the Egyptian military, went to the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa. back in 2006. Subsequently, he also went to the General Staff College in the United Kingdom. And when you're in a college like that for a year, you become friendly with all your peers.
RUBINYou -- your families become friendly. By canceling Operation Bright Star, the military exercise which we were due to have, what we really did was undercut our ability to have some of our generals who have known Sisi for years, pull them aside and give the talking points that normally you'd expect an American ambassador to get. But sometimes the problem isn't just the message. We have to be very, very careful with who the messenger is. And unfortunately, I think that's where we have been a little bit careless.
SMITHBut surely we can have those generals be in contact with their Egyptian counterparts. They don't need the exercises to do that.
RUBINIn theory, they don't. But oftentimes, one needs an opportunity to do that and if we provide the opportunity. The generals serve the commander in chief just like any diplomat does, so it's just a question of who you give the talking points to so that it can be seen in a more official sense.
SMITHRight. Jay Solomon, the -- we have a division between -- quite public and open, between the United States and some of its principal allies, as we've said, in the area, Saudi Arabia principal among them and the Emirates, and Israel for that matter, supporting the Egyptian general so far. And it's an interesting situation where the United States and its major allies are looking at it through quite different eyes. I wonder if you can think of a parallel when this has happened before.
SOLOMONYou know, I was thinking about that 'cause I don't think most people realize just how really vicious the split is. I mean, the Saudis -- I know the Saudis and the Emiratis in recent days have told the administration, you know, if you don't back the Egyptian military, you can't expect us to support the Arab-Israeli peace agreement. You can't expect us to support your other endeavors in that region.
SOLOMONSo it's a really deep split right now between the U.S. and same with the -- you know, the Israelis are so powerful in helping develop our policies, and they have said to us, you, know, we have the Egyptian peace -- I mean -- peace treaty. This support for the Egyptian military is a fundamental part of that peace treaty. If you let that go, you know, we don't know where this thing is headed. And we're, you know, violence in the Sinai has really increased, and cooperation between the Israelis and the Egyptians is actually quite good right now.
SOLOMONSo, you know, the split is very, you know, it's much stronger than people realize. And maybe Iraq -- I mean, if you look back, you know, at the invasion of Iraq, the Saudis were very much against it. Most of the Arab states were against it saying, you know, you don't -- it's going to strengthen the Iranians. And in turn, it actually has in that sense. So I would -- I mean, they might disagree, but I would say Iraq might be the last policy we've seen these types of splits between the U.S. and its Arab allies.
SMITHInteresting parallel. Michael Rubin, the role of Israel is interesting in this context. The Israelis are lobbying quite forcefully in the United States, in Washington, to have the U.S. support the Egyptian military and their actions. And I wonder, is there any evidence of them doing more than that? Are they providing any assistance either financial, military or otherwise?
RUBINWell, certainly Israel's chief interest is having quiet and security on its borders. They thought that they would have security after the Camp David Accords in 1978, 1979. Now, traditionally, the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel returned to Egypt, was supposed to be -- large swaths of it were supposed to demilitarized. The problem is that the Bedouin in Saudi Arabia -- sorry -- the Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula...
SMITHIn the Sinai.
RUBIN...have grown much more militant over time. And under the Muslim Brotherhood regime, perhaps because of some quiet encouragement from the Mohammed Morsi regime or perhaps just because of the decline of lawlessness, suddenly the Sinai Peninsula had become quite active. What we've seen in recent weeks is Israelis renewing their ties to some of their colleagues in the Egyptian military whom they may not like but with whom they have close working relations to target this mutual threat emanating from the Sinai Peninsula.
SMITHNadia, the -- it's a different posture for Israel. It's a different posture for the Egyptian generals. It's quite a remarkable situation.
BILBASSYIt is indeed. And if you look at the Sinai, it's been a lawless area anyway to start with because it's almost cut off from Cairo. You need a day by land to travel between Rafah, which is the crossing point on the border of Gaza, to reach Egypt. And this area, traditionally, has been marginalized. Little money goes there. It's a tribal area, so you can imagine in a chaotic situation that we're going to see something like we have seen now.
