Middle East: Protestors riot in Egypt

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Robert Danin
Senior Fellow for Middle and Africa Studies, Council on Foreigh Relations
Friday, January 28, 2011; 1:00 PM

Heavily armed riot police battled thousands of protesters across Egypt on Friday, as the government sought to squelch a burgeoning pro-democracy movement that appeared to be gaining strength.

Robert Danin, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was online Friday, Jan. 28, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the latest news and the future of the Mubarak government.

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Robert Danin: Hi, this is Robert Danin from the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. I'm here to discuss developments in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. It is pleasure to be with you today.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: I read (perhaps a rumor) that the Egyptian army is getting involved in the protests. What is the Egyptian army like politically and what are they are they likely to do in this situation?

Robert Danin: The army to date has been the big unknown. Its head, General Tantawi, is very close to President Mubarak and at one time considered one of the few top contenders for succession. There is no reason to suspect that the Army will turn against the regime, unless it sees a complete breakdown in order.

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Arlington, Va.: Is this the beginning of the end for the Egyptian leaders? It's hard to see the genie going back in the bottle, right? How worried should the rest of the world's corrupt oligarchies be? Or even the U.S. oligarchy? I have never put much stock into "social networking" but these tools really do seem to be able to allow a level of fast organization impossible in the past.

Does take an established, educated middle class a la Tunisia and now Egypt to make these revolutions successful?

Robert Danin: Today is a pivotal day. If the regime does not gain control then the protests and riots will probably only spread. If, in turn, it comes down hard, squelches dissent, but lots of blood is shed to do so, then it will further undermine its legitimacy and probably provoke even greater resentment. The question is does Mubarak attempt to offer up any nod towards reform--appointing a Vice President, opening up the media, declaring that Gamal will not run in the next elections--or does he just dig in harder?

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Arlington, Va.: I would love to see democracy in Egypt, but I am very concerned about the role of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in these events. Do we know what role, if any this group, currently on the U.S. terror list, played in the events going on in Egypt?

Robert Danin: The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) appears to be standing on the sidelines for the time being. Their participation would only give the government further justification to crack down. And the MB is also probably waiting to see if a vacuum is created that it can then step into. So far, this is a disparate group of protesters, poorly organized without a clear leadership. El Baradei, even if he were able to step in, might only prove to be a transitional figure. So in short, we haven't seen the MB play its hand yet, but no doubt, it will.

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Colorado: Hi, I can't help but hope that the Arab world is starting to become frustrated by dictators and is moving towards some sort of democracy. Do you see this as a goal of the Egyptian protesters, or are they mainly expressing their frustrations?

Robert Danin: The demonstrators are clearly fed up with the status quo in Egypt. They don't see the prospect of real change, and they see corruption, a huge and growing gap between right and poor, economic opportunity, and much greater freedom. Mubarak has become the symbol of all that ails Egypt now.

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Washington, D.C.: What is going on with U.S. coverage on this issue? There are reports out of Alexandria from U.K. sources stating that the protests are mostly peaceful, that police forces are in some places joining in with the protesters, that the violence from protesters has been against objects (cars and buildings), and that the Muslim Brotherhood isn't even involved with the protests. Yet here, it's like you can't read coverage that doesn't make the protesters out to be anarchic rabble.

Robert Danin: It is extremely difficult to get the macro picture right when there are so many disparate events going on. This is analogous to the "fog of war." Instant media feeds can give us a flavor--sometimes a distorted one--but they don't give us a comprehensive sense of events. This is rendered more difficult because the regime is working to prevent various media from transmitting.

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Boston, Mass.: I have to believe that Saudi Arabia and Iran are nervous from what they are seeing in Cairo. Do you think uprisings are possible in these countries? Maybe they are already preparing to strike down any revolt, if it begins?

Robert Danin: It's hard to say "where's next"? No one would have anticipated Tunisia as the spark. Egypt, is less surprising, since it is a republic with centralized control by one man. In Saudi Arabia, you have royal family that has certain buffers. It can always remove the government, for example, and insulate the Saudi family. In Iran, you also have a division of power between the clerics who weild the most power, and the government. In these situations, you have more safety valves and ways to offer change while protecting the core center of power.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why do we assume that people in the Middle East want and can successfully adapt to democracy? It's never been done and there is nothing about their societies, culture and political history that says they can pull it off. I'm not saying that they deserve the repressive dictators that they have but I'm not sure democracy, as we know it, is a viable alternative.

Robert Danin: A few decades ago, people used to say that Africa, Asia, and Latin America were not capable of developing democracies. Cultural reasons, religion, tribal differences, colonial legacies, were all cited as reasons that democracy could not take root. And then it did. If we listen to what the people of the Middle East are saying, they sure seem to want more democracy. But it has to be their own form of democracy, grown and nurtured from within.

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Isn't this a Better Way to Achieve Regime Change?: I've never been a fan of Regime Change where the U.S. actively tries to topple another government. Regime Change is too expensive in terms of lives lost, diplomacy and money. A recent example of too costly Regime Change is the Iraq war Bush used to remove Saddam Hussein's regime. Isn't what we are seeing in Egypt or what we saw in Russia and Yugoslavia where the populous leads the change a better way for Regime Change to occur?

Robert Danin: The US has tried to tell the Egyptian government that it must adopt reforms or face rising discontent. Secretary of State Rice made a bold speech calling for democracy. President Obama at the beginning of his term did the same. Toppling the regime is not the goal of the US here. Egypt has been a friend and ally. And we have to balance our need to stand with our friends, encouraging them to change their oppressive behavior, whilst standing up for the principles were hold dear--freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, peaceful change of power, etc. This is a very difficult balance to strike.

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Alternatives?: What are the alternatives to Mubarak? Military junta a la Nassar and Sadat? Islamic Republic a la Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban? None of the options sound particularly good for the Egyptian people. . .and yet ironically that seems to be what they want. Or do they? Is there a legitimate voice for true representative democracy and limited government in Egypt?

Robert Danin: At this point, there are two obvious alternatives--the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. What the protesters appear to be doing is trying to establish a third way. But they are poorly organized and do not yet have a clear leadership or platform. It would be easy to envisage a popular government coming to power, that is then replaced by more powerful forces. So in short, this drama could play out in many ways, through various stages.

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Washington, D.C.: Jackson Diehl today blames the administration's shortsightedness for contributing to this problem in Egypt, as he -- to his credit -- predicted a few weeks ago. But really, is there anything the U.S. could really have done? Is there anything the U.S. can do now?

Robert Danin: I believe that there is more that the US could have been doing over the past decade to encourage change. This is not easy--I was personally involved in efforts to do so--and the the Egyptian government was not at all receptive. But our public posture could have been more forward leaning. Now, in the midst of a crisis, our influence diminishes. The regime is focused on survival. That said, we still should maintain our dialogue with the top leadership and set redlines that should not be crossed and principles that should be adopted.

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Robert Danin: It has been a real pleasure to have this opportunity to exchange views and hear what is on your minds. I hope that my responses have been helpful. I know we all wish to see a peaceful outcome and greater change for Egypt. Thank you for your interest. Best, Robert Danin

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