Democracy Now! senior producer. He is currently reporting from Cairo, Egypt.
assistant professor of political science at Barnard College. She has written on politics and social movements in the Middle East and North Africa.
While the Egyptian military has agreed to some of the protesters’ demands, the military has refused to lift the emergency law or to release the thousands of political prisoners jailed by the Mubarak regime. Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Issandr El Amrani, blogger at Arabist.net, join us from Cairo. Barnard College political science professor Mona El-Ghobashy joins us in our studio. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Two days after Egypt’s revolution, there are signs that the military is consolidating its power. On Sunday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced it’s dissolving parliament and suspending the constitution. The statement, read on Egyptian state television, also said the military council will remain in power for six months, or until elections are held.
EGYPTIAN STATE TV: The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued the following decrees. One, suspend the constitution. Two, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will run the country for a temporary period of six months, or until legislative and presidential elections are held. Three, The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will represent the council internally and externally. Four, dissolution of the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council. Five, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is empowered to issue decrees that have the force of law during the transitory time. Six, form a committee to amend some clauses of the constitution and determine the rules for a popular referendum about them. Seven, mandate the cabinet of Dr. Ahmed Mohamed Shafik to continue its work until a new government is formed. Eight, organize elections for the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, as well as presidential elections. Nine, the state commits itself to implementing international treaties and commitments to which it is a party.
AMY GOODMAN: To find out more about how Egyptians have responded to this news, we go to Cairo to Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
Sharif, welcome to Democracy Now! While we did all sorts of special broadcasts on Friday, not everyone heard them. Can you share your reaction to what has taken place in your country, in Egypt?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, I was in front of the Maspero building, the state TV building, when I first heard the news that Mubarak had indeed stepped down. At first I didn’t even believe that it had happened. There was just a cheer that rose up through the crowd. I wasn’t exactly clear what was going on. People were hugging me and jumping up and down. I didn’t really believe that he had left. And then I finally spoke to my father, and he said that Omar Suleiman had announced that Mubarak had resigned. And it was a very emotional moment for me, and it was difficult to comprehend at the time. And we rushed back to Tahrir. It was a joyous moment for, I think, all Egyptians, and really for people who fight for democracy around the world. This was a popular uprising, a peaceful one, a pluralistic one, and one that I think captured the imaginations of many people around the world.
But as we know, the struggle has just begun. The road is still long. This was one obstacle, albeit a very big obstacle, but now that that has been overcome, people are looking to what comes next. And as you said in your introduction, the military yesterday issued another statement dissolving both houses of parliament, the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, and also suspending the constitution. This was part of what protesters were demanding. Other demands that have not been met are the repeal of the emergency laws, which have been in effect since Mubarak came to power in 1981, as well as the release of political prisoners. And so, people are still calling for that. And what’s coming up next is that within the next two months, a committee of legal scholars is going to draft a new constitution, which will be put to a popular referendum, and then elections will be held within six months.
But joining me here now in Cairo is Issandr El Amrani. He’s an independent journalist who runs a very Arabist blog.
Issandr, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you just talk about what are these changes? What do they mean for Egypt right now? The constitution has been suspended. Parliament is dissolved. What’s going to happen in these next few months?
ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Well, I mean, basically what it means is that we’re in a legal no-man’s land. There’s no constitution. There’s no legitimate government in place other than the Supreme Military Council. It can effectively rule by decree. And how it’s going to develop is going to depend on how the civilian side of government, together with the opposition, will work together with the military to form the mechanism for this transition to take place, you know, from the committee that’s deciding on whether to amend the constitution, or perhaps even create a new one, to decide what political parties can compete in the forthcoming elections. There’s hundreds of questions, thousands of questions, that are going to have to be addressed by this committee. And I think the committee is probably — I mean, the Supreme Military Council is not going to want to do that entirely by itself; it’s going to want to delegate that to both the cabinet ministers and to hopefully an inclusive cross-party council of some form.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in, Sharif and Issandr, Mona El-Ghobashy, who’s a political science professor here in New York at Barnard College who has been following the social movements in Egypt for a decade.
Professor El-Ghobashy, there was a meeting that took place yesterday.