BILBASSYYesterday, it marked actually a significant incident whereby militants, wherever -- whoever they are, stopped a bus, and they identify security service and they executed them on a, you know, in a short distant. Twenty-four of them were killed. So we're going to expect more and more as the confrontation goes between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, that we're going to see more of these attacks in the Sinai largely because it's under nobody's control.
BILBASSYAnd also, the flood of arms comes from different parts of the region as well. So it is worrying for Israel. It's worrying for everyone. In this way, the United States has been criticized often of what they can do in Egypt. To start with, the policy has been very ambiguous on a purpose. I think they decided not to call it a coup because they're worried about the last card that the U.S. can use, which is cut off military aid.
BILBASSYAnd just briefly, let me explain what $1.3 billion can get you. When the U.S. gives this money, it's not because they like certain countries. But this is a tool in the diplomatic kind of bigger scope of a picture trying to exert some kind of influence. So number one, it gives them this peace with Israel, according to the Camp David agreement.
BILBASSYAnd, number two, it gives them access to the Suez Canal, which is 4 percent of it is all basically access to come through across the world. And any change in that is going to disrupt the oil flow and is going to affect the U.S. And third is cooperation in counterterrorism between the U.S. military and -- between the U.S. and the Egyptian military. So this is the bigger picture, and I think the U.S. has been careful not to use this last card despite so much of criticism.
SMITHJay Solomon, Nadia suggests that the ambiguity in the U.S. position is studied and quite deliberate. Do you think it's successful?
SOLOMONWell, I mean, if their aim was to avoid bloodshed and their aim was to sort of get Egypt quickly back on an inclusive diplomatic -- I mean, political path, no. I mean, you were talking about all these, you know, calls that Hagel made and all these calls were restrained. If you remember as the coup was being prepared, the U.S. was very silent. They were, you know, very publicly not saying much.
SOLOMONI mean, maybe there was stuff in private they were saying. We know there was. But publicly, they were -- the criticism was much more on Morsi than it was on the military at the time. And if you were an Egyptian general at that time, you would see that as a green light 'cause we were not willing to go out there and publicly challenge them at the time. So, I mean, I think they've -- on Syria and on Egypt, you've seen this kind of they're trying to play it both sides.
SOLOMONThey want to maintain some flexibility. But if the aim has been this sort of, you know, show -- prevent bloodshed, it's failed. And now, we're in a situation -- as the other guests were saying, the military has clearly made a choice. They're going all out, and their allies in Saudi Arabia and in the Emirates are going to back them to the hilt.
SMITHMichael Rubin, what's the -- what are the arguments for and against cutting off this U.S. aid to Egypt or suspending it? There are probably two sides to that.
RUBINWell, the chief argument is not only a moral argument, but a legal argument. There is a very clear U.S. law that says that if there is a democratically elected government that is overthrown by a coup, then there is an automatic cut off of aid. We last saw this happen, for example, in the coup in 2009 in Honduras. One of the reasons why the administration has been hemming and hauling so much with regard to calling it a coup is because they wanted to maintain their wiggle room, as Nadia has explained, because -- for diplomatic purposes.
RUBINBut there's also a moral reason, and this is what Jay referred to. If we don't react and the Egyptian military sees this as a green light, then potentially the problems can be much deeper. The reason why not to cut off aid would simply be twofold. One is to maintain what little leverage we have. But you've got to remember, we and the Egyptians aren't the only players in the sandbox. There's the Saudis who we've talked about. There's also the Turks. There's Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
RUBINThe other issue is simply because when we look and calculate American interests -- first and foremost the transit of Suez Canal and the sanctity of the Egypt-Israel peace agreement -- we may believe that, ultimately, U.S. interests are better enshrined by the Egyptian military, although we do want the Egyptian military to then transition back to a more democratic reformed regime.
