Egypt 101: Questions, Answers, Guides

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Today on The Brian Lehrer Show,Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and fellow at the Saban Center for middle East Policy, answered questions from callers and It's a Free Country readers about the situation in Egypt. We're still taking questions, so add yours below — and we'll get it answered.

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What is the role of the army? Are senior officers siding with the government or with protesters?


So far the military has played a largely neutral role. They haven't taken one side yet and that's one thing we have to keep a close eye on, because the military can play the role of kingmaker here. We're at an impasse: protesters are not going to back down and momentum is with them, but it's also clear that Mubarak is not willing to step down voluntarily. I think what we may need now is some type of external force that can tip the balance one way or another. The military has the potential to play that role. We have heard reports of a split in the military between a hard line faction and one that is more sympathetic to protesters, so there are lots of big question marks here. We're just going to have to wait and see.

What is the distinction between the military and the police?

Police are in the camp of Mubarak. They're not playing a neutral role and they haven't been. Police have been the strong arm of the Mubarak regime, responsible for repression, torture, and killing, so they're very hated by the Egyptian people. The military is different in that it has largely stayed out of active politics and hasn't really used force against the Egyptian people before—but then again, something like this has never happened before either. I agree with ElBaradei that if the military did decide to shoot on Egyptian people, first of all it's unlikely with the world watching. That said, it is one possible scenario, and that's why Mubarak recently appointed three military men to senior positions in the regime, suggesting Mubarak is trying to consolidate control of the military and get them on his side.

What proportion of Egypt's population is poor, middle class or elite? Is the majority of the population poor?


The majority is either poor or lower middle class. We're talking about a very small minority that would be considered upper class elite or rich, so in that sense it's very much a stratified society and the gap between rich and poor has been growing in recent years, because Egypt has experienced impressive annual GDP growth of 5-7 percent annually in the past few years, but most Egyptian people have not seen those benefits. It's gone to a small clique around the president and around elites at the top of society, so if we want to understand where so much anger comes from, not only in Egypt but throughout the region, it's that some of these countries are doing well economically, but gains aren't being redistributed throughout society.

Should these be seen, at some level, as food riots, because of economic factors, the shortage of food, and rising commodity prices?

These are definitely not food riots. People are clear about what they're protesting, and the chants we've heard over and over again without exception are, "Down with Mubarak," "We want freedom." They're political protests about freedom and democracy. Certainly economic factors have contributed to anger towards the regime, but in the end people are asking not for an economic solution but a political solution. As Mubarak has promised more jobs and lower food prices, that hasn't appeased protesters. They won't be satisfied until Mubarak steps down.

In a country of 80 million people, do we know whether or not this is a very vocal minority? Or is there a large bloc that in fact would continue to support Mubarak?


These are the largest pro-democracy protests, not only in the history of Egypt, but in the history of the Arab world. This is something totally new, and that's why the regime was caught off guard. That's the case with most countries, most revolutions, you never have a majority of people on the streets, and you don't really need that for a revolution to be successful. Right now, the protesters have strength in numbers. If there are 50,000 people in a square, the regime can't arrest all 50,000 of them, so they have reached critical mass. As for Egyptians not protesting, I think it's instructive that we haven't seen any counter-protests, any pro-Mubarak supporters, very few in the media and very few coming to his aide now. That tells us this has been one of the most unpopular regimes in the Middle East. Mubarak does not have a lot of friends right now.

Couldn't part of the problem be that Egypt doesn't know it's in Africa, and therefore when it was in desperate need to align itself with a European oppressor, it sort of experienced a schizophrenic reaction?


Egyptians don't consider themselves part of Africa, they consider themselves part of the Arab world, and that is the cultural and religious affinity that Egyptians have. I think the point about European colonial powers is relevant to the case of Egypt. The US is the primary benefactor of the Egyptian regime, so there is that Western connection to understand here. It's not as if the US is an innocent bystander here. There's a reason why many Egyptians have this deep-seated anger toward the US, because they see the US as backing this dictatorship for more than three decades now, so this is where there is a lot of anti-American anger. That said, protesters are also looking to the US for moral leadership, and that's why we're hearing time and again protesters pleading with us, we need your help, we need you to intervene, where is the international community, and I think it's not an accident that the vast majority of signs we see in Cairo are in English. Protesters are trying to get their message out to the wider world. They know how important the US and European allies are going to be in bringing this to a peaceful resolution.

