The As We Speak Revolution


 I’m attending a talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy talk on what’s happening in Egypt.

What’s impressive is a) how smart the four speakers are and b) how little they know.

What captures this contradiction is the phrase repeated over and over again: "As we speak."

What’s happening is so volatile that it escapes analysis. For up-to-date bulletins of what’s happening, go to the Twitter feeds of people who are there in real time. Two are CNN’s Ben Wedeman and the New York Times’ Nick Kristof.

In any case, there are some good insights, as much as they are qualified with "As we speaks":

J. Scott Carpenter, WINEP’s director of its realtime Project Fikra, which connects DC and Middle East thinkers, and a deputy assistant secretary of state on Near East under President George W. Bush:

We are not yet at a point of transition and that is why it is an extremely dangerous moment. (Referring to President Obama’s statement last night): The United States has committed us to a transition when it is very much still in the air.

Dina Guirguis, also a Project Fikra fellow, and a former director of "Voices for a Democratic Egypt." She outlined the myriad opposition groups, including the National Association for Change, headed by democratizing forces like Ayman Nour and Mohammed ElBaradei; the People’s Parliament; and a group of ten notables representing the business community; but warned that none of these might ultimately speak for the street:

It’s not clear at this point just who the masses in the street support.

This opposition could be seen as riding the wave it did not initiate … hijacking a genuine people’s movement.

David Schenker, a Bush II Pentagon senior official and currently writing a book on, of all things, transition in Egypt. The military is key, he says. A key question is

How far will the senior military leadership go to protect President Mubarak?

Schenker notes that the military and Mubarak’s party, the National Democratic Party, share an antipathy both to the liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood that hope to lead the opposition: If those groups come out at the forefront…

As such the standoff on the Nile may continue even if Mubarak goes.

Robert Satloff, WINEP’s director, gives the Obama administration high marks for its performance so far, particularly in its urging Mubarak to speed the transition:

The imagery of Mubarak saying at 6, I’m going to say for eight more months and the president saying at 7, the transition needs to begin now –that’s the message people in the region will take away from the statement.

The downside is that the longer Mubarak resists, the worse for the United States:

Every day that Mubarak stays in office is a rebuke to President Obama

Satloff says now is not the time to cut off assistance to Egypt as a means of encouraging Mubarak’s departure:

The most likely agent of change … is the military. The idea that we gain influence by curtting off assistance may sound convincing in a seminar room but I assure you it doesn’t translate into Arabic.

He outlines likely changes in the relationship with Israel after Mubarak goes:

–The peace won’t be withdrawn; its benefits — massive aid, relationships with the West — is too valuable.

–The natural gas pipeline to Israel, however, is universally unpopular, and that may go.

–No actor in Egypt wants to open up the border to the Gaza Strip to the movement of arms, but any successor will likely want to ease controls to allow humanitarian aid in. That could raise flags in Israel.


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