updated 1/31/2011 9:48:29 AM ET 2011-01-31T14:48:29

Guests: Richard Engel, Shibley Telhami, Steve Clemons, Brian Katulis, Ayman Mohyeldin

           

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Good evening, Lawrence.  Grade job tonight.  I learned a ton from watching you this hour.  Thanks, Lawrence.

Thanks at home for staying with us for this next hour.

This week marks 30 years since U.S. hostages were released from the American embassy in Tehran.  The young revolutionaries who took those Americans hostage, they were part of an uprising, a revolution, against a U.S.-backed leader, against the shah, Iran‘s monarchy.  Their Islamic revolution ushered in its own oppression, its own tyranny.

By the summer of 2009, widespread disgust with what was supposed to be a presidential election in Iran led to a whole new uprising there, a populist, peaceful uprising in the streets of Tehran and throughout the country.  The Iranian protests in 2009 and into 2010 went on and on, and there were times when it seemed like the Iranian government would fall, but it did not.  At least it hasn‘t, yet.

What was shown in the streets and hollered from the rooftops under cover of darkness in Iran is still out there.  There‘s a sense that it is still simmering.  And the world is now adjusting to the Muslim world, big wide swaths of the Muslim world, if not the Muslim world as a whole, as places of protests can whip up like a prairie fire and everything can change seemingly overnight.

In Tunisia, more than two decades of rule by an increasingly kleptocratic dictator were ended this month by protests that started when a young man in mid-December, tired of poverty and of abuse by police, a young man set himself on fire in an act of desperate protest.  Decades of grievance in Tunisia were catalyzed by that young man‘s horrible actions and all of the anger and resentment over corruption and unemployment and unfairness and repression boiled over into demonstrations in Tunisia—demonstrations that would not stop no matter what the government said or what the police did, and the regime was ousted.

What‘s going to happen ultimately there?  We don‘t yet know.  Dictatorships don‘t exactly nurture credible opposition parties with experienced governing who can be ready to step in when the old ways collapse.

But what happened in Tunisia is proving to be a catalyst for uprisings in other parts of the Muslim world where grievance churns beneath the surface.

In Algeria, at least eight different protesters set themselves on fire, copying that desperate act that started the Tunisia protests.  Riot police beat back protesters in the streets in Algeria.

In Yemen, unprecedented protests inspired by Tunisia have already earned a promise from the decades‘ long leader there that he will step down.  That promise has so far not been enough to end the protests there.

And in Egypt now, Egypt, the big one, 80 million people, a pillar of what we think of as stability in the Middle East, in Egypt, the country kicked out of the Arab League in 1979 for its peace treaty with Israel, in Egypt—today, the streets filled with Egyptians desperate to oust their president, their dictator of three decades—a leader the U.S. has relied on as an ally and basically blessed as a sort of elected president, though the idea of real democracy, real elections under Hosni Mubarak and his decades of emergency rule, that idea is a joke.

The protests against Mubarak, inspired by the populist tumult that is rippling through the Muslim world, the protests have been building for four days.  Today was the day that Egyptian protesters said would be a day of rage.  That‘s what they called it.  It was bigger than anything anybody in the West had predicted.

The day of rage began with prayer.  After the Friday noon prayers, protests in the streets began.  In Cairo, thousands tried to head to the main Tahrir Square, Liberation Square, as police headed them off with tear gas and with batons.

In the city of Alexandria, Egypt‘s second city, thousands of people gathered in front of a mosque while riot police tried to disperse them.  Look at these images, but it was the police actually who ended up fleeing, leaving the city for several hours, leaving the city in the hands of the protesters.

In Suez, another Egyptian city, protests fired on the protesters.  Protesters responded with rocks and with fire.  Protesters used their sheer numbers to overwhelm police vehicles and then set some of those vehicles on fire, causing some of these dramatic images.

Protesters in Cairo followed suit.  They hurled what looked to be Molotov cocktails into police officers, into police cars, excuse me, as officers tried to fire off tear gas.  Elsewhere, undercover policemen dressed as civilians beat and arrested what protesters they could catch.

Before night fell, President Hosni Mubarak, through state TV, announced a curfew in Cairo and in Alexandria and in Suez.  He later extended the curfew to the whole country.  That was ignored.

Then the president deployed the army.  The army is neither as hated nor as feared as the massive internal security and police force in Egypt.  The military, when it turned out in the streets, was actually greeted by protesters in Cairo with hugs and cheers—the protesters saluting the army in their vehicles as they arrived on the streets.

The army moved to protect state TV from looters.