MONA EL-GHOBASHY: To follow up on what Issandr was saying, yesterday there was a meeting of the youth protesters, a delegation of about 10 of them, including Wael Ghonim, the Google executive, who of course has become very much an icon of this revolution. He then put the notes of the meeting on his Facebook page. And it was a very cordial meeting. They, of course, are treading on very delicate ground.
AMY GOODMAN: But explain exactly who was there.
MONA EL-GHOBASHY: The representatives were as follows: Wael Ghonim, representing himself and representing the Facebook page. There was also —
AMY GOODMAN: And this was the Google executive who was held for 12 days —
MONA EL-GHOBASHY: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: — and then came out, and it was perhaps the biggest day of revolt before the final day.
MONA EL-GHOBASHY: That’s right. And he’s become very much a youth spokesman, an unintended youth spokesman, of this revolt. There was also Ahmed Maher, who is a member of the April 6 movement, which was very critical in launching this protest, to begin with, on January 25th, several other members of April 6. In total, there were about 10 youth, and they met with two members of the Supreme Military Council. And according to the notes that he posted on his Facebook page, it was a very cordial meeting. They discussed the two demands, the two core of the protesters that Issandr just pointed out. And that is, the lifting of the emergency law, which has been in place since September 6, 1981, and the release of all political prisoners, which human rights estimates put in the thousands.
AMY GOODMAN: Issandr, do you hear more on the ground about this meeting in Cairo?
ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Well, what we know from what the participants said is that they were pleasantly surprised at the military. You have to realize that the people in this military council, they’re in their sixties and seventies. They’re people used to having their orders obeyed. And the interaction was actually surprisingly cordial, as Professor El-Ghobashy just said. And they were quite happy that they weren’t — it wasn’t patronizing in any way.
Now, but this meeting, you know, is a gesture towards the protesters that held Tahrir for 18 days. It doesn’t tell us what exactly the transition mechanism is going to be. It doesn’t tell us how this relationship between the military and the opposition groups has to be systematized in some way. It has to be more inclusive. And the Tahrir groups aren’t the only ones who need to be included in this. So we still know very little. The military seems to be going day by day. It’s not great at communicating. You have to remember, for 30 years, the military was kept in the background, not in the foreground, of Egyptian politics. And I think it has to grow into this role, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I wanted to just give you this latest news. Of course, it’s like yards from you, and I’m giving it to you in New York, but, you know, sometimes it’s hard to find out these things right next door. Just as you were coming into the studio, protests were halted in Tahrir between — military police separating groups of demonstrating police officers and anti-police protesters in Tahrir. And Al Jazeera is saying that they are not able to transmit any live pictures because the army has ordered Al Jazeera and other international media outlets to stop filming the square. Talk about what is unfolding in Tahrir now and what has happened over the weekend and whether the protests will be allowed to continue.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, Tahrir today, I was actually there when there was a crowd of policemen there who had come to protest. They were trying to protest in solidarity with the protesters and also ask for better wages. They were shouted down by protesters there. Let’s keep in mind, there’s very few protesters left in Tahrir. Traffic is flowing somewhat smoothly through the square. There’s maybe a few hundred protesters in small pockets around the square. And they were — they basically chanted for the policemen to get out. You know, this, of course, is the hated central police force that tortured them and beat them for many years and that they battled with on January 25th and January 28th. And just the sight of them causes many people to be very angry. And so, they were being kind of marched out of Tahrir when I was there.
Having said that, there’s military police all over Tahrir right now. And I was personally yelled at, with two camera people, very loudly by a military police officer telling me to clear the area. I said, "Why?" He said, "Don’t ask me why," and he kind of pushed me away. I heard him tell another person, "If I see anyone sleeping here tonight, they’re going to prison." And so, they’re really trying to kind of assert their control over Tahrir.
And yesterday there was a lot of very vigorous and heated and sometimes very angry debate between former protesters in Tahrir, who were there, part of the mass pro-democracy movement, who were arguing with people who wanted to spend the night in Tahrir, who wanted to continue protesting until more demands are met. So, some people believe that the pressure and the fight needs to continue from outside Tahrir. Some, I would call them a minority, want to stay in Tahrir and make their presence known.
But I think, regardless of what happens — and Issandr, maybe you can jump in here — that something in Egypt has changed in terms of public protest. I think we’re going to see — people have not been able to have public protests in 30 years, and now they have, and we see marches happening all the time. I’m not sure that it’s ever going to change again.
