ROBERT MCMAHON: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call. I’m Robert McMahon, editor of CFR.org and here to preside over discussion on the topic of Egypt, its political transition, its role in regional security.
We’re very fortunate to have as our featured speaker Steven Cook, a CFR senior fellow and author of the newly published book “The Struggle for Egypt,” which offers very rich insights into the country’s uprising earlier this year that unseated Hosni Mubarak and really lays a groundwork for understanding what continues to play out in that country.
I’m going to start out by asking Steven a few questions before opening up the discussion to you on the call. And we have a very fresh news peg to kick things off with.
Steven, the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 400 Palestinian prisoners was made possible by Egypt. And you have blogged on the fact that Egypt is now two for two in this arena of diplomacy, which has been a bit of a surprise given the somewhat chaotic situation that’s unfolding there.
Can you discuss a little bit about the kind of role Egypt played and its relationship with the two sides in this particular instance?
COOK: Sure. Thanks so much, Bob. And thanks, everybody, for joining on the call this morning.
I think it’s interesting, the role that Egypt’s played in Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy since Mubarak’s fall has been tantalizing positive. And I should say in this latest deal with Shalit, clearly the main actors, the Israelis and Hamas, clearly now have an interest to do this deal. Hamas’s external actors are in trouble, and the Israelis want to get a deal done with the Egyptians before there are elections, not knowing what is likely to come.
But nevertheless, Egypt’s evolving relationship with Hamas — there was clearly a shift in that relationship after Mubarak’s fall. And despite everything that has happened, the continuing good relations between the Israeli and Egyptian intelligence services — despite the ouster of Omar Suleiman there, Israelis’ primary interlocutor over the course of the last decade or so — did, in fact, help make this deal possible. And we’ve seen after five years of captivity, emotional pictures this morning of Gilad Shalit being released in exchange for these 400-plus Palestinians, with more — with more to come.
And it strikes me that, as Bob said, given everything that is engulfing Egypt, a very complex and difficult political situation, that what this episode in particular demonstrates is the tantalizing possibility that Egypt, with a more independent foreign policy of either the United States or the Israelis, may in fact be a more appropriate interlocutor for either Washington or Jerusalem going forward.
That’s a rather optimistic view of what might happen. Of course, any new Egyptian government is now going to be subject to public sentiment, which runs quite strongly against both the United States and Israel. But even so, if the Egyptians do demonstrate a more independent foreign policy and if the regional narrative, in addition to the Egyptian narrative, is no longer that Egypt is merely a lackey of the United States and aligned with Israel, we may be seeing Egypt return to the regional — to the region in ways — in leadership ways that we haven’t seen in quite some time.
So I think there’s — obviously beyond the central story here of Shalit being released, I think the other very, very interesting aspect of this is the Egyptian — is the Egyptian role here and what it means for the future Egyptian role.
MCMAHON: So Steve, let me see if I’ve got this straight. Is it a temporary sort of pragmatism on the side of the interim Israeli authorities, or are we seeing some also influence, perhaps, of, say, the Muslim Brotherhood, or the street in Egypt, so to speak? There’s been talk of the Hamas government in exile moving to Cairo, actually.
Are we seeing a — should we read this as a major shift or a — sort of as a series of pragmatic steps?
COOK: Well, it’s pragmatic in the sense that everybody has their eye on domestic politics in Egypt now. And there is clearly incentives on the part of all the major actors to distance themselves from the Mubarak period. So that’s why you have seen an evolving relationship between — between the Egyptian government and Hamas. This is very different from the time when Omar Suleiman and Mubarak were essentially seeking to undermine and de-legitimize Hamas in every way that they possibly could.
So I think that the stars are aligned politically in Egypt for — to play this kind of role because they have shifted on Hamas. Now, certainly I wouldn’t pin it all to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. As I said, there’s a broad sense in Egypt that politicians, both those that were connected to the regime and those that opposed it, need to demonstrate as much daylight between the previous regime and others. And that includes the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
So certainly to the extent that the Brotherhood is influential in shaping public opinion, it absolutely has had an influence here. But either way, even if the brotherhood was not as influential as it is, I think that you would be seeing this evolving relationship with Hamas and you would see the Israelis looking to make a deal as quickly as possible, knowing that once Egypt enters into this extended electoral season which it is on the cusp of, no deal would likely be possible and that even after the elections, the outcome would be such that making this kind of deal would be difficult.
MCMAHON: OK. So let’s shift for a second and look at a — some, let’s say, darker developments, what you’ve called the Maspero pogrom and the attacks against demonstrating Coptic Christians recently. And you’ve blogged about this and called it partly a signal of decline in moral authority in Egypt.