A protester set fire to the headquarters of Mubarak‘s ruling political party, and then the army moved in to protect that building, too—but not before looters made off with furniture from that building, anything else they can get their hands on as well.

Elsewhere in Cairo, protesters actually moved to protect the National Museum from would-be looters.  Egyptians themselves, as you can see here, protecting their National Museum.

Finally, nearly 12 hours after today‘s protests started, Egypt‘s President Hosni Mubarak made an appearance on state TV.  The strange lighting of this, the uncertainty over when he would actually appear, the urgency with which he spoke and the rambling nature of his comments culminating in some short, sharp words, indicating that he was not planning on stepping down.  This will become a classic of modern political history.

He refused to step down himself as protesters have demanded.  He did, however, say he would fire the rest of his government.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. HOSNI MUBARAK, EGYPT (through translator):  I have requested the government to step down today, and I will designate a new government—a new government as of tomorrow to shoulder new duties and to account for the priorities of the upcoming era.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  That promise was greeted with jeers.  It was not nearly enough to placate the Egyptians still on the streets in defiance of that curfew.  Just minutes after President Mubarak‘s speech ended, the protests in the streets started up again.

In Tahrir Square, in Liberation Square, that earlier good will to the army that I described, that seemed to be ending as soldiers and protesters clashed in the streets.

About an hour after Egypt‘s president spoke up, America‘s president did as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  What‘s need right now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people, a meaningful dialogue between the government and its citizens and a path of political change that leads to a future of greater freedom and greater opportunity, and justice for the Egyptian people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  In 1979, Iran‘s Islamic revolution toppled the shah.  That revolution replaced this guy, with this guy, and that ultimately brought us this guy, widely thought of as both a tin pot and a crackpot, I‘m not afraid to say.

There is not one path forward or one path backward.  The Muslim world, even just the Arab Muslim world is a very big, very complicated place, with lots of different factions and lots of different incentives, lots of different motivations, and lots of different imaginable destinies.

In Egypt, in Tunisia, in Yemen, in the rest of the Muslim world whose dissatisfaction can no longer be contained, will the strong men fall?  And who replaces them?  And when does our own government try to stop it, and when do we try to help?

Richard Engel live from Cairo, experts and reporters from around the world, there is a lot to get to tonight, a lot to say in this next hour, a lot to learn.  Please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  NBC‘s Richard Engel spent four years living in Cairo.  He speaks fluent Arabic.  He knows the streets there well enough to have diagrammed them for me on the back of many a cocktail napkin in many a bar.  Richard is back there tonight.  He will join us live for his observations and for some extended analysis, which I will tell you is pretty phenomenally different from most of the U.S.-based analysis you have been hearing today.  Richard Engel joins us next.  Please, stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MUBARAK (through translator):  The problems facing us and the goals sought by us cannot be achieved by violence nor chaos.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MUBARAK:  After days of violent, fiery protests by the Egyptian people, the climax of today‘s events was a nationally televised statement by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.  Mr. Mubarak expressed regret for the casualties that have occurred in protests thus far.  He said he would fire his government tonight and replace it tomorrow.

Mr. Mubarak pointedly, however, did not step down, and he said that he would in effect stop the protests.  Within two hours of his appearance, cell phone service which had been cut off throughout Egypt had reportedly been restored.

It is still right now a few hours before daybreak in Egypt.  The people there then will, of course, have another opportunity to express themselves in public on the streets.

What effect will Mr. Mubarak‘s statement have on the anger of the people and the jubilation of the people at the thought of him leaving that we saw in the streets today?

Joining us now live from Cairo is NBC‘s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who is more than earning his pay today.

Richard, thanks for joining us.  I‘ll get right to it.  What are you expecting in terms of continued protests tomorrow?

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT:  It‘s going to be very difficult to predict.  What we‘ve seen just in the last few minutes while you were reading your intro, I was listening to a very large tank, not an APC, which we‘ve seen earlier, but a regular full battle tank from the army pull up right below this office here.  I don‘t think it was a personal message, and there was another full battle tanks that have been moved to key locations.  One of them in front of the U.S. or very near to the U.S. embassy here in Cairo, the U.S. embassy just around the corner from where we are right now.

Now, that is the message that the government is sending right now.  Don‘t go out on the streets.  It‘s no longer just the riot police who are generally poor, uneducated people here with tear gas canisters and clubs.  This is now the army.  This is now a national security threat.

So, will the people come out and stand in front of tanks, confronting

an army they don‘t want to confront, confronting soldiers who don‘t want to

confront them?  So, that is a dynamic that the protesters are going to have

are going to have to wrestle with tomorrow.  And there are also supposed to be pretty bad weather that could have a dynamic.

