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Challenging Time in Egypt
when the U.S. supports the governments that are considered authoritarian, the people often will criticize the U.S. for supporting authoritarian governments. When the U.S. steps up and criticizes those governments for domestic policies, the people will almost universally, whether it’s in Egypt or elsewhere, say, Don’t meddle in our domestic affairs . . . Calvin Sims, anchor for The N
Tuesday, June 6,2006 00:00
by Calvin Sims and Michael Slackman, NY Times

when the U.S. supports the governments that are considered authoritarian, the people often will criticize the U.S. for supporting authoritarian governments. When the U.S. steps up and criticizes those governments for domestic policies, the people will almost universally, whether it’s in Egypt or elsewhere, say, Don’t meddle in our domestic affairs . . .

Calvin Sims, anchor for The New York Times, speaking with Michael Slackman, The New York Times bureau chief in Cairo.

Last year, Egypt was held as a beacon of burgeoning democracy in the Middle East when President Hosni Mubarak announced he would allow competitive elections. For the first time in Egyptian history, the names of opposition presidential candidates actually appeared on the ballot. And for the first time in decades, limited expression of political criticism and protest were allowed.

In recent weeks, however, those advances have been sharply undermined by the government’s crackdown on opposition parties, judges, journalists, protesters and virtually anyone who defies the Mubarak regime.

SIMS: Michael, this round of crackdown that’s taking place is mainly against independent judges. How did the judges get thrown front and center?

SLACKMAN: Last September was the first time we saw the government not only have multicandidate elections for president, but allow people to demonstrate in the street and criticize the president. Parliamentary elections were three rounds and again they decided to allow that to take place. But after the first round of parliamentary elections, they weren’t doing as well as they expected and the Muslim Brotherhood candidates, who were running as independents, were doing very well.

From that moment forward, we’ve seen regression or backsliding in a commitment toward democratic reforms here. And they’ve slowly silenced opposition voices as they’ve moved to shore up the National Democratic Party, which is Mubarak’s party.

There were supposed to be local elections. They delayed those two years. They reinstated the emergency laws. So there are lots of signs that this is happening.

Then you have the judges stepping up front and center. And the judges went public with their allegations that the elections were fraudulent, which robbed the government of the legitimacy it had so much wanted. And because the government had crushed all of the other vehicles for voicing opposition, all those forces out there that were defeated, whether they’re civil, civic, calling for democratic and electoral reforms, grabbed onto the judges.

Everybody now says, "Look, the government can’t be serious about democratic reforms if it’s not willing to have independent and functioning institutions of democracy."

SIMS: And how brutal has this crackdown been there in Egypt, in Cairo?

SLACKMAN: I think, taken in historical context, compared to some of his predecessors, Sadat and Nasser, not terribly brutal. But for contemporary Egyptian history, you know, during the 25 years Mubarak has been in power, certainly the last five years, it’s quite extraordinary.

And they’ve pulled out the stops and they’ve made it clear that they will not tolerate any support for the judges in the streets of downtown Cairo. You can’t imagine how many police they send out. There are these huge green boxy troop carriers, easily over a hundred of them, spilling police out onto the streets of central Cairo. And they’re not just affecting the small number of protesters. It’s affecting the many thousands of people who live downtown and work downtown.

SIMS: Now, are everyday Egyptians supporting these judges?

SLACKMAN: It’s hard to say. There is no public outpouring one way or the other right now. It’s just not like that in Egypt. People don’t respond that way. Maybe it’s because of something endemic to the Egyptian personality. Maybe it’s because of 30 years, 50 years, however long it is now, under authoritarian rule. You don’t see a huge number of people pouring into the streets. That said, the goal of the judges has resonated with regular people. It may not have pulled them to the street, but they’re paying attention in a way that they did not when you had the small group called Kifaya last year out protesting. Judges represent authority; judges represent independence; judges represent government. And for the judges to get up and say, Hey, the election was corrupt - to validate what people have pretty much suspected and known all along, I think has resonated in a way that you haven’t seen here with other movements.