So what are we to make of the government’s ability to handle its sectarian tensions and lead? Or is it — are, again, we looking at an interim period where we’re seeing a shift in the Israeli (sic) ability to both provide order but also some sense of moral order?
COOK: I think you mean the Egyptian —
MCMAHON: Sorry, the Egyptian, yes. Yes. Sorry.
COOK: Look, first let me just say that I took a lot of guff on Twitter for calling it a pogrom. And there were different definitions of what actually a pogrom is.
It strikes me that this attack was planned by someone somewhere, and that the fact that the police and the military stood aside, I think those facts speak for themselves. And I think it falls well within what would be a standard definition of a pogrom.
And I think that one of the unfortunate things about the transitional period in Egypt, and something that is likely to be lasting, is the manipulation of sectarian differences in Egypt that went on throughout the Mubarak period — and indeed before the Mubarak period — makes it easier to whip up anti-Christian sentiment in Egyptian politics. And that situation is more fraught, given the complexities and difficulties of the transition. The days of, you know, brotherhood and unity of Tahrir Square were moving, but these issues are too ripe for people not to manipulate.
What I was bemoaning in that blog post was the fact that there is no — because this uprising was leaderless and because this transition has been so difficult, in part because there is no central figure that Egyptians can look to for some kind of moral guidance — now, it may be too much to ask that there be an Egyptian analogue to Havel, Walesa or even — or even — you know, one of these iconic figures from post-Communist Europe. So I think that that is something that is contributing to these kinds of periodic spasms of sectarian problems. We had it right after Mubarak’s fall. There has been tremendous difficulties in upper Egypt between Copts and Muslims. That is ongoing, but still it is something that has gained wider attention. And of course this most recent — this most recent incident.
I think it also speaks to the lack of leadership on the part — on the part of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Now, that’s no surprise to anybody. There’s essentially two narratives about the military. One is that, you know, they are this kind of evil genius pulling levers and manipulating the political arena, and the other is that they’re making it up as they go along. Believe me when I tell you they are largely making it up as they go along and have not been able to provide any kind of strategic vision for Egypt’s transition.
And what happens is that they make statements, they issue communiques, they take a policy position, and then they allow these issues to be litigated in the street. And you have as a result increasing political tension, and obviously sectarian tension.
To the event itself, I think it showed very poor command and leadership in the field. And obviously, this adds to the problems associated with Egypt’s transition.
MCMAHON: So to what extend should we have confidence, then, in this group that’s making it up as it goes along, as we head into elections six months — excuse me, six weeks from now?
COOK: Well, I don’t think we should have much confidence at all. I mean, first, let’s just say that Egyptian elections have never been models of, you know, fairness and openness, and have been largely chaotic and violence has been the norm. I think the one exception was the pretty good referendum from last March. But my expectation is, given everything that has happened and how manifestly unprepared the Egyptians seem to be — in fact, when I was in Cairo a few weeks ago, you know, the authorities who are administering this election were still kind of building their building, or renovating their building. For those of you who spend time in Cairo, there was the kind of requisite pile of sand out in front of the front door.
So, I mean, I think that that metaphorically speaks to how unprepared the Egyptians are for this. And I think it’s likely to be a chaotic — and I would not discount the possibility that there are spasms of violence during these, you know, first three phases of the People’s Assembly elections.
But, you know, they’ve now, you know, delayed these elections once. It seems unlikely that they will do it again. And of course, the irony is that the groups who initially sought a delay are now quite wary of a further delay, fearing that the military is getting used to holding onto power. And in fact, there was an interesting article in The New York Times, written by David Whittaker (sp), last Saturday, in which he talked about these fears among liberals that the military is growing too comfortable in power.
My own sense is that there obviously should be reason to be concerned about the military’s exercise of power, I think. But the primary concern is the competence of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. I don’t think that these guys are — have any intention of really holding onto power. Their primary goals from the very beginning have been to ensure that the legitimacy of the state continues to rest with the armed forces, that they make a deal with someone who can ensure social cohesion, and that they protect their economic interests.
Now, what this suggests is not that they want to retain power, but that they want to engineer a system in which — that is not exactly democratic; that they want to remain in overall position of authority, without having to deal with day-to-day governance — something in my first book I called “ruling but not governing.”
But I think that the idea that Tantawi and Sami Anan want to continue to be in executive authority is — if I was Egyptian, I would be concerned about it, I would be afraid of it as well. But looking at it from two steps back, it doesn’t seem to be what they want.
Now, nobody can discount the fact of what colonels and lieutenant colonels and majors and captains are thinking. Nobody has any insight into what is happening at the — at the junior — more junior ranks of the officer corps.
