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Amjad Atallah: Egyptian people shaking the foundations of US policy in the Middle East

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. People are still on the streets in Cairo, and whatever happens over the next hours and days in Egypt, Tunisia, and across the Arab Middle East, one thing has already become clear. Arab people are willing to sacrifice, they’re willing to risk their lives, and they’re willing to defy autocratic regimes. What does this mean to the politics of the region? What’s it mean to US foreign policy? Now joining us to discuss all of this is Amjad Atallah. He’s the codirector of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. From 2000, 2003, he served as one of the legal advisors for the Palestinian negotiating team, and he joins us from another location: in Washington. Thanks for joining us, Amjad.

AMJAD ATALLAH, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Thanks, Paul. Thanks for having me.

JAY: So, first of all, did this surprise you, what’s going on in Egypt? After Tunisia, a lot of people were saying, yeah, there’ll be something small in Egypt, but not at the kind of Tunisian scale, because there’s sort of an excuse for democracy there and so on.

ATALLAH: Well, everything that’s happening was expected for 20 years, but everybody is surprised when it happens, because no one can actually predict how this will all play out or [inaudible] nobody could predict what was going to happen in Tunisia, of course. Everybody was caught by surprise by it. And I think the timing, again, with Egypt, there’s always an expectation that the system in the Arab world isn’t sustainable, that it can’t last forever, that it’s fragile. But at the same time, it has survived for a very, very long time. And so I think everyone is surprised by how quickly things are moving in Egypt right now. We’ve gone from, you know, complete stagnation to, you know, revolution on the street.

JAY: Now, from–there’s a lot of different interests at play here. From a US point of view, it probably doesn’t matter that much if they could have Mubarak without Mubarak–in other words, if more or less the system continues with some other names in front of it. On the other hand, the Mubarak family and all their allies and everyone who’s been benefiting from their patronage for so many years have a lot at stake just not to have Mubarak leave. Talk a little bit about how this all breaks down.

ATALLAH: Well, the United States, I think, needs to have a much broader interpretation of what our interests are in the Middle East than we have right now. Big concerns have always been when we say that Mubarak is a pillar of stability, as the White House said, I think, yesterday. When we say things like that, we’re actually referencing the fact that Egypt helps Israel with Israel’s policies in the region. And that’s what we mean by “pillar of civility”. It’s not a reference to what Egypt does inside Egypt. It’s not a reference to the role that Egypt might play in Sudan. It’s not a reference to the role that Egypt plays in the Arab world at large. It’s very narrow. It’s specifically related to how Egypt helps Israel. And I think we’ve got to have a much broader–we have interests in the region that are far broader than simply Israel. And if we’re going to want to be on the right side of history, I think, on this, we’re going to need to interpret our interests in a way that don’t conflict with those of the people of the region. So if people want freedom in the region, we can’t actually interpret our interests in such a way that only the denial of their freedom would promote American interests. I mean, you can’t be Americans, support American political values, and deny other people their freedom.

JAY: But that’s more or less been US policy for 65 years, since the end of World War II, been precisely to deny people their freedoms in most of the Middle East. You know, a lot of–gets talked about about US support for Israel, and people talk about one-sided support for Israel. But US foreign policy is this complex quilt of regimes, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Jordan and Israel. And all together are part of this fabric of how American policy plays a dominant role in the region. Are we seeing today, for the first time, perhaps, since the Iranian Revolution, the beginnings of the unraveling of that whole strategy?

ATALLAH: You know, in the State of the Union address, the president spoke about America’s crumbling infrastructure and our crumbling education and how other countries have moved on and surpassed us and how we need to get back into the game. But the same is true of our foreign policy. Our foreign policy is based on a crumbling infrastructure. Our foreign policy is based on our crumbling assumptions, the assumption that we can support autocrats in the Middle East and that we can support a system in Israel that has a prejudicial system of rights, you know, that gives Jews more rights than it gives non-Jews. We can’t actually maintain that system any longer, I think. The world is changing, whether the United States wants to address that or not, whether the United States wants to change its policy or not. And so the real question is not whether the United States can affect change in the Middle East–change is happening in the Middle East with or without the United States. The question is: what side does the United States want to be on? How can the United States benefit in the long-term future from the changes that are happening? Do we want the people that are demonstrating today in Cairo to think of the United States as a hero and as an ally? Or every time they’re picking up the teargas canisters, they’re seeing “Made in USA”, every weapon that’s being used against them by the police, “Made in USA”.

JAY: And paid for by USA on the whole, given the amount of military support. I think–what is it?–$1 billion a year or something like this.

