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The U.S. Role In Egypt's Battle For Democracy


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After a series of large and sometimes violent demonstrations, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi yesterday authorized the military to secure the country ahead of Saturday's referendum on the controversial draft constitution. Some describe that move as martial law.

That came after President Morsi backed down and rolled back some of his newly declared powers, but he refuses to postpone the vote on the draft that some opponents say grants him and his Islamist-dominated parliament far too much power.

So far, U.S. officials have offered only mild criticism, which prompts some to charge that the United States is again supporting an Egyptian autocrat. So what is the U.S. to do in the Egyptian crisis? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Clarence Page on the Associated Press decision to ban three terms. He joins us on The Opinion Page. But first the latest from Egypt, and we begin with NPR foreign correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who joins us from Cairo. Nice to have you with us again.


CONAN: And what's changed since President Morsi called on the military to enforce order?

NELSON: Well, it's sort of quiet before the storm I guess would be the best way to describe it. At this stage, people are gearing up for protests tomorrow that are - they're calling them mass protests. That's what's being called for, both for and against President Morsi and his decision to hold a referendum this week. It starts actually on Wednesday, and we'll talk about that in a bit, to basically pass a draft constitution, which many people are concerned about here.

CONAN: And so nothing yet, there's no sign of more troops on the street or anything like that?

NELSON: No, actually the military has been quite reluctant to get involved, and the generals, in fact, in a statement on Saturday, made it pretty clear that they prefer that this will be resolved with conversation and dialogue rather than with force. They are very concerned about where things are going, and one has to remember the recent history here, that is that the military of course took over after Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

And their arrests of civilians and military trials did not go over well here in Egypt and around the world. I mean, there was a lot of criticism. And in the end, President Morsi, after being elected, ousted the ruling generals from power. So they're a little bit cautious here. They don't want to become involved in this crisis that's sort of a fight between different factions of Egypt.

CONAN: And you can understand being put in the middle like that, but there's also the irony, for decades the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization to which Mohammed Morsi belongs, railed against the emergency powers decree of Hosni Mubarak.

NELSON: Yeah, I think it really does demonstrate how concerned Mr. Morsi and his allies are about where this is going. I mean, in public they dismiss these people as being foreign elements, as being paid by unknown remainders or remnants if you will, (foreign language spoken) they're called here in Arabic, from the Mubarak regime. They're not really - they're trying to dismiss them as illegitimate people.

But they are obviously concerned enough to bring in this power, which they are so opposed to or were so opposed to not that long ago.

CONAN: And so we'll have to see how the military does respond. It's important to remember thus far I think seven people have died, hundreds have been injured.

NELSON: Yes, it's been violent on occasion. I mean, it's important to also note that most of the protests have been peaceful. And in fact as a reporter who's had to (technical difficulty), I found that it's more along the lines of what we saw at the beginning of the revolution, or I should say after Tahrir Square was taken, where people are much more respectful of each other.

But the problem is when you have the pro-Morsi supporters, especially Muslim Brotherhood when they call up for protests, and these people turn out, and they end up clashing with the people who are against Morsi, it's been quite violent. And as you noted, there have been a number of deaths and many, many injuries.

CONAN: So as we await this next round of demonstrations, the voting, as you said, actually begins tomorrow or Wednesday?

NELSON: Well, it's supposed to begin Wednesday with expat voters, expat Egyptians, that is, who are not in Egypt. And at this point it's unclear how that's going to proceed. A fifth of the diplomats signed a letter last week that said that they would not be partial to taking part and in fact encouraging the foreign ministry to dismiss it altogether. But at this stage the government says it's moving forward.

It's interesting to note, I mean, we're talking about the election here in Egypt, the referendum here in Egypt taking place on Saturday. There's been really very little campaigning, except for a website that has some discussions of at least the way the government sees this particular constitution or this draft of this constitution. But you don't really see a whole lot of Egyptians understanding what's in this document that they're being asked to vote on.

CONAN: So the opposition, has it decided, is it going to say vote no, or is it going to say boycott?

NELSON: Well, it's very confusing. They had a press conference last night where they said they are more determined to stop this referendum from happening than trying to make a decision about what happens should the referendum take place. They felt that these are individual decisions.

There are some groups that have come out and said they are going to take part but do it as a no vote. I mean, the problem is if there is a boycott, which some people have thought of or called for, there is no doubt that this constitution will pass. I mean even with people coming in and voting no, given the fact the Muslim Brotherhood has a very strong political base in this country and also the fact that they control the polls, since there isn't much independent monitoring that's going to be going on, the concern is that they'll win either way.