MCMAHON: Just a quick reminder for those on the line, we’re speaking with Steven Cook, CFR senior fellow and author of the new book, “The Struggle for Egypt.”
Operator, I’m now going to open it up — this up, for questions from those on the line. Any initial questions, please?
OPERATOR: Thank you. (Gives queuing instructions.) (Pause.) Our first question comes from Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
QUESTIONER: Hi, Steve.
COOK: Hi, Trudy.
QUESTIONER: Sorry, I missed the beginning of this — and I’m off to Egypt shortly. I — I’m wondering what you think is the relationship between the military and the Muslim Brothers, and whether you think there is any tacit understandings, as was rumored, you know, back in February. Or how do you think that relationship goes?
COOK: Well, I do — I think that there were tacit understandings. As I just said, I think that the military is looking to cut a deal with anybody who can ensure that there is social cohesion and stability.
I think that the military did not necessarily put all of its eggs in the Muslim Brotherhood basket, and I think that they — that because of the history between these two groups — the military and the brotherhood are sort of mirror images of each other — that there is likely to be competition — more competition between them than there is cooperation, although they will each try to use each other for their — for, you know, immediate political benefit.
And so you see when in July as — you know, as recent as July, when revolutionary groups went back out into Tahrir Square and stayed there for two weeks, the military, the brotherhood, Salafist groups and others opposed them. And there was kind of this tacit approval for Islamist, writ large, counterdemonstrations against the — against the revolutionary groups.
I don’t think that there is going to be some sort of kind of grand strategic deal between the brotherhood and the military. I think that they will continue to flirt with each other. I think they will continue to try to use each other, the advantages and assets that each other has, in order to get what they want. But ultimately, ultimately, this is like the early 1950s all over again, in which there’s not a whole lot of trust between each organization. Ultimately, they are — they are competitive groups, and they will have short-term kind of tacit agreements until one group or the other believes that they have political advantage over the other.
It seems to me that — despite everything that has happened, that the military continues to have the upper hand here, because they do always have the option to use coercion against the brotherhood, something the brotherhood can’t, obviously, use against the military. But of course, you know, there’s — again, there are risks for the military using the — this kind of coercion.
And as I said finishing off the previous question, we really don’t know what’s been happening at those lower, kind of middle levels of the officer corps, and what their view of these things are. And we can expect that the senior commanders will be very, very cautious before they make any kind of decisions, whether it is kind of tacit cooperation with the brotherhood or, if the brotherhood should, you know, move beyond the bounds of what’s acceptable to the military, on cracking down.
So it’s — you know, this is a — I don’t — I think I’m not telling anybody anything that they don’t already know. We’re talking about an extraordinarily complex and nuanced political situation in which none of these groups, whether it’s the military which has been out of politics essentially since the aftermath of the June ’67 war, or the brotherhood itself, which had grown comfortable and used to operating within the contours of an authoritarian political system, and others — are having a very, very hard time managing this more open political arena.
MCMAHON: Thank you for that question.
Another question, please, operator.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Joel Millman with The Wall Street Journal.
QUESTIONER: Hi, Steven. That was a very interesting presentation. Can you tell me what’s happening with the Sinai? We see reports of smuggling, and even sort of a lawless state within a state, (warring ?) tribes. How do you feel that’s playing out right now?
COOK: It’s a great question. It’s something that I was doing a fair amount of blogging on during the early summer, when people weren’t paying all that much attention.
There — the problem in Sinai is multilayered and problematic on almost every level that you can think of. You have Bedouin tribes that have operated autonomously for quite some time, that are — don’t like the authorities in Cairo. You have — (inaudible) — groups, who have sought to create their own perfect Islamic societies in the wilderness of Sinai. You have foreign Islamist extremists who at least claim affiliation with al-Qaida. You have Palestinian extremist groups. And you have an enormous amount of weapons and drugs and human smuggling that is going on.
You also have on top of that competition amongst the three primary state organizations that are responsible for administering the Sinai. You have the police and the ministry — obviously, the Ministry of Interior, which was battered during the uprising, that has a particular view of how to keep a handle on things in Sinai. Typically, this is brutal.
You have the General Intelligence Service, which is responsible for obviously keeping tabs on everything that is going on in Sinai and looking to manipulate different actors and so on and so forth. And you have the military, which is limited in its ability to be in Sinai, subject to Israeli approval beyond 50 kilometers east of the Suez Canal. And the military has been unwilling to do certain things with regard to Sinai because of this limited ability to actually operate there. If they weren’t going to be able to in full, they did not want to see the development of towns — the major towns of the Sinai, for example.
