Mona Makram-Ebeid: “The Struggle is for Egypt’s Soul”
September 17, 2013, 9:20 pm ET
Mona Makram-Ebeid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, was a member of the Egyptian parliament from 2011-2012. An adviser to the military’s governing body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Makram-Ebeid supported Gen. Ahmed Shafik for president. “I personally can tell you that they are going to be very reluctant to govern,” she says. “They do not want to govern. But what their objective is is … to restore order in the country, to prevent violence, to prevent more bloodshed, and to follow the roadmap that the civilians will install.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 15, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
[In 2009], a young president Obama gives his speech at the University of Cairo. … What did you think of it?
… It was beautifully received. He had three or four standing ovations, and we cheered him from Lebanon on the screen, which he saw later on. And we were very excited with this new president, who comes from an academic background and who seemed much more in touch with the issues of the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the civil liberties.
He’s underlining the importance of human rights and the importance of respecting the rule of law. He talked just to our heart, if you want to say, and that was extremely impressive at the time.
Is there an irony to that speech in light of everything that happened since?
Slight irony in the sense that we never expected the U.S. administration to embrace this in this way and support the Muslim Brotherhood, who have nothing in common with the values that America stands for.
America stands for tolerance. America stands for citizenship. America stands for constitutionalism and particularly for the principle of equality among all: no discrimination against religion, gender, color, etc.
And I don’t think that the president [Mohamed Morsi], who was elected by a very, very small majority, about less than 2 percent, was in tune with these values. And they thought that they got a mandate to impose their view of Egypt, which was totally against the grain.
Egypt does not want to be a theocracy. Egypt has always been a tolerant country. There is in Egypt a Christian minority of about 15 million. And apart from this, Egypt has always been open to the world, and it has been a trendsetter in the region.
So this is what we really wanted to continue, to build the new Egypt after the revolution, which will be a democratic Egypt, a civil, modern, egalitarian Egypt based on the principles of citizenship for all.
Unfortunately he was no [South African President Nelson] Mandela, and he did not seem to get to grips with the mien of the Egyptian, with the soul of Egypt. So today really the struggle has transcended Morsi and the Muslim Brothers. Today the struggle is for Egypt’s soul, for Egypt’s identity and for the unity of the country.
… Do you remember the first time you heard Morsi’s name and what you knew about him?
No, I never heard Morsi’s name before. The Muslim Brothers, after the revolution and when presidential elections were approaching, they said they will not field any presidential candidate, and they would not take more than 30 percent of the parliamentary candidates.
They failed all what they had pledged for. They filed more than 50 percent of the candidates, and with the [Nour] Party, a new party which managed to garner 25 percent of the seats, so they had about 75 percent, or nearing 70 percent let’s say, of the Parliament. So it was totally Islamist-dominated.
The second thing is that he was not the original choice of the Muslim Brother[hood]. The original choice was Khairat el-Shater, who was a leading personality in the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, he’s the financier of the Brotherhood. But then he had some troubles with the judiciary, and he could not run, so he [Morsi] was the second choice. …
… What were the expectations for this group politically? And I’m talking about 2011.
… The revolution started on the 25th [of January]. They came on the 28th. And that’s what I’m saying. They joined hands at the time to remove the former president because of his autocratic manners, the tyrannical and corrupt system that we lived under for 30 years.
So they did join, yes, the revolution, and that’s why now I’m hoping that the civil and political forces, liberal or leftist or secular, will be able to reach out to them, because they are part of the political landscape.
They have fought together. They have struggled together to remove the former president. And this polarization that exists today is in nobody’s favor. We must strive for a pluralistic country. We must try to lure them back by putting forth nationalist interests — Egypt first, not narrow parties and interests, or ideological interests.
“We want the Muslim Brothers as a political [player], but not as an ideological messenger or a missionary. We don’t want missionaries here, neither liberal or Islamic or whatever.”
They are Egyptians like we are… And they must see that we strive to have Egypt back as it was: a trendsetter, a beacon of culture and enlightenment as it has always been, and particularly a country of tolerance, a country of coexistence. …
… The Muslim Brothers were very obstinate and very hardheaded, wanted to impose their Islamist ideology on us, and we refused that. We refused to be either Iran or other countries that have religion so much interfering in politics.
We want the Muslim Brothers as a political [player], but not as an ideological messenger or a missionary. We don’t want missionaries here, neither liberal or Islamic or whatever.
… You’re part of this transition process. You’re an adviser to the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces]. … Do you sit in a room and discuss the future?
After the ouster of the former President [Hosni] Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over. Took over the direction of the country, how to lead it, etc., although they didn’t have any experience. They don’t have experience in politics, and that is the reason for all the blunders they have committed, all the failures they have [done].
