Jon Alterman, a former special assistant on Middle East affairs at the State Department, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that violence in Egypt could increase as the Muslim Brotherhood, which still commands some support, drops out of politics after the ouster of President Mohamed Mursi.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We begin the program with Jon Alterman. Jon, what’s the prospects in Egypt? There’s violence now after the coup. Over the next couple weeks, is there just going to be continued violence? Is there any prospect for some kind of a consensus to emerge?
JON ALTERMAN: You’re going to have a bumpy ride because the army acted with a lot of popular support, but the Brotherhood still probably enjoys the support of between 10 million and 20 million Egyptians, people who feel that the presidency was taken from them, that Mursi never had a chance, and that what was supposed to be an open political process was shut down. Those people, a lot of them are going to be in the streets. Some of them are going to use violence.
HUNT: So the Brotherhood is not going to go quietly is the point. There’s going to be a - there’s going to be more violent reaction.
ALTERMAN: The Brotherhood may not continue to participate in politics, but that’s actually a problem. Because participating in politics means you’re agreeing that differences are settled through political means. What I think the Brotherhood has concluded is the game is stacked and the only way to get what they deserve is to change the game, not to play in the game. That’s a big change from where the brotherhood was a year ago.
HUNT: And has the army overreacted and made a mistake then by creating some martyrdom for them, if you will, and - and forcing them to go underground where they’re going to be more of a threat?
ALTERMAN: I think the army actually has done a pretty good job building a very broad non-Brotherhood consensus in Egypt. They brought together the Coptic pope. They brought together Shehavalesshar. They brought Mohammed Reide representing the liberal voices. What they demonstrated was that Mohamed Mursi through his politics has kept narrowing his coalition to the point where the only people who supported Mohamed Mursi were Muslim Brotherhood supporters. And you can’t govern the country if you’re only appealing to a base which ultimately is a minority.
An interesting part of the participation with the military was the Nour Party, the Salafis, the ultra-conservatives, who decided they didn’t have a future with Mohamed Mursi either. That brings - that tears apart any sort of Islamist coalition and makes - creates a lot of questions about what the future of Egyptian politics might look like. In fact, it may be that empowering the Nour Party through bringing them on board may be the biggest mistake the army did.
HUNT: Egypt has long been a huge political power influence in the region. With this kind of political and economic instability, can they continue to play a major role in the region?
ALTERMAN: There’s a way in which Egypt has both has been active in the region, I think much less so over the last 20 years or so. But there’s an intimacy that people feel to Egypt, partly because people know a lot of Egyptians. There’s a way in which Egypt just by virtue of its demographic weight but also its intellectual heft is something that every single Arab feels is not totally foreign to them. And for that reason, what happens in Egypt sends ripples that continue to flow throughout the region.
HUNT: Well talk about ripples. Right now if you’re sitting in Tel Aviv or if you’re sitting in Tehran, how do you view this?
ALTERMAN: I think the guys in Tel Aviv are relieved because they always felt they had a better relationship with the army than the Brotherhood. They never trusted the Brotherhood. They don’t want to stick their head up and show their approval, but the fact is people in Tel Aviv are sleeping much better tonight than they have.
I think if you’re in Tehran, a much different sense. Mursi seemed to be trying to reach out to the Iranians to the extent that he could. He was slapped down by the Salafis. There is much less confidence, but I think Iran is in its own space right now. They’re trying to figure out what the election of Rohani means. They’re trying to figure out how much conciliation they’ll have with the rest of the region. They’re thinking a lot about Syria. So I think the Iranians are not focused on Egypt nearly to the same degree as they might have been three months ago.
HUNT: Let’s talk about the Obama administration. It looks like they have been reactive, vacillating. Options aren’t good I know, haven’t been for the past two and a half years. But what they - what should they be doing they’re not doing?
ALTERMAN: Well, I think what they should have done is they should have been more critical of the Brotherhood as the Brotherhood was narrowing its base, was abrogating power, was not working with other parties. I think the administration should have been more critical. It is perceived to be both in bed with the Brotherhood and in bed with the army. Everybody’s been unhappy with the Obama administration. Everybody’s been unhappy with the U.S. embassy. I think there must have been ways to make more clear where we stand and what we think is an excess of power.
I think at this point they’re going to say, well we’re studying whether it was a coup. They don’t want to cut off aid. Strategically, there is a U.S. interest in having a strong relationship with Egypt. The people in power in Egypt are certainly people the U.S. has been in dialogue with and will continue to be in dialogue with. So they’re going to try to rebuild this relationship, but there still I think is this sense in Egypt that the administration’s been naïve, that they didn’t understand what a threat the Brotherhood is. And there’s not the same confidence in American judgment.
Now quite frankly there’s never been a lot of confidence in the Egyptian government about the judgment of Americans about what Egyptian policy should look like. Americans have been trying to democratize Egyptian politics for more than a half century with very, very paltry results to show for it. But I think there is that sense when it comes to politics, the Americans just don’t know what they’re talking about.
HUNT: You say we don’t want to cut off aid. That may certainly be good policy, but it was a coup. We can say - we can call it whatever we want to, but it clearly was a coup. The law clearly says that if there’s a coup you cut off all aid. And we are now calling on the Egyptians to heed the rule of law. There is a certain contradiction if not hypocrisy here, isn’t there?
ALTERMAN: There is, although the way the aid is actually disbursed and what the law says about not obligating it, there may be an opportunity using the aid that’s already been obligated not need to obligate new aid. Different fiscal years. There may be some breathing room. I think --
HUNT: But you don’t think aid’s going to be cut off?
ALTERMAN: I don’t think aid’s going to be cut off. And quite frankly, I think there is an enthusiasm on Capitol Hill among some quarters to condition aid. I don’t think conditioning aid persuades people to do anything when it comes to politics. You can condition aid when it comes to very clearly measured economic indicators and those kinds of things. The more qualitative you get and the more you deal with what people consider to be their core interests, the political future of the country for the next half century, the less they care what anybody says.
And the fact is our gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are very, very concerned about the Brotherhood, could write a check overnight that would triple the consequences of American aid and there would be no strings and no conditions. I don’t think we have an opportunity to shape the way the Egyptian government thinks about this in an acute way, although in a broader way I think they want to have a good relationship with the United States. And we have to show our -what we care about and what we’re willing to do for it.
HUNT: Jon Alterman, you’re going to have a fascinating couple of weeks and months, if not years. It’s an extraordinary story.
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