So you have the kind of lawlessness combined with the competition among the three agencies of the military, the intelligence service and the police. And what you’ve had in this post-uprising period is an increase in violence. The oil and gas infrastructure has been hit five or six times. The pipeline between Israel and Egypt has been shut down now and doesn’t look like it’s going to come back on line any time — any time soon.
You did have this Egyptian military operation during the summer, which — the Israelis agreed to allow 2,500 forces, special operations forces, helicopters, tanks, et cetera, et cetera, to go in and give the Egyptians an opportunity to kind of address the sources of instability.
It’s — the Egyptians basically pursued a — you know, a slash-and-burn military strategy here. And the situation remains unstable. And now come these reports that weapons are flowing from Libya to Sinai — not — not surprising, by any stretch of the imagination.
What is really of major concern here is, as we saw a little bit of — in August, what happens when someone takes a shot at Israel from Sinai. And we saw this increase in border tension. There’s a million gray areas. How will the Israelis respond? We already saw that there was a mistake on the border in which the Israelis killed six Egyptian border police, believing that they were in hot pursuit of terrorists.
So it does — Sinai itself has the potential to become, if such a thing exists, more lawless, more unstable and more violent, which presents a challenge in and of itself for an Egyptian government that is groping to establish security in the country.
And then, on top of that, you have all of these risks — these border security risks, at the same time.
I think the Sinai is one of the great untold stories of what’s happening in Egypt right now. Unfortunately, it’s a — it’s a closed zone. When I was in Cairo, I had the opportunity to go to the Ministry of Defense, and I asked my interlocutors if I would be able to go to el-Arish, and they said absolutely not. And most of the — the bulk of the information that’s coming out is through the Twitter hashtag Sinai.
So — but this is — you know, this is a rich, rich story that really has not come out. And I think it’s an exaggeration — one tweep (sic) suggested that Sinai could become Egypt’s Waziristan. Now I think that that is perhaps an exaggeration. But the analogy isn’t necessarily a bad one.
MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.
Operator, another question, please.
OPERATOR: Judy Miller with Manhattan Institute.
QUESTIONER: Hi, Steve.
COOK: Hey, Judy.
QUESTIONER: And thank you very much for this really interesting presentation, and congrats on the book.
I want to ask you about the economic situation. In addition to all other political tensions you’ve described among the various players, you know, we have a deteriorating scene economically, with, you know, running out of cash, no tourists, no law and order, keeping people away. How — do you see any signs that the SCAF or anybody there in Cairo understands the potential seriousness and has a plan for dealing with a, you know, deteriorating economic scene?
QUESTIONER: Oh. (Laughs.)
QUESTIONER: That’s easy.
COOK: Well, I mean, I think — I think the thing to keep in mind is that even if they understand the — that the reforms that Mubarak pursued over the course of the last decade did produce good results, the politics are not going to allow them to continue those reforms.
There — very — there are very strong populist sentiments and trends in Egypt right now, and I think what is likely to happen, particularly after an election and a new government is finally formed, that politicians will be subject to this popular sentiment, and there will be more investment in subsidies that Egyptians can’t afford. If you ask average Egyptians where — what they see as a kind of economic golden age, they talk about the mid-50s to the mid-1960s, that kind of period of vague socialism under Nasser, in which there was expanding economic and social and educational opportunities. And — not that I think that new Egyptian leaders are going to recreate the Nasser state, but there is going to be enormous political pressure to reframe, rebuild a social contract that the Egyptians just clearly can’t afford. But that’s what the politics are going to dictate, and that’s where I think they’re going to go.
MCMAHON: Thanks very much for that question.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Anisa Medhi with Whetstone Productions.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. I’d like to return to the question of what we were calling religious unrest. What we saw in Lebanon — although it was reported as Maronites versus Sunnis versus Shiite — was really various sociocultural groups, classes that were trying to get access to power and improved infrastructure in their neighborhoods, and they happened to be from different religious groups.
So I’m wondering if you would take a deeper cut at this question of Copts versus Muslims. I have a suspicion it’s not about Christianity and Islam, but that there are — there are other issues at play here.
COOK: Well, there’s always — I think there’s always a broader story about what’s going on. But I do — I don’t think that there are any kind of particular socioeconomic grievances that Copts have that Muslims don’t, that Muslims have and that Copts don’t.
Clearly there is institutional discrimination against the Coptic community in Egypt. But that has not necessarily in all cases translated into a — at least in the major urban areas of Cairo and Alexandria it has not translated into diminished economic opportunity in comparison, broadly speaking, to the majority Muslim population.
Now when we talk about upper Egypt or the Delta, we’re talking about a different situation. We’re talking about quite poor people. But they’re really no different from their Muslim neighbors.