And we were chosen as an advisory group to the SCAF. We have tried several times. I have met with all of them, 19 of them who were there. They were headed by an old figure, [the minister of defense under Hosni Mubarak] Gen. [Mohmed Hussein] Tantawi, who was very obstinate and did not see how the world was evolving, what it meant human rights, civil liberties that you have to respect and so on.
But in the army there is this sort of obedience or respect for the elder, and that’s why we didn’t have much time to really discuss or debate. We did have time with [then-army Chief of Staff] Gen. Sami Anan, who was much more open. [Current Minister of Defense] Gen. [Abdul-Fattah] el-Sisi, whom you have now, was the youngest. We didn’t hear much of him, but we know that he’s a younger generation. He’s much more in tune with the evolution of the world. He is savvy; he is intelligent. And don’t forget he has been trained in the United States and not in the Soviet Union.
So we have great hopes. I personally can tell you that they are going to be very reluctant to govern. They do not want to govern. But what their objective is is to put back Egypt on a sustainable development track to restore order in the country, to prevent violence, to prevent more bloodshed, and to follow the roadmap that the civilians will install.
And that’s what I’m always saying, that it is the civilians, the political forces, the civil forces and the government, and not the military, who have to have a democratic roadmap, that will establish the future of Egypt, the future of an Egypt that we the citizens want, which is a democratic, egalitarian, civilian, modern state, built and based on the issue of citizenship.
… You talk about el-Sisi as sort of a young man. What’s he like?
I can’t say that I really know him. … I believe that his view was, at the time, “We will not let people down; they need us.” This is really a popular impeachment. It is our duty, because I believe that inaction on their part would have been criminal, and not intervention. So intervention was based really on the demand of the people, on the insistence of the people saying, “You gave him enough time to come to either accept a referendum where we could test President Morsi’s popularity or to come to an agreement with the opposite forces.” He refused both.
And when the army realized that he’s losing entire legitimacy, popular legitimacy, they decided to intervene, because Egypt was really on the brink of civil war. Egypt has never been divided as it was at the time, and there was never as much violence and bloodshed.
This past president was a divisive figure. Not only was he autocratic, not only was he tyrannical, he took upon himself constitutional powers that no leader in Egypt had taken. Even at the time of the pharaohs, no one has been beyond judicial overview, taking really all sorts of power into his hand, legislative, executive.
And of course he slammed the door in front of the judiciary, was very insulting to them, whereas for us in Egypt, the judiciary and the army are the two most respected institutions that we have, and people trust them.
When the SCAF took over — and you remember there were some slogans against the army, “We want the army out,” and so on — it was because of the failures that they were responsible for and at the same time not really responsible [for], because they didn’t know much about the politics or how to lead the country.
And at the time, the Muslim Brothers were the cleverest, because they’re the best organized, the best disciplined, and they were the first ones to go to the army and say: “Here we are, at your service. We can work with you. We can tell you what to do.”
And that was the big blunder, because the first blunder we had — and this is what got us where we are today — is that the Islamists insisted that we have elections before the constitution, and that was the totally wrong thing. You cannot have elections based on no constitution and then have a constitution that was [created by] the Constituent Assembly.
Walk me through that period. … It’s a moment of transition. And the Islamists are coming to the military saying, “Let’s have elections fast.”
Yeah, and they put in charge of the constituent declaration, which was not a constitution people, were more Islamic tendency. And they didn’t have the constitutionalists. Egypt is full of world-renowned constitutionalists. None of them was present in this committee. And so of course everything went wrong from then.
And that’s why the Parliament was deemed illegitimate right before the presidential elections by the judiciary. The president tried to bring it back, unconstitutionally, but it was again refused by the Supreme Constitutional Court, because, as I tell you, the court, the judiciary have always been the objective institution to protect the civil liberties of the country.
And that’s why it was outrageous the way the leadership and the supporters protected them by encircling the high court, the Supreme Court, to prevent them from coming out with declarations that the Shura Council was illegitimate, illegal, and so was the constitution that was railroaded, really, against all the aspirations of the Egyptians after the 2011 revolution.
… The day that President Morsi was elected, where were you, and what were you thinking? And how upset were you about this?
I was in front of the television. I had been campaigning for [former Prime Minister] Gen. Ahmed Shafik, although people accused him of being a remnant of the Mubarak regime and so on, but I thought that he had a vision and that just like [French President Charles] de Gaulle or [President of the United States Dwight] Eisenhower, he would remove his military attire and be a civilian president. And I thought that he really had a vision for the future.