           

Tomorrow might not be the decisive day.  It took about a month before the protests in Tunisia ultimately had the—ousted the president of Tunisia.  So, this could develop over a week, maybe even a month.

MADDOW:  Richard, in terms of thinking about how this is going to develop, one of the dynamics the people have talked about in Tunisia today is potentially relevant to understanding what happened in Egypt—is that in Tunisia the army was not—made themselves unavailable to be deployed against the people.  They in effect refused to be used against the people when the people rose up against the government.

What should we understand about the leadership of the Egyptian army, whether it functions as itself a political force, and whether they have a decision to make here about which way they are going to go?

ENGEL:  They certainly do, and one of the things people aren‘t talking about is Egypt said or President Mubarak said he‘s going to re-shuffle his cabinet.  Well, that also means re-shuffling the defense minister who is chief of the army here.

So far today, the army obeyed Mubarak‘s orders.  They came out, and they didn‘t do anything to crack down on the demonstrators.

Now, Mubarak could re-shuffle his cabinet to make his position stronger.  He says he‘s going to re-shuffle it in order to increase reforms.  There‘s been many re-shufflings of the Egyptian cabinet in the past.  None of them have led to any kind of significant reform.

So, that is the kind of statement that people here are looking at with great skepticism when they say he‘s going to re-shuffle the cabinet.  Well, is he really re-shuffling the cabinet to have more reforms or to make sure what happened today doesn‘t happen again?

MADDOW:  Richard, if in effect Mubarak is threatening massive force against his own people by putting, as you said, full battle-ready tanks in the streets under cover of darkness, that‘s what people will wake up to in Cairo tomorrow, what does that do to—

ENGEL:  There‘s one below this office.

MADDOW:  Wow.  What does that to do—what does that do to the ability of these protests to sustain themselves?  They do not have a single charismatic leader.  They are not the product of longstanding, organized opposition that has—that seems to have some sort of coherent organizational center.

Do you sense that the protests will melt away because they have been relatively spontaneous?

ENGEL:  I don‘t think these protests are going to melt away.  They are starting for a variety of reasons, but mostly they are starting because people have had enough.  They have had enough of the corruption.

They have had enough—it‘s not just people in the United States.  I‘ve been listening to a lot of analysts and have been plugged in over this.  Keep talking about Twitter and Facebook.

This didn‘t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook.  This had to do with people‘s dignity, people‘s pride.  People are not able to feed their families.

I was talking to a protester today.  He has two kids, 40 years old.  He can‘t make his car payments.  He bought his car on a loan.  He is worried that his children won‘t have a good future.  That‘s why he‘s out.

Now, the protests and the Twitter and all the social networking stuff helps.  It helps inspire people, coordinate, but that‘s not why they‘re out.  They‘re out because of mismanagement and a system that is really gotten so far away from its people.

And many Egyptians believe the reason that Mubarak and other regimes in the Arab world are going to go on that route have been able to become so separate from their people is because they have gotten blanket support from the United States.

And the statements we‘ve been hearing from the United States, from the

secretary of state, from the White House, in Egypt sound very much like an

like an endorsement for Mubarak.  Just make a few announcements, talk about reform and don‘t massacre the people, don‘t have a Tiananmen and that will be good enough.

           

That‘s not the way people see it here.  They think that Mubarak should go.  They want to push the reset button, and they think the United States has been propping up this government and continues to prop up this government.

MADDOW:  Richard, is there a credible replacement for Mubarak if Mubarak does go?  And does that affect how sustainable the protests are?

ENGEL:  There—it‘s—that‘s the hardest question.  And is there a

credible replacement?  If you were to replace Mubarak with a similar

replacement, you‘d have to find a strong man from within the armed services

maybe a better strong man, someone who is a little bit more sensitive to the economic needs of the people, allows them to do better.  I think that‘s probably what the United States would want in a situation like this, to have a—a Mubarak 2.0, a better Mubarak who‘s more understandable but somebody they can also deal with instead of unleashing the—the streets of Cairo on to the political system.

           

The United States and other people talk about just having the will of the people take over.  Well, the problem is the—this government—this people have been undereducated for a long time.  They have been fed many, many conspiracy theories, sometimes deliberately by the government so that they don‘t focus on real problems.  There is a very large reactionary population here, and some Egyptians themselves are afraid of what will happen if there is just a kind of mob justice that organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood will take advantage of this movement and come to power.

So, how this plays out is something clearly Washington is nervous about and also many Egyptians are nervous about.