SMITHI'm Terence Smith. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call us at 1-800-433-8850, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Nadia, this does send, however, something of a muddled message for the United States in staking out a position on a very delicate and fast-moving issue like this.
BILBASSYAbsolutely. And the thing is, in addition to what my colleague said, the administration did not win any friends. They've managed to alienate everyone. I was with President Obama in 2009 in Cairo when he gave that speech, and everybody was -- I mean, they were holding up in high esteem this is going to be a wonderful era in cooperation with the United States. This is going to cancel everything that President Bush did in terms of unilateral action, war on terror, you know, anti-Islam, whatever.
BILBASSYAnd now we have seen pictures of President Obama burnt in Cairo. I mean, this is significant. And if you talk to the Muslim Brotherhood, they think they've taken the military side, and they've given them the green light. If you talk to the military, they think they're encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood by the statement the president gave last Thursday. So they find themselves in a really tricky situation.
BILBASSYMany people also, in the bigger picture, they believe that the U.S. has relinquished its leadership position in the Middle East, that this administration in particular has not been involved, and President Obama lacks the skill of having forged relationship with allies in the region, like he didn't have maybe the ability to pick up the phone and to speak to this king or that president and tell them, look, I -- he doesn't have that leverage anymore with them. And many criticize the administration of having a wishful thinking, that basically the situation, let's wait and see.
BILBASSYAnd this is the policy, I think, in Egypt. And they're waiting now, in my opinion, for the 30th of September, which is the end-of-the-year review, for the financial review for this military aid, to see if the military will give a little bit in terms of working towards what they call the road map -- which I think is bad omen for the Middle East, considering what happened between the Israelis and the Palestinians -- which has basically taken Egypt towards a transitional period where you have the constitution rewritten, where you have a free election that will ultimately bring a civilian president.
BILBASSYAnd they will have the parliament because, for the time being, everything has been really suspended. So they give them a little bit of room to maneuver, and this is why, I think, on purpose, they're not saying anything for the time being except basically let's wait and see.
SMITHMm hmm. All right. Just very briefly, Jay.
SOLOMONNo, I think she makes a good point 'cause I really do think the administration sees they have about six weeks between now and the end of the fiscal year. They froze the F-16s. They're going to freeze these Apache helicopters. And then, you know, like she said, they're going to -- they're hoping that the Egyptian military will give them something to work with so they can say, OK, we've got enough. Let's keep the flow going.
SMITHComing up, your calls and questions for our panel. Stay tuned.
SMITHWelcome back. I'm Terence Smith, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined here, in a discussion of the situation in Egypt and U.S. policy towards it, by Nadia Bilbassy, who is a senior correspondent at Al-Arabiyah, by Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Jay Solomon, foreign affairs correspondent with the Wall Street Journal.
SMITHLet me ask you this, which is an interesting question that is brought up by Tom in Newport News in Virginia. He has sent us an email that says, "Military aid in Egypt should be continued because the Suez Canal is a vital U.S. strategic interest. If a civil war does develop, then U.S. soldiers may need to be deployed to take control and protect the canal. So the U.S.," he argues, "has a big commitment to stability in Egypt." Michael. Michael Rubin.
RUBINWell, indeed. One of the interesting issues that hasn't been in the headlines is that just either yesterday or the day before, the USS Harry S. Truman, the aircraft carrier which leads Carrier Strike Group 10, as well as the USS Gettysburg transited the Suez Canal. It's the first transit of U.S. military ships since we've had the coup against Mohammed Morsi and so forth.
RUBINNow, one of the interesting things about the Suez Canal just over the last year is even despite the chaos, ordinary Egyptians and tourists couldn't get anywhere near the canal without getting stopped by police, without getting questioned. If people were taking photographs, they'd get detained.
RUBINThe Egyptian military and security forces have taken the security of the Suez Canal so seriously because with the hemorrhaging of the tourism industry, with decline of manufacturing, it's not only a strategic asset for us and for international shipping, but it's also really the only cash cow the Egyptian government has left.
