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Clashes Quieted, Egypt Tries to Move Ahead Amid ‘Imperfect’ Political Situation

September 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Street clashes have ebbed in Cairo, where authorities are getting on with the work of establishing a new constitution and repairing the battered national economy. What do secular Egyptians make of the current political situation? Margaret Warner gets perspectives from politicians, activists and citizens.
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GWEN IFILL: We return to another troubled spot in the Middle East, Egypt.

Two months ago, the army deposed the country’s Islamist president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. He was elected after the heady 2011 uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. In Egypt, secular forces — now Egypt’s secular forces have turned the tables. But does this mean more democracy for Egypt or a return to the past?

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, reports from Cairo.

MARGARET WARNER: In the wood panel chamber of the upper house of parliament, a committee rewriting Egypt’s constitution for the second time in as many years convened its initial session Sunday.

It was an over-50 crowd of statesmen, clerics, business leaders and generals, and one incongruous figure, a T-shirt-wearing young man whom virtually no one had heard of six months ago. The 20-something being welcomed so heartily was Mahmoud Badr, one of the co-founders of the Tamarod, or rebel movement, which led a petition drive in the spring against President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government, triggering massive nationwide protests on June 30.

Three days later, on July 3, the army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, appeared on television to say Egypt’s armed forces had removed the first democratically elected leader in the country’s history. One of the Badr’s fellow Tamarod co-founders, young Mahmoud el-Saka, has no apologies for turning to the military to oust a president he voted for, but came to believe was serving the Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda, not Egypt’s.

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MAHMOUD EL-SAKA, Tamarod (through interpreter): Actually, not only me. All of the co-founders of Tamarod voted for him.

MARGARET WARNER: So you then felt betrayed?

MAHMOUD EL-SAKA (through interpreter): The Muslim Brotherhood and their ambassador in the presidential palace, Mohammed Morsi, betrayed us, betrayed the Egyptian people, betrayed the youth. He couldn’t take the responsibility we gave him.

MARGARET WARNER: General al-Sisi gave that responsibility to an interim civilian-led government headed by Judge Adly Mansour. Imposing a state of emergency, al-Sisi promised Mansour’s short-term government would move briskly down a road map to restore civilian democracy within nine months.

In many quarters of this ancient city, capital of the Arab’s world’s most populous country, we found a sense of relief. The street clashes have ebbed. People say they feel safer. Many do think the civilian government is only a facade, that the real power lies with General Al-Sisi. But they seem fine with that for now.

We found public relations manager Ayman Fouad sitting in a cafe.

So, who do you think is running the country right now?

AYMAN FOUAD, public relations manager: Now? The interim president, Adly Mansour.

MARGARET WARNER: What is General Al-Sisi’s role?

AYMAN FOUAD (through interpreter): Protecting people from the terrorists like the Muslim Brotherhood. I would like to salute him and salute his forces.

MARGARET WARNER: When I asked who was running the country, You said President Mansour, but — interim President Mansour, but you were laughing. Why were you laughing?

AYMAN FOUAD (through interpreter): I feel like you know the answer.

MARGARET WARNER: The interim government has one job that can’t wait nine months, to start rebuilding an economy battered by the constant strife since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.

The streets are empty of tourists and foreign investors, the country’s most visited site, the Pyramids, now a ghost town. The interim government is surviving on cash infusions from the Gulf. Yet even more difficult will be rebuilding the trust between two camps of Egyptians, seculars and Islamists, who united in the Arab spring revolution of 2011, but couldn’t agree on anything after that.

In one camp, more secular-minded Egyptians like Mona Makram Ebeid, a former parliamentarian. In her apartment in Cairo’s upscale Zamalek district, she insisted Morsi’s ouster wasn’t a coup, but a popular impeachment.  

MONA MAKRAM EBEID, Egyptian parliamentarian: What you saw was really the struggle for the soul of Egypt, a society divided, one that wanted a real civil society and another one that wanted a theocratic society.

MARGARET WARNER: She says General Al-Sisi appeared like a breath of hope.

MONA MAKRAM EBEID: He is looked upon as a national savior.

MARGARET WARNER: But across town in suburban New Cairo at an anti-coup protest called on short notice to evade security forces, computer science professor Kareem Mohammed saw no heroes.

KAREEM MOHAMMED, protester: Democracy doesn’t come on tanks. Democracy comes through the ballot box. You cannot superimpose a president on people. And I’m here to protest against all the atrocities of the regime, and which you have heard — I’m sure you have heard of all the killing and the torturing and the jailing and so forth.

MARGARET WARNER: The killing started even before Morsi’s removal and reached a bloody climax August 14, when the police moved in to disperse two huge Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo. Hundreds of protesters were killed that day.

What may seem surprising is that many self-styled liberals defend not only the military’s takeover, but the crackdown that followed.