ATALLAH: I think it’s more than that. The billions, I think, that we provide to Egypt every year as part of the Camp David Accords, Egypt uses that money and is required to use that money to primarily buy US weapons. So it’s a subsidy. In a way, it’s a subsidy for the American, you know, military industrial complex. But at the same time, it is weapons that the Egyptian government is able to use. Now, Egypt hasn’t been at war since Camp David. Since 1973, Egypt hasn’t been at war with anyone. So those weapons are not for external defense, and those weapons are not for protecting Egypt as a whole. They’ve been used primarily to maintain order inside the country.

JAY: This revolt in Tunisia and now in Egypt comes at a remarkable time, when you just had the release of the Palestine Papers. So amongst the Palestinians, there’s two things going on. You can say the final nail in the coffin of the peace process, a real discreditation of the leadership of the PA, and now something I don’t think any Palestinian ever thought they were going to see in their lifetime, [is] a mass upsurge in other Arab countries. What will that mean, do you think, for this new kind of politics that’s been developing amongst the Palestinians–civil disobedience movement, movement for rights, amongst Palestinians?

ATALLAH: If there’s anything that’s been a cement for the status quo that’s been in the region, if there’s anything that’s been cement for the current process, it’s been the role of the Egyptian government. Israel, quite frankly, it simply couldn’t do what it’s done in the Gaza Strip. It could do it without the Palestinian Authority’s assistance or connivance or support, but it couldn’t do it without Egypt’s. And so Egypt, in a sense, has been the cement that’s helped keep everything in place. There isn’t a single opposition figure in Egypt, including Mohamed ElBaradei, who hasn’t protested and decried Egypt’s policy towards the Gaza Strip. So I don’t–I can’t imagine that if there was [inaudible] representative government in Egypt, I can’t imagine that they would continue to assist Israel and the Ramallah government in the siege of the Gaza Strip. I think that that siege will end. And if that siege ends, that by itself could be a game changer in Palestinian internal politics.

JAY: Now, I’ve talked to some Israeli politicians, and, you know, you’d say–you know, they talk about the Arab street. And, you know, sometimes people say, well, such–so-and-so leader has to be careful. They have to be afraid of the Arab street. And I’ve heard Israeli politicians laugh, you know, and say, “Yeah, what Arab street?” Well, hold on here. We actually just saw Arab street. What do you think they’re thinking? I’m asking you to speculate here, but what does this mean from a Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman? What do you think’s going through their minds.

ATALLAH: Well, I think an Israeli cabinet minister was urging Mubarak earlier in the day to do whatever he needed to do to stay in power. And Benny Morris, I think, has written a piece–the Israeli historian has written a piece calling on, you know, Egypt to remain an authoritarian system. And the–I think Netanyahu’s put a gag order on his cabinet to stop saying things like that. But the reality, of course, is that the–Israel has attacked Arab governments often and has actually used its lobby in the United States to attack the Egyptian government whenever it was upset with any specific little policy that the Egyptian government may or may not have been doing. But at the end of the day, the system that Israel relies on in the Middle East is based on the autocracies in the region preventing the public’s discontent from developing into policy. The last thing that Israel wants to see is a Turkey phenomenon, which is countries that don’t threaten war and aren’t, you know, bellicose and rhetorical about war, and in the same way that Arab governments in the past had been. But at the same time, it works in the international arena, that works in diplomacy, that works on the international stage, and says, your occupation of Palestine is completely unacceptable and we’re not going to participate in it, we’re not going to assist you with it, and we’re going to demand that it ends. That combination that’s represented, for example, by the policy of Turkey is far more concerning, I think, to the Israeli government than, say, the bellicose and rhetorical nonsense that comes sometimes out of the president of Iran, for example.

JAY: And, of course, you could mean the end of the siege of Gaza. Thanks for joining us, Amjad. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Amjad Atallah is the Co-Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.

Mr. Atallah is also a Senior Affiliated Expert with the Public International Law and Policy Group and a co-founder of Women for Women International. Prior to working at the New America Foundation, Mr. Atallah headed Strategic Assessments Initiative, a not-for-profit organization committed to providing legal and policy assistance to parties involved in negotiations in conflict and post-conflict situations. Mr. Atallah's efforts included running the international policy and advocacy efforts of the Save Darfur Coalition, advising the Kosovar constitutional process, and preparing scenario planning exercises for the Palestinians and Israelis. Prior to that, Mr. Atallah advised the Palestinian negotiating team in peace negotiations with Israel on the issues of international borders, security, and constitutional issues. He was also responsible for liaising with US government officials in Washington, D.C. on these issues. Mr. Atallah received a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Virginia and received his J.D. from American University's Washington College of Law.