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Al Jazeera's Evan Hill Explains Egypt's Future Political Dynamics

Benjamin Gottlieb, Arezou Rezvani |
September 28, 2011 | 4:09 p.m. PDT

Senior News Editor & Staff Reporter

This week on Eye on the Middle East:

Syria's defense at the United Nations, and Israel's plans to move forward with the construction of new housing in East Jerusalem.

This week's featured guest is Al Jazeera English journalist Evan Hill.

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Episode 12 Transcript:

Arezou Rezvani: Evan, it's so great to have you on the program

Evan Hill: Thanks for having me, it's a pleasure.  

AR: So you have spent a lot of time in Egypt and you covered the mass protests in the days leading up to Mubarak's ouster. Can you talk to us a little bit about where Egypt is now, 7-8 months after the toppling of the Mubarak regime?

EH: I mean, there are a lot of themes that i've seen emerging over the last 7-8 months. I mean, you have obviously there's there Islamist surge that everyone is talking about and everyone assumes that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to get a sizable amount of Parliament, probably a plurality. And then the question is whether they'll bring along more fundamentalist elements like the Islamist group the Salfis. A lot of people are looking at where liberal parties are because most assume that they're doing a pretty poor job of organizing themselves and whether they're going to be able to win outside of Cairo and Alexandria and maybe Suez. Beyond those two big questions, which have to do with who we're actually going to see in Parliament, I'm interested in a couple of other things. The future of the military is a very big question because everyone assumes  that they want to give up power as soon as they can because they don't really like being in the center of attention, they don't really like being in politics, but then the question is what privileges are they are going to preserve for themselves and so people are asking if it's going to be a Turkish model or if they're going to reserve some special legal privilege to interfere in politics if they need. And then the other thing is the economy. It's kind of a dry subject and it's hard to get at but It's one of the main factors that was behind the whole revolution and no one really knows how to solve the Egyptian economy right now but a lot of people in the West are going to be pushing for much more free trade and Egypt obviously screwed that up big time in the 1990s and the 2000s and that led to a lot of grievances so I'm curious to know what Egyptians think about it.  

AR: Are the Egyptians aspiring for form of democracy as we know it in the West? you talked about the Turkish model, what kind of democracy do you see Egypt aspiring to?

EH: They do have a long history of parliamentary democracy at least in name, they have an established system, a constitution, they have bylaws, they have the ways that parliament is supposed to operate, they're going to retain the lower and upper house of parliaments so they're going to have the People's Assembly, which is the larger one, which is the election we're going to see beginning in November, although it actually takes place in three stages  into January. And then they're going to have the Shura Council, which is basically the senate, the smaller body. As far as the constitution, i don't think it's settled yet how it's going to be written, but as I understand it once this new Parliament is elected then it will select I suppose with the military's approval a body of 100 people who are going to be involved in drafting this new constitution and I don't think they all have to be members of Parliament. I think the debate right now i think is what will be the balance between a civil society and an Islamic society and that's probably one area where you'll see a battle because I think liberal elements want to use the revolution as an opportunity to push Egypt in a more liberal direction to say…the wording is going to be interesting what is the source of authority is it Sharia or is it something else, is it the people. So I think that's going to be something to watch.

Benjamin Gottlieb: The Arab Spring you can now make the argument is in its autumn. What are some of the more immediate demands that the people of Egypt have yet to actually see.

EH: Emergency law is still there and you're seeing a lot more people starting to get very angry about that. Unless the military the military moves more quickly to abolish it, repeal it, whatever, you're going to see i think a lot more people coalesce around the desire to end emergency law because the military I think now said that it's going to be around until June of next year, which i believe breaks their earlier promise to get rid of it as quickly as they could. So emergency is still around which is one of the more authoritarian aspects of the Mubarak era. One of the key demands of the revolution was social justice-- getting people out of poverty, eliminating the system of corruption and bribery that has been so endemic in Egypt. There are vast institutions in Egypt that are going to have to reform to make any changes that are going to bring people out of poverty. i don't see that changing for years. I think people are getting a little disappointed that there haven't been immediate changes. This is something you started hearing back in March. Just the joy of being in Tahrir Square and seeing everyone come together and actually accomplishing something as momentous as taking down Hosni Mubarak. And then after that, it was this  come down from a giant party and you didn't see anything change on the streets except for people making it cleaner, but there are vast amounts of poor people. Obviously you got military trials. One of the groups that studies this just said that the military has tried more civilians in the last eight months than Mubarak did in 30 years which on one hand it makes sense because the military runs the country but on the other hand they still have civilian courts that they can use for this and they've chosen not to…

BG: You can also make the argument that the military has run the country for years that it's the longest standing institution in Egypt, right?  

