Khaled Fahmy: Sisi Is “Much More Dangerous”
September 17, 2013, 9:21 pm ET
Khaled Fahmy is professor and chair of the American University in Cairo’s Department of History. A liberal supporter of the revolution, Fahmy worried about human-rights abuses under President Mohammed Morsi, and now a return to the military state under Gen. Sisi. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 18, 2013 in New York.
Help me understand the context of the Muslim Brotherhood and how they began back in the ’20s and how they evolved to the point where they’d win the presidency.
The organization started at the hands of a schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna, in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia in 1928, and it was a very small organization at the beginning. Then bit by bit, he started effectively proselytizing in mosques.
He was a good speaker. He started attracting followers. The message was a moral message, a message of returning to Islam, that we had deviated from the true path.
The context is a highly sensitive and tense context of a British occupation that had started way earlier in 1882, a flawed constitution, a paralyzed political system.
And in the view of Hassan al-Banna and his followers, [it was] a context also of an alienated elite who had lost sight of the true values of society, became enamored by the West, and had the West as a model to follow in terms of culture, in terms of ideas, in terms of art, in terms of history. The idea is that this is the cause of Egypt’s problems. It’s a cultural message, and the time has come to return to Islam.
There’s also a global context, because only a few years earlier in Istanbul, the caliphates had collapsed. That is the political institution under which all Muslims of the world supposedly had been grouped, … and the idea is the time has come to find an alternative. Muslims cannot wander off without this umbrella organization that can group them all together under one political leadership. …
Al-Banna himself was not a great [leader], but he was a great tactician, and he started formulating an organizational structure of this new society, building branches in different cities. And within a few years, the organization encompassed the entire country in every single large city.
Estimates of the membership of course range and fluctuate rapidly, but by the early 1940s, it had become one of the largest organizations in the country, with maybe half a million followers in a country back then of maybe 15 to 20 million. So it was a sizable organization, very tightly organized, a pyramidical structure. Commands are sent from the head — the supreme guide, as he was called — to cells that eventually spread to every single village, a military kind of discipline in terms of obeying commands and very little internal deliberations, discussions, no elections. And these epistles that he would write and spread, they would be taken and debated as what the supreme guide thought. And then the organization basically appealed to a middle-class, lower-middle-class people, well educated but disaffected by the political scene.
This is also a period in Egypt where it was street politics. The official institutions, in terms of parties, could not really absorb the political energies of especially the youth, so there’s a lot of street activity and street fighting.
Eventually it leads to a confrontation with the authorities. Interesting that the first big one had to do with the Palestine war in 1948, when it spilled over kind of in Egypt, and it is suspected that the Muslim Brotherhood orchestrated attacks on Jewish properties and Jewish homes in Cairo in particular.
That triggered a government response and eventually led to a Muslim Brotherhood member assassinating the prime minister, [Mahmud Fahmi Nokrashi]. That, in turn, led to the assassination of Hassan al-Banna himself. So the founder of the organization ended up being assassinated, and that was a huge calamity.
The second confrontation with the authorities happened soon after the 1952 revolution that brought the three officers in power and that ended the monarchy that had ruled Egypt for 150 years earlier. Specifically, in 1954, the new president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, is appearing to be a charismatic, powerful figure, attracting millions of followers. He’s giving a speech in Alexandria, and there is a failed attempt at his life, and the Muslim Brotherhood were accused of masterminding the attack. Up to that time, it was the only remaining political organization allowed to function after the military junta had basically banned all other political parties.
In ’54, it was time for the Brotherhood itself to be banned. Starting a ferocious campaign against the leaders and the rank-and-file of the organization, the organization itself was declared illegal, and its members were rounded up, and its assets were confiscated. They were sent to prison in thousands, thousands and thousands of people sent to prison for years on end.
That continued throughout the Nasser regime in different waves of arrests, and it culminated in a very serious, yet another confrontation in the mid-’60s, when one of the most important intellectual figures of the organization, Sayyid Qutb, who himself had been arrested earlier in 1963, was spending years in prison.
In prison he started to contemplate what had befallen his organization, and the result is a very harsh assessment of the regime and an assessment that left very little room for compromise. In a sense, it’s a book written about Egypt and about the Egyptian situation from the gallows, so it’s a very dark image of who these people are that are arresting us, who these people are who are torturing us, who these people are who are humiliating us beyond belief.
There’s no compromise. The only way that one can deal with this regime is by violence, is by jihad, is by toppling it. This is a heathen society, even if it claims to be Islamic. They are not really Muslims. And most importantly, in terms of theoretical sophistication, sovereignty belongs to God. It does not belong to the president. It does not belong in popular will. It does not belong in a parliament. It’s embodied in God, and hence, we have to return to God, and anybody who challenges this would be heathen and unbeliever and, in a sense, to be killed with impunity.