SMITHIndeed, it is crucial. Jay. Jay Solomon, do you want to make a point?
SOLOMONYeah, I was just -- Michael was getting into it, but I think, you know, at the heart of this crisis in a lot of ways was the economics of Egypt. The brotherhood -- I've talked to Egyptian officials who were -- they weren't sympathetic to the brotherhood, but they were willing to give them a chance. And the amount of economic damage that was done over the last year -- I mean, towards the end of the Morsi regime, there was literally concern amongst government officials where they're going to get their salaries paid.
SOLOMONThey just -- the government did not seem to understand how deep their economic crisis was. They were, you know, they couldn't get in the IMF program. They could not get the, you know, the finances in shape. And the Arab allies who have the most money weren't giving them money either except for cutter.
SOLOMONSo underlying all this really is how is that economy going to get repaired. And, you know, the brotherhood was pretty -- they were incompetent in addressing it, and that's going to be one of the main issues going forward is, you know, if we rupture with -- if the U.S. raptures with Egypt, that's going to be a real problem as for them getting outside loans.
SMITHAll right. Let's take some calls from listeners. Ivan in Spring Hill, Fla., you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Go ahead.
IVANGood morning. I just want to point out that this is the same situation that a man called Mustafa Kemal Ataturk faced after the Ottoman Empire was in its final days. He took control of the country. He raised the literacy rate from 7 percent to 60 percent by the time he passed away, and he has provided the Turks 90 -- over 90 years of peace and prosperity.
IVANAnd the first thing he did, he had to break the back of the Muslim theocracy and make them religious leaders not political leaders. And I think that is what creates a lot of the economic problems because people are afraid to go there when you have a bunch of fanatics running around, and tourism is a large part of the Egyptian product.
SMITHAll right. Ivan, let me ask Nadia Bilbassy about that. You're smiling a bit.
BILBASSYWell, I think all of us were very surprised actually that after almost 80 years of organization for the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized party -- religious or political -- they became political obviously, ultimately, in the Middle East, and they managed to mess up in one year. I was in -- and I was just saying, I was in Cairo the night that President Morsi was deposed, and I landed in Cairo.
BILBASSYI felt I was landed in a free zone because people -- and there were all kind of people -- the guy at the reception in the hotel, women who were veiled -- they loathed Morsi. And I think also -- I mean, partly, there are many problems that Egypt had before, but also because they didn't do well. They were distracted, and I think the problem with religious parties is they really lose the message. They're not good at governing. They're good as an opposition party.
BILBASSYWe have seen it in Hamas in Gaza as well that they've been seen as a resistant party, but as a governing party, they do badly. And if there's election in Gaza today, Hamas will lose. And I think the fact that if the Muslim Brotherhood at all -- the freedom and justice party in Egypt were given three more years and there is a free and fair election, I do not think personally that they will win. But the thing is now they've been taken away from them after one year, and that's obviously the problem of -- the concept of democratic process has been undermined in the Middle East.
SMITHSens. Graham -- Lindsey Graham and John McCain, recently in Egypt, have made this very point. They have said that if an election was held now or six months from now, in the near future, the Muslim Brotherhood will not do very well.
BILBASSYThat's true. And I actually, on a personal level, believe that religious party don't have the vision for the Middle East of what -- where they should go. The most important problem that we face is economy. And in Egypt in particular, the largest Arab country with 90 million people, almost two-thirds live under poverty line. Many Egyptians live on $2 a day. So they wanted a government that provide the most solutions. They wanted somebody to come and say, this is how I'm going to do it. This is my plan.
BILBASSYAnd instead, they got distracted with running after a comedian, Bassem Youssef, or banning an Egyptian actor like Adel Emam and others. So it's very trivial small issues where the country is suffering tremendously, and they were unable to present the people of Egypt with a serious plan to show themselves as a viable party.
