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Egypt’s Interim Prime Minister Promises to Fight Persecution of Military Critics

September 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Margaret Warner talks to Egyptian interim prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi about the ouster of former President Morsi, the military's influence on the government, the crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood, protecting liberal critics of the military takeover from prosecution and the outlook for democracy in Egypt.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to another look at Egypt.

The Obama administration has voiced concern over violent crackdowns and arrests in that country following the military ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi in July. The armed forces, headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, declared that they were handing over power to civilian leadership and appointed an interim president, who, in turn, picked a prime minister and cabinet members.

Many suspect, however, that the military is still calling the shots.

So, who is in charge of Egypt?

PBS NewsHour chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner put that question to the country’s interim prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, earlier today in Cairo.

MARGARET WARNER: Prime Minister Beblawi, thank you for having us.

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Now, an issue what Washington and Cairo seem at odds on right now is the way your government came to power, essentially as the result of the military deposing the elected president of this country, Mohammed Morsi. By any known definition, is that not a coup?

INTERIM PRIME MINISTER HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI, Egypt: If you take a single element, picture, and not seeing the whole picture, you are failing to get the reality.

 As a matter of fact, it started with an uprising of millions in the streets. And then the army just responded to an appeal of the people. And it’s exactly, almost exactly the same as happened with the previous regime, Mubarak. So I don’t see a great difference technically speaking.

And I would see that it would have been very bad if we had let down those people.

MARGARET WARNER: And you don’t think the army helped engineer these protests in any way?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

If the army can move and mobilize millions, it must have magic to be able to convince young people, old people, women to take street for such a phenomena, I would imagine.

MARGARET WARNER: I would like to ask you now about the crackdown that has occurred since Morsi was deposed, starting with the fact that an estimated 1,000 people have been killed, most of them protesters at the hands of the security forces.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is calling for an independent investigation into what really happened. Is there going to be such an investigation?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: We are. The government, we are asking to form an independent investigation, and this is to our benefit.

Of course, we look to the authorities to take their calls. But we would like, for the benefit of history, to form an independent investigation to give a recommended description of what exactly happened. This is — we are doing it because we need it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, also, some 2,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, mid-level members, have been detained without charges. You were quoted last month as actually calling for banning the Muslim Brotherhood. Really?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: No.

I always said that the Muslim Brotherhood must respect the rule. This movement is acting as either a party, political party, and political parties shouldn’t mix — use their religion for political objectives. If they are promoting ideas for welfare and this kind, they should abide by the law to make clear their financial resources, to be subject to observation and control, like any social society. We will go by the law.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, yesterday, your religious affairs minister announced that more than 50,000 clerics, “unlicensed” — quote, unquote — would be silenced, would be banned from preaching.

Is there a danger that, if more Islamist thought and activity is driven underground, that it will simply generate terrorism?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: Absolutely.

I am very aware that the way to deal with political Islam is not to repress them and to push them underground, but to make sure that they abide by the law, and to make sure that you — we know exactly what they are saying in public, not under the ground. So this is exactly what we think. MARGARET WARNER: And so now you’re under this state of emergency. The police have sweeping powers. There are reports that the public prosecutor is now looking into charges against many liberal — liberals who were active in the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.

Is there an effort now to go after liberal critics of this military — at least military-appointed government, of which you’re a part?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: Not at all.

As a matter of fact, we were looking forward to end the emergency by the end of the month, but then we were surprised — actually, not surprised by the action, but by the magnitude of the explosion.

MARGARET WARNER: And by explosion, you mean the assassination attempt on the interior minister?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: Yes, exactly, which showed us that the situation is — still needs to be under control, and most probably we will extend the emergency for a month or two.

But we are forbidden by law to extend it more than three months, unless we have a referendum.

MARGARET WARNER: Can you guarantee that liberal critics of the military and of the military-appointed government are not going to be harassed or prosecuted?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: I can’t say I guarantee, but I will do anything to fight any liberal who is taken because of what he is thinking, of his opinion. This is definitely something I will think that this is not accepted, and I will fight it.

MARGARET WARNER: How much control does the civilian government that you head actually have over the security service?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: A great deal of power, and at least we have the power to say, sorry, we will not continue.

MARGARET WARNER: So you have the power to say no?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: Of course.

MARGARET WARNER: And does the president, Mansour, have any control at all over General al-Sisi and the armed forces?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: I assure you that we are going by the law.

And the president is assuming his role as head of the country. The cabinet has all of the authority to dealing. Al-Sisi, General al-Sisi, is a member of the cabinet, and I can tell that you he is a very disciplined member of the cabinet.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in the United States, the president has the power to fire, replace the army chief of staff, the head of the armed forces. Does the president here, this current president, have that power?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: The president of the republic has all the prerogative of a president, of a head of a state.

MARGARET WARNER: Even though that general is the one who appointed him?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: It is not yet put to the test, but, definitely, there is no evidence of the contrary.

Legally, this — the power of the head of the state is secured. We haven’t seen that he was denied by this, and I’m sure that, if the need comes, he will use his power.

MARGARET WARNER: So, can you assure the world that in the next seven months, which is when your road map, your self-imposed deadline is up, that Egypt will once again have a fully elected, freely elected civilian democracy and the army will return to the barracks for good?

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: Definitely, we owe this not only to the world. We owe it to our people.

We said, when we came, we came for a transitional period. We know a transitional period is by definition temporary. But we are fully aware that it’s very important. And we would like to be up to our promise to our people.

MARGARET WARNER: Prime Minister Beblawi, thank you so much.

HAZEM EL-BEBLAWI: You’re most welcome. Thank you for coming.