ISSANDR EL AMRANI: That’s right, Sharif. I mean, you know, shortly before — I just came back to Egypt. I live in Egypt most of the time, but I came back to Egypt on January 28th, just for the big — the biggest and most violent protest that took place. And I was in Tunisia the week beforehand. And Tunisia, it’s kind of like you’re looking ahead two or three weeks ahead of time. What’s happening in Tunisia now, what has happened for the last two weeks, it’s constant protesting. After 23 years of no protests being allowed, you have people who really want to express themselves, feel that they’re participating in the revolution, participating in a historic moment in their country. And so, I think we’re going to see a lot of protests, and I don’t think that the military is going to be in a position to really completely stop it. Frankly, I kind of understand that they want to clear the traffic in Tahrir Square, because you have this central nexus in Cairo that’s blocking traffic for the rest of the city. We have terrible traffic jams in the city, and they’re even worse now than usual.
What’s more interesting is that we’re seeing a lot of strikes starting, at a lot of government-owned factories, in the civil service, in the private sector. And that strike movement, which is now probably determining the course of politics in Tunisia, is just beginning in Egypt. And the strike movement will be really something to look at carefully. Yesterday there was a report — it hasn’t been confirmed — that the military intends to ban strikes. I really doubt it’s going to be able to do this. I mean, something fundamental has changed in the way Egyptians participate in politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Professor —
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And let me ask you this point, Issandr, about the — go ahead, Amy. I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Mona El-Ghobashy just wanted to weigh in here on this news, Reuters reporting that it’s expected that the Supreme Military Council would issue a ban on meetings by labor unions or professional syndicates, effectively forbidding strikes. Professor Ghobashy?
MONA EL-GHOBASHY: If the military actually does that — and this remains an unconfirmed report — this would be a rather dramatic escalation. And the reason being is that Egypt has actually been gripped by a rather extraordinary wave of social protest since at least 2000. This is by no means new. It’s by no means post-February 13th. This is something that’s been happening and peaked in 2006 and 2007, which lends the protest that broke out among civil servants, police officers and other state employees yesterday — it lends it an extra weight. It doesn’t mean that this is now the beginning of a new phase of protest in Egyptian politics. What this shows is a convergence of the old style of protest with a completely changed political environment. That’s the significance of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s very important. Just before we go back to Sharif and Issandr, while we talk about the 18 days of revolution that shook the world, this actually goes back before that. And if you can talk about, even amidst the repression, the 30 years of the dictatorship, the level of organizing that was going on, even April 6, named for a previous uprising.
MONA EL-GHOBASHY: That’s right. There’s a pre-history to this revolt. It didn’t — Egyptian politics didn’t begin on January 25th. In fact, what makes the Mubarak regime, and has been cited as a key source of its durability, is its capacity to actually absorb these protests, to manage them quite handily, even when they got so large, as they did, for example, in March 2003, when anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 people descended on the very same Tahrir Square where Sharif and Issandr are now standing, and camped there for 24 hours to protest the Iraq war and the invasion of Iraq by the United States on March 19th, 2003. And so, for us to be able to really understand the significance of what’s happening today, we have to link it to the fabric of Egyptian politics starting in 2000, for simplicity’s sake, but protests actually occurred in the 1990s, as well. One of the largest protests was a quarry workers’ strike in 1996 that really shook the country at the time. Of course, nobody remembers this now.
But again, the point I want to emphasize is, we are entering in a period, as Issandr mentioned, a real revolutionary moment in Egyptian politics where this constitution and parliament are suspended, but at the same time we have this roiling social structure where almost each and every sector of the population is taking to the streets, grasping the political opportunity afforded by the change of the regime, but they are doing this because they already know how to do that. They know how to encamp on the streets. They know how to negotiate with the government ministers. They know how many people to put on a street corner to make sure that the government minister comes and talks to them on the street corner. That’s why this is significant, not because this is a rebirth of Egyptian politics after February 13th.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Issandr, I wanted to ask you about this time line for the next elections, both parliamentary and presidential, being held in two months, also the constitution being put to a referendum — I’m sorry, the elections in six months, the constitution in two months. How does this work for new political parties being formed? Some think it’s too fast.
ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Absolutely. Some people do think that the period, the adaptation period, should be longer. I think Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the National Association for Change, suggested a year. The key issue is how quickly and to what extent will new political groups, as well as old ones, be able to organize, formalize their role in the new political landscape. You had extremely restrictive laws in Egypt before on the formation of new parties. Will these be abolished? Can new parties form now when, for instance, the Shura Council, which used to license parties through its political parties committee, when it’s not in session, when it’s not — when it’s been dissolved? If the new constitution or the amended constitution — we still don’t know which one it’s going to be — will be in two months, does that leave then only four months 'til the election? I mean, I think there's still a lot of possibilities for the deadlines to change for — depending on the events on the ground, depending on how the negotiations go between the military and the opposition, for these dates to change. But it’s certainly going to be a short time, and it leaves the established both groups, basically the formerly ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, in the best position to compete electorally in six months’ time.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, where does the National Democratic Party fit into all of this? Behind us is the blackened shell of the party headquarters just over in the distance. Will this remain to be a viable party in the future?
ISSANDR EL AMRANI: That’s another question that we still don’t know the answer to. There’s some people, certainly among the protesters, who would like to see the NDP banned or dissolved. There’s a real problem, though, with that. The NDP wasn’t just another political party; it was an extension of the state. Practically every mayor in Egypt is a member of the NDP. It has hundred of thousands of members.
And again, just going to the experience in Tunisia, in Tunisia there was a long debate about whether or not the ruling party there, the RCD, should be dissolved or not. It only happened last week, its dissolution. And there was a big debate about, OK, if you dissolve it, how about its members? Can they form a new party or multiple parties? Will they be absorbed into existing parties? I think, really, right now it’s too early to tell.
What we know is that right now the NDP doesn’t even have a leadership. Its secretary general, who had only been in the position for a few days, Hossam Badrawi, resigned the day President Mubarak also resigned.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Professor Mona El-Ghobashy about this Supreme Military Council, just who Mohamed Hussein Tantawi is, the field marshal now, who says he in charge of the government, Sami Hafez Enan, the chief of staff of the armed forces. Tell us who they are, their history.
MONA EL-GHOBASHY: Well, we’re actually in the very strange position of not knowing that much about Egypt’s new leaders. As Issandr pointed out, the military has historically always taken a back backseat to Egyptian politics.
Tantawi is a — has been defense minister since 1991. He was a career foreign military officer. WikiLeaks cables recently revealed about Cairo used the term that he is known in Cairo as "Mubarak’s poodle," which indicates that he was very much a man in the mold of Hosni Mubarak, very much a loyalist, along the path of Mubarak that is very resistant to any kind of change and so on. That’s really all that we know about him.
Chief of Staff Sami Enan similarly is someone who we know even less about. He was engaged in routine talks with U.S. military generals when the uprising broke out on January 28th, rushed home, of course, and then —
AMY GOODMAN: So he was one of those key group of Egyptian generals who were at the Pentagon and watched this unfold at the Pentagon, close to Gates, U.S.-trained.
MONA EL-GHOBASHY: That’s right. He led the delegation of Egyptian military officers, who was having a routine meeting with their American counterparts and then rushed home to manage the situation. These are the two key figures on this council. We know almost virtually nothing about the rest of the 18-member council. All we know is that they are the heads of the various branches of the armed forces. We also know that in this meeting that we referred to earlier in the show with the protesters, these two key figures were not the ones they met with. All we know are two unknown names of the people who the protesters met with, but we don’t even know which seats they hold on the council.
AMY GOODMAN: Issandr, would you like to weigh in here, as well? I mean, it is known that Secretary of Defense Gates has been in close contact with them throughout, very much being a part of managing this transition, very comfortable with Sami Hafez Enan. I think he is 63 years old. Tantawi is 75 years old. And how the pro-democracy activists will actually weigh in as part of a council? Hasn’t Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who returned to participate in the protests, hasn’t he called for, right now, the protesters, representatives of the protesters, being a part of a ruling council, so that they can help shape the constitution and the future of Egypt?