So that was the Qutb, as in reference to Sayyid Qutb ideology, best illustrated in this small but very powerful book, Milestones on the Roads, that [has] become the blueprint of all jihadist organizations, including Al Qaeda, since then.
Qutb himself was re-arrested after a short release, accused of high treason and convicted and hanged in 1966. That was a huge blow, and he became not the first martyr of the movement, because earlier ones had laid claim to that honorific title, but he was definitely one of the most important martyrs. …
With Nasser dead in 1970 and with his follower, Anwar Sadat, trying to found a new power base for himself, he started releasing Muslim Brotherhood members from prison, started appeasing them, allowing them to resume their activities. These activities are charitable activities but also political activities, trying to found a party, trying to organize themselves politically.
Sadat would not allow them to found a party but allowed them to resume their publications and specifically to exist on university campuses. And that is when the modern Islamist movement in Egypt spread, first in Cairo, then in Alexandria, then in university campuses in the south. And in a sense, the genie was out of the bottle.
This newly found power of the Muslim Brotherhood and of other Islamist organizations was very difficult to tame, and they eventually became the most vocal source of political opposition to him. That eventually culminated in assassinating the president himself in October of 1981 at the hands of a jihad group which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. …
The regime did not fall. In fact, the new president, [Hosni] Mubarak, when he came in 1981, started a ferocious campaign that went way further than anything that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists had witnessed under Nasser. Mubarak himself was sitting next to Sadat in 1981 when Sadat was assassinated, so he saw firsthand, and I think personally and psychologically he was deeply moved.
“Mubarak, when he came in 1981, started a ferocious campaign that went way further than anything that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists had witnessed under Nasser.”
It became a personal vendetta between him and the Muslim Brotherhood. He saw them as a fatal danger to the Egyptian regime, and he unleashed the security forces on them throughout the country. So again, droves of them were rounded up, were tortured. They were not allowed to exist throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
Effectively, Egypt had a civil war. It culminated in the Luxor massacre of 1997, when again al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya attacked a group of tourists. The idea was to bring the state down by hitting it at its most vulnerable point, which is the tourist economy. And again the regime did not fall. There is some attempt to accommodate the Muslim Brotherhood itself, because it had renounced violence, to try and see if they could be co-opted within the system.
So different kinds of deals [were made] of allowing them to run for elections, not municipal elections but parliamentary elections, and elections in professional organizations, syndicates of doctors and physicians and pharmacists, which is the power base. The Muslim Brotherhood is a middle-class phenomenon, and they are very strong in these professions, in particular doctors, physicians, teachers, lawyers, journalists.
And every time there is any attempt to have, or if they managed to have free elections in these syndicates, they would sweep them. And then the government would come and tamper with the results of the elections or find another way to reach some kind of compromise. The same with student unions and parliamentary elections.
In the meantime, because of this, the Muslim Brotherhood has its roots in the countryside, has its roots in cities. It’s very active in charitable organizations. It had renounced violence, and it has an amazingly efficient election machine that can turn out the vote. They can identify people. They can mobilize them. They have catchy slogans. They know they will not win, so they are not really long on practical, credible answers to Egypt’s problems. It’s catchy titles. They are the underdog. People sympathize with them.
People are sick and tired of 30 years of Mubarak. This is a credible opposition. They occupy the moral high ground because they are constantly in the opposition, and the result is in the last elections before the revolution, in 2005 they [won] 88 seats, an unprecedented number, out of 440 seats. So authorities were alarmed, and they appeared to be the single most important opposition to Mubarak.
How do you explain that they took 80 years fighting against the regime, and yet it was another movement that toppled the regime more quickly? Why were they such a failure, in a way?
… I think there is a fatal flaw in their ideology and their outlook and their approach. Hassan al-Banna is famously reported to have said, “We are a political party, but we’re also a Sufi mystical group; we are a youth organization; we are a charitable organization; we are a sports club.”
So there is this global view of what it is that they want to do. They want to change society; they want to change souls. And their idea is if we change enough people — and we can — then the state will just fall a ripe fruit. We will not really need to pluck it out. So that is one approach as to how to reach mastery of the country. …
Despite their rhetoric, it was actually very small pieces of negotiation here and there, and that is where most of their energies went. It was tactical victories. They managed to get every bit, but the strategic plan is ultimately flawed. There’s a big gap between the strategic vision and the tactical maneuverings of the organization.
I think the other major mistake [they made is that] they … lost touch with the youth of the country. Egypt is a youthful society. More than half the population is under 25. This is a very different youth from their own youth. It’s much more open and more self-confident. And they were not aware of the changing technologies that were developing in social media and that there’s a new literary scene; there’s a new art scene.
“Many of those who voted for Morsi did not vote for him. They were voting against the former regime.”
