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Arab Spring Turns To Arab Autumn


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today we are going to spend some time talking about events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East now that the Arab Spring has turned to the Arab Fall. In a few minutes we'll speak with Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy. She says she was beaten and viciously assaulted by Egyptian security forces last week while she was reporting on elections in Egypt. It's an assault that's similar to what was experienced by CBS journalist Lara Logan.

We're going to find out what she thinks is behind it. That conversation with Mona Eltahawy is in just a few minutes. But first we want to talk about elections in Egypt where voting continues. This is Egypt's first parliamentary election since the ouster of former longtime president Hosni Mubarak who many observers came to see as a dictator. The historic election comes after several days of violent protests against military rule. There have also been reports of sexual violence not just involving the journalist we spoke of, Mona Eltahawy.

Meanwhile, in Bahrain a special investigation recently confirmed the use of torture and excessive force by authorities there and Syria is facing serious economic sanctions from the Arab League. We wanted to talk about all this so we've turned to a voice who's a trusted voice on all these issues Abderrahim Foukara. He's the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. Welcome back thanks for joining us once again.


MARTIN: First let's focus on Egypt. We are told that there was very high voter turnout at the start of the elections yesterday. I just wanted to ask, does that square with what your people on the ground are telling you and what do you think that that says?

FOUKARA: It does match what we have been hearing from our correspondents on the ground. Maybe the second day of voting today seems to be a little slower than yesterday but obviously the numbers yesterday surprised everybody. They were just beyond expectations and I think you could interpret that in so many different ways given the days of violence in Tahrir Square - or around Tahrir Square - before the vote which had cast a shadow of doubt over the credibility of this election.

After that round of violence everybody thought that the turnout would be very poor but the fact that it's been so high it speaks something to what the majority of Egyptians think of what we have so far called the Egyptian Revolution.

MARTIN: What is behind the violence? What is the reporting indicate as who or what is behind the violence? What seems to be motivating it?

FOUKARA: Well, what seems to be to what seems to have sparked it off is the larger issue, which I think Egypt will continue to face for sometime if not for a long time and that is the role of the military and the military council in political life because the military had started thinking about having a big role in the drafting of the constitution so that a civilian government would not have any say in what the military does or does not do.

That issue has not been resolved and the election is not likely to resolve it, which means that the confrontation between the military and the young protesters and those who are allied with them - including in this case, by the way, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is likely to emerge as the real winner in this election - will continue for sometime.

MARTIN: But I want to hear more about the Muslim Brotherhood and what role you think they're playing in this because they've been barred from formal participation in Egyptian politics for what, some thirty years but before we move on from the question of the violence, is it the sense of the reporters and those the observers on the ground that this violence is directed by the security forces trying to suppress the turnout so they can preserve their role, or is this kind of random atomized, you know, just random groups of people acting on their own impulse? What is the sense and whether this is an organized attempt to suppress those who want a larger role for civilians or is it not?

FOUKARA: The sense that we got when the violence was going on is twofold. Basically, one, is the sense of outrage that the people who thought of themselves as the people and I'm talking about young people here as the people who were who should deserve the credit, the spark in this so called revolution were being beaten and killed and humiliated by the security forces. But the second layer of it, which is perhaps the more significant part is that the sense we got is that the military were trying to say loud and clear that if you are intent - and you meaning young people in Tahrir Square - if you are intent on curbing the authority, constitutional authority, in the future of Egypt for the military council, then this is our response. We're not going to allow that to happen.

MARTIN: And finally, we do want to hear about, you know, other events in the region. But before we leave Egypt the voting continues through March. It's apparently happening in stages around the country which is, you know, an interesting, you know, approach. But there were reports so far that the Muslim Brotherhood is very well organized, doing very well at the polls. Are they the favorites in the election after being banned as we said from politics for decades? And what does this foretell about the future of governance in Egypt, in your opinion?

FOUKARA: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood are as you say, or seem to be, the best organized political movement in Egypt. For several decades they were banned, they were hassled. Many of their members were thrown into jail, not just under Mubarak but even in regimes before Mubarak. But they've done a lot of social work. They've helped poor people, providing education, providing medical attention and so on, and that seems to obviously have won them a large constituency in Egypt, and by the way even outside of Egypt in other countries in the region.

