FIRST WEDNESDAY SPECIAL: Egypt – what happens now?


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The First Wednesday ’emergency meeting’ – announced just two days before in response to events in Egypt and continuing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa – was a fast-paced and lively discussion that threw up a great deal of insight.

With Paddy O’Connell, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, in the chair, the evening was an opportunity to ask questions and discuss what might lie ahead for both Egypt an its neighbours with Lindsey Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 News, Dr Maha Azzam, associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme, Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor at the Observer and Dr Omar Ashour of the Middle east Studies programme at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, author and pro-democracy activist.

The evening began with the panel and audience asking questions of political and cultural commentator Ahdaf Soueif, who was speaking via Skype from Cairo.

Ahdaf Soueif said with the stepping down of president Hosni Mubarak "the major thing" had been moved because without him going nothing could happen, but added "it feels like we are at the beginning".

We accept that the military is the best option right now and we also believe that they do not want to take over and establish a military regime. But we also know that we have to get out of this stage extremely quickly and that is very much what Friday is going to be about.

Men and women will be gathering in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the release of up to 2000 people detained during the revolt, the removal of the emergency laws and the removal of the cabinet that the regime left in place and the formation of a new one.

Asked about the extent to which the army can be trusted, Ahdaf Soueif said currently there is no reason not to trust the claim of military leaders that they are custodians of the revolution and will never raise arms against the Egyptian people, but at the same time they are continuing to call for a move to a civil government very soon.

Lindsey Hilsum said that one of the biggest ways the military would seek to satisfy the people will be with corruption trials because "corruption is one of the biggest things people were protesting about".

The house arrest of Ahmed Ezz, secretary general of the NDP, "a very big steel magnate, very close to Mubarak and one of the most hated men in Egypt" was an indication that significant former ministers are going to go on trial, said Lindsey Hilsum:

That is one of the ways the military will try and keep people happy. The other thing they will try to do is only deal with the opposition parties that they are used to dealing with. It’s going to be up to the April 6th movement, all the young people, the coalition of people who were in the Square, to say no, those are the traditional opposition but we are the new opposition. And they are going to have to keep at it and be very clever to constantly say ‘we have to be included in decision making’ and that I think is going to be one of the most difficult things in this nexus between the old power, which is the military and the new power, which is the people in the Square.

Dr Omar Ashour said it was a point of strength and not weakness that there was no clear leader of the revolution and that decentalisation is "critical" particularly in light of what charismatic leadership had done to the country. Turning to the question of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr Omar Ashour said it was important not to "black box" them again:

The younger generation is closer to any other activist in Tahrir Square, whether liberal or leftists than to the older generation of the Muslim Brothers. They basically formed their own command in Tahrir Square and I think their role will be critical in the coming few months because they are basically the movers and shakers now,

Dr Maha Azzam said tactically the Egyptian people were playing it right in not attacking the army before going on to say that the US support for Egypt remained vital.

I think the US reaction was muddled at first but I still say that Mr Obama’s position eventually was much more than could ever have been expected. There has been a shift and maybe I stand alone in this opinion, but I felt that the United States had come a long way.

Dr Maha Azzam later said that there would be elections in September "maybe even before" but when asked if there would be "identifiable leaders" answered that "there may be a junior officer who emerges".

Peter Beaumont, who said it was vital that the US should not taint revolutions in countries like Iran by its involvement, also criticised the Western media for its insistence on pinpointing leaders:

This is a western media obsession. We saw it in Tahrir Square when ElBaradai turned up and CNN and all sorts of people were saying ‘Ooh Baradai’s here, it’s brilliant, he’s going to be the next leader of Egypt. Well you know what? The great thing about what happened in Tahrir Square and around Egypt and also in Tunisia was everywhere you went there were groups of people standing around having often ferocious arguments about the way forward for Egypt. So why don’t we give them just a little bit of time instead of imposing a leadership from outside of the country that we think suits us.