EV: That's correct. it's going to be interesting to see whether their credibility takes a hit because i'm sure you read when people were seeking to explain the military's role in the revolution what everyone kept saying was that the Egyptian military is the most respected ins in the country because of the 1973 War, which was seen in Egypt as a big victory. So, has their credibility taken a hit because of the fact that they have now  had to step into politics for eight months? If we're talking about the broad swath of middle class, lower class Egyptian society, I kind of doubt that the hit will be that serious. However, it will be interesting to see if people start to get really upset about military trials because there are some dedicated campaigners who I know who have made this an issue for months, but it has always been among a small slice of the activist community that actually cares about military trials, but the fact that they've put so many people through them could maybe lead to a change of perspective of the military.

BG: The Arab Spring introduced some unprecedented attitudes toward the press. Describe to us the kinds of reactions you received when people realized you were a journalist with Al Jazeera English.  

EH: Well, there was definitely a difference between how I was received in Egypt and in Libya. In Egypt it was interesting because during the revolution when I told people that I was from Al Jazeera English in the square [Tahrir] everyone loved you, once you could get inside it was a free zone. Everyone wanted to tell you their story . it was great for journalistic purposes. Outside of the square you told almost nobody you worked for AJE and if you did…I remember one time I did actually it happened to be on a day on what they call the "Battle of the Camel", before the fight had started and I was observing a pro-Mubarak rally that later on would march toward the square and I was interviewing people. There was one very smart, young man who was pro-Mubarak and I decided to tell him where I was from. He was fine with it, he didn't care, but then other people around started to hear and the crowd of about 30-40 people formed. Nobody actually attacked me or anything like that. Much worse things happened to other journalists, but they were cursing and yelling and using vulgarity and swearing and the police had to step in and say "Hold on, let him do his job." And so that was a briefly a sort of scary experience.  

AR: During your coverage of the Arab Spring Twitter was one of your main channels for communication. I read somewhere that prior to your coverage of Egypt you had somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 followers and now you have some 20,000 followers. Can you elaborate on how social media helped you effectively  cover these stories?

EH: Because of egypt my Twitter followers just kinda exploded. It was just kind of a random decision on my part to use the Blackberry that I had gotten from work. I had never been a real sort of smart phone owner and I had never used a Blackberry before and they had given me one before I left and decided that I would start tweeting from the streets which I know other people were doing as well but I don't know how many journalists were doing it and i don't know how many journalists were able to do it from the barricades at least on the nights that I was able  to get into the square. Then suddenly there were thousands of people a day started following me. I suddenly became a huge Twitter user even though I had never really been convinced of it...

AR: And how do you respond to the idea that some have set forth that social media is what sparked the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa?

EH: I don't want to call it the Twitter Revolution or anything like that, I think it's kind of silly when people talk about that. But there is a case to be made for social media's important in the revolutions because what it does is that it allows everyone to see that there are like-minded people out there so I actually thin that this is going to have an effect in America and Europe and in other countries in terms of mobilizing people because if you're sitting in your house and you don't know that there are other people who feel like you do, you might not want to go out on the streets but what happened in the Middle East is people put out YouTube videos, there was that woman who put out that youtube video calling on all Egyptians to go down on January 25th, and then once violence started to occur it was very easy to show the rest of the whorl that violence was occurring. In Libya it was extremely important because there were no journalists inside, same with Syria now. So I think that it's, I'd almost call it crucial in terms of keeping momentum going in early stages of these revolts. the conditions for these revolts were there, they had nothing to do with social media. People wouldn't just take to the streets because they could. There were serious grievances, but it really helps mobilize and invigorate the crowd.

AR: Evan, thanks so much for joining us today.


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