WAEL NAWARA, leading secular voice: They were not only hijacking democracy. They were hijacking Egypt itself.

MARGARET WARNER: Writer and politicians Wael Nawara was a leading secular voice in the 2011 revolution. He says the military’s intervention and crackdown prevented civil war.

Do you consider yourself a liberal?

WAEL NAWARA: In a way, yes, social — a kind of social liberal, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And so do you think there’s anything inconsistent in being a liberal, yet now so many liberals support this at least interim government in which the most powerful figure I think is clearly General al-Sisi?

WAEL NAWARA: In fact, if the army had not stepped in, I tell you, Egyptians would have gone themselves and then it would have been a massacre, a real massacre.

MARGARET WARNER: There are a few, very few, liberal voices who have raised objections to the military’s takeover.

AHMED MAHER, April 6 Movement (through interpreter): Many people in Egypt now believe that the solution is with the military, and this is a problem, at least for me.

MARGARET WARNER: Ahmed Maher heads the so-called April 6 Movement, which spearheaded the 2011 uprising.

AHMED MAHER (through interpreter): The Brotherhood reached power by the way of the ballot box. So we could, even if not immediately, we could have removed them that way. They made many mistakes, but the return to the military rule again is very harmful. Using the military now will mean that they can depose any president in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: In a July 3 tweet, Maher dared referred to Morsi’s ouster as a coup and has questioned the violence and crackdown since then. He has been paying the price, rumored to be under state investigation, shunned by many family and friends, and publicly vilified in Egypt’s media, which has fallen in line behind General Al-Sisi.

AHMED MAHER (through interpreter): The people who are critical or have misgivings regarding the role of the military, they are attacked viciously in the streets and in the media.

MARGARET WARNER: Who is running the country right now?

(LAUGHTER)

AHMED MAHER (through interpreter): Do you want to put me in jail, or what?

(LAUGHTER)

AHMED MAHER (through interpreter): I say that, yes, the military establishment has a large role in government, even when Morsi was there.

 

MARGARET WARNER: Do you feel in danger of being arrested, of being jailed?

AHMED MAHER (through interpreter): They are accusing me that I’m a traitor and an agent, that I am being paid from abroad to foment chaos in Egypt. This indicates that our voice is annoying to them.

HEBA MORAYEF, Human Rights Watch: What has been incredibly successful is a very targeted smear campaign against the few dissenting voices who have criticized the military and criticized the police.

MARGARET WARNER: Heba Morayef is Egypt country director for Human Rights Watch. She says voices like Maher’s can’t get on TV any longer in Egypt.

HEBA MORAYEF: And that smear campaign has really showed the power of the private media. This station on TV was one of the voices for independent — you know, was one of the channels hosting independent voices, hosting the activists who first made January 2011 happen.

I think that just shows how political space in Egypt has narrowed — well, more than narrowed. It has almost disappeared, the space for dissent. I think there were a lot of reasons for optimism in 2011 and 2012, and of course all of that is being rolled back now because there’s only a security response, not a political response right now.

MARGARET WARNER: We took that tough charge, that the freedoms that flowered after the 2011 revolution are being undermined, to the deputy prime minister of the interim government, Ziad Bahaa El-Din.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER ZIAD BAHAA EL-DIN, Egypt: I don’t think it’s possible for anything to return in the same way that it was prior to January 25.

Everyone has learned a lot of lessons out of the last couple of — two-and-a-half years. Nobody can describe the state in which Egypt is in right now as being the perfect state of affairs. It’s an imperfect situation. But it is one from which we either progress forward or we can go backwards.

MARGARET WARNER: How confident are you that, at the end of this time frame, which comes up in April, that there will be have been a full restoration of civilian democracy and that the military will step back?

ZIAD BAHAA EL-DIN: I’m quite confident actually and I’m quite optimistic about this process being completed by — let’s say by April. But it’s not something that makes me relax. But we have to learn from the last couple-and-a-half years and compromise a little bit, as long as there is progress going forward.

MARGARET WARNER: As Egyptians gather to watch the constitutional committee’s proceedings each day, the dangers of failing to compromise are all too vivid in their memories and in these murals of the blood shed in the past three years under Mubarak, the military government that followed, and the Brotherhood.

But a few blocks away, university professor Marwa Mohammed Ibrahim, out shopping with her young daughter, said polarization, not the spirit of compromise, infects Egypt now.

MARWA MOHAMMED IBRAHIM, professor: There are two groups. If you are not with me, you are opposite of me. There’s no logic in when we speak with each other. I don’t listen to you.

MARGARET WARNER: And what will it take to change that?

MARWA MOHAMMED IBRAHIM: We will take much more time, slow the transfer, in order to be like American people, like English people, to be democratic from inside.

MARGARET WARNER: Time the Egypt of today may not have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will have more reporting from Margaret this week, including, tomorrow, her interview with Egypt’s prime minister.