What's Beyond Egypt?

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Thousands of Egyptians gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square heeding a call by the opposition for a 'march of a million' on February 1, 2011

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and the man behind the popular political blog, "The Washington Note," discusses the uprisings in the Middle East, Washington's response, and how it affects politics and people in the region. 

The protests in Egypt continue to escalate, becoming violent on Wednesday as government supporters hit the street with a dramatic entrance (some even rode in on camels). After President Mubarak's announcement on Tuesday that, after nearly 30 years in power, he won't run again in September's election, it's hard to know what will happen next.

As we speculate about the next steps Egypt's government and protesters will take, Steve Clemons said there's one key element we're not talking about: Mubarak's son. And Mubarak's not talking about it either.

It certainly does matter in the signaling and framing that Egyptian citizens are talking about. I'm hearing it from a number of people that there's is great rage and frustration that Gamal Mubarak is the one that, even more than his father, who's looked at as the one who engineered the electoral fraud in the last election...Gamal Mubarak has been refusing to resign his position in the NDP [National Democratic Party]...I think people should be talking about Gamal and expecting Gamal to come out and resign his post and position.

Clemons said, based on his sources, it's also likely that Gamal Mubarak has organized the pro-government outlash against protesters on Wednesday.

They've begun to mobilize and use money to basically hire thugs to come in...and the biggest thing that concerns me right now are reports coming in to me from various other people that I know who are in Tahrir Square but also in Alexandria, who are telling me that...the army is sitting and watching by while people get beaten badly and dragged through the streets by some of these thugs and the army is not intervening to defend those who are peacefully protesting.

Of the many unknowns, one question has been, which side is the military on? Clemons said we still don't have an answer to this. 

The army is hedging...the army is saying we're the backbone of the country, we're the soul of the nation, protectors of the state, we have a foot in leadership and a foot in the public. They've committed, it's very clear, to a process. It doesn't feel very democratic at all to those of us who are watching on the outside, but...they're trying to impose order and structure despite near anarchy and chaos everywhere else...and fundametnally what's going to happen, I fear, and I think it's the bind President Obama is in, is whether or not that incremental change...will be something that the broad public, that's invested so much in disrupting their economy and their lives...whether that will be acceptable or not...we just don't know the answer to this.

In response to smaller government protests in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced on Wednesday that he will not run in the next election, nor will his son.

As other Arab governments respond and the demonstrations in Egypt become more violent, the momentum in the region will likely continue, Clemons said. But it's all speculation right now, he added, especially since we're still catching up.

There are so few people that expected to see what we've been seeing, and I think underestimated the impact of what was seen in Tunisia...it took a while for the US media to realize, there's a trend going on and I even think in the US government that's true. One person I was with...General Brent Scrowcroft, made the comment that there's something very infectious, very viral about what we're seeing and no matter which way it goes, this is potentially going to have an impact throughout the region. A violent crackdown that kills lots of people, if that's the direction we're going to go, could be animating an anger.

As we think about what's next, it's important to understand the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Clemons said is often misunderstood. He said they play an important role in the region as these governments begin to shift.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the backbone of political opposition in many of these countries in which there are totalitarian leaders. Most of them have moved away long ago from violent tactics, from so-called terrorism...They also have been the ones that have been most talking about democracies in these countries so it's hard to distinguish between protesting democrats and those tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In closing, Clemons confirmed that amidst all the speculation of what will happen next, we do know this fight is long from over for the Arab world. 

I suspect that what we're seeing in Egypt is not going to be the end of this story. It's not going to be the last earthquake in the region.