On February 4, 2011, the Middle East Institute welcomed Ambassador Edward Walker, Assistant Secretary of State for the Near Eastern Affairs from 2000 to 2001 and the US Ambassador to Egypt from 1994 to 1997, and Ambassador Alan Goulty UK Ambassador to Tunisia from 2004 to 2008, to analyze the recent political uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Amb. Goulty, who presented first, analyzed the unanticipated political movement in Tunisia that brought about the rapid downfall of President Ben Ali and sparked protests throughout the Middle East. Building upon Goulty’s assertions, Amb. Walker, discussed the current state of the protest movement in Egypt and the crisis’s implications for the rest of the region. The event was moderated by Kate Seelye, Vice President of Programs and Communications at the Middle East Institute.
Amb. Goulty stressed that the widely unexpected Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia demonstrated that the West can no longer make the assumption that in the Middle East, “things would go on tomorrow as they had today.” The West saw Tunisia’s problems – the poverty and unemployment, the denial of freedom of speech and association, the petty police harassment, and the corruption of President Ben Ali and his family – but did not fully grasp the country’s internal strife. Ambassador Goulty described how the suicide of one poor man touched the nerves of the Tunisian people and triggered the protests that caught the West and Ben Ali completely off-guard.
The Ambassador went on to examine Ben Ali’s ongoing attempts to adapt to the rapidly changing situation. Ben Ali’s “dictator tool-kit” included making promises of reform, dismissing the government, offering to stand down as president in 2014, and finally trying to use force to quash the protests. Amb. Goulty described how these were all taken as signs of weakness from a man who was genuinely surprised by the size and vigor demonstrations against him.
Ambassador Goulty briefly discussed what the interim government has been doing to enact democratic reform, and how the West should respond. He pointed to the interim government’s recent efforts to address the economic and political conditions that contributed to the country’s unrest. Ambassador Goulty asserted that he was “cautiously optimistic” that change would be successful. He then discussed the lessons the United States and Europe should learn from the events in Tunisia. Instead of taking at face value what autocratic regimes in the Middle East tell them, the West should also talk to the people, opposition parties, and even Islamist groups. There should be a degree of modesty and discretion in handling precarious situations like this: while the US and Europe cannot be seen as abandoning their autocratic allies too quickly, they also need to be seen as being on the side of the people.
Following Goulty’s presentation, Ambassador Walker spoke about developments in Egypt’s ongoing political crisis and discussed the prospects for reform there in the future. Walker maintained that Egypt is still essentially stable, with basic institutions of government like the military and bureaucracy still in place. While Mubarak still retains strong control over the National Democratic Party, he does not have absolute control over the military, whose primary interest is the state. Ambassador Walker asserted that Mubarak’s persistent refusal to leave his office immediately reflects both his desire to not be seen as a coward and his belief that Egypt will collapse if he leaves.
Ambassador Walker went on to outline three future scenarios that will not occur in Egypt. First, he rejected claims that the circumstances in Egypt are similar to the 1979 Iranian Revolution in which a popular grassroots movement was commandeered by a radical Islamic movement. He asserted that there is no figure analogous to Ayatollah Khomeini lying in wait to galvanize and organize the people in Egypt. Second, he sought to assuage concerns of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover during elections. While Egyptians are indeed pious, Ambassador Walker said, he estimates that realistically only 20% would vote for the Muslim Brotherhood in free and fair elections. Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a revolutionary party and can certainly be incorporated into a multiparty system. Finally, Ambassador Walker asserted the West should not be concerned about a military takeover. In fact, the military, a highly popular and respected institution, is a key part of the solution in Egypt.
Ambassador Walker concluded his presentation with a discussion of the future of the Egyptian government and the consequences for the Middle East at large. Because Mubarak has become a symbol of repression, he must leave; the question is under what circumstances this will occur. However, Ambassador Walker cautioned, the elimination of Mubarak will not change fundamental problems in Egypt such as lack of jobs and economic stagnation. Because the transition to a true democracy and a developed civil society will take some time, Ambassador Walker recommended that initial actions should be taken quickly enough to satisfy the newly empowered people. As for the rest of the Arab world, Ambassador Walker argued that governments such as Algeria, Libya, and Syria would not hesitate to use military force to stop any possible uprising, and that Saudi Arabia and Jordan are generally unlikely to see massive demonstrations like those in Egypt and Tunisia.
During the question and answer session, a question was raised regarding the role of Israeli relations in Egypt’s transition. Ambassador Goulty pointed out that sentiment on the street in Egypt is certainly more hostile to Israel than the official government position, but Egypt is unlikely to reverse its policy of peace with Israel. Ambassador Walker concurred, asserting that both Egypt and Israel saw their peace treaty as a removal of a threat and they share many common interests that would dissuade either side from withdrawing from the treaty.
This Event Summary was written by Julia Czaplinksi, an intern in MEI’s Communications Department.
Assertions and opinions in this event summary are solely those of the above-mentioned speaker(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.