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Arab Spring: A Discussion on Libya, Egypt and the Mideast with Palestinian Writer Rula Jebreal, Author of “Miral” & Journalist Issandr El Amrani

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With former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in detention and Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, under attack, we discuss the state of the region with two leading Middle Eastern writers. Rula Jebreal, a former broadcast journalist in Italy, reflects on Italy’s decision to join the NATO bombing of Libya. Issandr El Amrani of Arabist.net talks about Libya and post-revolution Egypt. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Egypt, where former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly has gone on trial, accused of ordering the shooting of protesters during the country’s revolution that began January 25th. Nearly 850 civilians were killed during the 18-day popular uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak from power. Most were shot in the head and chest.

Talking to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mohamed El Damaty said that Mubarak would be implicated in the trial, as well.

MOHAMED EL DAMATY: [translated] Ousted President Hosni Mubarak is also being investigated for inciting the killing of protesters. He was the one who ordered the interior minister to clear the protests by any means possible, which led to the use of live ammunition. While until now Mubarak’s name is not included in this case, it surely is expected to be added at some stage.

AMY GOODMAN: That was lawyer Mohamed El Damaty talking about the case against former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly.

A recent poll suggests most Egyptians are hopeful about their country’s future. The poll from the Washington-based Pew Global Attitudes Project showed two-thirds of Egyptians are optimistic about the future, and an overwhelming number said they’re glad former President Hosni Mubarak is gone.

To discuss the situation in Egypt and the uprisings in the Arab world, we’re joined by Issandr El Amrani, a journalist and writer based in Cairo. He runs the popular blog Arabist.net. He writes frequently for a number of publications, including the Financial Times and The Economist.

We’re also joined by Rula Jebreal, a journalist and author. Her book Miral was just made into a film by Julian Schnabel. She worked for many years as a broadcast journalist in Italy, where she also covered the Middle East. She worked briefly as a journalist in Egypt, as well.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! But before we talk about Egypt, I just mentioned you have been a lead broadcaster, TV anchor, in Italy. If you would comment, Rula, on Italy’s history, colonial history with Libya, and the significance of this?

RULA JEBREAL: I think it’s extremely important, not only because of the history. What Italy is doing today is — it’s a switch point. It’s a crucial point for their foreign policy. Three months ago, Gaddafi went to Italy, and Berlusconi kissed his hand, just went on his knees and kissed, actually, his ring. And that was shocking to everybody, especially people in Italy, that they were rioting every day about what Gaddafi was doing in his country in terms of censorship, torturing people, people disappearing. So, the public opinion was not happy about it. The public opinion in Italy pushed the government. And this is the first time. Usually, the government pushed the public opinion. The public opinion pushed the government to intervene.

And that’s because lately there’s many articles in the newspapers asking Italy to be more active and recalling the United Nations Resolution 1973, recalling another thing that the United Nations decided in 2005, which is the doctrine of responsibility to protect. Italy was part of the forces that freed Kosovo in 1999. So there was many articles lately, every day in the newspaper, trying to push the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to be more active with David Cameron, with Sarkozy. And for the first time since the Iraqi war — you know, after the Iraqi war, everybody was allergic to any intervention. But since nobody will put any foot on the ground, they decided that, you know, to have air strikes actually was moral, and Italy was obligated because of the huge amount of responsibility that they had in that country.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is all happening —

RULA JEBREAL: They also froze $3 billion, which was a huge amount of money that Berlusconi put in a bank account — that actually Gaddafi put in a bank account. So, let’s see where all this will take. Obviously Berlusconi is trying to appear as credible and to show that he’s — you know, he’s not the person that bent on his knees and kissed hands and have relationship with dictators. You know, Berlusconi also implicated in many cases, and he did something terrible three weeks — three months ago. There was one of his prostitutes that he used to go out with, and she’s a teenager. She’s 17 years old. And she was caught by the police, because she was stealing something. And he called the police officer, and he said, “You know, you have to free her, because she’s Mubarak’s nephew.”


RULA JEBREAL: Obviously his relationship with this dictator is very intimate and familial, and so he’s now trying to build a new credibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Issandr, your view on Libya and Italy’s role in the attack now?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: I think what Rula pointed to is something that’s quite important, actually, for European domestic politics, is that the position that a lot of European leaders — Berlusconi, but especially Sarkozy, Sarkozy more than anyone else — is responsible for this complete change on Libya. It’s partly based on their domestic politics. I mean, first, they had real foreign policy failures. Sarkozy’s foreign minister, Michèle [Alliot-Marie], who had to — was forced to resign in February because of the position that she took on Tunisia, where she suggested that France should send security troops to help the Ben Ali regime. For the last three, four years, the Italians, the French have been queuing up in Gaddafi’s palaces to get, you know, a share of the oil contracts, the infrastructure contracts, all of these things. And I think the uprisings in the Arab world have really embarrassed these presidents, with — who both have a very hyper-personalized foreign policy, where they take the lead on things. So they’ve done a complete 180 now. And they probably did it too quickly. I mean, I think in the case of Libya, they saw a low-hanging fruit in Gaddafi and decided to rush in. They thought, “Well, Ben Ali is gone. Mubarak is gone. Gaddafi surely is going to go.” And it’s more difficult than that.