People are not beholden to the victim mentality that the leaders came from, so that’s another mistake. A third mistake, I think, is that within the organization itself, it was a particular faction of the leadership that took over. It’s a faction that was beholden to Sayyid Qutb’s ideas. It’s a faction that internalized this victim mentality and found it very difficult to let go of. And it was still a mentality of a very secretive, clandestine, isolated group.
How did Morsi become the candidate? … How did he get to be part of this?
Morsi is a university professor, so well educated, seasoned. He has run for elections, won elections in Parliament, and in the last Parliament he was the leader of the opposition. …
He interestingly and significantly was also the liaison officer with the security forces, so he has many connections with the other important center of power in Egypt, which is the security forces — not necessarily the military, but the police. So he’s the lynchpin between the organization, the Muslim Brotherhood and the security forces of Mubarak. Has many contacts.
He himself is very hard-line. He does not negotiate, does not compromise. He obeys commands, and his words are law. He can only take orders from Khairat el-Shater and the supreme guide, and he maintains the discipline of the group within Parliament and of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that is what allowed him to elevate and to be promoted within that core group.
When you first heard he was going to run for president, how did you feel? What were your fears?
My fear was that he is not psychologically ready. The person that was supposed to be the president is Khairat el-Shater, but because of legal technicalities, he was barred from running. So the Brotherhood had anticipated this act, and they voted Mohamed Morsi forward.
As an Egyptian, I had never heard his voice. I had never seen him on the national scene. I knew that he was the head of the parliamentary minority in the previous Parliament, but this is not someone who I could trust as being a leader of such a complicated and sophisticated country. …
The second thing is that, again, as an Egyptian, I didn’t know what his connection would be with Khairat el-Shater and with Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide. These are unelected officials, but because of the organization and how it is run, they are his commanders.
So if he were to be elected as president, the question that I had and many people had is, would he think that the mandate that he gets from the ballot box trumps the traditional psychological upbringing of years and years of working within that very hierarchical and very clandestine organization?
So I’m suspicious of who actually will end up ruling the country. Is it Mohamed Morsi as president, or is it Khairat el-Shater and Mohamed Badie as the strongmen of the Muslim Brotherhood?
At what point was SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] aware that the Muslim Brotherhood would likely take power? And were there negotiations and discussions beforehand between Morsi and [Abdul-Fattah] el-Sisi about how this power would be shared once elections took place?
When SCAF took over after Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, it was again Morsi who was appointed within the Muslim Brotherhood to liaise with SCAF … and more specifically with el-Sisi, who was head of military intelligence, a member of SCAF, young, ambitious general, very well informed, and a whole generation younger than the head of SCAF, Gen. [Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi, who was the minister of defense under Mubarak.
So they established this relationship, and it was a relationship of trust, because apparently, according to reports, el-Sisi went out of his way to tell Morsi that he is a pious Muslim, he’s a practicing Muslim, and that in fact even his political ideas about elections and about sovereignty are very much in alignment with that of the Muslim Brotherhood.
So there was some kind of a rapprochement that was established between both men throughout the period of power of the SCAF, which lasted from February 2011 till June of 2012 when we had presidential elections.
The two contenders in the final round were Mohamed Morsi and a former air force commander, the last prime minister under Mubarak, Ahmed Shafik. Shafik was effectively the army man because of his military credentials and because he is a member of the Mubarak regime. So when we had elections, everybody thought, will the Mubarak regime come back in the person of Shafik, or will the new government, the new Egypt, win in the person of Mohamed Morsi, the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood?
For that entire week, more than a week after we cast our votes, we’re waiting for the results. And the question was, was there a deal being cooked up between both men? We still don’t know the reason for this very long period of time, eight days, until the final results were announced, and Morsi ending up winning with the slightest of majorities, 51.7 percent of the vote.
What was the mood in Cairo when Morsi got elected? Did you get a sense of the polarization that would later play out?
Definitely. The polarization was very clear in the very sharp division. I mean, 51.7 percent is a very serious sign of how deeply divided the country was. Not everybody who voted for Morsi were Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists. In fact, he got only 5 percent, 5 million people in the first round. In the second round he got 15 million. And many of this difference was a result of many people terrified of Shafik and not happy with the prospect of the former regime returning to power.
In other words, many of those who voted for Morsi did not vote for him. They were voting against the former regime. The country is still very deeply divided, and I think one of the main problems of the Morsi presidency is that he didn’t really do enough to bridge this rift and this divide.
How is it possible that 80 years of fighting to get to power, and as I understand it, the plan to govern was slogans but no plan?
… There are many reasons why they did so badly. First of all, they did have a very tiny majority. Secondly, they discovered soon enough that the rhetoric with which they won elections cannot help them govern. It’s one thing to get the vote; it’s another thing to actually deliver.
