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Egyptian Ambassador: Objective of Crackdown ‘Wasn’t to Use Massive Force’

August 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Mohamed Tawfik, Egypt's ambassador to the U.S., says he believes "one Egyptian dead is too many," but that it is up to the Muslim Brotherhood not to use weapons. In an exclusive interview, Tawfik joins Judy Woodruff to discuss events of the past week and the future of $1.3 billion in annual aid the U.S. provides to Egypt.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to a closer look inside the thinking of the Egyptian government and its actions over the last week.

I’m joined by the country’s ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Tawfik.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to the program.

MOHAMED TAWFIK, Egyptian Ambassador to the United States: Thank you. Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you first about the — what — reports are Hosni Mubarak, former president, may be released.

Will he be released? And, if he is, does that mean there’s been an exoneration of any wrongdoing by his administration — his government?

MOHAMED TAWFIK: No, no.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the executive branch, with the government. This is a purely legal issue. It’s up to the courts to decide. And Mubarak is no longer president of Egypt. He’s a citizen who has basically to face the courts and either be judged in whatever way the courts find necessary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the first opportunity we have had to speak with an Egyptian official since the crackdown last week.

Should the world expect continuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, as what we have seen over the last week?

MOHAMED TAWFIK: Well, I think we have to agree on a number of basic principles.

First of all, this is not about religion. This is not about God. This is not about martyrdom. If you have political grievances, you should express those political grievances in the ways that the law allows you to do that.

The second thing that we have to agree upon is you cannot go on a demonstration carrying heavy machine guns and shooting at people. That — immediately — if, say, a few people are armed and using those weapons, they put the other demonstrators who are unarmed in danger.

So the third thing that we have to agree upon — and we do agree upon — is that it is perfectly legal for people to demonstrate peacefully, without burning down churches, without attacking police stations, without attacking museums. Demonstrate peacefully, and you have the right to do so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But eyewitnesses, I’m sure you know, Mr. Ambassador, say that the majority, the vast majority of the shooting was done by government, by soldiers, by troops, by police, and not by the demonstrators, who were largely peaceful.

MOHAMED TAWFIK: If that were true, then we wouldn’t have a hundred, almost a hundred dead policemen today that have been shot by pro-Morsi, different types of pro-Morsi groups.

We have almost 700 policemen injured. So, again, the police have an obligation to respect the freedom of people to demonstrate, provided they do not use weapons and they don’t attack people and people’s property.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think the question many people are asking, though, is, why was it necessary to shoot to kill? Was there a nonlethal way to work with these demonstrators? Why not wait them out? Why not give them time to make a different decision?

MOHAMED TAWFIK: Actually, that was what the police were trying to do.

They started to surround the area where the demonstrators were situated in order to allow people to leave. But, basically, what happened is that they were attacked by armed gunmen, and police officers were killed. And it became evident that this wasn’t going to be peaceful because of the fact that some of the demonstrators, not all of them — most of them were not armed, but some of them were armed and were willing to use those arms to kill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you comfortable, though, with the — with now the impression that your government has left on the world that it is prepared to crack down in this way, leaving, what, 1,000 civilians dead after just a week?

MOHAMED TAWFIK: Well, I — first of all, I’m not comfortable with the notion that any Egyptians are being killed.

As far as I’m concerned, one Egyptian dead is one too many. However, we have to look at this in an objective way. When the people are attacked by armed people in the middle of unarmed demonstrators, then you’re — there’s going to be a gunfight, and people are going to get hurt.

It is up to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership to make a decision that they will not use weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a place for the Muslim Brotherhood in the government, in the current government, or is it better, in the view of the government, for the Muslim Brotherhood to be eliminated?

MOHAMED TAWFIK: I want to make this point very clear.

There is room for Egypt — in Egypt for all Egyptians. There’s room. This is not a struggle for one side to eliminate the other side. This is not objective of the Egyptian people or of the Egyptian government. We have in our government, in the new government a minister whose sole portfolio is to talk with all the parties and to arrive at a national reconciliation.

So, this is the objective. There’s a political process in place. The Muslim Brotherhood were invited to participate in the government, to have ministers in the government. They were invited to participate in meetings to discuss how to move forward.

We cannot keep on in this vicious cycle of recriminations and killings. We have to move forward. We have to look towards the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s been extensive reporting just in the last few days, particularly in The New York Times yesterday, about the great lengths that U.S. officials at the highest level went to try to persuade General al-Sisi, the leading military — the military leader, and others in your government not to use this massive force. Why were the pleas of Secretary Hagel, Secretary Kerry and so many others not heeded?

MOHAMED TAWFIK: Again, the objective wasn’t to use massive force.

The objective wasn’t to get anyone killed. The objective was to apply the rule of law. You had in those areas where you had the sit-ins, you had people who had been killed, who had been tortured. You had bodies surfacing. You had people who had been left for dead and then somehow they miraculously survived, and they told their story.

How could the government just stand aside and say we’re going to allow these people to continue to — bringing arms there and to continue to break the law there?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The reporting we’re hearing, Mr. Ambassador, is that the U.S. — we just heard the spokeswoman at the State Department. They are still looking at whether the aid that the U.S. provides to your country, military aid, $1.3 billion, should be continued.

A new poll out today says most Americans believe it shouldn’t continue. How much does that aid matter to your country?

MOHAMED TAWFIK: Well, the — I have been saying this so many times. Let me say it one more time.

The U.S. assistance to Egypt is part of a strategic partnership that serves both countries enormously. It’s a win/win situation. So, basically, we would like it to continue to be a win/win situation, particularly since we agree on the objective. We have the same objective. We want to see a democratic system in place in Egypt.

We do not want to see Christians attacked, nuns being treated like they’re prisoners of wars, churches burned down, museums — museums — being attacked. We don’t want to see this. We want to have a flourishing country, a democracy, a country where every individual can feel free, can have human dignity.

This is what we’re working towards. And this is what we are going to achieve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re saying regardless of whether the aid continues?

MOHAMED TAWFIK: Again, I’m not going to comment on the decisions of the United States government.

What I’m saying is that this assistance is of use and is of tremendous importance to both sides.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik, we thank you very much for being with us.

MOHAMED TAWFIK: Thank you very much. It’s good to be with you.