However, the population was very much anti-Mubarak, and I think he was a victim of this great opposition to Mubarak. But I was one of his supporters, and so to me, until the last day, we were told that he was the front-runner. So we were really amazed when the result came out.
… Everything was crumbling, you know? But I must tell you that after the election of President Morsi, we as liberal forces, many of us decided that we will back this government since it was elected through the ballot box. There was a lot of manipulations during the elections, but one can’t deny that it was a democratic election.
So we decided that we will back him, meaning that we will back this experience, an Islamist government. We wanted it to succeed, but we were hoping that it would be based on good governance. We were hoping that people would not throw at us the Turkish model, the Indonesian model, the Malaysian model.
We wanted to establish an Egyptian model of tolerance, of coexistence, first civilian president who will understand the aspirations of the people, who went out on the 25th of January to oust a president who never responded to the aspiration of his people.
So we were hoping that he would do that. Unfortunately he disappointed even his supporters, who, thanks to his supporters, got him where he is.
You said he was no Mandela. Talk about the first steps where you noticed that. … Why was he not impressive to you?
He had no vision. He was not competent. And he filled all the ministerial positions and the gubernatorial positions and the institutions with his people, with his cronies, not based on meritocracy or competence. We don’t mind if you have a member of the Muslim Brothers, but [do] not stack them all everywhere. And he was an exclusionist and not an inclusive president, and from the beginning, we felt that he was divisive.
But the peak of the resistance to him came on the 22nd of November, when he declared a constitution where he took all the powers, as I told you, legislative, executive, judiciary, etc., and was beyond any judicial overview.
So this was really the déclic, as the French would say, where the people really went out in anger, in frustration. And this is where it started. He never after that tried national reconciliation. …
Walk me through what you remember.
… I was elected to the first Constituent Assembly, but I had to resign because it was entirely Islamist-dominated. The second Constituent Assembly was also declared illegitimate, but it went on. And this is where the opposition came in from the civil society, from the religious instances like the church. Even the Azhar [University], the highest Islamist institution, had reservations about the lack of respect to civil liberties.
Women, Christians, intellectuals, etc., all these were sidelined in the new constitution, because it provided for Shariah to be the source of legislation. We agreed to that, but not have every article, they would say, “You can have liberty of expression, freedom, etc., if it is in conformity with Shariah.”
So this is where law can really stop the implementation of the freedom that we were asking for. And so representatives resigned. And Azhar, which is the highest Islamic institution in the Arab world, resigned. Many intellectuals and many members of secular parties resigned.
… We are citizens. We are not going to be treated like second-class citizens as the Muslim Brothers wanted. … We are fighting for our rights. The same thing with women. Women were in the front line of the revolution. I was there for 18 days. I saw them. Many of them were my students from the American University [in Cairo], and many of them were veiled women whom I knew very well.
And I have photographs with them in Tahrir Square, and they were everywhere. They were nursing, they were advising, and you had all sorts of women there. It was just beautiful, the conviviality that was there. The European-dressed women, the veiled women, elderly women, women housewives and so on, Christians, Muslims all classes. The real Egypt was there, and we thought that this would continue.
“Women, Christians, intellectuals, etc., all these were sidelined in the new constitution.”
Unfortunately after that, we had a lot of attacks on Christians and Christians’ churches, and sectarian violence increased under the Morsi regime.
Did he do anything about this?
No, and that’s why the Copts felt that he is not there to protect their rights or to protect them. And today there are vicious rumors that they’re accusing the Copts of having helped for the ouster of Morsi by joining the rebel movement. This is a very dangerous accusation, because should jihadi violence go ahead or increase, and we hope not, the Christians would be the target.
Before they pushed the Christians really to emigrate — … not a lot of them, because there are 15 million, but a good number of them have emigrated since the revolution and since the increase of this Islamist intolerance toward non-Islamists. …
What was the attack that most upset you? Was it the April attacks of this year to the Copt church or –
Yes, the attack against the cathedral was something outrageous. …
What happened that day?
That day the Copts had been attacked inside that church by people throwing Molotov, and many people were injured and died. I think seven or eight of them died. … And the reaction in Egypt was not the reaction of Christians. It was the reaction of the Egyptians.
So most of the angry reactions came from the Muslim population, the Muslim citizens who see that we are all one; the social fabric is one. You cannot tear it apart. We can differ. We can differ in our vision, we differ in our creeds, but we are one in thinking that the interests of Egypt should be above all. We are Egyptians first and then the rest. So loyalty for us is to the homeland.
Help me understand this a little bit, just as a foreigner. If I’m sitting in this sort of tolerant country that has coexisted with these many different cultures and religions, how is it that Shariah gets imposed on the constitution? And what kind of fight is going on there?