So we were very surprised. I was on committees, in different kinds of activities, and I would meet with them. And I’m surprised by how little they know the economy, how little they know international law, how little they know Egypt’s problems in education or the things that I am concerned about. They really didn’t have the expertise needed to run a complex society as that of Egypt.
But I think one of the most serious mistakes that I think proved fatal is their inability to psychologically transform themselves from being the victim to being at the helm. While being at the helm, after winning the presidency, after winning parliamentary elections, and after winning the constitutional battle, which was very messy, they still felt besieged.
They still felt hounded by everybody. They could not understand that the opposition is the opposition. The opposition should oppose. That is its role. Instead, they thought that every act of the opposition is a result of some cabal or some kind of conspiracy to bring them down. And I think it’s this inability to trust, inability to strike deals, inability to compromise that caused them their downfall.
But I think most seriously is the deep distrust of the people. They thought that they had the pulse of the people. They thought that 80 years of charity work in the countryside in particular brought them close to the people. They I think were very wrong in this.
People trusted them for different kinds of reasons. People expected some results, and they were not delivering it. But most importantly, they did not understand that the people are in a revolution. …This is where the messiness of Egypt comes from. …
In Egypt, we have this … sense [that] the former regime — that is, the military and the security forces and the judiciary and the bureaucracy and the National Democratic Party of Mubarak — had not actually completely disappeared, and the new regime is inexperienced.
But what makes Egypt unique is that we also have a third faction, which is the revolution. This is the result of the fact that the revolution of January/February 2011 that was youth-led managed to topple the regime but did not manage to end up in power. So when the elections were run, parliamentary and presidential, they did not win. The people who won were the people who were poised to win, which is the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.
We ended up with a very peculiar situation whereby the old regime had not really completely disappeared, the new regime is not revolutionary and does not really believe in the revolution as such, and the revolution that managed to make this political opening is disaffected and bewildered and out in the streets again. …
Let me back up a little bit in this period of the Constituent Assembly that began with SCAF, who were, I suppose, afraid of losing power and wanted to make sure that the constitution wouldn’t take away their powers. What happened at that moment?
From the very beginning, there was a question about how to proceed with the roadmap. Do we start with a constitution and then a presidential election and then parliamentary elections, or do we start with the presidential elections and then parliamentary elections and the constitution?
The revolution wanted a constitution first. They thought that we cannot have presidential elections when we don’t have a job description of the president because we don’t have a constitution. So they wanted to start a grassroots movement to allow the people to write the constitution.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists didn’t want that, and they didn’t want that because they thought that they could win the elections first. And if they win the elections, both presidential and parliamentary, then they will have a better mandate to form a Constituent Assembly, which would end up writing a constitution more to their liking. And that is what happened.
So we had parliamentary elections and then presidential elections, and both resulted with an Islamist majority. And then the battle for the Constituent Assembly started. We wanted to make sure — that is, the revolutionaries wanted to make sure — that the Constituent Assembly not be elected from the elected Parliament, because the elected Parliament is dominated by Islamists. That is fine. That is the result of a popular will. And these are the people who would make the laws. That is fine.
But the constitution is different. The constitution should be more inclusive, should be especially protective of minority rights, those minorities who are by definition not represented in Parliament. So we had another conception of what a constitution is and how it should be written.
We also thought that the constitution should pay attention to the functions of the state, the different branches of the state and the relationship between them. And the Islamists paid more attention to cultural issues, issues about Shariah, issues about the family, issues about women, issues about minorities. We were suspicious of this.
So there were two clashing ideas of how the constitution is to be written and what the constitution is to do, and the Islamists end up winning. They said: “We have a mandate. The people voted us in Parliament to write the constitution.” We’re telling them, “No, people voted you in Parliament to write laws, not to write the constitution.”
They stuck to their principle; we stuck to ours. As a result, the Constituent Assembly ended up being dominated by Islamists — very few women, no Christian minorities, no other Muslim minorities, very few opposition figures. It is dominated by the Islamists and very importantly by the Salafists.
The result is a process that was flawed, and the content of it was also flawed, flawed in the sense that many of the principles for which the revolution had erupted in the first place were not translated in the constitution.
More specifically, this is a revolution that erupted against human-rights abuses. It erupted on the 25th of January, which is Police Day in Egypt. It’s a day in which the police celebrate themselves. And that was not a coincidence. It was a clear signal that something is wrong with the police, with especially the endemic use of torture.
“We are revolutionaries, and the revolution continues. And if this new regime does not answer the demands of the revolution, then we will continue to agitate against them and topple them if need be.”
We wanted to have something in the constitution against torture. We wanted to have something in the constitution against police brutality. We wanted to have something in the constitution that would limit the power of the military and many other things. In these two aspects in particular the constitution was flawed, so rather than curb the power of the military, the constitution gave the military everything they wanted.