CONAN: Indeed even calling for a boycott, isn't that sort of a concession that you don't have the votes to beat it?

NELSON: It could be, but at this point it's a little confusing, and the opposition really hasn't come out with a plan B, if you will. At this point, I think they're counting on the protests tomorrow night to be voluminous enough, if you will, that Mr. Morsi may delay it, just as he did the expat vote. That was actually supposed to start on Saturday and that has now been delayed to Wednesday.

So I guess they're hoping that this whole thing will be put off. They really, I think, want a conversation about this constitution, and that's understandable because the people who ended up approving this draft document were largely - I mean almost entirely Islamists who side with Mr. Morsi.

CONAN: The secular groups and the minority groups, including Christians, walked out of those consultations.

NELSON: They did, and you have to also remember that the first constituent assembly was dissolved by the courts. This is part of why Mr. Morsi decided he had to take on these powers and basically dismiss judicial oversight, because he felt that these courts, which contained judges who were appointed during the Mubarak era, that they in fact were trying to act politically and trying to make his government ineffective. And so yes, the constituent assembly ended up being virtually all Islamists, most of them Morsi allies.

CONAN: And how the judges, how have they responded, the newly re-empowered judges? How have they responded to Mr. Morsi's decision Saturday night to roll back some of his powers?

NELSON: Well, at this point two groups of judges have said that they in fact will take part in supervising the elections because you really need these judges to be sort of the independent arbiters, if you will, to make sure that you don't have groups coming in and, you know, putting in false ballots or pressuring people or whatever the case might be.

These are relatively smaller groups. The main judges have still to issue their decision about what they're going to do. It's important to remember that this country - in this country right now most of the courts are on strike because of what Mr. Morsi did with taking on these powers and also because of a sit-in that's been going on at the constitutional court, which of course is, well, arguably the highest court of the land.

There's - we could talk about other courts that are here, as well, but the point is that's the court that's sort of been under fine for dissolving bodies like the parliament and the constituent assembly from before. And so one group of judges said that they would take part if this sit-in was removed, if certain other conditions are met.

And the other group is actually a pro-Morsi group of judges, and they said they would do it. But that's not really enough to take care of the thousands of polling stations that would have to open for this referendum to take place.

CONAN: And as this process goes ahead, independent people who've read this draft constitution say it isn't wildly more religious than the old constitution was or wildly religious at all. Are people more upset about process than about content?

NELSON: Definitely process is part of the problem, but there are a couple of things in this constitution, or more than a couple but at least two major ones, that cause some concern. One is that it opens the door for al-Azhar, excuse me, for religious scholars to sort of weigh in on law here. And it's like, OK, then who gets to arbitrate if there's a question of law? Is it going to be the courts, or is it going to be the religious scholars?

I mean, this is a big question, and it changes the tradition here in Egypt. And then the other issue is that you have the military, for example, still having control over its budget, over, you know, over the way it acts. I mean, it isn't really something that's going to be seen or, sorry, overseen by people who are elected. This is one concern.

I mean, also the president still retains an awful lot of power, which is something that people who were involved in the revolution wanted to see done away with because they don't want somebody who can come in and do what Mubarak did or in fact what Morsi did a few weeks ago.

CONAN: And we're going to be talking about U.S. policy right now and down the road. Of course the United States supported Hosni Mubarak for many years, and his predecessors, as well. It is - what role is it playing right now?

NELSON: Well, certainly - there haven't been as many anti-American demonstrations as one might expect. I don't think the Egyptians who are out on the street at the moment are by and large happy with the fact that the Americans have not come in and said hey, Mr. Morsi, this is probably not a good idea, or - I mean, the feeling is that America's only concern is what Egypt's relationship is with Israel, is the border going to be safe, and, you know, the money keeps flowing in.

And so people here are not really looking, I think, to America, at least people in the streets that I've talked to are not looking to America for leadership or guidance or help on this matter.

CONAN: Well, is America, is the United States government doing itself any good by sort of sitting on the sidelines?

NELSON: That's a tough question. You know, I don't pretend to be a diplomat on this, but it does seem that perhaps voicing something, rather than waiting to see what happens, might be something new try. It certainly didn't work for the United States during the revolution that ousted Mubarak.

There was a strong feeling among the people here that America just didn't step in soon enough. I mean, there's a lot of love here for America and a lot of respect for America, and a lot of that's been whittled away over the past two years. So what's happening now is not really helping America's case.