MADDOW:  Richard, let me just ask you one last question and then I hope you can get some sleep.  I know that you and I went to college in the same place at the same time, although we didn‘t hang out at that time.  As soon as you left college you moved to Cairo and you lived there for years.

ENGEL:  Why did you have to add that in, that we didn‘t hang out? 

What was all that about?

MADDOW:  Because actually, I was super unpleasant in college and I don‘t want be you to be damned with my reputation.  You‘ve always been a charmer, me not so much.

ENGEL:  All right.  We were there although you didn‘t want to talk to me.  That‘s fine.

MADDOW:  (INAUDIBLE)

ENGEL:  Just so that‘s public.

MADDOW:  But after we both left college without speaking to each other, you moved to Cairo and lived in Cairo for years.  That‘s where you learned Arabic and it‘s where you got your first education in the Middle East.

Being back there now, how different is it from the mid-‘90s and how and it‘s—just personally how significant does this feel?

ENGEL:  It feels incredibly significant.  It‘s been something that I‘ve been thinking about all day really.

I lived here right after I never spoke to you in college, and I came here and lived on very little money, spending most of my time weeping that you wouldn‘t talk to me, and I was living in a very poor neighborhood here, and there was a sense of solidarity and community at the time.  People were poor, but pretty much everyone was poor at the time, and there wasn‘t this kind of frustration that—that you feel now.

There was a—almost an honor in poverty here, and people still worked in small factories.  There was a lot produced locally.

The economy, and really the world economy, has changed dramatically since then.  The gap between the rich and the poor has grown exponentially.  There are now multi-million dollar homes just on the outskirts of, you know, in the suburbs of Cairo, and people have gotten much, much poorer.  Their inflation has gone up dramatically and the government has not done very much, and that is what‘s pushing people, and pushing people further.

And I can understand the concerns that Egyptians have, because the people on the street, the people who have a very similar mentality to what they had then, are not necessarily asking for what we think they are asking for.  They are not asking for necessarily a liberal democracy that is going to be pro-western.  What they want is still to be determined.

And, again, going back to the U.S.—the U.S. role here.  A lot of people stay this is not a—an anti-American protest and it‘s no.  I was walking around today, and people have never—people have never been hostile to me here today and they weren‘t hostile to me today.

But they do think that the United States deliberately supports dictatorship, and that‘s why they—the calls for, you know, by the U.S.  to sort of implement reform are following on hollow ears.

I‘ve been carrying this around in my pocket all day.  It is one of the tear gas canisters, and it‘s—it just struck me as a moment that I‘ve been looking at it and these are now scattered all over the streets here.  These were made in the United States, and—and if you read on it, it says in English, made in the USA, specifically from Jamestown, Pennsylvania.

And an Egyptian picked one of these up and showed it to me, and he said, you know, this is the democracy the U.S. brings.  This is what they mean by bringing democracy.  You know, U.S. weapons being fired at the protesters from Mubarak‘s security services.

So, it is a—it is a complex relationship people have with Mubarak and with the United States.

MADDOW:  Richard Engel, NBC‘s chief foreign correspondent, we are very lucky to have you live in Cairo for us tonight.  Stay safe, Richard.  Thanks very much for joining us.

ENGEL:  My pleasure.

MADDOW:  There is so much more to report and to assess tonight, including President Obama‘s public statement which Richard was describing there, being greeted very differently abroad than it was at home.  The American calculation of what to say, when to say it, how much this is about us and how we can help or hurt from hear on out.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  We‘ve also been clear that there must be reform—political, social and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.  In the absence of these reforms, grievances have built up over time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  President Obama speaking earlier this evening from the White House.

Egypt is a country of 80 million people.  Cairo, the capital city, is huge.  Think New York City.  It‘s about 8 million people in the city proper.  It‘s about 20 million people in the metropolitan area.  One out of every four people in Egypt lives in Cairo.

And we‘ve seen these remarkable images all day long over the protests surging through Cairo straits across the bridges and across the Nile and the presidential palace, in Liberation Square.

It is important to note that what appears to be this full-blown uprising, it‘s not just Cairo.  It‘s Alexandria.  It is Suez.  It‘s even the smaller towns.

This is a big relatively modern urbanized, relatively stable nation that is convulsing.

Joining us now is Shibley Telhami.  He‘s the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.  He‘s also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Professor Telhami, thank you for joining us tonight.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, BROOKINGS INSTITUTE SR. FELLOW:  My pleasure.

MADDOW:  We‘ve just moments ago had live reports from Cairo of battle-ready tanks being rolled into positions around the city.  Are you expecting real—the potential for real bloodshed as this situation continues to evolve?