We specifically wanted to end the practice whereby civilians were tried in front of military tribunals. This is a serious flaw, and the result of it was that hundreds of people were rounded up after the revolution by military police, sent to military tribunals, and receiving prison sentences for two, three, five years. They’re still in prison. We wanted to end that.
Most importantly, we wanted to give Parliament the rights of oversight over the military budget. Now, this is very serious in Egypt, because the rumors have it that the Egyptian army manage and control something around 25 percent of the Egyptian economy, not taxed, not subject to any auditing practices by any authority in the country.
This is something that the military itself had admitted, using the peculiar phrase, “This is the sweat of the army. This is our work, and we’ll never allow it to be taken from us.” This is a member of SCAF saying this during the time of the constitutional deliberations.
Instead of giving Parliament oversight over the military budget, the new constitution denied Parliament this right and said that only the aggregate figures of the budget would be allowed to be discussed by —
Page 1 and 2.
Page 1 and 2, no details. And it went even further. Egypt’s previous constitution said nothing about the qualifications of the minister of defense. This constitution paradoxically made it obligatory for the minister of defense to come from within the military. Now, in practice, all previous Egyptian ministers of defense were officers, but there was no need to specify this in the constitution. This was unusual and uncalled for.
The new constitution now made it mandatory for the minister of defense to be a military general, and we wanted the possibility of a civilian minister of defense. We thought that that would be the pinnacle of our achievement, and maybe not now but sometime down the line Egypt would be ready for a civilian minister of defense.
It seems like you were outmaneuvered at every turn. …
I don’t think we were completely outmaneuvered. This youth managed to topple one of the most self-confident and strongest regimes in the region, and we eventually managed to bring down the Muslim Brotherhood as well. So I don’t think we were outmaneuvered. …
What has happened over the past two, three months is not the result of bad losers coming in and saying, “We lost the elections, and we will not allow the winners to continue their term of office.” That is not what is happening.
What is happening is that we launched a revolution. We expect the new regime to answer this revolution, and this revolution continues. So it’s not that we are losers. It’s that we are revolutionaries, and the revolution continues. And if this new regime does not answer the demands of the revolution, then we will continue to agitate against them and topple them if need be.
This is very risky, and it’s very dangerous, and it’s very tiresome. I’m a university professor. I want to go and work and to write my books and to teach. I don’t want to go to demonstrations and funerals and morgues, which is what I have been doing for the past two and a half years. But something is wrong in how this whole thing is unfolding. Something fundamentally is wrong.
When I say that I have risked my life on the 25th of January and the 28th of January, I was 10 meters away from the front line of the police firing live ammunition at us. I was with thousands of other Egyptians. Some of them were shot and some were killed a few meters away from us, from me and my friends.
The reason I did this is that I want my country back. I’m not against the Muslim Brotherhood winning if they come through the ballot boxes, and I continued to defend President Morsi as the legitimate president of Egypt, as my legitimate president, in public forums and in my speeches and in my writing, until I realized that he actually is doing something very dangerous: first, this Constituent Assembly and the constitution; second, he is flirting with the police in a very serious way to the degree that he eventually said publicly that, “We thank the police for the role they took on the 25th of January.”
Talk about that incident. …
… We know that it is a corrupt [police] force, and we know it’s very difficult to reform it because it’s ingrained in how they are trained, in the culture of impunity that pervades everything, from their uniform to their pay scale to their legal structure to the electric batons that they are given with which to torture people.
It’s very difficult to change this, but we presented many proposals of how to do this over one year, over two years, over 10 years. Every single proposal was turned down. We want serious transitional justice processes. We want people who have been convicted of torture to at least stop doing this. We want to end the culture of impunity. Nothing happened.
Every single month there is death in police custody of young men, healthy. They go to the police prisons, police stations, on their feet. They come out on a stretcher to the morgue. We want to put an end to this. We want the president, our first elected president, who himself had been subjected to torture, who himself has come from a clandestine organization that was the prime target of police brutality, to stand up against police brutality.
Nothing happens. Not a single police officer was put on trial. Not a single investigation was launched, and the culture of impunity remains. And not only this. He goes out of his way to placate police officers and to tell them, “We will arm you more in confronting the revolutionary youth, and we will protect you against any legal pursuits by them.”
He’s afraid of losing power, so he makes a pact?
The dilemma is that the Muslim Brotherhood come to power through elections. They’re supposedly at the helm of the state, but in fact they are missing very important backing of four important aspects of the political regime: the police, the army, the judiciary and the press.
So they are in power, but they’re actually not in power. The fatal mistake is that the Muslim Brotherhood could have turned to us, the revolution, and could have turned to Tahrir and tell them: “We need you to go after the police. We need you to write a constitution that would limit the power of the military. We need you to curb and cleanse the very corrupt judiciary.”
