NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In just over two months in office, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has asserted himself on several fronts. Just weeks after his election, he fired several senior defense officials, effectively seizing power from the military government that ruled after former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
He ordered airstrikes on Islamists in the Sinai Peninsula, cracked down on critics in the press, and President Morsi has been a visible actor in world affairs. He made his first trip outside the country, to China. He disappointed the United States by going to the Non-aligned Summit in Tehran where he then stunned his hosts and angered Syria with a full embrace for Syria's rebels.
If you've been following events in Egypt, what's surprised you since President Morsi took office? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, does your identity live on after you die? But first the new Egypt, and we begin with Leila Fadel, NPR foreign correspondent covering Egypt for years. She joins us now from Cairo. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Nice to be here, thank you.
CONAN: And President Morsi's boldest move, no doubt, was to fire some of the defense chiefs who had been trying to limit his powers.
FADEL: Yes, I think that really shocked everybody here in Egypt, observers of Egypt, because many people saw him as an uncharismatic leader who was in the pocket of the military council. And he took this bold move and got rid of the top two generals of that council and promoted his allies and has since continued to make bold moves in the same manner.
CONAN: Does that mean that he has effectively seized control of the military, that Egyptians' civilian-elected president is now in charge of the military?
FADEL: I think that might be going a little bit too far. It seems clear from what happened is that he negotiated a deal with younger members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and was able to bring those men up while exploiting the dissatisfaction with the leadership from within the military.
And so I would say it was more of a deal that allowed him to take back both presidential power but also legislative power while continuing to please what is still a very powerful force in Egypt, the military.
CONAN: So the military's economic privileges and that sort of thing, those are untouched?
FADEL: So far. I mean, of course we don't know all the ins and outs of this deal until we see what the constitution looks like, which has still not been written, but the drafts that are leaking out show that their economic interests will be protected. And again, we won't have parliament oversight over that budget. It will be a one-line item that goes to parliament.
So for now, it looks like the military still has the protections they want, which was probably part of this decision. But I wouldn't, you know, under - I wouldn't rob from that decision that Morsi made. It really turned things around for him. It came right after this major attack in Sinai that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. He was unable to attend that funeral because there was so much animosity towards him. And he was able to really turn the tides by saying hey, I'm the president, and I'm going to change the military council.
And since then, he's gotten a lot more widespread support, publicly, than he had before he made that move.
CONAN: And that attack in the Sinai at the crossing, that really is his first crisis. Islamist militants attacked the border post, killed 16 people who were completely unprepared for this and then crossed into Israel where they were killed, in turn, by the Israelis. President Morsi responded to this by attacking some of those forces in Sinai that have been allowed to, more or less, run rampant the last few years.
FADEL: Well at least publicly we're seeing that there's a (technical difficulties) campaign, but it actually seems that on the ground, the military campaign that's going on in Sinai is a lot less active than it's being showed to be - or than it's being showed on state television and state media.
When you speak to Sinai residents and Sinai tribal leaders, they actually say a lot of it is quite exaggerated and for public consumption. But that, yes, is his first crisis. He has to show that he can not only secure Sinai but secure Egypt, which has been dealing with a larger security vacuum in general since the revolution last year.
CONAN: And in the process, he had his first dealings with Israel.
FADEL: Well, his - the military definitely has dealt with Israel. There's been no direct contact other than this letter, which was supposedly from the president here through official channels to the Israeli government, which was then denied by Morsi. But there has been coordination between the Egyptian military and the Israeli military about that border point.
CONAN: Tahrir Square there in Cairo, the flashpoint of the Arab spring, the place where, really, Mubarak was brought down by huge crowds, huge numbers of demonstrators who defied him, and eventually the military took their side, and Mubarak was out. Eventually, of course, Morsi elected. What is the street like now? What is Tahrir Square like today?
FADEL: It's pretty empty, actually. I mean, the last major protest that we saw in Tahrir was an anti-Brotherhood protest. But because of the moves that Morsi took against the military just before that protest, it really undercut it, and it was only a few hundred people.
So today it's just a traffic circle with a few tents of people who are against the Brotherhood rule - which is the organization that Mohammed Morsi comes from - and people driving through, really.
CONAN: Joining us now is Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, the author of "The Struggle for Egypt: From Nassir to Tahrir Square." He's with us at the studios at the council here in Washington, and nice to have you back on the program.
STEVEN COOK: Pleasure to be with you.