CONAN: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, with us from Cairo. We'll stay tuned. Thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

CONAN: Egyptians will have a chance to weigh in on the controversial draft constitution later this week or boycott the vote. The U.S. faces a number of decisions of its own, about the future of what remains an evolving and complicated relationship with Cairo. So what should the U.S. do now? We'll talk more about that in a moment, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, played a key role in brokering the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel last month, a move that raised his profile and boosted his relationship with the United States. A day after that ceasefire agreement President Morsi declared himself all but untouchable.

He's backpedaled a bit on that decree. Critics fear that another authoritarian regime, though, is taking shape in Cairo. And as protesters again fill Tahrir Square, President Obama last week called Morsi to express deep concern about deaths and injuries of protesters and made it clear violence from any side is unacceptable.

So what should the U.S. do? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's get a caller on the line, and this is - Ed's(ph) with us from San Francisco.

ED: Hi Neal, I will tell you that I have extended family in Egypt, and they're all pretty angry. Seventy-five percent or more of Egyptians are pretty angry at Morsi. In fact right now they don't want him altogether. If you look at the posting, especially in Facebook, all kind of caricatures to show him how ugly and a terrible person he is.

He came with an agenda, and it's time to implement it. And the (unintelligible) should do is recognize that Egypt will always be secular. There's no room for it to become an Islamic, you know, democracy of Egypt, whatever it is. (Unintelligible) the United States has to just stay aside and to support the Egyptian people and not to offer any help to Morsi. He (unintelligible) have to go. He cannot - he can no longer represent to be a president of the country of Egypt. He has shown his colors, and he did it very quickly.

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Joining us now from our bureau in New York is Mona El-Ghobashy. She's an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College. And joining us here in Studio 3A in Washington is Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and nice to have you both with us.

MONA EL-GHOBASHY: Thank you, Neal.


CONAN: And Mona El-Ghobashy, I just wonder: How many Egyptians do you think agree with Ed?

EL-GHOBASHY: I think 75 percent of Egyptians being against Morsi is an overstatement, but what's certainly true is that there's probably the highest level of discontent with President Morsi right now due to the decrees that he issued on November 21st and despite the concessions that he made on Saturday, taking back the most egregious provisions of those decrees, immunizing himself from judicial review.

I still think there's quite a bit of significant reservoir of opposition in Egypt, but at the same time, his supporters are now also rallying, trying to get voters to go to the polls on Saturday to vote yes on the draft constitution.

CONAN: And it looks as if they are better organized than the opposition, as has been true from the start.

EL-GHOBASHY: Indeed, they're already holding both get-out-the-vote campaigns in villages and neighborhoods, they're holding national conferences in which they are going article by article over the draft and telling people that yes, we're telling you to vote yes, but more importantly what we're telling you to do is to try to read the draft and make up your own mind and turn out on Saturday.

CONAN: Let's turn to Michele Dunne here in Washington. The United States of course accused for many years of supporting the autocrat in Cairo, and some critics would say you're doing it again.

DUNNE: Well, I think the one thing to keep in mind, Neal, is that U.S. foreign policy in general and certainly in the case of Egypt is much more reactive than proactive. And so, you know, we saw last week that - we only saw some statements from Secretary Clinton and then a call from President Obama once demonstrators started turning out into the streets in large numbers.

So I think that the position of the U.S. and certainly of the Obama administration is to take a bit of a back seat, not to make the United States the issue, and to say as little as possible until things really started getting out of control. And then they felt that they had to react, they had to say something.

Even so, they tried to be sort of even-handed and to call for dialogue and so forth.

CONAN: Pretty mild criticism for what many described as a power grab.

DUNNE: Yes, and they - you know, they did say a few of the right things, I thought. They said that the Egyptian constitution should protect the rights of all Egyptians. They talked about the need for an inclusive process. So I thought they were kind of signaling some sympathy for the demands of the opposition but without coming out and explicitly criticizing President Morsi or calling on him to do anything specific.

CONAN: And let me turn again to you, Mohammed - excuse me, Mona El-Ghobashy in New York. As - are the - is either side in this controversy now calling on the United States to do anything?

EL-GHOBASHY: Well, both sides are actually accusing the other side of trying to rally foreign support. And so as with previous episodes of factional fighting in Egypt, foreign support is the kiss of death. That is, each side is trying to accuse the other of trying to gain the support of foreign powers, particularly the United States. It's a very inflammatory accusation.

