Editor’s Note: On September 14, 2012, H.A. Hellyer spoke from Cairo with BBC World on the Egyptian protests in the aftermath of the anti-Islam film produced in the United States.
BBC: Let’s concentrate on Egypt. We’ll go live to Cairo now, where we can speak to Dr. H. A. Hellyer. He’s a nonresident fellow with the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. Dr. Hellyer, in Cairo—let’s talk about Egypt specifically—how much support do you think the protestors there have?
H.A. Hellyer: I think the support for the actions that have taken place over the last few years definitely is limited to a very small fringe of people. It’s very clear from all parts of Egypt’s civil society that they don’t enjoy support for the violent reaction that has taken place, even though people might feel some of the same sentiment that the protestors now feel. But I think it’s important to realize that there are a number of issues here that are being conflicted with each other. We can’t assume that the reaction we’ve seen over these last days is purely about this film. There are other things at stake here as well.
BBC: Let’s talk about those. What are the deeper issues?
Hellyer: I think we have to keep in mind that there is a long-standing grievance amongst a huge number of Egyptians against the security services in this country, and there will be some people that will take any opportunity to express their defiance of that security establishment. So that’s one part of the issue, at least in Egypt. There’s also a huge undercurrent of opposition to America’s role in the region. And that’s something that has played out in the protests over the last few days as well. And keep in mind there are different groups of individuals that are involved in these protests; we can’t simply characterize them all as have been Islamist or non-Islamist or football hooligans, there are different groups at work here.
BBC: So, interestingly, when we see them shouting anti-western slogans or anti-American slogans, in many ways they don’t want the west to hear, but do they want their own government to hear what they’re saying? Is that the person, or the body to which the message is being sent?
Hellyer: I think that’s very true of quite a number of people. I think also, to be quite honest, that they want themselves to hear this. A lot of the slogans that you’ve heard aren’t really directed in any single direction—they’re directed at themselves. There’s a lot of anger that’s here and it’s expressed in these slogans, but we shouldn’t take them at face value. There are huge issues at play within Egypt over poverty, around empowerment. And you can see that a large number of those who are protesting on the streets, a lot of them are young, a lot of them don’t have jobs, and they’re expressing their frustration at what’s going on around them. And this film was interpreted as an attack on their identity. And as a result, they reacted. They reacted with violence in a way that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians have clearly condemned. But that is part of the background to this and we need to keep that in mind.
Most protests in Iran are over economic issues. What’s different is that it seems to have tapped into a deep sense of alienation and frustration, that people aren’t just demonstrating for better working conditions or pay, but insisting on wholesale rejection of the system itself.
[The Trump administration's travel ban is] an affront to all Iranians. You can’t tell Iranians that you have their back when they confront the regime if you’re not willing to let them in your country... If you’re uncertain about going to the streets, knowing that you have somewhere to go is possibly a small encouragement. Many Iranians came here after 2009.
My guess is that the Islamic Republic will ride [these protests] out, [but they will take a] toll on the legitimacy of the government as a whole [and] undercut [Rouhani's] credibility as a guy who can fix the economy.