I think that the primary issue is in fact a political one. I think you’re quite right that — and because I’m a political scientist, I don’t see these things as religious per se. I see religion being leveraged for political purposes. And there are clearly people in Egypt who don’t see a place for Copts in the new Egypt in terms of exercising power and having access to resources, and that they are leveraging, as I said earlier, the manipulations of the Mubarak period for their own political ends.
The Copts, for their part, are quite well aware of this and don’t want to see this happen, are — fear for what the new Egypt might bring, precisely for these reasons: concern that the institutional discrimination that they have faced already will get worse in a more open and arguably more democratic Egypt.
MCMAHON: Thanks very much for that question.
Operator, do we have another one?
OPERATOR: We have Federico Petroni (sp) with the Pulse International (sp).
QUESTIONER: Good morning, everybody. Thank you for participating for — in this interesting conference. I would like to ask you: How does the new Egyptian leadership see its relationship with the U.S.? And also, do you have evidence of this perception — if this perception satisfies the U.S. foreign policy-making?
COOK: Well, the Egyptian — there have been waves of Egyptian officials coming to Washington in ways to reassure the United States that Egypt continues to see its relationship with the United States in strategic terms.
But we are looking at essentially a transitional government that is seeking to keep things as they are until a new government is in place that can — that can make the big decisions.
And the military, of course, being the most important player here, is concerned about the continuation of the $1.3 billion in aid that the United States gives to the military every year. That’s not an enormous number, and it’s the same $1.3 billion that the United States has been providing to the Egyptian armed forces since 1983, which means it’s worth a lot less than $1.3 billion. But nevertheless, it’s important symbolically to the armed forces to be seen to be maintaining this strategic relationship, at least in the short run.
It strikes me that because of the revolutionary narrative about the United States, there is lots of discussion about the lack of burning of American flags in Tahrir Square. I think that misses the point if you draw the conclusion that everything will be well in the U.S.-Egypt relationship. I think the revolutionary narrative is that the United States has played a malevolent role in Egypt, that it has propped up authoritarian leaders; it has contributed to economic inequality and limited economic opportunity for the vast majority of Egyptians.
And as a result, in an environment of more open and freer and fairer elections, a new Egyptian leadership is likely to diverge from the United States for purely domestic political purposes. As I said at the outset of the call, there may be a happy unintended consequence that a more independent Egypt might be a more appropriate interlocutor for the United States in the region. But a lot of — a lot of things would have to fall into place for that to actually happen. But I do think inevitably there is going to be not a breach in the relationship, not a collapse of the relationship, but the Egyptians moving in a more independent foreign policy direction from the United States.
MCMAHON: Thank you for that question. We are speaking here on a CFR media conference call with Steven Cook, the CFR senior fellow, author of the timely new book “The Struggle for Egypt.” Steven also appears in a minidocumentary about the book called “Egypt’s Democratic Quest: From Nasser to Tahrir Square,” viewable on CFR’s website and on YouTube. It’s getting widely viewed there.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: We do. (Gives queueing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell, The Mitchell Report.
QUESTIONER: Thanks. Hi, Steve. Thanks for this.
QUESTIONER: And I — like Trudy (sp), I arrived about two or three minutes late, so if I missed something in — you just move on to the next question.
Thinking about a range of possible — of governing possibilities that on the one hand range from, you know, anarchy to the other — to the other extreme of Egypt becoming a model for democracy and all good things — (laughter) — isn’t it the likelihood is — have to be somewhere in between, and probably closer to anarchy than ideal. With that in mind, one of the things that I’m interested in getting your sense of, since you have such a good sort of on-the-ground feel for this, is to what extent does the prospect of a — of a Muslim Brotherhood-led or Muslim Brotherhood heavily influenced governance — how should we think about that? Is that, on balance, more likely to be a positive for Egypt itself and not necessarily for Egypt’s relationship with us or Israel? What — how should we think about this?
COOK: It’s a great question. Let me — let me start out by giving a kind of more macro picture of what I think Egyptian politics might look like in the coming years. And if you don’t mind, I — just plug the book for a second. You know, history is not, obviously, a guide to what exactly will happen. But it will give us a sense of the kinds of political patterns that are likely to emerge in this — in this period in Egypt.
And I do think that this struggle to define Egypt and establish a new political system is a multiyear process, if they ever get it together. And in that period I think what you will find is something very similar to what we had in Egypt in the 1930s and the 1940s: a strong Islamist presence, multiple political parties that are nationalist, secularist, liberal, that are not divided as much along ideological lines as they are along personality lines. You will see revolving governments, general instability and political uncertainty. The one thing you won’t have is a — is a foreign occupation to further destabilize the political system.