What are race relations like in Egypt, particularly between blacks and non-black populations?


In the south there is what is called a Nubian population, so you have more African roots, darker color of skin. There have been tensions and there is racism in Egypt that's certainly a problem, although that doesn't figure prominently in political issues. There doesn't seem to be a divided attitude between south and north. Despite some racial differences, there is a common identity with the arabic language and with their world.

I think we're all missing a very important event, which was when Obama went to the Middle East and made that incredible speech on democracy and the power of democracy. He really took the forefront right to the center. As an American, I was proud.


As an American, I was proud too. It was an amazing speech, and well-received in the Arab world, and I think that's why Arabs are so disappointed, because they had very high hopes for Obama, but very little policy follow-up since then. According to a recent Zogby/University of Maryland poll, US favorability ratings in several Arab countries, including Egypt, are lower under Obama than they were under Bush. I think that's a very important thing for people to take away. People in the Arab world have been incredibly disappointed in Obama because he promised what I think people interpreted to be things that they wanted to see, but there's been a gap between rhetoric and policy.

What about the status of women in Egypt? Could that be at all beneath any of the uprising?

That's the first time I've heard that question. No, that hasn't been part of the discussion. Most protesters are not in fact women, most are men. Egypt, like many Arab countries, has gender disparities—they've improved in recent years, but it's still an issue. It hasn't figured prominently in what's going on these days.

The on-air conversation may be over, but It's A Free Country is still taking your Egypt 101 questions below. For further insight, we've enlisted Dr. Stephen Zunes, a professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Dr. Zunes was kind enough to tackle the following unanswered questions from commenters. The rest of you: keep 'em coming!

Shadi Hamid mentioned Egypt's longtime alliance with the West, but wasn't Egypt aligned with the Communist bloc at least through Nasser's regime?


Under Nasser, who ruled between 1954 and 1971, Egypt did ally with the Soviet Bloc as a counterweight to the British and French, the European powers which had traditionally dominated Egypt. However, starting in the mid-1970s, his successor Anwar Sadat began to court the United States. The US-Egyptian alliance was cemented following the Camp David Accords of 1978, which both ended hostilities between Israel and Egypt, but effectively created a US-Egyptian military alliance and helped pave the way for dismantling the socialist economic initiatives of the Nasser era and steering Egypt to a more foreign investment driven capitalist economy.

What are the real chances the Egypt revolution will cause substantial change elsewhere in the Middle East? I've heard about Jordan, but, really? Syria, too? Could this tangentially re-inspire Iranians?


Egypt is not only by far the largest country in the Arab world, but the center of Arab media, scholarship and culture, so what happens in Egypt could indeed inspire similar movements elsewhere. The region’s despots, both pro-and anti-Western, are probably pretty nervous right now. Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, Yemen, and Algeria would probably be the most vulnerable to major protests. Iran, as a non-Arab country, would be less likely to feel an immediate impact, but – given their worsening political and economic situation – I would not be surprised to see a renewal of pro-democracy struggle eventually there as well.

How is the amount of U.S. aid for Egypt determined? Does it just automatically increase each year (indexed for inflation like other gov't programs)? Did we really send one plus billion in aid each year going back to the 80's?

—Mark W

U.S. aid to Egypt has averaged between $1.5 and $2 billion annually for the past thirty years, the majority being military. This is the largest foreign aid program the United States has with any other country except for Israel. Critics have argued that the aid has always had more to do with subsidies for U.S. arms exporters and agribusiness than what the Egyptians wanted or needed. Furthermore, the military aid has been used more for domestic repression than legitimate defense and the economic aid seems to have done more to enrich well-connected elites than help the poor.

What is the overall strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, historically? And, can you assess their aims and agenda?


The Muslim Brotherhood is the single largest opposition party, but they probably don’t have majority support. During the past several decades they have been relatively moderate, renouncing armed struggle, condemning terrorism, and seeking to work within the political process despite being banned by the Mubarak regime. They have a conservative social agenda but a somewhat populist economic program. They are far more concerned with domestic issues in Egypt than with Israel or other international concerns. Most of the young activists who have organized the recent protests see the Brotherhood and their aging leadership as at least as out of touch with their concerns as the regime. The Brotherhood’s refusal to endorse the protests until they started gaining momentum is seen as opportunistic and has not helped their standing. They would presumably be part of an interim coalition government along with a number of secular parties in the event Mubarak is ousted, but would not likely win a majority in an election.