But there have been accusations that Muslim Brotherhood of political opportunism because when young people were busy trying to unseat Mubarak about nine months ago the Mubarak regime at that time called for talks. It was trying to wiggle out of it and the Muslim brotherhood is accused of having actually tried to engage the Mubarak regime at that time to, you know, win a seat for themselves, a seat of power. More recently, the last few days, when young people were calling for demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to stay away from that and they said, OK, we're going to do our own protest elsewhere in Cairo but this time it's going to be for Palestine.

So, it was their own way of saying, yes, we're part of the protest but it's the old game of playing the Palestine card. So, that's bringing accusations to them of political opportunism. But obviously every political movement in one way or another uses opportunism. The fact is the problem with the Muslim Brotherhood is that they have been caught with their hand this time in the jar of political opportunism.

MARTIN: And before we move on, is there a U.S. role in any of this? I know that U.S. officials have called for the Egyptian military to quickly hand over power to civilians. Does that have any force in the conversation in either direction?

FOUKARA: I think it is very important that the U.S. should deliver that message to the military in Egypt, that they should, you know, hand over power to a civilian government, but given the huge strategic interest that the United States has in Egypt, primarily the peace treaty with Israel, I think there's a sense that the real guarantor for the continuation of the peace treaty on the Egyptian side is the army and very few people in Egypt expect that the U.S. would actually lean so much on the military to let the civilians curb their power and influence.

MARTIN: So an important, symbolic gesture, but not viewed as having any real force? And I don't mean military force, but any real leverage really behind it. Well, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the latest developments in the Middle East and North Africa with Abderrahim Foukara, Washington Bureau Chief for Al Jazeera International. Al Jazeera, of course, has distinguished itself with its reporting on events throughout the Arab Spring.

Let's talk now about Bahrain. It has not, perhaps, gotten as much attention as other countries in the region, but last week, a report commissioned by the kingdom's leadership acknowledged abuses by authorities who have been cracking down on protesters there. What do you think the importance of this report is?

FOUKARA: Well, I mean, first of all, as you said, it's extraordinary that it was the king of Bahrain himself who had called for this international investigation. It's even more extraordinary - some of the findings of the investigation are even more extraordinary. For example, saying that the security forces had been deliberate in using torture in bringing, you know, unfair lawsuits against the doctors and others who were attending to the injured protesters.

On a strategic level, it said that Iran did not have much to do with the situation in Bahrain. That was the original claim by the government of Bahrain, which ended up bringing forces from other Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, into Bahrain to deal with the protests.

Now, the real issue is what is the government going to do now that we have this report? The king has already sacked the security chief and given him another post as an advisor, but the opposition that had led the protests - they want the whole government to be changed and they're saying that, until that happens, they're not going to take this move by the government seriously.

MARTIN: Only one minute to talk about Syria, which is, of course, very important, as well. On Sunday, the Arab League issued several economic sanctions against the country. It's been reported as an unprecedented move against a member state. What's your assessment of how significant this is, particularly for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad?

FOUKARA: I mean, the significance of this - there's obviously - it's psychological significance because the regime in Syria has always sold itself domestically and internationally as the champion of pan-Arabism, and now you have other Arab nations ganging against Syria. So it's sending back a message to Syrians that this does not make sense.

But the other thing is that the main point of these sanctions is to basically bring people in Damascus and Aleppo, which have not, at least as far as we can make out, supported the revolution yet so that, once the traders and the middle class in those two cities begin to feel the economic heat, they may switch side. Whether that's going to work as a strategy or not, we don't know yet.

MARTIN: And we will call you to find out. Thank you so much. Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al Jazeera International. He is kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios from time to time for his analysis of events in the Middle East and North Africa. Thank you so much for joining us.

FOUKARA: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Coming up, many Americans probably remember when CBS correspondent Lara Logan was beaten and groped by a mob while covering events in Egypt's Tahrir Square last spring. Now, an Egyptian reporter, Mona Eltahawy, says the same thing happened to her and the culprits were security forces. We'll ask her what happened and what she thinks it all means for Egypt's revolution.

MONA ELTAHAWY: People were coming up to me, kissing me on the forehead, giving me a hug and saying, I'm so sorry for what happened to you, but this is exactly why we're going to continue to fight for our revolution.

MARTIN: That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.