We would have come to his rescue. And instead, he tried to flirt with the police and the military against us. The result is hundreds of activists being rounded up, hundreds of activists being convicted and sent to prison. The police brutality continues, and the military brutality also continues.
… He tries to find a pact with the police, but he also tries to find a pact with the military, partly because of his strong connection with el-Sisi and partly because of his calculations. So when he first comes to power, a week later he announces the creation of a fact-finding mission to investigate all cases of human rights abuses that had been committed since the downfall of Mubarak in February 2011 until Morsi assumed power in June 2012.
The results of the committee that he had formed was damning of the army. According to leaked parts of this report, leaked mostly by the Guardian newspaper in England and by two Egyptian newspapers, it was discovered what all revolutionaries suspected was happening: that the army and the military police had been rounding up activists, interestingly enough, in the Egyptian Museum and torturing them; that they had been establishing checkpoints on Egyptian highways and rounding up activists and torturing them and, most bizarrely and most ominously, sending some of these rounded-up activists to military hospitals, where they were subjected to medical operations with no anesthesia and with very primitive equipment.
This is the result of the official fact-finding report that was written by a committee he himself, the president, had established. He did not make it public, let alone act upon it, and instead it was kept secret, never released.
So a pact had been struck between him and the police, between him and the military. Instead of going after these two centers of power, he went after the press and the judiciary, tried to muzzle the press and tried to cleanse the judiciary.
So his party drafted a law that would have sent to retirement 3,500 judges, senior judges, on the assumption that they had been appointed by a previous regime and Mubarak’s regime and that they were after him. He allowed his followers to besiege the constitutional courts, preventing the high judges from going to their offices for weeks.
And most seriously, he himself effected a constitutional coup, whereby he gave himself extralegal powers and declared all his law rules to be beyond legal scrutiny. So he established himself above the law. And in the absence of a parliament, because the Parliament had been disbanded, we had the making of a dictator.
“I think the genie is out of the bottle. The people will never be told what to do again, and they will continue to struggle.”
And we had launched a revolution against a dictator. This went way beyond anything that Mubarak had done, and that was the turning point for me personally. That is when I said no, this cannot be my president. He has the mandate of the ballots, but democracy is not about ballot boxes. And as we coined the word in Egypt, democracy is not ballotocracy. There’s a difference between democracy and ballotocracy.
And if he thinks that he has a mandate because he had got a majority, well, a, he got a very slim majority, and b, democracy is not only about casting ballots. It’s about opening the political scene. And in fact, we could see month after month that window of opportunity that we had really cracked open, that door of freedom being gradually shut in front of our faces. And that is what prompted people to take to the streets in millions on the 30th of June.
When did [Sisi] start plotting this? Because he had a lot to gain from staying and keeping them in. It was all arranged. He had a lot of power.
No, I think [in] Sisi we have something much more ominous, much more dangerous. It seems that this is someone who has much more serious things in mind.
Initially we thought that Sisi is protecting his turf, the military and a huge economic empire that the military had. But that was already protected by the constitution. There was no reason to take this risk.
I suspect the following. This grassroots campaign that started in April by disaffected revolutionary youth, the Tamarod campaign, the rebellion campaign, started gaining momentum, and I think military intelligence and basically Sisi started seeing this as an opportunity. …
I think what is happening now is we have an interim president appointed by him, who is the head of the constitutional court. There’s a new, sworn-in government that will start its own deliberations to have a new Constituent Assembly, and we’re back to square one: new constitution, new presidential elections, new parliamentary elections.
I suspect that in two years from now, Sisi would resign, take off his military suit, put on his civilian clothes, and nominate himself as a presidential candidate. And if all goes well for him, he can win the elections with a huge sweep of a margin.
Because the military is ever so popular. … I speak to all these people saying it’s the institution with the most credibility in the country, and I don’t understand that.
It’s a paradoxical relationship that people have with the Egypt army. They resent the privileges that the army has. They resent that 25 percent of the Egypt economy is being controlled in a clandestine manner by unelected officials, to say the least. They resent the millions of Egyptians who are drafted into the Egyptian army each year.
So there is a lot of dread that Egyptians feel toward the army, but the army is the only intact institution in Egypt. We have a bureaucracy that functions. We have syndicates that function. We have NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that function. But the army presents itself as the most efficient of Egypt’s institutions. It’s an army that was founded way back in the 19th century. It’s an army that was the pillar of the modern state.
I think many of the revolutionaries share my view that the army is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Egyptian state, the Egyptian state that was founded by blood and sweat and tears at the expense of the Egyptian masses. And we want to reverse this. We want the army to be our army. We want the army to be subject to our popular will.