TELHAMI:  Well, you know, it‘s obviously the horror of this state that the security services used to project has been broken and the security forces were totally overwhelmed today.  It was quite obvious by the scale of demonstrations.  So, it‘s really up to the military if, in fact, they want to maintain the kind of order that the president talked about tonight.  And so, ultimately it will be up to the military.

Now, will the military shoot the people?  Now, it‘s going to be a huge question for two reasons.  One is that the military is really the anchor of this regime.  After all, Mubarak comes out of the military.  This is the regime that has been there since 1952 with the backing of the military, so they are an anchor of the regime.

On the other hand, they have a very solid reputation among public as being very professional.  The public greeted them today.  They want to position themselves for the post-Mubarak era.  They don‘t want to be on the other side of the people, depending on what happens in the transition.  They are going to be in a bind and that‘s the first thing we‘re going to have to watch the next couple of days.

MADDOW:  I know the Egyptian military is one of the largest militaries in the world.  And, I think, it‘s about the tenth largest in the world.  It‘s about half a million strong, but the internal security services in Egypt are nearly triple that size, and they‘re under the command of the interior minister.  One of the very strongly articulated demands of protests, as best we can tell in Egypt today, is that that interior minister has to be fired.  There seems to be a lot of hatred and resentment of the people towards the police.  Again, not the military, but the police.  Are we setting up a potential clash between these two different giant security apparatuses, between the police and the military?

TELHAMI:  I doubt very much that we will see a clash, but clearly, you know, the security services proved ineffective, and I think they are despised and there‘s no question they are going to regain their credibility very quickly.  That‘s why the Army is extremely central, at the moment.  But, you know, when you look at it, I mean, if you have to watch for the next few days, separate from the military, we have to see whether the—the extent—the extent of the demonstrations (ph) can be sustained.

This has been really remarkable, even for someone like me who‘s been watching this year after year, day after day.  I poll—I do public opinion polls in Egypt and elsewhere in there, but we‘ve known how much frustration there is.  I‘ve been arguing the gap between publics and governments have only expanded over the past decade.  We have known the reason for people to revolt.  The question is, why haven‘t they revolted in the past?  And, today, if you had looked at the past, you would say it would never happen.  It did happen today, and that‘s really remarkable, and, I think, it‘s going to leave us scratching our heads. 

MADDOW:  Given that—given that this was not predictable, even by people who, like you, understood this great gap between what the governments were offering and what the people felt they needed, how delicate does the U.S. government have to be?  How delicate does President Obama have to be when addressing this situation?  If we don‘t know exactly what is setting off these protests, if we‘re in a volatile and unpredictable time, what should the president have in mind when he‘s addressing this issue?

TELHAMI:  Let me give you three thoughts.  Thought number one, we obviously have to be on the side of the people who are calling for freedom and democracy.  I mean, you cannot—if the U.S. cannot stand for that, it stands for nothing.

But, second, we cannot overplay our hands.  One reason why the effort in Tunisia was successful, it was not centrally about the U.S.  We were not part of this.  We can‘t make it about America.  The Bush administration made it about America.  It tainted the democracy, advocates in the region.  It was a—it had a policy that was despised and backfired.  We had different results.  We cannot be the central part of the story.

But the third thing is, yes, we have vital interests and it‘s silly to think that those can go away if a president just gives a speech at the White House and says I‘m now going to support the change in Egypt.

Remember, when the Bush administration advocated democracy, we were going to war in Iraq.  90 percent of the Arab public went against the war in Iraq.  They didn‘t want to see it.  We went to every Arab government and said to them, we would like you to support this.  They said, we worry about our peoples.  We said, you worry about your people, we want your support.  We wanted their support for our strategic interests, the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, the coordination of the security services, the coordination of the militaries, more than anything else, and one of the outcomes of that was, yes, they supported our strategic interests but by going against the publics, and they, as a result, became more repressive.

So, it‘s not just that we tell them—we‘re not asking them to be repressive.  We have strategic interests that are taking us in a direction to be allies of people who are repressing the public.  And we‘re going to have to rethink that.  This is something big, right now, that is ongoing.  It‘s not just Egypt and Tunisia.  You see empowerment across the region, and it should send us back to the drawing board, not just in terms of how we deal with regimes, but in terms of how we define our interests in the region. 

MADDOW:  Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the Maryland University, articulating the big American idea in all of this and, I think, doing so in a really clarifying way.  Thank you, sir.  Appreciate your time. 

TELHAMI:  My pleasure.