SMITHAll right. Let's take another call. This is from Joe who's in Dix Hills, N.Y. Joe, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JOEOh, yes. Thank you for taking my call.
JOEI have a two-fold comment. I'm a former officer in United States Army. And I really appreciate Nadia's comments. I think they're extremely on point. The other thing that I'd like to say -- and maybe the panel could comment on -- is that I think there's a lot of arrogance, especially in the current America administration, that they wave the banner of American-style democracy as a panacea for the rest of the world to follow.
JOEAnd I think it's also very arrogant and rude to dissect and extrapolate one aspect of a country or society and force it and superimpose it in another country where it might not work. And it could be quite argued that American-style democracy is not true democracy because elected officials do not represent the average American. They're filthy rich multimillionaires and billionaires, and we only have a handful of these elitist snobs for us to elect.
SMITHAll right. All right. All right. Joe...
JOESo how could we expect the rest of the world to follow our example? And the other thing is for (unintelligible) -- OK.
SMITHAll right. Well, now let's hold you to that point, Joe. And let me ask Jay Solomon. I mean, the question is really whether we have overpromised and under-delivered in terms of what American democracy or even our assistance can provide in a situation such as we have in Egypt?
SOLOMONI kind of disagree with the caller in the sense that, you know, this was a popular uprising. The administration was not sort of on the cutting edge of pushing for democratic change in the Middle East when the Arab Spring broke out. If anything, Obama was being criticized for sort of stepping back from sort of being a very vocal supporter of democracy after, you know, the war in Iraq.
SOLOMONSo I would disagree that, sort of, we've forced a democratic system down the throats of the Egyptians or the Tunisians. This was very much a popular uprising in the region since 2011. And I think, if anything, the U.S. really hasn't invested that much. But if you look about, you know, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a huge sort of marshal-like plan for the region. And there were talks about that after the Arab uprisings.
SOLOMONBut the amount of money the U.S. has actually, you know, invested in any of these Arab countries since 2011 is very, very small. It's almost nothing. So I don't -- I just disagree that the idea that we've kind of jammed this thing down their throats and it's our fault that the place has kind of fallen apart. If anything, we've been so detached. We haven't done that much at all in trying to shape the outcome.
SMITHFair enough. But, Michael Rubin, the detachment, to use Jay Solomon's word, is deliberate. I mean, that's the policy. They're trying to measure their response, is that not right?
RUBINIndeed. We have a very reactive policy rather than a proactive policy. But when we look at what the points Ivan was making in Springhill and Joe was making in Dix Hills, the fact of the matter is you can look at Ataturk as a model but be very, very careful because Egypt is not Turkey. And, at the same time, when we talk about seculars in the United States, the separation of church and state, that has a positive connotation for many Americans. Secularism has a very negative connotation in the Middle East. That's why, often times, people use liberalism.
RUBINBut the last point is when we look at the economic elite and the wealthy businessmen, remember, most Americans know our generals and our admirals through their war-fighting record. But most Egyptians know their generals as businessmen because they've never really won a war. And when it comes to the political elite, it's actually the Egyptian generals who are not only the political elite but the business elite in the country, and that holds a whole another dynamic to the economic reform, which we have talked about is so necessary.
SMITHAll right. Let me take another call. Ali in Mesquite, Texas, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Go ahead. All right, Ali, are you still with us? You've been very patient. Maybe too patient. So I appreciate that. Let me go to Bernie in Houston, Texas. Bernie, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." All right. We'll try this one more time. Let's see if -- Ron is at Fishers, Ind. Are you with us, Ron? All right.
SMITHGo ahead, Nadia.
BILBASSY...we have a problem with the caller. So let me just make a quick point. I think just to add something, which is the U.S. always face a dilemma between its national interests and between its moral values. And that's the case, always manifests itself in every conflict. We have seen it even two days ago when the CIA finally acknowledged that it overthrew an elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran that time because they saw it as pro-Soviet Union, and that was a bigger danger for them.