We’re not succeeding, I have to admit. We’re not succeeding because in the overall scheme of things, the revolution finds itself, or Egypt and Egyptian society finds itself, confronting and raising two very, very deep questions at the same time, questions that other societies have taken decades to pose and to deal with.
The first question is what is the right position of the army in the Egyptian political system? And the second, what to do with Islam? What is the proper position of political Islam in politics? …
We managed to topple Mubarak, and all of a sudden these two questions exploded in our faces. And we now manage to topple an Islamist regime, effectively saying something that many people in the West are still grappling with, which we are also trying to understand, which is no to political Islam. You want to practice politics? Fine, but don’t bring religion in the picture.
Now we’re left with the other big question, which is what to do with this tyranny? How to deal with this tyranny that the military represents in a very brutal way? And it seems by jumping onto the revolution on the 30th of June, by his ultimatum, el-Sisi managed to capture the mood of the people, a very strong, revolutionary, rebellious mood against the incumbent regime, and tell them, “I will help you to do this in return for,” and that is what we’re waiting to hear from him.
Why did the military play this hand? It seems so sudden. Why not wait for the pressure to build and for him to fall? …
… There are millions of supporters of Morsi, too, not as large as the anti-Morsi crowd, it is true, but they’re in very close proximity. The possibility of a violent confrontation between both crowds was very, very high. We’re talking only two kilometers apart in a city that is very congested and very, very heavily populated. The possibility of civil war was as high as it could have ever been. And I was as terrified. …
The prospect and the possibility of a real bloody confrontation was very, very high, so people were beseeching the army to step in. The police will be ineffective, so they said, “The only force that could separate these two crowds from each other would have been the army.” And that was the fig leaf that the military used and el-Sisi used to make his move.
Take me to the streets of Cairo on the 30th of June. Describe what happened that day.
… The mood was amazingly jubilant. It’s people power, and this is something electrifying when you feel it, that this is us; we can do this; we stand for some lofty ideas. We don’t know exactly what we want, but we know we don’t want this.
We know that this is very dangerous. This is a regime that is trying to take our freedom — nothing more than this — but the same feeling of self-confidence that now it’s a matter of time. …
And we start getting on our mobiles pictures of what is happening not only in the delta but in the power base, in the south, of the Muslim Brotherhood, that millions are also taking to the streets. We didn’t know how many later on. People said it’s 14 million people. Some said it’s even more. But we could feel that this is much bigger than anything we had witnessed so far. …
I went back to Tahrir to go around and witness the mood of the people, and it’s electrifying. It’s contagious. And then the army made its appearance with the helicopters the following day, with air shows, trailing the Egyptian flag with the colors, drawing hearts.
And personally I thought this was a bit too cheap, but apparently it wasn’t. Apparently it did manage to swing the mood. … It changed the mood that was against the army to be for the army, and rather than say, “We have won,” and let that message sink in the minds of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which I thought was enough, many people jump the gun.
I thought that the message we sent on the 30th of June to the Muslim Brotherhood was very powerful, was very difficult. It’s a message of failure. “You failed. You failed, then we reject you. You failed for the reasons we mentioned. Very basic. Not failed because of the economy. We can wait four years and vote you out. But you failed the revolution, and we will not tolerate this.”
When the army interfered, the message I think got muddled and confused, because the Muslim Brotherhood, now on the receiving end, is receiving another message of betrayal and of being maligned. And that is their comfort zone. That is what they’re used to. That is what they’ve grown up with.
Rather than have the courage to have an introspective look at where it is that they have failed, which is the message of 30th of June, now the question is: “How do we fight back? There’s nothing wrong with us. It’s the military.” That is why the army move confused the situation and muddled things up.
And now you have a situation where July 8 will happen again and again I suspect.
I think not. I think there is something unprecedented that has happened. The people have tasted their own power, and they’ve discovered their own voice, and they realize that they are the ones who write their own history; that their destiny is in their hands; that the army can come and help, but the army is following their command.
The army could not have done this had they not appeared in these large numbers, had someone like my father not taken to the streets, an 83-year-old judge, realizing that by his physical presence in Tahrir he is making a point. This is shared by millions of people all over the country. This is something that is unprecedented maybe in the region, not only in Egypt, when people discover their own power in doing this.
So I think we are now in a new phase, a third phase. And it now is the phase of controlling the military. This is the most difficult. Getting rid of Mubarak was too easy. Getting rid of political Islam was difficult. Now the most difficult question is how to rein in the army, and this will not be over in a week or two or in a month or two or in a year or two. This will take many years.
But I think the genie is out of the bottle. The people will never be told what to do again, and they will continue to struggle. … And the government knows that whichever government comes and whoever the general is, that there is something that has changed in the manner in which the Egyptian people fight for their rights.
Until they elect Sisi.