CONAN: And what does Morsi's - particularly the move to fire the generals who seem to want to stay on top in Egypt - what does that say about this new president?
COOK: Well, it's clear that President Morsi was not going to accept the June 17 constitutional decree that was issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that essentially gutted his powers in the fields of national security and defense policy. And it is abundantly clear that in keeping with this idea of him as - or his reputation of kind of having a fighting spirit, he cultivated another round of - another rung of officers and promised them promotion, immunity and relief from having to run Egypt on a day-to-day basis, and was able to thus oust his primary opponents in the process of accumulating his power, that is Field Marshal Tantawi, the former chief of staff; Lieutenant General Sami Anan; the officers around those two officers.
I think that certainly Morsi has taken some very important steps towards consolidating his power; however, it doesn't tell us much about what the future trajectory of Egypt will be.
CONAN: There was another force in addition to those military leaders that was a break on his authority, and that was Egypt's supreme court.
COOK: Indeed, and it's interesting that Morsi has not chosen to take on the judiciary until now. I think that that's a function of the fact that the judiciary is largely held in high regard by many Egyptians. The military certainly was, and the idea of the military certainly remains important to most Egyptians, but those senior officers had compromised themselves by the way in which they ruled Egypt in the 18 months between Mubarak's fall and Morsi's election.
I think much depends, going forward, on what this new constitution is going to look like, what the formal relationship will be between the president, the government and the military, where does the judiciary sit in the separation of powers in the new Egypt.
I think the major problem in Egypt, and I think virtually everybody would agree, is that there has been too much power wielded by the executive branch at the expense of both the judiciary and the legislative branch, and I think analysts are going to look to see how that all shakes itself out in the new constitution.
CONAN: Leila Fadel, let me turn back to you. The elected legislature, banned then by the supreme court, met one afternoon and then disbanded again. Have they taken steps to reassert themselves?
FADEL: No, right now the president of Egypt is also the parliament of Egypt. So the concern on a lot of Morsi's opponents is that he really is an all-powerful leader at this point and could reshape the country if he wanted to. He has said that until a new parliament is elected, because there's no plans to put the old parliament back together, he won't use that legislative power unless absolutely necessary.
So far, he's used it one time, to release a journalist who was being held in custody while his trial is pending.
CONAN: We're talking about the new Egypt under its new President Mohammed Morsi, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And let's see if we can get Pete(ph) on the line, and he's with us from Florida.
PETE: This is really a privilege, thank you.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
PETE: When Sadat was put in a position of authority by Nassir, he was considered to be kind of a yes-man. His nickname was Colonel Yes-Yes. But he turned out to be a real strong leader, and it seems like the Egyptian president now has kind of knocked off the roaring lions that were on the first team, and he's kind of put people in position who are his allies and may or may not be capable.
And my question for our guest is: Is this going to be the pattern in Egyptian politics, where the president, as he sees new threats approach, whether the people are in the military or some other form of the government, are they going to be pushed aside for maybe less-able people that's going to weaken Egypt in the long run?
CONAN: Steven Cook, you've been writing lately about patterns in Egypt's power politics.
COOK: Well, in fact it's interesting that the caller raises the issue of Sadat, because in many ways, what President Morsi has done and the way he has gone about moving out this senior rung of military officers, is reminiscent of what Anwar Sadat did in May 1971, which was subsequently called the Corrective Revolution, in which he also cultivated a rung of younger officers to replace a group that was loyal to the previous president.
I wouldn't draw the conclusion that these new officers that have been promoted by Morsi are somehow less competent than Field Marshal Tantawi and Lieutenant General Sami Anan and their fellow officers. Tantawi did not have a good reputation as a capable military officer, though Anan did.
And if we want to go back to historical patterns, the people that Sadat cultivated and promoted at the expense of loyalists to his predecessor, Nassir, were the ones who planned and successfully executed Egypt's crossing of the Suez Canal on October 6th, 1973, which is Egypt's greatest modern military achievement.
CONAN: And Leila Fadel, how much do we know about this new cadre of top military commanders?
FADEL: Well, we know that they - for example, Sisi, the new defense minister, was one of the generals that defended controversial virginity tests. Women were basically sexually assaulted when they were detained by the military. So it's not that they're reformist or revolutionary or anything like that, but they are, as Steven Cook said, is that they're being cultivated to consolidate the Brotherhood power. They are not opponents to the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is coming into a bureaucracy that has been raised to suspect them, and so now they're trying to consolidate power with allies in powerful positions.