ISSANDR EL AMRANI: It would certainly make sense to have some transitional body put in place that represents more than the army. I mean, right now we have a Supreme Military Council that includes one member of the judiciary. That’s not enough. That’s not representative enough. It will have to, I think, to transition to a broader, more inclusive body. But who gets a seat at that table is going to be entirely at the hands of the military. And it’s not clear, you know, because the Egyptian position has been over — in 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, has been severely weakened. You have about 20 parties that don’t really count for much. Why should they get a seat at the table? In the meantime, you have a banned organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, that is politically significant, but will the military, that historically is said not to like the Muslim Brotherhood or any Islamist movement, want to? You have other Islamist groups from, for instance, the Islamic — the Gama’s al-Islamiyya, the Islamic group that waged an insurrection against the government in the late '80s and early ’90s, that are also now agitating — they've abandoned violence, and they’re agitating for a seat at the table. It’s very complicated to figure out all these issues. And right now what we have is basically the legal opposition groups that have no legal existence and groups of basically concerned citizen, of the establishment figures, like the so-called Committee of the Wise that includes people like Naguib Sawiris, Egypt’s richest businessman. Does he — has he earned a seat at the table? No one elected him. You know, it’s very difficult. I think it’s going to have to be negotiated.
And right now, just to add to what Professor Ghobashy said about these men in the military, you have to remember that what they have together, all these men in the military, is a similar approach, a similar view of the world, an experience that — you know, where the military has been their own lives, where they have no real experience of interaction with civilians. It’s going to be tricky for them to adjust to that. But I think probably in the long term it’s better for them to let civilians take the lead, because otherwise they become directly responsible if people are unhappy with the way things develop.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ghobashy, last word?
MONA EL-GHOBASHY: I think that, looking forward, two things to watch about the military and the protesters. The optimistic route would be that the military would prove itself actually quite open to hearing what the protesters have to say, and they would surprise us by being pro-democracy and doing something that militaries rarely do, which is to really lead the transition to democracy and then go back to the barracks. I don’t quite rule that out just yet. The pessimistic, or maybe the realistic, view is that the military will be very keen not just to preserve its privileges, but to make sure that Egyptian politics remains the politics of the elite, that it isn’t lots of representation for viable interests. That’s — going forward, I think those are the two paths that we have to watch very carefully. Hard to tell right now where it’s going to go, but equally plausible.
AMY GOODMAN: And Sharif, I want to give you the last word. As you raced out of New York some almost two weeks ago, just racing in to get your passport and to get a flight to Cairo you didn’t even think necessarily would land, when they were talking about closing the airport — your thoughts today, after these most remarkable 18 days?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, I think if you had asked me three weeks ago, "Would a popular uprising have forced President Mubarak to resign?" I would have told you you were crazy. So, I think, by any measure, while this has been building and smoldering in Egypt for many years now, this explosion that happened, a peaceful one, a pluralistic one, that happened on the streets of Cairo, was inspiring, to say the least. And it took myself by surprise. I think it took many by surprise.
And what many hope for is that — you know, I went to Tahrir every day since I arrived. What was taking place in Tahrir, Egyptians had found their voice there, I thought. They found a new way of being together without fighting with each other, forming — I mean, it’s quite remarkable, really, that everything the regime threw at the protesters — violence, propaganda, deceit — all of these things were adapted by the protesters in a leaderless, organic way. And I think this — it was really kind of a symbol of what the whole of Cairo, the whole of Egypt could be. And so, I think that’s what everyone hopes for. People are proud now to call themselves Egyptian. That’s the victory chant of Tahrir, was [in Arabic], which means, "Lift your head up high, you’re Egyptian." So I think everyone’s proud of what happened.
But we have to be very clear where we stand right now. There is a military group of commanders who are ruling the country, and there’s still a very long road ahead to achieve real reform and real democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sharif, I want to thank you for joining us from Cairo. As you were speaking, the military has just issued its fifth communiqué. If we can have it translated in the next 10 minutes, we’ll let people know something about what it says. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, our senior producer in Cairo, thanks so much for being there and for really being our eyes and ears on the ground in Cairo. I also want to thank Issandr El Amrani, independent political analyst and writer based in Cairo who runs the popular blog Arabist.net. And thanks so much to Mona El-Ghobashy, professor at Barnard College. I’m very much looking forward to reading your book on social movements.
MONA EL-GHOBASHY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much. This is Democracy Now! We can’t end the discussion about the Egyptian revolution without moving on now, because there is a rolling rebellion taking place in the Middle East. When we come back, we look at Yemen. Stay with us.