SIMS: What went wrong in Egypt, which is the largest Arab population and was being looked to as an example of how the Middle East could actually move toward democracy?

SLACKMAN: The United States was looking to Egypt to superimpose the mechanics of democracy, namely elections, on an authoritarian government that is reluctant to give up power and on a society that has lived under authoritarian rule for a long time. What went wrong is they were counting on the party in power - that has a monopoly on power - to be willing to share that power. And they’re not, at least not yet.

SIMS: What’s been the response of the U.S., and is the U.S. in a difficult position here in knowing how to respond?

SLACKMAN: Well, the U.S. is two different things. Right? There’s the Executive and the Congress. At the Executive level, you’ve seen some harsh rhetorical condemnations. After Ayman Nour was put in jail, the U.S. also cut off free trade talks with Egypt, kind of as a punishment. But there hasn’t been much else done. And part of the reason is the United States relies very heavily on Egypt as a vehicle of its foreign policy in the region. And Egypt has stepped up and helped in some regards in many of these foreign policy areas that are important to the U.S.

The United States is giving $1.3 billion a year and another maybe $700 million in financial and military aid. Since 1979, Egypt has received $60 billion.

SIMS: Wow.

[Ikhwanweb: Since 1948, the US has given Israel (country of 6 miliions), a total of $84,854,827,200. The interest costs born by US taxpayers on behalf of Israel are $49,937,000,000 – making the total amount of aid given to Israel since 1949 $134,791,507,200 (more than $134 billion).The total cost of this financial aid to US tax payers per Israeli is $23,240. Since 1992, the US has offered Israel an additional $2 billion in loan guarantees every year. Nearly all past loans to Israel have been forgiven – leading Israel to claim that they have never defaulted on repayment of a US loan – with most loans made on the understanding that they would be forgiven before Israel was required to repay them. In 1997 alone, the total of US grants and loan guarantees to Israel was $5.5 billion, i.e., $15,068,493 per day]

SLACKMAN: Congress is asking: "Is this really helping our foreign policy?" And there are voices rising in Congress that are saying: "Maybe we need to rethink this."

One of the questions I know that policymakers and State Department analysts are asking themselves is: If you take money away, do you get the desired result? If you operate using a stick, will they change?

There’s no agreement, no consensus and certainly no certainty that applying a stick to Egypt is going to get the desired result.

SIMS: Isn’t this one of the big challenges throughout the Middle East, where you have these oppressive governments, like Mubarak’s, that the U.S. is trying to push toward more power-sharing, more democracy, but it’s not an easy thing to actually accomplish?

SLACKMAN: One of the things to bear in mind is when the U.S. supports the governments that are considered authoritarian, the people often will criticize the U.S. for supporting authoritarian governments. When the U.S. steps up and criticizes those governments for domestic policies, the people will almost universally, whether it’s in Egypt or elsewhere, say, Don’t meddle in our domestic affairs, at least publicly. So it’s a difficult challenge for the U.S. In addition, as we said, the U.S. has its own interests in the region. And at what point is it willing to compromise its short-term relationship with Egypt, when it’s relying on Egypt for so many other things, over a longer-term goal of promoting democracy? That, again, in the short term, because of the sensitivity of people on the street toward outside involvement, will get the U.S. criticized. It’s very difficult - very, very difficult for the U.S. to do anything in a place like Egypt, which is friendly, and actually be complimented for it.

SIMS: And at the same time, we see a trend toward more radical Islamic movements in a place like Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. We’ve had all these attacks that have taken place there in Egypt recently. How does that factor into this whole sort of calculus?

SLACKMAN: Probably the two main dynamics that the leadership in this region need to address are demographics and economics. Depending on the country, the vast majority of the people in this region are youngsters; they’re under the age of 20, 30, 18. You know, in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, in Egypt, there are huge, huge populations of young people. At the same time you have massive unemployment; you have fossilized economies, economies that aren’t moving, aren’t attracting investment. So you have these two very sensitive and very problematic issues. How do you get people jobs? That is one of the key problems here. Politics, of course, fits into this because before people are willing to invest in a region, they want to feel that it’s politically stable.