CONAN: We're talking about Egypt after the Arab spring. If you've been following events there, what's surprised you since Mohammed Morsi took office as president? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Neal Conan. In the old Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and repressed. Now a member of that party serves as president. Women on state TV under Hosni Mubarak were effectively forbidden to wear headscarves. On Sunday, the midday news anchor took the air with a plain, bone-colored scarf wrapped around her head and neck, the first woman to do that on state TV in 50 years.
Some call that religious freedom; others fear it's a sign the Muslim Brotherhood plans to enforce religious law in a country that's long kept religion and government apart. We're talking today about the new Egypt and what's changed in recent months. If you've been following events in Egypt, what's surprised you since Morsi took office? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are NPR foreign correspondent Leila Fadel and - with us from Cairo; and Steven Cook, who's here in Washington. He's a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote the book "The Struggle for Egypt." And Leila Fadel, let me ask you about that newscaster. How much of a surprise was that?
FADEL: Well, I mean, of course it's a surprise. This is the first time in history that a woman was able to cover her head on state television. And most Egyptian women do cover their hair. And so for decades, they have not seen themselves reflected on state television.
So this was actually quite a big step but also a superficial step. I think the bigger question about media is what do they do with these state institutions who have long been a servant to an autocrat, who have long been there to prop up a leadership and tell the people how great they are.
So the bigger question is: Is this state television going to be, now, an apparatus to boost the Brotherhood, their ideology and their plans, or is this going to be an actual facet to tell the truth to Egyptians?
CONAN: And there's also been some other people, in the independent media, who have been coming under attack.
FADEL: Yes, I mean, Morsi has really been under fire for what his critics say is him trying to oppress freedom of speech. Of course, there are quite stringent media laws that will, if you're going to protect the press, you'll have to really reform. But right now, you have an editor of Dustour newspaper, which has been quite critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the point where they've called for a military coup. He's on trial. As well as a fiery television host who is accused of inciting violence against the president.
So these are alarming indicators, although each case, of course, if you look at it in its own right, you have to see - like Tawfiq Okasha, who went on television, basically called the president's blood fair game, which I'm not sure would be OK in the United States, either.
But generally, people are concerned that the only people going on trial for media crimes of any kind are those that are criticizing the Brotherhood. So this is an alarming indication, in his first few months, to right away go after his critics.
CONAN: And Steven Cook, that raises the suspicion that the Brotherhood is being elevated to a new one-party state.
COOK: Well, indeed that is the suspicion on the part of the Brotherhood's opponents and some observers, that we would be swapping out the - Mubarak's National Democratic Party, and in its place is Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party. I think the Freedom and Justice Party has a long way to go before it institutionalizes the kind of power that the NDP once had.
But developments, particularly the way in which the government has gone after certain members of the press, the fact that the state still controls major media outlets, the fact that the government seems to believe that these are appropriate in the new Egypt raises concerns about the Brotherhood's commitment to forging a more democratic and open society.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Andy's(ph) on the line with us from Sterling in Connecticut.
ANDY: Hi, thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure, go ahead, please.
ANDY: I'd just like to express a kind of broad sentiment that I don't have a very nuanced understanding of a lot of the things going on. There's so much that I don't think any one person can really get a grip on, at all. But I am very, very glad to see that Mohammed Morsi has been a surprising leader to a lot of major powers in the area.
And I think in some ways it's been a long time coming to see a power in the Middle East that kind of represents interests of the Middle East rather than, you know, the Western powers or, you know, Russia or - it's kind of the birth of a powerful voice that belongs solely to the Middle East. And I hope that he continues to surprise the world.
And I reserve a lot of optimism. I - you know, things could certainly go south, but it's nice to see something so new and so promising.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Andy, and Leila Fadel, are Egyptians optimistic? Do they think real change is happening?
FADEL: I think people are really unsure. So much is - this is only two months. So much is unwritten. They haven't seen their constitution. They don't know what it will say about the role of religion, the role of the parliament, the role of the executive, who will hold the power. So it's still really unclear.
