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Former U.S. Ambassador To Cairo: 'We Knew Egypt Was A Cauldron'

An antigovernment protester waves a bloodstained Egyptian flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 4.
An antigovernment protester waves a bloodstained Egyptian flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 4.
Daniel Kurtzer served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001 before becoming the U.S. envoy to Israel. RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash asked him about the U.S. response to the uprisings in Egypt and what it means for Washington's foreign policy approach to the region.

RFE/RL: In the past 11 days, we've seen Washington's reaction to the democracy demonstrations in Egypt harden, progressing from calls for restraint to strongly worded statements that a transition of power must start now. What is the calculus behind that change?

Daniel Kurtzer:
I'm not sure I would characterize it as hardening so much as trying to find comfortable ground and trying to stay pretty closely coordinated to where the meeting ground may be between the demonstrators and the Egyptian military.

The administration tried to articulate a public line that straddled our two significant interests -- our relationship with Egypt and democracy. We were on the side of President Mubarak not running for another term, [and] I think the administration may be a touch out front now on the question of Mubarak's leaving office, but not that much further out in front than the sentiment seems to be moving in Cairo itself.

Daniel Kurtzer
RFE/RL: Some, however, have criticized the United States for supporting the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and then defending protesters' rights and grievances. Could the events in Egypt convince Washington not to "straddle" as much and be more forceful in pushing for freedoms in countries that are less than democratic but also U.S. allies?

I wish it were that easy. The problem is that you get such concrete benefits strategically out of a relationship like [the one with] Egypt that you end up having to straddle the fence. You don't want to give up your ideals or your values. As ambassador, I carried a message about human rights and political freedoms, but you also don't want to give up the concrete benefits that you gain from being an ally of Egypt.

Everything that our military sends to that region east of Egypt goes through or over Egypt or through the Suez Canal. Our strategic cooperation, our intelligence cooperation, Egypt's role in the peace process-- you don't want to jeopardize those by bending so far over against the prevailing regime that you may end up with a break. So it's a problem for foreign policy, and it's one that I think we're going to continue to have in the future.

RFE/RL: What do you think the Obama administration sees when it looks ahead to the coming weeks and months?

I think we would like to come out of this with our relationship with Egypt intact, but with an Egypt that has also now embarked on a transition to greater freedoms and greater democracy and greater openness. The real question is going to be, I think, "What's beyond Egypt?" Do the demonstrations in Jordan and elsewhere have legs? Will instability spread?

In one sense, Egypt is a forerunner of what may be happening. On the other hand, given the special characteristics of Egyptian society -- particularly the praetorian role of the military -- there is a possibility here of a stable transition that may not exist elsewhere where you don't have that foundation pillar of stability.

RFE/RL: How much of a say does Washington have at this point in terms of what happens next in Egypt?

I think the administration understands that its influence here is relatively limited. There is a resonance to the voice that the United States has and both sides will listen carefully, but the administration understands that at the end of the day, this is going to be very much an internal Egyptian decision based on Egyptian criteria and Egyptian evaluations, and I mean on both sides of the street -- on the side of the demonstrators and on the side of the army and the government.

So I don't think the administration believes that it has a determining voice, but we are a player and we have this long-standing relationship with Egypt, and I think the administration therefore knows that people are interested in what we say, but not in an exaggerated way.

RFE/RL: Do you think the White House saw the uprising in Egypt coming? How much of a surprise was this?

I think anybody who knows the region has thought about this over the years, but I don't think anybody can claim that they actually saw it was coming now. We've known for a long time that there was a great amount of unhappiness and dissatisfaction among the population in Egypt because of perceived and real inequalities of wealth, because of perceived and real problems with corruption, because of perceived and real issues with a lack of democracy. But you never know when the tipping point's going to occur.

As I mentioned earlier, we've tried to straddle both sides of this fence by maintaining the strategic aspects of the relationship while also prodding Egypt to take steps that might have preempted or prevented this. Yes, we knew this was a cauldron. We just didn't know when it was going to boil.

RFE/RL: What are the chances that Iran will have an increased influence in Egypt after the situation settles there?

I don't think there's a chance at all of Iranian influence growing in Egypt. They have had very poor relations for decades and that's not going to change. It's not just the Sunni-Shi'a difference -- Egypt is a Sunni society, Iran is Shi'a -- but there's a real view that's broader than the government that Iran is a problematic state in the region for Egypt and Egyptian interests.

I think the Iranian part of this equation relates more to whether they decide to use this ferment in the region to foment trouble in the Gulf. There's a large Shi'a population in Bahrain; there's a large Shi'a population in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. Will the Iranians start to play in this arena? I haven't seen any evidence of it, but I'm sure those governments are watching very carefully to make sure that this doesn't happen.