… There is, in fact, but this has always existed, a secular-liberal divide. However, the Islamization of Egypt is not new. It has taken some years before, since [President] Anwar Sadat. Anwar Sadat was a fantastic leader with a vision, but unfortunately his domestic politics, because he was … so upset by the supporters of [President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, who had been a very charismatic leader, and the youth, all of them supported him and so on, so he brought in the Islamists from Saudi Arabia. He got them out of prison, and this is when the Islamization of the society started. And this is when in ’72 was the first attack against the church. But in 1980, unfortunately the president at the time changed one of the articles of the constitution that said Shariah is one of the main sources of legislation. He made it into it is the main source of legislation.
So this is where we are today. And I don’t think it’s the proper time to start discussing it. We are in an Islamic-dominated country. But you have to have some of the culture of democracy first take root, so that people will understand that it is not against Islam that people want to change some of the articles in the constitution but to establish the real principle of citizenship, meaning that everybody is equal before the law; everybody has to respect human rights.
And as you know, Egypt is one of the first countries that drafted in 1948 the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights. So we’re not new at that. But what we’re new at is that we don’t implement it.
So we are hoping that with this new government, this new vision of the future, we will be able to implement human rights the way we have signed it, the way the treaty is there, and the way it must be implemented. …
Tell me what happened under Morsi in terms of human rights.
You had violation of the freedom of religion, violation of the freedom of expression. You completely marginalized women as if they did not exist, and you attacked some of the rights that they had acquired.
Since 1919, women have fought for their rights. [They] just didn’t fall from heaven, just wasn’t offered to them on a silver tray. They fought. They struggled. Many of them died in 1919 for their rights. And so now he brushed it all [aside]. He wanted even to remove the National Council for Women and call it the National Council for Family, not to pronounce even the name of women. That was totally absurd and totally revolting, when women were in the forefront and the front line of a peaceful revolution, which was 2011 revolution, asking for a democratic country, asking for dignity, asking for social justice and so on.
He never respected any of the pledges that he had made while he was running for president. When he was running for president, he said, “I will name as vice president a woman, and I will name a Christian, and I will name a youth.” He never did anything of all that.
You talk about him as if he were sort of monolithic. Was the Muslim Brotherhood helping align itself around him to support him? Were there disagreements among them?
I’m sure there are disagreements now. I’m sure there were disagreements from the beginning, because they knew that he was not the best choice for president. But their motto is: To hear is to obey, “to hear and to obey.”
This is their motto. They are not allowed to have any critical thinking of their own. They’re not allowed to have any expression of their own. Because I have known in the Shura Council many, many Muslim Brothers that are moderate, that are open, with whom you can have a dialogue, with whom you can reach out, and I believe that in the coming future, maybe some of them would be ready to jump boat and to return at one point, but at least so that they’re given a chance to run for elections in a pluralistic system. I believe that. And I think that what we must put forward to them is we are fighting a nationalistic fight. It’s our Egypt, all of us, belongs to us. It doesn’t belong to anybody else. …
It felt like Morsi got to the presidency and almost straightaway the military started to plot his overthrow.
No, the military have nothing to do with Morsi at the beginning. No, no, no, I’m sorry. This is totally wrong. The military didn’t interfere at all. In fact, he removed the military. He decapitated almost the two leaders of the SCAF at the time, and the others were retired generals, so the army did not really have anything to do at the time. He nominated Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi as his minister of defense and then raised him to head of the armed forces, chief of the armed forces.
What was their relationship like in this last year?
It was a workable relationship. … They were opposed to many of the practices of the Muslim Brother regime, but there was nothing really serious. Everything could have been solved to redraft the constitution, to remove the prime minister who was totally incompetent, to return the prosecutor general, which he unconstitutionally removed.
Many of these things, there was a reaction against his appointment of the governors. One of them was responsible for the massacre in 1997 of about 55 tourists in Luxor. Luxor is our jewel, you know? It’s an open museum. People come from all over the world to see Luxor. So how can you nominate a person like this?
And thank God the minister of tourism was a fantastic man called Hisham Zaazou. I’m so glad he was reappointed, resisted, and said he would resign. So that was really an alarm bell. And thank God this new governor resigned.
So if we take this example of the governor resigning and not being tied by the dictates of the supreme guide office, maybe there is some hope that there will be other moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood who will see that it is in their favor really to join the political landscape, to join the new political system and to have that place there.
As long as they are a political party, as long as they reject violence, they are a party. They must compete and let the best man win. Let them present a program, or whatever program they have, their vision. And the others will present another one to the people of Egypt, who will judge.
