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MSU Professor: 'I'm Somewhat Pessimistic' About Where Egypt Goes From Here

Egypt is giving birth to a new government after its people finally ousted their 30-year president Hosni Mubarak. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore spoke with Dr. David Romano, who teaches Middle Eastern politics in MSU’s political science department, about what this means for Americans.

Moore: Thank you so much for joining me, Dr. Romano.

Romano: My pleasure.

Moore: I’d like to begin by talking about why this is an important story to Americans. We have seen it dominating the headlines for the past 18 days almost, and that’s unusual [for an international story]. Why is this so important to Americans?

Romano: Well, first of all, Egypt’s the second largest recipient of US aid in the world, after Israel. It’s been getting $1.3 billion a year, at least, from the US. And the country has also been, since the late 1970s, a pillar of US policy in the Middle East. It’s the largest Arab country in the world, and it’s really been central to our policy in the region. And if these kind of changes are happening so quickly—it caught everyone off guard, including our administration--there are a lot of questions as to what’s going to happen.

Moore: So, what could this mean for the United States?

Romano: From the perspective of our policy, and US interests, the results are either going to be not very good for the US, or really bad for the US.

Moore: Explain to me what you mean by that.

Romano: Well, not very good—the less pessimistic scenario from Americans’ point of view—is that we get a pretty democratic regime in Egypt that distances itself somewhat from the US that maintains, barely, the peace with our other major ally in the region, Israel. And it becomes an even colder peace—with tensions but not outright warfare—and as a result also cozies up to some of our competitors in the world: China, Russia, etc.

Now, the more pessimistic scenario, however, is that sooner or later, the new government in Egypt, as a result of a popular sentiment that’s very broadly anti-American, completely distances itself from the US, and starts supporting some of the—from our point of view—less savory movements. [And] either intentionally or more likely, unintentionally, as a result of escalating series of events, ditches the peace treaty with Israel, and we get a renewal of conflict there. [That scenario] is just disastrous.

Moore: And democracy, Dr. Romano, looks very different when it comes to different people voting in different cultures. Can you talk about how, if Egyptians go to the polls in a free and fair election, the outcome might still not be in line with US principles.

Romano: This is one of the fears with Egypt: there was a Pew opinion poll of several Muslim countries a few months ago that got some 84 percent or so of Egyptians favoring the death penalty for apostasy, for people who leave Islam and adopt another faith. [There were] almost as high numbers favoring stoning to death of adulterers. Now, this might be a recipe for very illiberal people winning elections. We can imagine where that might take us.

Moore: And we might point out that that is precisely what happened in Gaza when Palestinians there went to the polls a few years back.

Romano: Yeah, it’s a really illustrative example that might be more apropos than these comparisons to Iran that we’ve been hearing, because the Hamas movement in Palestine is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—that’s how it started out. And in the ‘90s when they were in the opposition in the Palestinian government, they said ‘We’re joining the democratic system. We’re playing by the rules. We’re not interested in installing Shariah [Islamic] law. We just want a society that respects Islam more,’ and so forth.

But suddenly, these are all the things that they’re doing: they’re installing Shariah [Islamic] law. They’ve banned women from smoking in public. They’ve segregated the sexes everywhere they can. They’ve clamped down on what they view as pro-Western cultural outlets like cinemas, and so forth. This is precisely what they’ve been doing. They took over power violently in 2006. They’ve killed and tortured a number of Palestinian opposition figures.

We just have to remember the nice, conciliatory language they were spouting just a few years before they did all of these things. So, it’s worrisome. We’d be naive if we weren’t worried. I realize that a lot of people are very enthusiastic for the protesters. I’m with them in terms of wishing the people’s movement the best. But I’m also somewhat pessimistic.

Moore: Dr. David Romano, thank you very much.

Romano: My pleasure.

Moore: Again, Professor David Romano teaches Middle Eastern politics at Missouri State University.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.