Fawaz Gerges, the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, talks to RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about the significance of recent political developments in Egypt as President Hosni Mubarak's regime faces a seventh day of massive antigovernment protests.
RFE/RL: Egypt's newly appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq has announced that he has carried out President Hosni Mubarak's order to name a new cabinet. What is the significance of that move?
Fawaz Gerges: What Mubarak is trying to do is to present a new cabinet with much more acceptable public faces to the Egyptian public. What Mubarak [also] is trying to do is to send multiple messages to audiences inside Egypt and outside Egypt. But the reality is, he said, "I ordered the prime minister to undertake political reforms." This statement speaks volumes about where power lies and how much everything is invested in President Mubarak himself.
RFE/RL: Mubarak at the weekend named, for the first time during his 30-year rule, a vice president that would succeed him if he leaves office. He also named a new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq. But these appointments already have been rejected by the opposition as being too close to Mubarak's regime. What options do these appointments give Mubarak in the days ahead? Can these appointments be seen as part of some end game strategy that could help with political transition if Mubarak is forced from power?
Gerges: The military is in full charge in Egypt. The military is really calling the shots. At the end of the day, Mubarak himself is an integral of the army institution. The army has positioned its two men -- [newly named Vice President] Omar Suleiman and the prime minister [Ahmed Shafiq] -- both as channels. The army has the key to resolve the crisis in Egypt. We have to wait and see how far the army will go in backing Hosni Mubarak or negotiating a transitional government in the next few days and weeks ahead.
RFE/RL: Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, returned to Egypt from Vienna last week -- saying he would help with political transition if asked to do so by the opposition. On January 30, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood -- Egypt's largest opposition group -- backed ElBaradei as a member of a proposed committee it wants to negotiate with Egypt's military leaders. How has this strengthened ElBaradei's credentials as an opposition leader in Egypt?
Gerges: ElBaradei has emerged as the major public face of the opposition. ElBaradei is a unifying figure for the opposition -- including the Muslim Brotherhood, including the nationalists and the liberal-leaning opposition. My take on it is that ElBaradei represents an acceptable option for the military. The question is, will the military negotiate with ElBaradei? Will ElBaradei accept to be part of a transitional government led by Omar Suleiman? There are more question marks than answers. We have to wait and see until the dust settles on the battlefield within the next 48 hours.
RFE/RL: What do you think the Muslim Brotherhood wants to achieve from the street demonstrations that it officially started to support after Friday Prayers on January 28?
Gerges: The Muslim Brotherhood wants to get rid of Mubarak. Also the brotherhood wants to play a key role in the political process, no doubt about it. But the Muslim Brotherhood has made it very clear; they are not equipped, they are not ready to govern Egypt, so the question is not whether the Muslim Brotherhood wants to seize power. What kind of role will the brotherhood play within a new national unity government. My take on it is let's not fall into the scare tactics used by Mubarak. I am not suggesting there are not concerns about the conduct of the brotherhood but I think the Muslim Brotherhood has come a long way and I think it has shown maturity and, of course, it wants to play a key role in the government and society of Egypt.
RFE/RL: In broad terms, if a post-Mubarak government were to reject the three-decades old Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel, this would upset the geopolitical balance of the entire Middle East. Do you think the impact of political transition on the future of the Camp David accords is a consideration for Egypt's military leadership?
Gerges: I think we misread the whole social upheaval in Egypt if we try to impose a foreign policy or international relations lens on it. This is really more about internal domestic politics in Egypt. This is about a bread-and-butter revolution. It's about political transition. It's about institutional building. It's about transparency. It's about lifting the emergency laws in Egypt that have been basically in place since 1981. The bread and butter revolution is not about Israel. It is not about American foreign policy. It is basically about internal Egyptian politics.
RFE/RL: Oil prices have surged to nearly $100 a barrel as a result of Egypt's political crisis. Financial analysts say the protests also could push Egypt itself into a financial crisis. What do you think?
Gerges: The longer the crisis continues, the more damage it will do to the Egyptian economy. Egypt has the second largest economy in Africa. The tourist industry represents about 11 percent of Egypt's foreign currency. In this particular case, the banking system has been devastated. Markets don't like turmoil. They don't like instability. Markets prefer dictators and stability to instability and democracy.
So unless the ruling class in Egypt -- unless the political class, particularly President Mubarak and the military -- appreciate the complexity of the crisis and the inherent dangers of not meeting the demands of the opposition, this crisis can really have devastating impact on the Egyptian economy, on the regional economy and on the world market as well.