I must tell you something that is very new in Egypt. The citizens of Egypt have gained a sense of politics. Unbelievable. In two and a half years, they will stop you in the street to discuss politics, whereas before no one discussed politics in Egypt. We are not like Lebanon, where they breathe politics and in every salon they discuss politics. Politics was something that people brushed aside. They knew the results of the elections were always manipulated, always rigged, so they never took an interest.
Today everyone, even the people who are illiterate, the people we call the “people of the couch,” the kanaba [the "silent majority," those who didn't participate in the protests], they are glued to the television, glued to the news, asking. So today they will not accept any dictatorship, whether it’s a secular dictatorship, an Islamic dictatorship or a military dictatorship.
People feel today the power of the street, the power of having regained their country. It’s the empowerment of the people really, the power of being able to participate in shaping the future of their country. And that’s why we are in awe of this young generation coming up, young, educated. I was transfixed by them.
This young man, Mahmoud Badr, [the co-founder of the Tamarod, or rebel, movement]. I saw him a couple of times. He is absolutely fantastic. When you think of the creativeness, the innovativeness of creating a democratic, peaceful movement for a popular impeachment, this was it. That’s all there is to it.
And the world has to realize, and I’m glad that now the United States is realizing, that what the army did was answering the aspirations of the people, answering the alarm, the alarmist bell that the people were sounding. “We need you to restore order. We can’t go on like this. We will have a civil war.”
Talk about the Tamarod. How did this group come about?
To tell you the truth, I don’t know. I was watching television one evening, and I saw this young man, Mahmoud Badr, speaking with such self-confidence and say[ing]: “Wait for us on the 30th of June. We will collect more voters or more supporters than Morsi had in his election.”
Morsi managed to gather about between 14 million votes that had him elected. He said, “I will get 15 million.” They got 22 million. And when people say, “Oh, but they worked through the blog and through Facebook,” that’s not true. You have to present your ID card and sign, just not sign a piece of paper and that’s it.
So they did legwork all around Egypt. And I hope that in the future they will try, through this grass[roots] work organization that they founded, I hope that they will be able to form a political party, because we really need to see these young people in Parliament.
They will of course make mistakes and so on. But who doesn’t? But they will learn. And they are savvy, they’re young, they want to participate, and we owe it to them. …
What was the first warning shot to Morsi? How did he know that this was coming?
I don’t think that he fully realized, because just a few days before, he gave such a speech where this was really a chance for him to find some common ground with the opposition. He did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, he threatened them. He treated them as infidels. He treated all those who are against the regime as infidels.
And this is a very serious accusation in an Islamist-dominated country. For many ordinary people it means you are against Islam. So it was really an incitement to violence, an incitement to blood. And this is where the very serious moment came, and this is where I resigned from the Senate in support of the rebel movement.
I had supported them by signing, but I was still inside the Parliament, and they didn’t want to see me in Parliament, and I didn’t want to remain in Parliament. I thought there was no way that I could continue. I knew very well that it was unconstitutional. But with a temporary constitution that we had, it gave the legislative powers to the Senate, the legislative powers that usually are the prerogative of Parliament. But they gave it as if there was no Parliament. It’s the Senate who had the constitutional right to write the legislation, but only laws that were urgent. But they went beyond that, and that’s why we were against it.
And you signed this petition, and then on June 30, something very surprising happened.
… On the 30th, in the morning, I was privy to a very private meeting where we drafted really a sort of a statement. We drafted it to the army, saying: “You gave them all sorts of chances to come to a common ground, to come to compromise, and they didn’t. So today, you had pledged to stand by the people, and we ask you to implement your pledges.”
Who called you, and who signed this?
About 50 public figures, personalities who have acceptance in the country, from labor syndicates, politicians, former ministers, former heads of the security forces, writers, heads of universities. Fifty personalities, public figures, were asked to sign this petition so as to give the army a popular mandate and to tell them — really we didn’t say that in so many words — but that inaction would be criminal, not intervention in this particular phase that we’re going through, where we were on the brink of civil war.
The brink of civil war? That’s strong words.
… I don’t mean “civil war” in the sense, but this regime was so divisive that for the first time we saw Egyptians pitted against each other, and we never saw this in our lives. We never saw this in our history, and the violence and the crime and the thuggery that took place was really, really alarming.
So if you want to call it a bloodbath, that’s what we are scared of. We were scared of more bloodshed than had happened in the few months before because we had many, many injuries, many deaths and so on. So we really did not want to increase that.
… You would not call it a coup?
No. And I’m very, very happy that the U.S. administration has never used this word, because of course this would have meant suspending the aid. …
… A sort of dramatic event happens in front of the Republican Guard’s headquarters. What happened that day, and what impact will it have?