But nevertheless, these kinds of patterns that we observe from the past are likely to re-emerge. And we’re already starting to see some of that in this — in this transitional period. I mean, you know, you have, you know, over a hundred new political parties, half of which people can’t tell the difference. Even the ones that have been legally recognized, it’s hard to tell the difference among some of them. And despite some efforts to build coalitions and to unify some of these things, they are constantly splitting because of the personality differences between — among the leaders.
So I think that that’s what we’re seeing. In this environment, as I said, it’s clear that the Islamists are going to be perhaps the largest and most important political player. And in the parliament, in the People’s Assembly, they’re likely to have the most seats, but not a majority, probably a plurality, somewhere between 25 (percent) and 35 percent. That’s a very, very influential bloc. And if you think about what this parliament is going to do, it is going to pick a committee of a hundred to write Egypt’s new constitution, which means that there would be a heavy Muslim Brotherhood influence on Egypt’s new constitution.
I, for one, am a skeptic about the Muslim Brotherhood. I understand that the brotherhood’s public rhetoric on issues related to reform and democracy has evolved considerably over time, although if you go back and read the party platform of the Islamic Alliance going back to the 1980s, they’ve been saying many of the kinds of things that they’ve been saying in the last 10 years for the last 25 years.
All that being said, that they have made this rhetorical change. But they have never repudiated what their ultimate goal is, which is to Islamize society from below and establish an Islamic state based on Shariah. There is clearly a competition now between those kinds of Islamist traditionalists who want to pursue that track without necessarily being involved in the kind of rough-and-tumble world of politics and those who want to be. And as a result, the guidance council has set up this Freedom and Justice Party, I think despite themselves.
I think ultimately brotherhood participation is a good thing for Egypt not because in any kind of normative sense — like I said, I don’t — I don’t — I haven’t — I don’t think that the brotherhood has changed as much as people say — but because their being beyond the bounds of legal politics for all of these years has been a central problem in Egyptian politics. It has been a source of tension. It has been an excuse for the state’s abuse of power and so on and so forth. It also brings the brotherhood and all of its problems out into the open for Egyptians to see. I think — so for those reasons, I think it’s probably a good thing for the brotherhood to be part of the political process.
As far as relations with the United States goes, there’s really nothing much that we can do about it. The brotherhood is prestigious. It is influential. It is likely to garner a lot of votes. I do think, though, that it is going — the brotherhood’s influence is going to make it more difficult for the United States to manage its relations with Egypt. The days of making deals with authoritarian leaders is over, and it’s going to be harder and more expensive for the United States to manage and achieve its goals in the region than it was when we had, you know, the old soldier Mubarak keeping everybody down and making a deal with us.
MCMAHON: Steven, just to pick upon that, so what do you — what do you see as the best tack for the U.S. to take at this point during this somewhat perilous interim period for Egypt in terms of — has it been pretty much hitting the right notes lately, or is it — could it do more in certain areas, maybe more economic support, more sort of nuts-and-bolts support for the country?
COOK: Well — and this is — this is kind of a funny thing. The administration feels like it is doing all kinds of things, yet nobody on the outside, either in the United States who pays attention to this, nor anybody in Egypt can quite figure out what U.S. policy is in Egypt.
My own sense — and I’m somewhat of an outlier on this — is that more — less is more when it comes to Egypt given our history there, that the administration should stick to some basic principles about transparency, fairness, equal application of the law, free and fair elections, express our hope for, you know, an actual democratic transition in Egypt. I know the administration has been using that term that — as if the Egyptians have already embarked upon a democratic transition, which is manifestly not the case.
And then we should only do what the Egyptians ask of us, that we can deliver on. Some of that may have to do with more technical issues. But even in the technical issues, Egyptians are resistant and reluctant. I see the — and I think it’s very clear from my book — I see this uprising as linked to major nationalist episodes of Egypt’s past going back to the nationalist revolution of 1919. That’s not to say that this uprising happened because of Egypt’s relationship with the United States, but the relationship with the United States was — is a major grievance of those who instigated this revolution. And in fact, they have been able to build a narrative about the Mubarak era in which the United States has played this kind of malevolent role in Egypt’s domestic politics.
And that’s why I think we need to take a step back, in contrast to a place like Tunisia, where we didn’t play that role — the French played that role — where we might have more of an opportunity to do more things through AID, Middle East Partnership Initiative and other types of things to help encourage a democratic transition. The point is Egyptian — this is a moment of empowerment for Egyptians, and they largely want to do this on their own.
MCMAHON: OK. Operator, do we have any other questions?
OPERATOR: We have Tony Cavin with CBS News.