And perhaps that might explain why the U.S. administration is trying to take a back seat, as Michele pointed out, so as not to inflame the situation further given that it's already very, very volatile and unprecedentedly polarized.

CONAN: Yet Michele Dunne, as you noted, the United States was reactive in the - two years ago when it was Mr. Mubarak whose political future was at stake. And late in the day, the United States played a crucial role in his removal, but late in the day. Should the United States look to be more proactive this time around?

DUNNE: I think in the case of the Egyptian revolution, the U.S. administration looked at the situation and realized there was no realistic way to prop up President Mubarak and that they just had to go with what was clearly an irresistible wave of change, both from the public and from the military, who had - clearly were fed up with Mubarak at that point.

So similarly now, I think they're going to be watching what's going on in the streets. We have from now until Saturday, when this referendum is supposed to take place. And we have yet to see whether the opposition will once again bring into the streets large enough numbers in Cairo and in other cities to make it, you know, really difficult if not impossible for the referendum to be held.

The new element here is that President Morsi has asked the army to step up and to take security, and that is a more daunting, I think, thing for protesters to face soldiers and tanks and so forth rather than police.

CONAN: We'll have to see how that works out starting tomorrow, I guess, when those demonstrations resume. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Jim(ph), and Jim's on the line with us from San Jose.

JIM: Hi, thanks for taking my call. My concern is if the U.S. steps in and makes any kind of comment here, there's going to be a free, hopefully a free and fair election with judges monitoring this. If it's the will of the people, then why would we want to go against this? I think the only thing we would want to ask for or make a comment on is that - request international monitors.

And one other thing I'd like to mention, and this is something your reporter, Ms. Nelson, kind of glazed over is that these - this constitutional court are really Mubarak holdovers. These are not representative of the people, and they know, these guys know that their days are numbered because they'll eventually be appointed out anyway. And their saying that the parliament doesn't necessarily represent the people is really, you know, the pot calling the kettle black.

So I'm very concerned about how this is - would head if the U.S. were to intervene against democracy. Wouldn't it just be, again, we just don't want this guy, so please, you know, we agree with the opposition, get him out and regardless of whether or not there's a referendum where 75 people, 75 percent of the people, vote for him?

CONAN: Well Jim, there's a lot in there, but Mona El-Ghobashy, let me begin. Is there going to be outside monitoring? Is the Carter Center or anybody else going to view these elections starting on Saturday?

EL-GHOBASHY: This has always been a very controversial element in Egyptian elections. Under Mubarak, of course that regime flatly rejected any kind of international monitoring for the obvious reason that there was wide scale rigging. But kind of ironically, after the revolution, most Egyptians, or at least many members of the judiciary, who see it as their right to supervise elections, have also taken a negative view towards international monitors.

Their argument is that we are able to do this task on our own, and they very much object to the term monitoring. But they're fine with the slightly less strong term of observation. And so the Carter Center indeed was in Egypt during the presidential and the parliamentary elections of earlier this year and last year.

As for plans for the referendum, I haven't seen any plans by international organizations to monitor.

CONAN: And the other part of that - well, let me turn to Michele Dunne.

DUNNE: Just to add a piece of information to what Mona said about this, I heard from people in President Morsi's administration last week that they did invite international organizations to observe the referendum. However, that was with very little notice. It was only two weeks' notice at that point. It's hard for international organizations to mobilize that quickly.

And now with the referendum being so controversial and possibly violent and so forth, I would doubt if many international organizations would agree to go and observe.

CONAN: And the other part of Jim's question, Mona El-Ghobashy, who's - which is the side of democracy here? Both sides would claim we're for democracy.

EL-GHOBASHY: That's been one of the main themes of the infighting between these different factions ever since the controversy erupted over President Morsi's decrees. Each side claims a popular mandate. President Morsi and his supporters, of course, claim that they have the will of the majority of voters. He was voted in by 51 percent of the vote, a very slim majority, but a majority nonetheless in elections that were perceived to be imperfect but on the whole quite sound. On the other hand, the opposition to Morsi who are not elected yet they still represent significant segments of Egyptian public opinion.

And ever since the November 21st decrees, their supporters have increased. They have been able to call out demonstrations in the tens of thousands, not just in Cairo but in all the major provincial cities. And so now, you have two vying bases of legitimacy as it were, both of them not really seeking to recognize that they both have valid claims, and that's why we are in this impasse right now.

CONAN: And if the - let's say the draft constitution is approved, there would be another election, no?