On July 8, unfortunately, the papers reported the death of about 50 or more citizens and about 400 or more injured people. I think this was outrageous, but I also think that there were conflicting reports about what happened. And that’s why I was very glad.
“I don’t think the military are going to attack people who are praying. It doesn’t make sense. Both of them are Muslims, and it’s not in their upbringing and in their formation to go and attack people who are praying.”
And I myself put a statement on Facebook and in the interviews that I gave that a thorough investigation must be started now on who are the culprits of this outrageous violence, a violence that we all condemn. Whoever it is, we refuse to have that kind of violence.
The second thing is that I don’t think the military are going to attack people who are praying. It doesn’t make sense. Both of them are Muslims, and it’s not in their upbringing and in their formation to go and attack people who are praying.
But anyway, we are against excessive violence on the part of either the police or the military. This is a violation of human rights, and this has been condemned by everybody around. But we must wait for the investigation, and whoever is found guilty should be judged accordingly.
Did you see the video of the man up on the rooftop shooting down? … It was a sniper basically. Could you help me understand who would want to instigate this civil unrest? …
What’s happening is that very often in these demonstrations, you have thugs, thugs — in another word, mercenaries — who are paid to cause disorder, to cause what you have seen.
Don’t forget that Egypt today is very vulnerable from inside. Some forces do not want Egypt to become democratic or to become egalitarian. And from outside, there are many forces who look at Egypt becoming democratic, or re-transition[ing] to democracy, as something that would go against their interest.
So from every side there are challenges to this transitional phase, and we are living in a very turbulent time. So that’s why the first priority should be to restore order and to prevent any more violence.
How does the armed forces deal with this situation now? You’ve got the Muslim Brotherhood entrenched in the mosque. If they negotiate, they look like they’ve agreed to an overthrow, a coup, and now even a massacre, as they call it.
No, they can’t agree that it’s a massacre before we get the full reports from the investigation. If the minute we [determine that they] are responsible, then they should be accused. If they are responsible, they should be judged, tried.
So it’s going to be very difficult. But we are hoping that there will be a loyal opposition, meaning we want the loyalty of these people, of the Muslim Brothers, or of the Islamic tendency to join the political process.
But their loyalty must first be to Egypt, not to some supreme guide, because this was one of the problems, that they were dependent on the instructions and the dictates of the supreme guide. They were not independent. And that’s why I tell you there are many people inside who are moderates, but they took instructions. …
How do you bring them in? You talked about that.
You must give them a stake. And the stake would be, first of all, I asked that the systems should change. The presidential system should change. It’s OK in the United States where you have an ingrained democracy, respect for democratic practices, fine. The presidential system would work. But I believe that in countries that are emergent democracies or on the road to democracy, I think a parliamentarian system would be much more inclusive, would give much more opportunities to different parties to reach out to each other, to try to coalesce together. …
Did you have a revolution … in 2011? … It felt like you replaced one thing for something similar.
You mean to 2011 and now? Yeah, but as you see, the protesters were against a secular dictatorship of President Mubarak as they were against a theocratic dictatorship of the Islamists. So it’s not really religion that is there. It’s a resistance to autocracy. It’s a resistance to tyranny. It’s a resistance of a monopoly of power by one tendency who wants to impose on others their vision of Egypt, which was refused, and so on.
So we have not really replaced, but maybe you can say it was the same feeling that instigated people to take off to the streets. Yes, they want a new Egypt. They … felt that their revolution was incomplete. It has to be completed when the slogans that were the inspiration of their revolution — freedom, bread, dignity, social justice, democracy — will be implemented.
I want to say how important it is to have a loyal opposition today. … We were hoping for the emergence of a loyal opposition because we believe that it is as important for democratic consolidation as an effective democratic leader, and we have none.
That’s why people are very disappointed both with the leader but also with the opposition, because the opposition was not seen in a very positive manner, having always refused everything and never putting forth a new vision or a new program.
But I believe that now it’s going to be quite different, because during these 30 months, I think everybody took a lesson, and everybody must take a step back and have self-examination, whether it is the army, the government, the opposition or the youth.
Are you hopeful or afraid?
I am cautiously hopeful. I was relieved by the revolution of the 30th of June, because it sort of restores Egypt back to us. But I’m also very worried, because as long as there is violence, as long as there is polarization, I don’t think we will be able to have steps forward. We need to have Egyptians who operate together.
How much is this, if it’s not religion, then [is] class struggle, the haves against the have-nots?
No, not really, although I think that the issues of bread and butter should be the first ones on the table for this new government, because really, unemployment and youth unemployment is what will provoke civil unrest once again, and violence into the street.