RULA JEBREAL: And it happened also very quickly, because, you know, the world — it took the world three years and a half to intervene in Kosovo. It took the world three weeks and a half here to intervene in Libya, which is a short time.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: It’s the fastest —

RULA JEBREAL: The fast intervention.

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: — humanitarian intervention, I think, in history.

AMY GOODMAN: And the history of Italy in Libya, the number of people who have died?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: Sure, if you — I recently published a review of several books on the history of — on the modern history of Libya. And if you look at what happened between the 'Teens and ’30s, Italy killed, through concentration camps, through a policy of eradication of entire tribes, killed about a quarter of Libya's population, especially in eastern Libya, in Cyrenaica, over a period of 20 years. I mean, the icon of Libyan nationalism, Omar Mukhtar, was captured by the Italians and hung publicly. Twenty thousand people, notables from various tribes, were forced to watch his hanging. Libya is — came out of the Italian experience, of Italian colonialism, a traumatized country. And this trauma, I think, you know, has stayed for a long time, stayed ’til now, perhaps played some role in allowing a dictator as brutal as Gaddafi to impose himself.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk quickly about Egypt right now. Amnesty International criticized the military council now running Egypt, saying it’s documented the continued use of torture, arbitrary detention, trials of civilians before military courts, repression of freedom of expression, etc. What is happening now in your country?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: The situation is in flux, because there’s been this back and forth between the protest movement, between all these people who’ve taken to Tahrir Square and other cities and outside of Cairo, to pressure the military to give in more. And the military has first resisted imposing any kind — carrying out the change. But every time the protest movement has gone out into the streets, it tends to get what it wants, but sometimes at some cost. On April 8th, on the evening of April 8th, we saw two people die, about 17 wounded, when people reoccupied Tahrir Square. But, the result of that clash was that the Mubaraks — President Hosni Mubarak, his wife, his sons — were imprisoned or indicted. A bunch of corrupt officials that for two months had been allowed to remain free were indicted and arrested. Their assets were frozen.

So, the situation is still evolving, but I think by mid-April we reached a major turning point, where the bulk of the population felt satisfied that at least on the issue of corruption, on the issue of holding former officials accountable, that the military council was moving forward. But, you know, the military is part of the old regime. It’s only going to give in as much as it wants. And the tension right now is actually among the activists themselves, between those who say, “The military is part of the problem. We need to get at least — remove some more senior officers,” and what seems to be the majority for now, that says, “There is no alternative. We need to work with these people, and we need to move towards a transition that — eventually so they return to the barracks.”

RULA JEBREAL: Sorry, if I can ask him — are they all the same, I mean, the militaries? Or there is a real fracture between reformist and conservative, people that worked so closely with the regime and people that really worked with the people, with the uprising?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: It’s the question. The question of whether the military is divided or not is probably the question today. The military is very opaque. It’s a black box. We don’t really know what goes on. If you look at the 18-or-so-member Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, apart from its leader, the Minister of Defense, Hussein Tantawi, who’s about 75 years old, almost all of them are 63 or 64. They all came through the same military promotion. So they share a similar mindset. The question is middle officers.

RULA JEBREAL: When I worked in Egypt two years ago, in television, and I had a TV show for 35 days during Ramadan time, the first thing they told me when I arrived at the airport, my producer, the head of the television station, and even the Minister of Information, who was in control of each TV show, he told me, “Three things you cannot mention. The first one is the military. You cannot criticize them. You cannot ask any questions about them. Second is Mubarak and his entourage. Third is the — you can talk about the government as much as you can, we don’t care about this, but another thing you are not allowed to invite the Muslim Brothers to the TV show.” So what is it about, TV show?

ISSANDR EL AMRANI: The taboo that remains is the military today.

RULA JEBREAL: The taboo is the military.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn for a minute to this movie about your life, the movie that is based on the novel that you wrote, Miral. This is a short clip of Miral.

MIRAL’S FATHER: Can I help you?

POLICE: Hello, we are here for Miral Shahin. Miral Shahin, does she live here?

MIRAL’S FATHER: She is my daughter. There must be some mistake.

POLICE: Call her, please.

MIRAL’S FATHER: She’s asleep. It’s very late.

MIRAL SHAHIN: I’m Miral Shahin.

POLICE: See? She is all ready.

MIRAL SHAHIN: Don’t worry, Papa. I’ll be back soon.

MIRAL’S FATHER: Miral. There is some misunderstanding. Please, you cannot take her. She is a school child.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from Julian Schnabel’s film Miral, based on Rula Jebreal’s novel of the same name. Explain what we just saw and heard, but also how Palestine and Israel is now being affected by what is happening in the Middle East.

RULA JEBREAL: Well, it’s very affected, because it’s — the Prime Minister of Israel thought that the regimes around him, Mubarak, will protect his security and will guarantee the border security. He didn’t understand that the price of that was that the guy was oppressing his own people. And Israel used to say that they are the only democracy in the region. Now we have democracy movements, and that’s scary to Israel, and I don’t understand why. Honestly, they should embrace it, salute it, and listen to these people, because, in the end, the Arab Spring will turn to some — it’s a long process. It’s not like they go to Tahrir Square, and it’s over. It’s a process. It will go through points where it’s ups and downs, but it will do well to the country, even to Israel itself.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, then online, we’ll put the rest. Thanks so much for joining us.

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