EL-GHOBASHY: Indeed, there would be. First of all, the first thing that would happen with President Morsi, all of his exceptional powers would immediately revert to the upper house of parliament which remains undissolved. It's still sitting. And then within two months, there have to be the procedures that would begin for elections of the lower house of the legislature.

CONAN: So at that point, the opposition which seems to be better organized, Michele Dunne, might make itself more felt in the next legislature.

DUNNE: Well, that might be a silver lining to this crisis than it's - it's causing the non-Islamist opposition leaders and organizations to work together more closely, but I want to make another point here which is that what we're talking about here is not a controversy over any kind of a law or elections or any - this is the constitution of the country, and it's only going to be able to be amended in the future by a vote of two-thirds of parliament. I think that the non-Islamist opposition knows that no matter how well they do in the next election it's almost impossible that they would have two-thirds of parliament.

And so whatever constitution passes now, they're going to be stuck with it for quite a while. This is one of the reasons why in a lot of countries that undergo transitions to democracy it's preferable to convene a constituent assembly and write the constitution before you have your first general elections. That is before the political forces can go out and test their strength in the public. Unfortunately, Egypt did it the other way around. Now, the Islamists know and they say over and over again we're the majority. We get to call the shots.

CONAN: Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, former member of the White House's National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Also with us is Mona El-Ghobashy, assistant professor of political science at Barnard College. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Ali(ph) is on the line with us from Brockton, Massachusetts.

ALI: Hi. I just - I have - I'm an Egyptian. I'm an expat, and I've been hearing a lot of talk about democracy and legitimacy of democracy and what the United States' role should be. And I just wanted to remind everybody that democracy brought Hitler. It brought some pretty horrific things. And just because a people is ignorant enough to be able to vote on something that they, you know, nobody - just being realistic, the - 40 percent of the Egyptian people don't read and write.

How are they expected to vote on a constitution that, you know, protects the values of, you know, what, you know, protecting minorities and all these other things? And so just the argument about minorities - I mean, I'm sorry - about democracy is ludicrous as far as what position the United States should take. I think that regardless of how this is voted on that it should be made clear that there will be, you know, consequences for, you know, trespassing on the rights of minorities. I myself am atheist, and I fear for - going back to my country now that this new government is - has gotten hold of what it does.

CONAN: Mona El-Ghobashy, I'm not sure that the comparison to 1932 is apt, but is there some reality to Ali and other people - so he's not alone - fear that effectively in terms of rights of minorities and women and other such issues this vote will be the last vote?

EL-GHOBASHY: Indeed, putting aside the very contentious and problematic claim about the rise of Hitler in 1933 which indeed did not occur through elections, but let's put that aside for a second. The real concern is indeed the role of minorities not just in the constitutional provisions what actually exists right now in the draft that people are reading and considering, but the process by which this draft came to be was especially towards the later stages dominated by the majority of Islamists who again claim the mantle of democratic legitimacy. And many different kinds of minorities saw that their rights were run roughshod and therefore are not represented either at the table while writing this constitution nor in some of the provisions that are in the documents right now.

And this is something that - unfortunately, President Morsi's decrees simply worsened and reinforced by trying to ram through this constitution or making the public - it makes it seemed as if he's trying to ram through this constitution without adequate consideration of some of the real fears of different kinds of minorities about their particular role in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

CONAN: And, Michele Dunne, is there some legitimacy to the criticism we heard earlier voiced by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson of quoting people there that essentially what the United States cares about is stability, the relationship with Israel, the control of the border with Gaza?

DUNNE: What the United States typically cares about is having someone in power in Egypt who will pick up the phone when we call, who will, you know, be responsive to U.S. concerns and so forth. And certainly, President Morsi showed himself that way during the Gaza crisis. There's also been a pretty productive back-and-forth between the United States and Morsi's government over things like economic assistance, a possible package from the International Monetary Fund and so forth so...

CONAN: Which he needs badly.

DUNNE: Which he needs badly. Things were going pretty well between the United States and the new Egyptian government until this crisis. Now, I don't think it's true that the United States doesn't care about those other issues at all. I think the United States finds itself, you know, on the horns of a dilemma here what to do.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it. Again, Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, with us here in Studio 3A. Mona El-Ghobashy, assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, joined us from our bureau in New York. And we thank her for time as well. Coming up next on The Opinion Page, The Associated Press purges Islamophobia, among other terms; homophobia is another one; a move Clarence Page calls a linguistic blow for blandness. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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