The spiraling of the prices, the economy that’s on the brink of a disaster, the social ills that have not been tackled at all — they’ve not been tackled even during the Mubarak years. We’ve had 30 years of torpor, and nobody really listens either to the civil society, or it was a regime that was surrounded by a coterie of people who were the only ones who were the beneficiaries of that regime.
“I know they still think it is the first civilian president that was ousted undemocratically, unconstitutionally and so on, but they have to face it.”
Today we want an entirely different system, an egalitarian system. And in fact, this is what the IMF [International Monetary Fund] is asking for, a new economic regime, a new capitalist class based on fairness and competition and not on nepotism as it was. And this way it will open opportunities for everybody. …
… All the women that have been attacked in the square, what is that?
I heard about this sexual harassment. We have suffered from the beginning of the revolution until now with a lot of problems of sexual harassment. We have condemned it. This is one of the things that we had asked the SCAF to intervene and to bring people to justice, and they’ve never done this. Neither did the government of the time, unfortunately.
And so as I told you, women were attacked. They were marginalized. But lately, they were even more attacked, not so much out of the objective of sexual harassment, but to frighten women not to come to the Midan [Al-Tahrir, or Tahrir Square], not to participate in politics. Public space is not for you. You have private space. You go back to the family, to cooking and to produce children, as if we don’t have enough.
So they didn’t want women to participate. … But women will resist. And you’ll see: They will have a say in the future much stronger than people think.
… Cairo needs Washington, and Washington needs Cairo. Why?
Because they have common interests. … They have security interests, meaning the protection of the Suez Canal, protection of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. We on our side are hoping that the U.S., instead of always talking about the peace treaty only with Israel, this is the main thing.
We want them to speak about their values. We want them to speak about the U.S. values. I’m a Harvard graduate, and I have lived here, and I know what the American values are. But unfortunately, very often the United States puts their interests before their values. And today in these emerging countries, they must have a broader vision of the society, meaning that they must reach out to civil society.
They had kind of disinterest in the secular opposition movements. They never took them seriously, whereas they were serious, as you can see, or they were fixed and focused on support for the Brotherhood.
But … isn’t that just a reflection of a government trying to work with a government?
Yes, and we know that the United States always works with the government in power. But we were hoping that they will condemn violations of human rights, that they will condemn violence on the part of the Muslim Brothers and so on, and have a more objective view of the civil society of Egypt.
So how does that sort of arc happen, from Obama standing in Cairo saying these lovely words about democracy and freedom and popular movements, and then this embrace of the –
I don’t know. I think that President Obama, for whom I have great respect — I came to his convention in 2006, and this was one of the highlights of my stay then — I think he had his heart in the right place at the beginning. But then I think he was derailed with domestic politics, so he didn’t really take the interest that we were hoping he would take in Middle East issues.
On the one side, getting the Arab-Israeli conflict to be solved once and for all, getting democracy to be really installed in these countries, particularly after the revolutions — I hate to say the Arab Spring; I don’t like this term — but sending the right messages, and the right messages were not there.
And I think that this is where it went wrong. The messenger was all right in what he said at Cairo University, but the messages were … not clear, so people didn’t really understand.
And this military assistance, is it helpful?
It’s not so much the value in dollars. … It’s the symbol; it’s the value. It links the two institutions that have overcome all the obstacles, which are the military institutions of both countries.
Both understand how vital this relationship is and that it will be not be very wise to suspend aid now. But it also means that the U.S. today, by recognizing the importance of this assistance, will also encourage international agencies to come forward.
… You see the Gulf rulers, for whom we are very grateful. But it is in their interest also to come and give assistance to Egypt in this very critical economic phase. So the value of all this is that once the American administration encourages international agencies, then this will encourage investment, and this is what we most need.
We want investment in tourism. Before 2011, we had $11 billion coming in from tourism. We want new projects, and there are about 25 projects that are ready to take off. We want the United States to encourage a new class of capitalists, that they should be entrepreneurs and not crony capitalists.
We want a new vision of capitalism, where people will have a stake and where the divide, as you were saying, between the haves and the have-nots will not increase, because jobs will increase. … We want dignity, and human dignity will come where people have jobs. The roots of democracy are jobs. You can’t have democracy without jobs. This is what will mitigate violence, and this is what will mitigate hatred for the other.
I’ll ask you about the youth bulge in Egypt and what that means for solving this problem.
The youth bulge until now was regarded as the biggest catastrophe that Egypt can have, overpopulation. “How can you feed these people?” and so on.
This is absolutely ridiculous. Today we have a youthful country; 60 percent are under 30. Invest in them. That’s what you must do for the future. Look at European countries. They’re getting old, old. It’s a geriatocracy, and we have a youthful population.
