HH: On something of a slow news day, the president of Egypt comes out in the middle of the night and declares everyone else has got to leave but not him. The president of the United States comes out and speaks for five minutes and says nothing. To analyze all that is going on, we are joined by Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post and the Fox News All-Stars. Charles, what do you make of this evening’s events?
CK: Rather remarkable. If you’re watching the demonstrators in the street, you might have expected the president of Egypt to deliver an abdication speech, and hop on a plane like the Shah in 1979. That was not it at all. He comes on the screen, he says I’m staying, very paternalistic, I look after my people, I care about the poor, et cetera, and fires the government, implying that he may be ready to change. He’s not going to terribly well received among the demonstrators, but what really counts right now is whether, how well it’s received by the army. He stands or falls depending on what the army does.
HH: What did you make of President Obama’s follow on?
CK: I was impressed. That is, they have very difficult decisions to make. And I thought he walked a fine line in the correct way. You’ve got to think of it in these terms. The worse possible outcome is that the Muslim Brotherhood take over. They’re strong, they’re widespread in their influence, they’re organized and ruthless. When that happens, when you have a revolution where one element, like Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, or the Islamists in Iran in 1979, and you get chaos in the streets, the bad guys in the end are more prepared to take over and to win. So we had two choices. Do we either say nothing, or even undermine Mubarak, as Jimmy Carter did in 1979 when he kicked the stool out from under the Shah, and then he’s done, or do we try a riskier course, which is we stay with Mubarak, which is what Obama did, but insist that he bring in democrats, bring in reformers, bring in the opposition, and essentially begin a transition out of the Mubarak era. It’s going to end anyway. He’s 82. He’s not going to run any reelection, he’s not going to win reelection, either. His son is not going to take over. So do you want a controlled transition to democracy? Or do you want an abdication, riots in the streets, chaos, out of which it’s more likely that the bad guys are going to win? So I think they chose the slightly more difficult course, staying with the guy who’s quite despised, but insisting that there’s a transition that is obvious to the Egyptians, enough that the army will stay with the president, work with them to transition to the…there’s a large element in Egypt that is democratic, secular, and is looking for a real open society. They are likely to be crushed if there’s chaos in the streets. A transition, guided by even an unpopular president, however, but also with the support of a well-respected army, might work better.
HH: There is also, of course, a very large Coptic population that is on pins and needles tonight. I’ve been talking with some of them on the radio in the last hour. But Charles, if the President had done what you think he did, I would be applauding him as well. But when I heard it, I tried to put myself in the position of a Muslim Brotherhood activist listening, and I thought Obama cleared the way, immunizing them from any kind of crackdown. In other words, that Saturday will be a tumultuous, violence-filled day, because the President signaled to Mubarak, don’t use the army.
CK: I’m not sure I believed a word of that. I think he had to say it, and I’m glad he said it. I think it’s very understood that when he calls for no use of force, it’s understood that it’s going to happen one way or the other. It’s interesting that he did not say because of all the injuries, because of all the deaths, we are now reconsidering our support. Look, if you watched the riots in the streets, people attacked the police. But when the army came in, they did not attack the army. The army has a different position in Egyptian society. It’s highly respected. It’s like the one working institution. It has the prestige of having overthrown the monarchy in 1952, and the success of the October war in 1973. So it’s an institution that people…if you look, people were not attacking the tanks. They were actually embracing them, and sort of cheering them on. So if you don’t get the demonstrators attacking the military, the army, and yet welcoming them, accepting their presence, and if in those circumstances the president of Egypt begins a serious transition in which, for example, he brings in Elbaradai, one of the leaders of the reformist opposition into his government, then you’ve got a chance of success.
HH: Let me go back to 1979, Charles. If we knew then what we know now, would we have been better off if the Shah had instructed the army to fire on the mob, and even with the horrendous bloodshed that would have occurred, is it simply impossible for an American president to stand by when mass violence is visited upon a popular uprising?
CK: Whatever our advice, it would not be decisive. A leader in those circumstances are not going to do what the Americans suggest. He’ll either order the troops to fire like the mullahs did last year, in defiance of, like, the whole world…if you think you are going to succeed, and the army will follow the order, you do it, and if you’re ruthless enough. If you are not ruthless enough, if you’re a soft dictator like the Shah is, and Mubarak is, and the guys who are now being threatened in Tunisia, well, already gone in Tunisia, or for example in Jordan, then you don’t have the makeup to go out there and to shoot people in the streets. And you’re less likely to get your army to obey the order if you give the order. So I don’t think what we say is decisive. I think if the army has to be ordered to shoot the demonstrators in Egypt, it will not. And the government is done. I think if the army can kind of win the respect of the demonstrators, or at least have a sort of a semi-truce with them, then you might get enough life in the regime to begin a transition.
HH: Now there’s quite an extensive history of the Brotherhood in Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. And the al Bana-Sayyid Qutb roots are pretty well spelled out there. But I just had a caller earlier say no, the Brothers are fine, they’re getting bad press, et cetera.
CK: Yeah, right.
HH: What do you think American level of understanding of the Brotherhood is, Charles?
CK: Well, if you get that kind of advice, it would be very low. I remember when the Ayatollah Khomeini was still in France, about to come into Iran. Our U.N. ambassador, Andrew Young, said something like, I don’t quite remember the exact quote, or Jesse Jackson, it could have been. I can’t remember. It was one or the other who said he will be remembered as almost the way we think of Jesus. In other words, he’s this great religious figure, and we have to show reverence. They totally, totally misunderstood what these people were about. And we always sort of lull ourselves into that. Remember Castro was a democrat, according to the New York Times?
CK: And you know, the Bolsheviks weren’t that serious in Russia? These guys, the founding of the Brotherhood happened in Egypt in 1928. And just remember this, one fact you have to know. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two in al Qaeda, started out as a Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian. His fondest hope, and the reason he joined al Qaeda, was because he wanted to get rid of the secular dictatorships run by Sadat and Mubarak.
HH: Do you think President Obama is clear-eyed about this?
CK: I think he is, and that’s what I felt was surprising, in staying with Mubarak publicly, at the moment of crisis, when a lot of people are thinking that Mubarak’s going to abdicate tomorrow, and leave on a plane, because it’s risky. If he abdicates and leaves on a plane, and our last statement from our president was we’re going to work with him, that’s going to make us look pretty bad in the eyes of the opposition. So it’s a risky proposal. It’s a risky policy.
HH: And do you expect that the Israelis are active in this drama right now? Or simply on the sidelines bereft of any ability to influence events?
CK: They’re utterly on the sidelines, and they have no influence in this. What they’re doing is they’re reworking their contingency plans. If Mubarak is gone and the bad guys, the Muslim Brotherhood take over, you can be sure that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty will be revoked within a week, there’ll be troops in the Sanai, there’ll be threats. Remember that Hamas in Gaza is an offshoot of the Brotherhood. So think of Hamas at large, 80 million Egyptians with a huge American-equipped army. The Israelis are very, have to be concerned, and they have to be redrawing their contingencies. They’ve assumed for thirty years there will never be another war with Egypt. And if things go sour in Egypt now, there could very well be another war.
HH: 30 seconds, I’m going to ask it one more time. So you believe Team Obama understands the stakes?
CK: From what I heard from the president, it sounds as if he does. And it sounds as if he’s chosen a course where he thinks better to get a transition to secular democrats with someone in control, even if he’s unpopular, rather than have him leave on a plane, chaos in the streets. In those circumstances, the Brotherhood, the Islamists, are most likely to win.
HH: Charles Krauthammer, always a pleasure, thank you.
End of interview.