Until they elect Sisi. But Sisi can be voted out. We elected Morsi, and we voted him out by our feet. So these are difficult questions. …
We are raising questions that people in Brazil and people in Greece and people in Turkey and people in Portugal and people in various other parts of the world now are raising: What is the limit of representational democracy? What is our role as citizens? Are we expected to go back home after casting our ballots? … Can an elected government do anything to our city they want, or do we have the right to put a limit on what an elected government can do? We are asking very difficult questions about the suitability of representational democracy in a revolutionary moment.
We don’t have answers, and we’re stumbling left and right. And it’s a trial and error, and it’s very messy, and it’s very difficult. But we’re doing it because we realize the cost of not doing it. And this is very difficult, because it’s uncharted territory, not only in Egypt, but elsewhere.
What lesson does this experience leave the region?
The message, I have to admit, is confusing. For me it isn’t, but I can understand how difficult it is for Islamists and especially for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The easy lesson is that democracy doesn’t work. We’ve given it a try, but those liberals, they don’t really stand up to their principles. They’re bad losers, and when they don’t like it, they violate the very principles that they supposedly hold onto. So there’s no faith in democracy. We have to resort back to violence.
That is a possibility. I don’t think it is a high possibility in Egypt for various reasons. One of them is that we have a revolution. And secondly is that Egypt did have its taste of violence in the ’90s, and it failed. And the first people to admit their failure are the Islamists. So I don’t think there would be a deliberate institutional decision on the part of Islamists to resort to violence. They know that this will not work.
The second message is that we have failed in understanding how to run a country as complex as Egypt. We clung to the narrowest definitions of democracy, thinking that 51.7 percent entitles us to anything. We failed to understand that democracy is not only about casting ballots, but it’s about freedom, and we failed to understand that the country is in a revolution, and this revolution is primarily a right revolution based mostly on demanding freedom.
So the Islamists can learn this other lesson and receive this second message that it’s not only about elections. Elections is a process, is a tool, is a means to an end, and the end is freedom and dignity and social justice, and these are the principles of the revolution. These are the slogans of the revolution, and they have not delivered on them. So the electoral machinery that they have can win them elections. I suspect that they will win the coming round if they choose to run for it. But even if they do, that is not what democracy is about. …
Are you feeling optimistic about the future?
I continue to be optimistic. But I continue also to guard my optimism and to realize that the struggle ahead is very long. Right now my concern is military dictatorship, and there is a possibility for that.
My solace and my comfort is that I’m not alone in this concern, … and that the critical rebellious gesture and spirit is very, very alert and very, very high. Now the problem is that we still don’t have institutional frameworks with which to tackle the military, and again, this will take a long time. But we now have two and a half years of experience, and we have an entire generation that has tasted freedom. …
How was it that Tantawi got pushed out? And how did that help Sisi and Morsi?
This is a chapter that is yet to be written. We have very [little] information about it. This is in August of 2012, when there was an attack on a military intelligence station in the Sinai with scores of deaths. …
Morsi appeared to take matters in his hand, as newly elected president with a new mandate, and summoned the minister of defense to his office and sacked him. That is how we were told. He got him and his second in command, and while they were in his office, he had already appointed their replacements, who were being sworn in on TV cameras, in front of the millions of people watching, while they were effectively in his custody. That is how Tantawi was toppled. And instead of going back to his office, he went back home.
Later we started hearing that that was not as smoothly done as it appeared; that in fact this was an internal coup; that the head of military intelligence, el-Sisi, had effectively managed to rally enough people behind him and to say that Tantawi’s time is over. He had been minister of defense under Mubarak for more than 15 years, so he had already been very tainted. He’s a generation older, and he’s out of touch with the senior brass of the military.
The person who’s in charge is the head of military intelligence, who is Sisi. So it was an internal coup that was effected by Sisi within the military and presented to Morsi as part of a deal between Morsi and el-Sisi: “I’ll rub your back if you rub mine. But you don’t step on my turf, and I will not step on yours.” …
Fourteen million, 30 million people — the calculations vary — went out on the streets on June 30. Why did Morsi not listen to them?
Morsi did not listen to these millions because his personality does not allow him to. He’s a stubborn man. He does not compromise, and he psychologically is not willing to deal with this.
There is an alternative reading that … he deliberately misread the figures, and he deliberately accepted the advice of his aides based on cameras that they had stationed in various parts of the city, in Cairo, and their own estimates based on tweets and Facebook activity of their followers reaching the erroneous conclusion that their crowds are larger. …
I think structurally he was under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide, and Khairat el-Shater, who have been doing these things all the way through. It’s a fatal trajectory of winning tactically and losing strategically, of winning every battle and losing the war.
They yet again gave him the wrong advice. Rather than accept the compromise solution, which is either a referendum to continue his term of office or early elections, they told him: “You have the mandate. You have the presidency. You have legitimacy. Don’t give it up.” And it backfired. …
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