QUESTIONER: Hi there. I just wanted to — Steven, I’d give you an opportunity to maybe clarify a little, or maybe it’s just me that’s confused. Early on you talked about the tantalizing possibility that an Egypt with a more independent foreign policy might actually make for a much better honest broker, interlocutor in the Middle East, which you yourself termed a rather optimistic view. And then you recently just traced out a scenario where there’s going to be an awful lot of political instability, I would think, the way you picture it, in the immediate future. Is there — is there a contradiction between those two?
COOK: I don’t think so. There’s an awful lot of instability now, yet the Egyptians have been able to be pretty good brokers on two important issues to the United States, one being Gilad Shalit, and two, this somewhat sort of kind of agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank.
Obviously, domestic politics and foreign policy are linked. But I do think that even as Egyptians are sorting out their domestic politics, they can and they will demonstrate some healthy bit of distance between Cairo and Washington. That is likely to have an important and, I think, a positive effect on Egypt’s regional role. And as a result — and as a result, I think, with a more independent foreign policy and this healthy bit of distance, the Egyptians can present the Arab case to Washington and others in ways that — in ways that are legitimate, as opposed to during the Mubarak period, which although the Egyptians talked a lot about this, they were compromised by their strategic alignment with the United States.
So like I said, you know, it is — it is optimistic. But should the Egyptians, even beyond this initial period that I’m talking about where there’s likely to be a fair amount of instability regardless of what the outcome is on the domestic political front, whether it’s a kind of burgeoning democracy or it’s the kind of reauthoritarianization of Egypt, which is entirely, entirely possible, the dynamic — the political dynamics are going to be a desire to diverge from the United States and, in a counterintuitive way, making Egypt a more important player than it was when it was more closely aligned with Washington.
MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Next we have Jonathan Broder with Congressional Quarterly.
QUESTIONER: Steve, thanks very much for doing this. I too tuned in a little bit late, so apologies up front if I am asking you to repeat anything.
I want to pick up —
COOK: I always like to hear myself talk.
QUESTIONER: OK. (Chuckles.) I want to pick up on a couple of things that you said before, one about the sort of the danger of reauthoritarianization of the government with the army sticking around longer, and the second point being the sort of — the lack of clarity in U.S. policy toward Egypt. The United States has always — the administration has always held that, you know, it’s very afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood coming into power and that the longer the period could be between — you know, for elections, the more chance the young secular parties would have a chance to organize.
QUESTIONER: My question is does the — does the — does the — does the silence of —
MCMAHON: So after Jonathan, reprompt.
QUESTIONER: I’m sorry.
Does the silence of the United States or the lack of policy, does that sort of mask a tacit encouragement or approval of the length of time that it’s taking because it figures that the longer this political process takes, the greater the chance that a secular party is going to get the power is?
COOK: I don’t think that that’s the calculation. (Chuckles.) I do think — I think that what the administration has been in search of is the “Goldilocks policy,” which is — you know, in this case it would be not too short and not too long, just right. And — but of course, nobody’s been able to answer for them the question of what’s just right. And so they’ve been kind of going along. Secretary Clinton’s statements in this regard have been interesting in that she said that, you know, in — a transition is the most — is the most important thing and that the military, confronting a whole host of cross-cutting political problems and issues, if it feels the need to extend the electoral process to early 2013, if that’s what they believe is going to bring stability to the country, well, then so be it.
Interestingly, the liberal groups, the revolutionaries who don’t — who aren’t necessarily interested in electoral politics — there’s a difference between these liberal parties and so on and so forth and the folks who instigated the uprising — they now say that they’re obviously concerned that the longer this time goes on, the military will remain beyond. My own sense — and from the very beginning given, you know, a decade of looking at the military — is that the military was never really interested in forging a more democratic Egypt — it’s not necessarily in its interests — and is, in its very kind of sloppy way, groping around looking to how they can best salvage their position in Egypt and who they can kind of deal with that will ensure — that will ensure that that position, that kind of exalted position where the legitimacy of the state continues to rest within the military, where there is stability in the country and where they can hold onto their economic interest, whoever can provide that for them, they’re willing to do a deal.
There’s also the possibility, however, that things get so out of hand that, you know, the ability of the military or anybody else to herd cats forces the military’s hand, and the best way for them, from their perspective, to manage these internal challenges is through a more coercive and obvious kind of reauthoritarianization of the political system, which is something that is possible. It may not be something that Tantawi and Anan do, but other officers — other officers may see fit to do.
So I don’t think that the administration sees this prolonged period necessarily as one that’s going to give anybody a chance. I think what essentially they’re saying is that if the military feels that this is necessary to ensure stability, well, then there’s nothing that we can do about it, and then ipso facto we’re generally supportive of it as long as they carry through with these planned elections.