BILBASSYWe've seen it in Latin America with General Pinochet that ultimately came to power, and we're going to see it in Egypt. So it's always been a problem for them is how do you hold your values when -- allow people to demonstrate and to demand a better life through a democratic process and how to support the military because they'll preserve America's national interests.
SMITHAll right. We've had -- Ron has been very patient through our technological failures here, mine principally. Ron, are you with us?
RONI am. Good morning.
SMITHOK. Please go ahead. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
RONYes. I would -- thank you. I wanted to just have your experts there to clarify a situation. I obviously read the -- and listen to the U.S. press reports. And my impression is in Egypt that Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had an opportunity to do some good work in Egypt but were, in my impression, recalcitrant on almost every point, and they decided to lead in a way that the rest of the country couldn't follow.
RONAnd so haven't they -- my impression is that they created their own problem, and that sort of -- I'm not in favor of martial law but sort of less the military in the same place that it was before in having to interdict something into the country to bring some normalcy back so everybody could be heard. And it seemed like that most of the aggression, to me, is being fomented by the Muslim Brotherhood (word?) their position. So am I wrong about that?
SMITHAll right. All right. Ron, let me ask Michael Rubin to respond to that. But first, I want to say that I'm Terence Smith, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to call us and join us, do so at 800-433-8850, or send an email to email@example.com. Find us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Michael Rubin.
RUBINWell, Nadia has already referred to this. But the Muslim Brotherhood, in their eight years of opposition, was famous for their organization and especially with their attention to constituent services. They would oftentimes provide social services and other constituent services that the Egyptian government simply wasn't able to do. The problem was this.
SOLOMONOnce they came into power, they pursued a much more social and religious agenda than addressing economic modalities, which Egypt needed to -- which needed to be done inside Egypt. But here is the problem as we look over the horizon: There's not a stark choice between the Muslim Brotherhood and economic irresponsibility in one hand and the Egyptian army and economic responsibility on the other because what we see on both sides is really a great deal of economic populism.
SOLOMONWhen you poll Egyptians, you will find an overwhelming number of Egyptians believe that the government should provide housing, should provide jobs, should set the price in the markets, should set salaries -- basically neosocialism -- and that's not the way that the Egyptian economy is going to revive.
SMITHNo. But it is what -- it's what they're used to.
RUBINIt's what they're used to. There's going to be -- need to be some very, very hard reforms. The Saudis can give $12 billion. But as Margaret Thatcher said, socialism is easy until you ran out of other people's money. And Saudi Arabia simply isn't going to throw money down the pit forever. The question is, who is going to add the economic reforms that are needed, and is anyone willing to stand up and tell the Egyptians the hard truth?
SMITHAll right. Jay Solomon.
SOLOMONI think he makes a good point 'cause, you know, Mubarak's been gone for about little over two years. And the scuff -- the military ran it for about a year or two. And the main economic issues the government was being asked to take both -- to get IMF loans and to sort of open up the tap of more financing was basically to drastically cut subsidies.
SOLOMONAnd, I mean, in a country like Egypt, if you're going to raise, you know, oil, water, I mean, electricity, all of this -- wheat, all of these commodities that have been subsidized, you're going to have the potential for mass unrest. The military government for a year didn't take those steps, Morsi didn't, so it's going to be a very tough challenge for anybody who's taking the net.
SMITHNadia Bilbassy, just in a final brief, final word. That's quite true, is it not, that much of this unrest is born of economic distress and changes in the system?
BILBASSYAbsolutely. And this is what sparked the Arab Spring in general with the guy from Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, who burned himself because he couldn't find a job. So, yes, absolutely, but now we have reached in Egypt a situation where stability is the key word. We needed some kind of political process that would bring a civilian government that ultimately will deliver to the Egyptian people.
SMITHAll right. Nadia Bilbassy, Michael Rubin, Jay Solomon, thank you all three very much. I'm Terence Smith, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you for listening.
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