I do think that Morsi's move against the top echelons of the military did make people feel like OK, we have a powerful president. The fact that Morsi came out and said you know what, our foreign policy is going to be more balanced now, we are going to bring back the powerful Egypt, the respected Egypt of the past also made people happy - the way that he made Egyptians feel proud of their president, the way that he sat up a non-aligned meeting in Iran, Syria's biggest backer, and called Bashar al-Assad's presidency illegitimate, his government illegitimate, again that also was something that surprised Egyptians and made them feel that maybe they do have a powerful president.
But on the other hand, there is a lot of concern that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying - instead of reforming the institutions, is just reshuffling to put sympathizers within these organizations. So when you look at state media, for example, the new heads of a lot of these newspapers and state television are seen as Muslim Brotherhood allies, sympathizers.
And so the bigger concern is: Will this just be superficial, a lot of talk with Muslim Brotherhood people being put in the top ranks of a system that does not really serve the people, or will there be true reforms in security, media and those - and freedom of expression?
CONAN: Let's go to Norman(ph), and Norman's with us from San Leandro in California.
NORMAN: Hello, I'm - was alarmed when I heard that Morsi went to Iran to I guess talk to them about the struggle in Syria. And now we know, I guess, we understand at least that Iran is supporting the Assad regime. And now I'm, you know, the people that are struggling against the regime are Sunni. And now supposedly Morsi is a Sunni also, but yet he's going to Iran to discuss Syria. That whole thing was very suspicious.
CONAN: Norman, he went to Iran and promptly denounced the Syrian government, which prompted a walkout by the Syrian delegation. I think, Steven Cook, if I'm correct, his hosts were not terribly pleased at this.
COOK: Indeed they were very unhappy with the fact that Morsi spoke out so forthrightly against the Assad regime, as you said before, calling the Assad's presidency illegitimate. I think that there was some concern among some observers when Morsi went to Iran, that somehow this was the beginning of a new relationship between Egypt and Iran, some sort of Cairo-Tehran axis.
I think in keeping with Morsi's desire to pursue a more independent foreign policy, there is going to be a new relationship between Egypt and Iran. But I don't think it's going to be one of strategic cooperation. Ultimately, the relationship will be better between those two countries, but more likely it'll be one of strategic competition.
The Egyptians believe themselves to be in many ways a natural leader of the region, just as the Iranians want to extend their influence throughout the region, and I think that leads the two countries to a more competitive relationship rather than a cooperative one.
CONAN: And a more independent foreign policy, i.e., not so closely aligned with Washington.
COOK: Indeed, that's the case. And I think that is what many Egyptians want. I don't believe that that is a function of Islamist politics per se. that's not just the platform of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the relationship, the strategic alignment between Mubarak's Egypt and the United States, was profoundly unpopular among a variety of Egyptians across the political spectrum. And a more independent foreign policy, one that is focused specifically on what Egypt's interests in the region are is likely to make Egypt a more important player in the region than it was over the course of the last 10 years or so.
CONAN: But Leila Fadel, inevitably his authority, his power, it's going to rest on whether he can get the economy restarted.
FADEL: Right, I mean, it's all well and good to say I want a more independent policy, I want an independent foreign policy, but really Egypt needs foreign investment right now. They need foreign loans. They need money from Washington, from Saudi Arabia, and, you know, as a lot of his trip to China showed, from China.
So they're going to take it from wherever it goes. So in many ways, his hands are tied behind his back until he can stabilize this economy. But by taking foreign loans - like the IMF loan that has some tacit approval here now - it's also concerning because Islamists and activists for a long time associated those loans with the corruption of the Mubarak regime.
CONAN: And how is the economy doing? Is - are people going back to work at all?
FADEL: Well, I mean, foreign reserves are up. The stock market is supposedly up now. But, you know, unemployment is high. People don't feel that not only is it worse than before the revolution, there were promises that it would get better. We have rolling blackouts throughout the capital, a lack of fresh water, potable water for people. So really, people are very concerned about the basic necessities of life, you know, bread, water, power and employment, and none of that has really improved in a way that people can see.
CONAN: Let's go to Brendan, Brendan on the line with us from Las Vegas.
BRENDAN: Hi. I was just wondering how the Coptic Orthodox Christians are fairing.
CONAN: Leila Fadel?
FADEL: The Coptic community is concerned about living under an Islamist government. There haven't been major attacks like we saw over the past year, since Morsi took power. We haven't seen extreme sectarian violence, except in Dahshour, which was a big problem. A lot of Copts were pushed out of the village by - after a fight over a burnt shirt, basically, between a Muslim man and a Coptic Christian. And it's an issue that, really, nobody has been willing to grapple with.