MADDOW:  Just five months into his presidency, Barack Obama traveled to Cairo, remember?  He called for a new beginning between the United States and Muslims, exactly.  Tonight, President Obama weighed in for the second time in as many days on the developments in Cairo.  Coming up next, what today‘s development and the president‘s comments mean for the relationship between America and one of our oldest allies in the Middle East and America and the whole Muslim world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Every morning, the president of the United States is briefed by his national security team.  That happens every day.  Today, that national security briefing was really different.  Instead of a full national security briefing and everything going on in the world, President Obama spent his 40-minute national security briefing in the oval office talking about Egypt, the massive anti-government protest that boiled over in Egypt, today.  That briefing happened behind closed doors.

In front of closed doors, the president and secretary of state Hillary Clinton actually moved toward being more supportive, more encouraging of the protests and the protesters‘ demands.  Here‘s what I mean.  This was Secretary of State Clinton speaking on Wednesday.  Listen to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE:  We are particularly hopeful that the Egyptian government will take this opportunity to implement political, economic and social reforms that will answer the legitimate interests of the Egyptian people. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  We wanted reforms to answer those legitimate interests.  That was a few days ago.  Then, today, Hillary Clinton went a step further. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society, and the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  So, on Wednesday the protesters had legitimate interests.  Today, they have deep grievances.  Hmm.  Like-wise yesterday the president commiserated with the protesters, while restating the importance of Egypt as a political ally. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Egypt‘s been an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues.  They make peace with Israel.  President Mubarak has been very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East, but I‘ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on a reform, political reform, economic reform, is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt, and you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  That was yesterday.  The president talking about pent-up frustrations being seen on the streets.  Then, today, Mr. Obama moved on that issue.  He didn‘t change his mind, but he threaded the needle slightly differently, putting himself front and center in the middle of this history in the making moment.  And going back to the first principles that he laid out in one of his first big speeches, as president, when he went to Cairo after he was elected, saying, in effect, what was true about mine and America‘s values then is true about mine and America‘s values now. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  When I was in Cairo, shortly after I was elected president, I said that all governments must maintain power through consent, not coercion.  That is the single standard by which the people of Egypt will achieve the future they deserve.  And, surely, there will be difficult days to come, but the United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more hopeful. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Ah, but what will that government be?  That overall message of I stayed then and I mean it now was echoed by the president‘s senior adviser David Axelrod who said in an interview, today, the president‘s been very clear with president Mubarak for the two years that he‘s been president about the need to have Democratic reforms in Egypt.

Egypt is one of only two Arab countries to have full diplomatic relations with Israel.  For decades, the United States has provided Egypt with billions in aid money.  Just last year, the U.S.  gave Egypt $1.3 billion in military funding and a comparatively meager $250 million in civilian assistance, meaning pro-democracy groups, health care, education, economic development.

Today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested that the protests in Egypt, and how the Egyptian government responds to them, will be taken in due consideration when the U.S. considers our future financial assistance to that country. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on—based on events now and in the coming days. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Joining us now are Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation and proprietor of “The Washington Note”, and Brian Katulis, Senior Center Fellow at the Center For American Progress.  Gentlemen, thank you, both, very much for your time tonight.  We really appreciate it.

Steve, let me start with you.  What is unique and distinct about the American relationship with Egypt and why do we give them so much money for the military?

STEVE CLEMONS, PROPRIETOR, “THE WASHINGTON NOTE”:  Well, we give them a lot of money for their military because of our core relationship with Israel.  Egypt is a strategic partner of the United States and important because we have such a solid bond with Israel, that Egypt is the anchor of really the only stable side of this.  And it shows, to some degree, what the cost—the enormous costs are, of not solving the Israel/Palestine question and somehow normalizing relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds.  That we need a dictator in Egypt to be our partner.  To hold the relationship and the situation for Israel in balance.

So, all of these are interconnected.  You can‘t just discuss Egypt without discussing this broader issue of the unresolved issue of the Palestinian state, and the deeper grievance of what Arabs and Muslims feel more broadly.  I think that what‘s happening in Egypt is driven, mostly, by economic concerns and issues, but the reason we have Mubarak there, and the reason we‘re so close, has to do with Israel. 

MADDOW:  Brian, when you look at the U.S.  reaction here, I think I said in my introduction that the president is threading the needle.  We heard tonight from Richard Engel saying that from Cairo, it sounds like the president‘s words were very muted, in terms of the degree of support he‘s offering to the people in the streets.  In terms of how the president‘s remarks are being greeted, people who say he‘s too tough on an ally or he wasn‘t tough enough, how do you interpret those reactions to the president?  From what political worlds are those people coming from?

