Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steven Cook about the prospects for a regional “domino effect” in Egypt’s neighborhood. They discuss the likelihood for change in countries including Algeria, Libya, and Syria. Download MP3
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MARCO WERMAN: Steven Cook is the Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies on the Council for Foreign Relations. We turn to him now to examine the wider regional implications of the unrest in Egypt. Steven, let’s start with Libya, right next door to Egypt. It hasn’t seen any large-scale unrest so far, and Muammar al-Gaddafi has been in power for 41 years, which makes Mubarak’s 29 year reign look slim, and we know Gaddafi expressed alarm a couple of weeks ago during the Tunisia uprising. Are things likely to change soon in Libya?
STEVEN COOK: Well, Gaddafi had very tough words about the Tunisian uprising, he certainly is on the look-out for any sign of unrest, and we can well expect that if that materialises, Gaddafi will use the iron fist to put this down. He’s clearly looking at the situation in Egypt, the place where he, by the way, saw his inspiration when he took power, all those years ago. So, he’s not going to let something like Cairo happen to him.
WERMAN: But Gaddafi, for 41 years, has pretty much used an iron fist, and is that likely to change?
COOK: Well, one of the risks, and we see it playing out, in a place like Egypt, in the kind of country that relies almost totally on violence or the threat of violence to elicit the control of the population, is that at that moment when fear melts away, you have mass uprising and protests and even, potentially, revolution. To rely almost solely on force is the riskiest and most expensive strategy for these leaders. But in the case of Gaddafi and Mubarak, they really have no choice. They don’t have an appealing, ideological world view that people can latch on to, and they don’t have the kind of resources that, say, the Saudis have, to buy off their population and essentially purchase political quiescence.
WERMAN: Let’s move to the West, from Libya to Algeria. The government there has banned all marches, for security reasons, so we know there’s some rumbling in the streets, and there is a march planned for later this month. What are the prospects for change there, where President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been president since 1999.
COOK: Well, Algeria is the real untold story of this winter of Arab discontent. They have been protesting in the streets in Algeria for as long as the Tunisians were, starting in mid-December. What makes Algeria different from the Tunisian situation, and certainly from the Egyptian situation, is that protest has become an unremarkable part of the Algerian landscape. And if you remember, back in the late 1980s, you had a nationwide explosion of protests in Algeria that led to the writing of a new constitution. But only a few short years later, the military moved in, unseated the president, cancelled elections, and plunged the country into almost a decade of civil war, that pitted the security services against Islamic extremists. So, Algeria is certainly one of those cases that you have to watch carefully – they, like the Egyptians, are seeking inspiration from the Tunisian example.
WERMAN: Algerians, though, and the Algerian Government, must be pretty cautious about returning to that period of violence that you spoke about.
COOK: Well they certainly would like to avoid it, but one thing about the Algerian military establishment – a lesson that should be learnt from the 1990s – is that they were willing to pulverize the country in order to save the regime. So Algerians are no strangers to violence, and if this situation gets out of control, in Algeria that is certainly one possible outcome.
WERMAN: What about Syria, Steven? President Bashar al-Assad has recently announced subsidies in aid for the poor, is he scared as he watches TV, with what’s happening in Egypt?
COOK: Wouldn’t you be? [laughter] Certainly, Bashar al-Assad must be quite concerned about what’s going on in Egypt, and coincidentally, on Friday, with the first real, enormous protests in Cairo, the Syrians shut down the internet. They did not want people to see what was happening in Cairo. And they are, as you said, they’re moving to try to get out ahead of this. But Syria has one of the most repressive regimes in the region, and should protests materialise, you can expect that there will be less carrot and more stick used to bring them down. Remember, there was an uprising in Syria in 1982, and Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, brought out the Republican Guard, and an estimated 25,000 Syrians were massacred in order to save the Syrian regime.
INTERVIEWER: You know, a lot of people would say that the big domino here would be Saudi Arabia. I mean, it’s hard to imagine an uprising there, and it would be pretty alarming for a lot of observers. How are things looking there, with its very large, disenfranchised male youth population?
COOK: I’m not as pessimistic about Saudi Arabia as I am some other countries in the region. Of course, the situation in Egypt, Egypt being the bellwether of the region in many ways – the situation ripples out across the region. But I think the big difference between Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, despite the large disenfranchised and poor people in Saudi Arabia, is that many in Saudi Arabia put their hopes for reform on King Abdullah himself. They’re concerned that he is so old and that whoever comes next may make a U-turn, but nevertheless, they still put faith in King Abdullah to undertake important reforms that will set Saudi Arabia on a better political trajectory.
WERMAN: Steven Cook, Senior Fellow from Middle Eastern Studies at the Council for Foreign Relations. He joined us from Washington. Thanks for the overview!
COOK: Thank you.
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