You can’t just say: Well, how do you put democracy in a place like Egypt? Or: Why is Islamism rising? You have failed political ideologies. Pan-Arabism failed; Socialism failed; Communism failed. There is no history here of democracy. All that people are really exposed to, and the only alternative the government has allowed them, is religion. When the governments of Sadat and Mubarak - particularly Mubarak when he shut down secular opposition - the only vehicle that people can find to express opposition was religion.

SIMS: How do you measure success in a country like Egypt and in the Middle East in general, given all that you’ve laid out?

SLACKMAN: During the last election, there was two ways to look at it.

You could say, as many people did, that it was a complete sham because we knew Mubarak was going to win. And in fact he won with six million votes. The next candidate, Ayman Nour, got I think 700,000.

Or you could say it was remarkable that for the first time there were other candidates running against the president, that demonstrations were allowed in the street criticizing the president, that advertising was allowed in newspapers attacking the president.

What we do know, though, is those few steps that they did take, whether cosmetic or substantive, depending on your viewpoint, are gone now. They are gone. O.K., the government has made plain that they will not tolerate protest in the street. They’ve locked up bloggers. They’ve locked up political opposition. They’ve beat people. And they’ve had such a massive show of force downtown that it’s clearly a message aimed not just at the political sector but at society as a whole.

SIMS: And the Bush administration has said to Mubarak’s government what, specifically, in response to this?

SLACKMAN: Well, again, I mean they’ve said that they think it’s unacceptable. In the case of Ayman Nour, they called for him to be released. The country of Egypt has a very strong - as with most of the people in the region - anti-imperialist culture. If Washington demands that someone get released, they’re going to lock him up; they’re not going to release him.

SIMS: Right.

SLACKMAN: But when it comes to the judges, the government of the United States has criticized what President Mubarak has allowed and ordered his government to do. But it hasn’t done anything. There have been no actions in this case to follow on the words. And there’s a sense among analysts here and in the U.S. that what the Mubarak government is doing is recognizing exactly what leaders throughout the region have recognized: that George Bush’s poll numbers are not good; that he doesn’t have the political capital to expend at home to make more enemies here; that he’s bogged down in Iran, he’s bogged down in Iraq. He was surprised by Hamas’s victory and is not going to look to make new enemies, certainly not one like Egypt that’s helping in things, as I said, from Sudan to Iran to Hamas.

SIMS: Do we expect the judges to continue to be a major force for independence and democracy there or do you think that fight is basically lost?

SLACKMAN: The question is, can you put the toothpaste back in the tube - right? What the government is trying to do is to stop or slow the expansion of boundaries of free political speech that had started during the presidential and parliamentary elections.

SIMS: Right.

SLACKMAN: Those groups that became accustomed to these new boundaries are now being shut down and slapped down. Can the government stop that? Can it push it back? I don’t know. I mean there are a lot of things brewing right now. You’ve got university professors who are organizing, saying they want state security off college campuses. You’ve got the judges who are pressing for more independence. There’s a rumor going around that the engineers’ union is about to explode because of its grievances. There’s a lot of things going on in Egypt. And the government is not a young, nimble government anymore. President Mubarak has been in power for 25 years. And he does not appear to have the kind of gravitas on the street anymore that he would need in order to handle all of these multiple fronts. Where it’s going to go, I don’t know. But it certainly is an exciting and challenging time here in Egypt.

SIMS: Oh, it is. Well, Michael, thank you very much for speaking with us. And we’ll look forward to your reporting as things progress there.

SLACKMAN: O.K. Thanks for having me.

SIMS: Thank you for listening. For The New York Times, I’m Calvin Sims. We’ll be back next week with another edition of World View.

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