And Morsi has, so far, also not shown any ability yet to get beyond this religious conflict between the Coptic community and the Muslim community. So a lot of Copts are very concerned that now they will live under a religious government.
CONAN: There are other groups that have concerns, the - some of the secular people who helped bring about the Arab Spring. And there are, of course, a lot of women who are concerned about the future under what could be Shariah law.
FADEL: Well, I mean, the Muslim Brotherhood has given no indication that they plan to cover up all the women and institute Islamic law tomorrow. I mean, I think, ultimately, the Muslim Brotherhood, as an organization, sees Shariah law or Islamic law as the best law for the land. But we still haven't seen this constitution and what it will say about Islamic law, and those are hard-fought battles being fought right now.
But I think it's a little bit alarmist to think that Egypt will turn into a Taliban state tomorrow. I think that the Brotherhood is a little too pragmatic for that right now. I don't think those social issues are at the top of their priority list when they have to deal with a faltering economy.
And another thing that the Brotherhood often points out is that they were elected, and the parliament's about to be elected, too. So if the secular and liberal factions of this society want to do well here in the government and have their say, they should start mobilizing for elections the way the Brotherhood did, and I think that's a fair point.
CONAN: We're talking with Leila Fadel, NPR foreign correspondent in Cairo. Steven Cook is also with us from the Council of Foreign Relations. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And John's on the line with us from High Falls in Wilmington, North Carolina.
JOHN: Yes. Good afternoon.
JOHN: I was just - I just tuned in, so I just caught a little bit of the conversation, but I actually just stepped off a plane from Cairo two days ago. And as a (unintelligible), a man on the street, I've found it's a kind of an exciting, most secure place, just stayed in a hotel off Tahrir Square and got caught up in a little demonstration on Friday evening. So it was interesting.
CONAN: And were you there as a tourist, or on business?
JOHN: Well, on business for just a real quick trip. But the interesting perspective should be from the people that I came in contact with, the taxi drivers and the people in hotels, and they see this administration as kind of a foundation, if you will. I mean, there's a lot of pitfalls ahead of them that I think everybody is aware of, and it's not going to be perfect. But there's a sense of excitement, I think, for the people on the street that good things are coming. And tourism is another aspect that they want to get rolling as quickly as possible in Egypt.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the report. Appreciate it.
CONAN: And, Steven Cook, as - it's going to take some convincing to get the flow of tourists back.
COOK: I think that's certainly the case. Tourism has essentially collapsed in Egypt. There was a trickle back over the spring and summer, but really, Egypt is - Egypt's tourist industry has been devastated by the events over the course of the last 18 months. And given the fact that tourism is one of the most important - it certainly is in the top three of foreign currency earners for Egypt. The fact that President Morsi, if he can establish some stability and the Egyptians can signal to the world that Egypt is opening to tourism, that would certainly help the Egyptian economy.
But, of course, there are all these concerns. Will Morsi and the Brotherhood, will they ban alcohol in tourism hotels? What kind of tourism would they want to see? Egypt has become - particularly the South Sinai - has become an attractive beach destination for European tourists. Would that continue to be the case? Clearly, tourism factors extraordinarily large in Egypt's economy and will need to have a major rebound before the Egyptian economy can get going again.
CONAN: Leila Fadel, you've said several times the constitution and what it says is going to be critical to the future, not just for President Morsi, but to the future of Egypt. What's the timetable now?
FADEL: They're talking about the end of September now for a final draft of that constitution. Again, that is something that has consistently been put off, if you will, and something that - the biggest battle between the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, the seculars, the liberals is over right now.
So, really, until we see that document and what it will say and whether people will accept it, we won't know what Egypt will look like. And another point that a lot of people talk about when they watch Morsi, this untested leader, take the reins of power, they talk about how this really is a test for political Islam. This was a banned group. Like you said, Morsi himself was imprisoned here. So if they fail or succeed, this may be the rise or fall of political Islam in Egypt and possibly beyond.
CONAN: Leila Fadel, thank you very much for your time today.
FADEL: Thank you.
CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Leila Fadel, with us from Cairo. Steven Cook, nice to have you back on the program. Appreciate it.
COOK: Great to be with you again. Thanks.
CONAN: Steven Cook's book is "The Struggle for Egypt." He's a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Up next: Who owns you and your gestures, your likenesses and your speech patterns after you die? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.