BRIAN KATULIS, SENIOR CENTER FELLOW, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: 

Well, first, I think, it‘s clear that it‘s taken the Obama administration a while to get its footing, this week, on how to talk about this, and I think it‘s for two reasons.  One, they don‘t want to make the mistake that the Bush administration did in talking a big game about the freedom agenda and then not delivering.  So, I think that‘s one part of it.

Second, they want the Egyptians to own whatever change comes out, as a result of this, and, I think, that‘s the rationale behind it.  So, I think, they have gotten much more solid footing, but, I think, there‘s another dynamic here in that it‘s really hard to wean ourselves off of this, what I call, addiction to dictators.  We‘ve been addicted to dictators in the Middle East for decades, and part of it is related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Some of it is just the way we did business in the cold war and it‘s a cold war hangover.  And the main thing, Rachel, I think we‘ve got to do is get beyond this false choice between stability and freedom that people often present.

I worked in Egypt back in the 1990s, with many of the Egyptian democratic activists that you see on the streets and organizing right now, and, you know, Egyptians just want a better and more decent government, and, I think, we need to move beyond this sort of simplistic, you know, stability versus freedom paradigm which seems to dominate our debate here and update our policies, because, clearly, we‘re in a reactive mode.  We‘re in crisis management mode, but, I think, with President Obama assembling his team tomorrow and a special principals committee meeting, I think there‘s a chance to get a much more proactive strategy, rather than a reactive one. 

MADDOW:  Steve, let me ask you about that paradigm that Brian is describing, that idea of security versus freedom.  It seems to me that that‘s driven by our fear of what free Arabs might do, what they might choose.  Is that basically it?

KATULIS:  I—oh, I think, in part, that‘s it.  I think that what you see lurking in a lot of these countries are democracy movements that have wrapped themselves very closely with Muslim brotherhood.  That these have become somewhat inseparable throughout the Middle East, and we don‘t have a strategy for figuring out how to engage these emerging movements of political Islam, and I think we should.  I don‘t think this state department, despite 30 years of  Mubarak‘s rule, has a very good contingency plan in place for political transitions, in Egypt, which is just remarkable but was confirmed to me by several senior state department officials.

So, we need to figure out how to engage the trends, and there are lots of different dimensions of political Islam, and, I think, Brian Katulis has written very knowledgeably about this.  We‘re not engaged with them, and it‘s a fundamental mistake.  So, we do fear the Muslim brotherhood and its fellow partners in the region, and, I think, we need to figure out a way to begin talking to others, other than the dictators in these regimes. 

MADDOW:  Brian, one of the things that I heard just on the grapevine, rumors that I have heard in Washington in the past year, was worries about Mubarak‘s health. 

KATULIS:  Yes. 

MADDOW:  Before any of these protests emerged, the U.S. worried about what might happen in Egypt if Mubarak died.  He‘s 82 years old, and there were rumors of him being in poor health.  I don‘t know if any of those are true, but it was clear, then, that we didn‘t know, and that at least the, sort of, Washington commentariat didn‘t know who the U.S. would expect to take power, if Mubarak failed.  Now, Mubarak‘s regime may fail for a totally unexpected region here.  But who do you think would end up in charge if Mubarak goes?

KATULIS:  Well, at this stage, in light of these protests, I think, it‘s really unclear.  You know, the old parlor game of, like, say, six months ago, people talked about Gamal Mubarak, the president‘s son.  That‘s completely—I think, we can completely after these protests.  There‘s a range of older leaders in the security services.  Omar Suleyman is one of them.  But, at this stage, there‘s a great deal of uncertainty.  And that‘s why, I think, it‘s important that when President Obama set down a market on political reform and economic reform, he‘s got to do two things, and his team has got to do this tomorrow in this meeting.

One, what do they mean.  Have some specificity to those political and economic reforms.  And, then, two, here‘s the important part.  What are the consequences of our partner in Egypt doesn‘t follow through on this?  Because we‘ve had successive presidents in the middle east.  U.S.  presidents in the Middle East who state certain goals, and state certain things, and our allies just thumb their nose at us, whether it‘s Egypt or other allies in the region, and we need to actually have an action plan that says, we‘re going to change our policy if you don‘t listen to us.  Because if we don‘t do that, we‘ll be continue to be seen as a waning power.  Somebody that nobody can listen to in the region and might be irrelevant to what goes on in the region. 

MADDOW:  Brian Katulis, The Center For American Progress.  Steve Clemens, New American Foundation, proprietor to “The Washington Note”.  As soon as we realize what a big deal this was today, I wanted to talk to both of you guys today.  Thank you for making time from us. 

KATULIS:  Thanks, Rachel.