We are unable to invest in them. Invest in their education. Invest in opening up jobs. Invest in industries that are labor-intensive. Invest in encouraging critical thinking and encouraging creativeness, innovativeness. It can only come from the youth. And then try to get out of the narrow Nile Valley.
We have to develop Sinai for many reasons, for security reasons but also as an attraction to tourism, as an attraction to investment and so on.
We have the New Valley that is totally barren. I knew the governor there. He was calling for investment to come. So there are many, many projects where the youth can contribute and can make of this country a new country, because you need youth. You need their muscles; you need their thoughts; and you need their heart. And they will put their heart into it because they will have a stake.
The other sector which I think is very important also are the Egyptians abroad. Here in the United States we have a fantastic community. Many of them are professionals; many of them are businessmen; many of them are doctors and so on. … We need them to participate. We need them to come to Egypt — not necessarily to stay in Egypt, but to participate with their experience, with their know-how and so on to build this new Egypt. …
Today I think it’s not a benevolent action that they must do, but it is a responsible action. It falls upon them because they have had the opportunity and the chance to be in countries like the United States, to learn and to be taught in their universities, in Europe, in Canada. It is upon them that falls the responsibility to help the country get on its feet once again, economically, socially and politically. …
What would you say, then, is the lesson of the last 18 months, and what does it mean for the region?
… During the last 30 months a lot of lessons must dawn on the people who are responsible for a lot of the failures. First of all, the personalization of politics must disappear. You must put the interest of the country before any partisan or ideological objectives. This is one.
The second thing is the priority. Where do you give your priorities? I personally believe the priority should be given to issues of bread and butter; otherwise you’re going to have a revolution of hunger, a hunger revolution which will be much more serious.
The third thing is civil liberties, to respect civil liberties. I think that during the 30 months, there was not enough either respect — of course there was no respect at all on the part of the government — but there was not enough resistance to the violation of human rights from the opposition. They did not resist enough what was happening. They did not resist, for instance, the drafting of the constitution. They did not resist. Why did they go down for the referendum? They should have resisted till the last day and not go for the referendum, which means an acceptance really.
It’s true that they got 34 percent, but the majority was in favor of the referendum. And that’s the result today. So I think we have to have a new look of the opposition. We need the emergence of a loyal opposition made up of new blood, made up of a vision for the future, and particularly made up of giving hope. Hope is what was lacking, and that’s why you had a lack of confidence either in the government or in the opposition or in any anybody else.
So this is really the recipe for chaos. And I hope that Egypt will be able to bring around it the best and the brightest and to coalesce. They’re already doing a very positive step in their choice of the members of the Cabinet.
[It's] the first time in years where you have a government chosen on the basis of meritocracy, not of nepotism, not of partisanship, not of ideological choices, etc. They are technocrats. They’re efficient; they’re competent. They know what we have suffered, first during the 30 years of torpor, and second during all the mismanagement and the incompetence of the past 30 months, where everybody is responsible. …
How do you get to this national reconciliation?
… Now, I don’t know. But we have to find some go-betweens who will be able to speak to each other, because you need the third party now. There is no way that these two parties will be able to speak to each other. There must be a third party that will be able to discern the moderates here and the moderates there, because also on the secular side there are people who are very obstinate and reject anything. So it’s not only them. The only thing is that the secular parties are not violent. They don’t resort to violence, and that’s the one thing that is very positive. They will always call for peaceful demonstration, for peaceful resistance, for the right to demonstrate, as it is set in the Human Rights Declaration and so on. …
I know that there are people in Egypt who can get the two sides. It doesn’t have to be official, governmental, a national dialogue or whatever. All this has failed because there was no trust.
Today what we must put forward is the importance of a pluralistic society, is the importance of putting Egypt first, so the nationalistic fiber must be instigated, incited, and to see where we can go from there.
And I don’t know, I think that we could get there sometime on the condition that people reject violence. That’s the one condition: No violence is accepted, no bloodshed.
What happens to the Muslim Brotherhood next?
We hope they come to their senses…. I know they still think it is the first civilian president that was ousted undemocratically, unconstitutionally and so on, but they have to face it. Never in human history has there been such an outpouring of rage against a regime.
And it happened that he, President Morsi, was head of that regime. And people do not want to continue in this abysmal failure that has driven Egypt [to] the brink of an economic disaster, [to] the brink of more bloodshed. So they must realize that. They must realize all the failures that have happened.
They are not the only ones. Others, too, have failed. Others, too, have failed to reach out to them, and today is the time where both sides must reach out to each other.
… There must be cooperation to work for the future of Egypt, to work for the establishment of what we all dream of, a civil, democratic, modern, egalitarian state based on the principles of citizenship, based on the loyalty to Egypt first, not to narrow interests.
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