Egypt Forces U.S. to Walk Fine Diplomatic Line

CBS News' Harry Smith talks about Egypt with Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas Jan. 28, 2011.
CBS News' Harry Smith talks about Egypt with Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas Jan. 28, 2011.

NEW YORK - Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is facing the most serious threat to his 30-year-old regime.

Complete Coverage: Anger in the Arab World
Pictures from Cairo

For decades, anger has simmered near the surface in Egypt and throughout the Arab world, anger over corrupt governments, poverty and a lack of freedom. On Friday -- for the fourth straight day -- protesters poured into the streets of Cairo and other cities in Egypt, throwing rocks at the police, who fired back with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas.

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Mubarak imposed a curfew and cut off all Internet access. He also called out the military to restore order. Mubarak went on TV Friday night and said he's firing his cabinet but he's staying put.

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke with CBS News' Harry Smith from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Smith: Richard, the United States government has been such a good friend to Hosni Mubarak for a long time, yet the White House is clearly very sympathetic to the people in the streets in Cairo and the other cities in Egypt. It really leaves the United States in quite a precarious position.

Haas: You're right, it is precarious, but the United States has to be very careful. The stakes here are enormous, Harry. Egypt is somewhere between one-fourth and one-third of the entire Arab world. If instability comes to Egypt, it will send shockwaves throughout the rest of the Arab world. It's the first country to establish peace with Israel. It's, indeed, the cornerstone of what peace there is in the Middle East. So if the United States is seen to pull the rug out from under this friend which, as you noted in the report, a friend for some three decades, it will raise major questions about American reliability. On the other hand, if we're seen to give him an uncritical embrace, it could risk alienating the Egyptian people and some future government we may have to work with.

Smith: We've seen this go on now in Tunisia. There were protests today in Jordan. There were protests in Yemen yesterday. What is going on here?

Haas: Well, what we're seeing is a part of the world that has largely missed out on many of the great trends of modern decades. There hasn't been anything like the political and economic reform in the Middle East that we've seen in Europe, in Asia and Latin America and Africa, and suddenly it's coming and it's coming suddenly, in part triggered by the Tunisian experience and the social media, but the Middle East was ripe for this kind of change. The kindling, if you will, is extraordinarily dry here and that's what we're seeing, not just in Egypt, but also in several other countries.

Smith: And how much should we be concerned about what a new Egypt might look like?

Haas: We should be very concerned. The last thing we want to have, say, is an Egypt in chaos or an Egypt dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. We don't want to see that sort of experience there. So the United States has to be very careful in how it manages this situation. And if the government survives -- and we should take our cue from the army here -- if the government survives, then we should try to work out a long-term reform program. If, however, the government can't survive -- and, again, the army will tell us this, perhaps as early as tomorrow, Harry -- then we have to start working on Plan B, on putting into place some alternative. The one thing we never want to have in Egypt is the sort of thing, say, we had in Iran three decades ago where the choice is between an authoritarian government and a radical Islamist alternative. So we either want to push the Mubarak government in the direction of reform or, if it's too late for that, we want to work with some successor government.