CLEMENS:  Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW:  The latest from Cairo, next, live, as daybreak approaches there.  We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Live report from Cairo, as daybreak approaches there.  Coming up next.  This is MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  We have the latest, now, from Cairo.  We are joined live on the phone by the Al Jazeera Middle East Correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin.  Ayman, thanks very much for joining us tonight.  We really appreciate it. 

AYMAN MOHYELDIN, AL JAZEERA CORRESPONDENT: You‘re welcome, Rachel. 

MADDOW:  Can you tell us what‘s happening right now? I know it‘s not yet daybreak or that that‘s imminent.  Is there any sense of whether or not Saturday will be another day of protest in Cairo?

MOHYELDIN:  Well, Rachel, the scene, right now, in the heart of Cairo, is a relatively quiet one.  There has been a curfew imposed, though it does not seem that any of the Egyptians that were participating in the protests abided by that, set to expire in the next two hours.  We know the military is deployed across the city.  Armored personnel carriers and heavy tanks have been guarding some of the key facilities in the city, including the ministry of information, the radio and television building, as well as some foreign embassies including the U.S. and the British embassies.

The city of Cairo, in itself, is drenched in a big cloud of black smoke.  Several buildings also set on fire.  Most notable among them is the headquarters of the ruling national Democratic party.  So, that is the morning to which 20 million Cairoians (ph) in the city of Cairo will be waking up to in a short few hours‘ time. 

MADDOW:  Is it your sense that the show of force, that you‘re describing there, is intended to intimidate people into not protesting tomorrow?  Or is it your sense that they‘re expecting bloodshed, that they are going to turn the might of the military, this considerable might of the Egyptian military against people and that there is going to be considerable bloodshed?

MOHYELDIN:  No, in fact, I mean, by most announcers (ph), what did happen earlier this evening, or late last evening, was the fact that the security services, belonging to the ministry of the interior, the internal police forces simply melted away.  They were not able to sustain the pressure from the protesters.  In the Egyptian society, the Egyptian military is very well revered, very well respected.  In fact, when they were deployed, you saw the attitude of the protesters instantly shift.  They were almost greeted and celebrated on the streets.

So, the deployment of the military was seen as a much more of a symbolic gesture to the protesters.  Whether or not that tomorrow materializes into any kind of confrontation, it‘s still too early to see.  Keep in mind, for the past 24 hours, all internal communications here in Egypt have been disconnected.  No internet.  No cell phones.  No social media access.  So, it‘s very difficult for these organizers of these protesters to try to mobilize it.  It‘ll only become more apparent, into the people‘s attitudes, what happens with daybreak in a few hours from now. 

MADDOW:  Ayman, let me also just ask you, I know Al Jazeera has been streaming images of the protests, even as you have described internet and cell phone service has been shut down by the government.  Are you having trouble doing your job, as a journalist, and what is your sense of how people—how aware people are of media covering what‘s happening in their own country?

MOHYELDIN:  Well, very interestingly, one of the chants today throughout the protests was where is the international media?  You heard it time and time again from Egyptian protesters demanding why isn‘t international media covering this?  This is state terrorism, what they were describing it as.  As a journalist, here on the ground, I‘ve been working in Egypt for several years, it is very difficult.  We knew state security entered our building a short while once the protests began.  It‘s been very difficult to make any kind of communications.

We‘ve been out into the field without cell phone access or Internet access.  So, we‘ve really been relying on the most sophisticated technology, sort of, to bypass some of the obstacles put in front of us.  But it‘s been difficult to speak to government officials.  They have not been responding to us.  And it‘s been very difficult to be able to transmit and communicate on the ground, the reality that is happening.  It is with the exception of just having that live picture that we‘ve been able to show the world what is happening inside Egypt. 

MADDOW:  Incredible.  Al Jazeera Correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin.  Great reporting.  Al Jazeera has been an absolute life line for the rest of the world in understanding what is going on here.  Thank you so much for your time.  Stay safe, sir. 

MOHYELDIN:  You‘re welcome.  Thanks. 

MADDOW:  It is nearly 5:00 in the morning in Cairo.  Up next, we‘ll look back at some of the amazing images captured on this landmark day in Middle Eastern history.  We are staying with this through the evening tonight.  Please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  As soon as the Friday prayers ended, around 1:00 in the afternoon, thousands of people, almost simultaneously, poured out into the street.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Authorities cut Internet and cell phone service over the night but the protests went on unabated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Police in full riot gear struggled to control the massive crowds. 

MADDOW:  If Egypt was inspired in part by the sights and sounds of what happened in Tunisia, what are these sights and sounds from Egypt, going to inspire next?  A special edition of “The Ed Show” starts, right now. 

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