MCMAHON: Great. Thank for that question.
Operator, is there another question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Thank you. (Gives queuing instructions.) Our next question comes from Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
QUESTIONER: Steve, again, thanks. And a couple of things on the first point. Pass over it if you dwelt on it at any length. But at bottom line, if you were betting, do you think that the military will find some way to keep the peace treaty with Israel alive even if it becomes even colder than it is now, or do you think political pressures may push them in a direction they don’t want to go, forcing them to try to try to reopen parts of it?
And the second point: When Prime Minister Erdogan came to Egypt, he gave a speech that actually caused some dudgeon from the Muslim Brothers. And I’m curious, what kind of an impact do you think the Turkish model is having or will have on Egypt? Do you think they’ll help the al-lkhwan monetarily or do you think they might soften the direction that the Brothers want to go in? How do you see that playing?
COOK: Right. Let me answer the first, and I’ll do it in order. I was in, actually, Cairo when Erdogan was there. It was very, very interesting.
On the first, I think that the military is trying to play — walk a very fine line here. I think that they understand the trilateral logic of the bilateral relationship with the United States, which is that the key to whatever goodies they get from the United States is directly related to the kind of relationship that Egypt has with Israel. And that, obviously, militates against any kind of fundamental change of the treaty.
But of course, domestic politics really rules here, and credible polling done over the summer clearly indicates that many Egyptians want to renegotiate key aspects of the treaty. One that is, you know, kind of under the radar screen but is this issue of Egyptian oil supplies to Israel, which is now gas supplies; that Egyptians clearly see shipping gas to the Israelis when they have all kinds of needs and they’re paying higher prices for it is — despite the treaty is manifestly unfair, and they would like to renegotiate that.
I think this plays into some of the things that the military would like to see. They would like to renegotiate aspects that limit their ability to operate in Sinai, and they have been tacitly, and in some cases not so tacitly, signaling to the Israelis that they have to understand that public opinion now matters more than ever before and that they need to be serious on the Palestinian front; otherwise, they’re going to see changes in Egyptian policy.
And you see that in the kind of limited reopening of Retha (sp). You see that in the discussions about establishing diplomatic relations with Iran. You see that in the evolving relationship with Hamas. These things are, one, for political survival, but also dovetail nicely with the need to put some kind of pressure on the Israelis — on the Israelis to be more forthcoming. And in fact, over the summer the Israelis said, hey, look, we’re willing to – we’re wiling to discuss these things.
So I think that they will try to make some changes without, obviously, undermining the treaty. This is not — you know, in some ways, our military assistance program to the Egyptians is not what we tell everybody it is. It essentially is a way of keeping the Egyptians down, of ensuring that the Egyptians really can’t fight a war. The Egyptians aren’t in any position to really challenge the Israelis, despite the fact that the Israelis periodically get hyped up about this kind of thing.
So there’s no — there’s no up-side for the Egyptians in seeking to break the treaty, but there is a lot of political up side for them right now to put pressure, tacit and not so tacit, on the Israelis to modify the treaty in ways that would be satisfactory to large numbers of Egyptians, obviously.
Now on to Erdogan, the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan said some important things when he was in Cairo. And that speech, in which he talked about the importance of secular politics in pious societies, was obviously something that annoyed the Brotherhood, which had brought many people out to welcome Erdogan when he arrived. But people have made too much of the relationship between the AKP and the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has always seen the AKP as both too nationalist and too liberal.
And the relationship changed — you know, there was some interest on the part of each side to learn from each other, but hardly an embrace. During the uprising, when Erdogan was the first major world leader, and perhaps the first leader of anybody, to call for Mubarak to listen to his people and to step down, I think that that was deeply appreciated by the Brotherhood, but I don’t see there being a real connection between the two.
And at a deeper level, the Brotherhood — the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood sees itself as the granddaddy of them all, that it is the leading Islamist movement, social and political movement, of the region. Who are these upstart Turks of this too nationalist and too liberal party, to be preaching to us about politics?
So I think that we shouldn’t make too much of alleged AKP-MB connections. I think it’s a more difficult relationship than the casual observer suggests.
MCMAHON: Thanks for those questions. We have time for one more question if there’s somebody else on the line, Operator.
OPERATOR: There are no others at this time.
MCMAHON: OK. Well, thanks, everyone, for very good questions on this media conference call for CFR. And thanks especially to Steven Cook of CFR, author of the newly published book “The Struggle for Egypt.”
This concludes this conference call.
COOK: Thanks, everyone. Take care.
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