Wael Haddara: “We Lost Our Country” on July 3
September 17, 2013, 9:20 pm ET
Wael Haddara was a senior campaign adviser to former President Mohammed Morsi. A Morsi ally who was not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Haddara admits that the group made mistakes, but says it nevertheless tried hard to govern. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 23, 2013 in New York.
Let’s begin with the Jan. 25, , revolution. The relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood — not so much the young revolutionaries, not the youth wing, but the old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood — and the revolution, how would you describe that?
… I would say that it was probably best described as an uneasy relationship. It was an unprecedented scenario. I don’t think really anyone in Egypt, or outside of Egypt for that matter, anticipated that Egypt would erupt in the way that it did on Jan. 25. …
… [Talk about] why the relationship was uneasy.
… Fundamentally I think the autocracy of the last 30, if not the last 60 years has created a society that is very much authoritarian at all its levels. So the idea of coming together in a civil sense and working together, coordinating, was not something that proved to be very easy in Egypt…. The notion of being able to come together, work together and resolve our own differences wasn’t something that had had a lot of practice in Egypt.
But on top of that, a lot of the early decisions that were made by both sides served to further undermine this mutual trust that could have existed.
And what was the relationship concurrently with the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], with the military?
… As an outsider, I personally felt that the relationship was also uneasy. But one of the problems, one of the challenges was in how that message was communicated and how that relationship was described.
And so there was a certain mythology that was built around the armed forces, starting with their non-intervention in the revolution, or at least their supposed non-intervention in the revolution, and their refusal to essentially do what then [Muammar al-]Qaddafi or [Bashar al-]Assad did in Libya and Syria, respectively.
So the notion of the army protecting the revolution is a mythology that was built around that, a notion that the army is a red line; no one should criticize the army.
That mythology was slowly built over 2011, supported largely I would say by the Brotherhood, at least in terms of the discourse, the messaging. And I think that was another reason why there was ongoing mistrust. The Brotherhood did not understand why the revolutionaries would insist on picking fights with the army, and the revolutionaries did not understand how the Brotherhood could trust the army to oversee a transition to democracy.
… You talk about how the Brotherhood was working with the military; the revolutionaries picked fights with the military. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Actually, to be very specific, I’m not saying that the Brotherhood is working with the military. I think, again, as an outsider, what I saw is that the Brotherhood recognized that the military is in control of the process, so they wanted the military out as quickly as possible.
And there were two ways of doing that. You either helped them move along the process by making sure they had no excuse but to move along the roadmap that the people decided on in a referendum in March 2011, or you tear them down and force a process.
And given that there was a referendum, and hence the referendum established a democratic sort of legitimacy that is a framework approved by the people, the Brotherhood felt very strongly that they should adhere to that.
“The Brotherhood recognized that the military is in control of the process, so they wanted the military out as quickly as possible. And there were two ways of doing that.”
In the face of that, the secularist forces were taking action. Not the young revolutionaries, but the established secularist parties were taking these steps to entrench the military and delay the transition to democracy.
And they did this under a number of guises. They said: “We’re not ready for elections. The Brotherhood is very organized. They’ve been at it for 80 years. We need more time to prepare. We need more time to organize.” …
… The revolutionaries want a constitution first; they don’t want to go too fast with elections; the Brotherhood is more organized. Explain to an outsider listening to this exactly what’s going on.
… The overall picture that the Brotherhood saw was a country in dire economic straits, a society that hadn’t really been allowed to grow and develop for a number of years, and that further uncertainty, further instability, a prolonged transitional stage would could be catastrophic, particularly given that this would only serve the interests of established, invested powers.
You have to remember that throughout 2011, the army moved excruciatingly slowly and only under pressure to do anything. And so elections only took place under pressure. Prosecutions of various [Hosni] Mubarak-era officials happened only under street pressure.
The Brotherhood, I believe, understood correctly that, if left to their own devices, nothing would move forward and that not having a say for the people would enable the process to move slowly, hence going the route of the constitution. First you’d have to ask the next question, which is, who would write the constitution, and would it be an elected body? Would it be a non-elected body?
If it was non-elected, it would be open to abuse by the powers that were entrenched at the time. And if it was elected, if we’re going to have elections, why don’t we just have elections for legislative assembly first and then write the constitution thereafter?
What about the notion that it wasn’t a level playing field, that the Brotherhood had 80 years of organizing behind it and that the revolution was leaderless, had no real strong political party? It was not, in the view of the revolution or the secularists, fair.
It’s a challenging point to respond to or to address in the sense that essentially what we’re saying is despite 60 years of authoritarianism, despite I think four massive crackdowns in which tens of thousands of people were executed, imprisoned, persecuted, immigrated, etc., that [the Muslim Brotherhood] continued to be able to be organized, [and] therefore they must be punished for that organization and not allowed to play a role commensurate with their size.
But more fundamentally — and I think this is the part that served to further widen the trust gap between the various sides — that argument essentially says the people shall not choose. The people will not choose who will lead them. The people cannot be trusted to choose because they are too illiterate, as [the Egyptian novelist] Alaa al-Aswany said. Or they are subject to be bribed by oil and cooking oil and rice and bread and whatnot, and therefore the people fundamentally should not [decide]; we should decide. We understand what’s better for the country as the secularist revolutionary forces. And we should decide what role the Brotherhood should have, how large should it be, what shape should it take, what form it should entail and so on.
And whatever else people may say about the Brotherhood, they’ve had a fairly robust democratic tradition within the movement itself. And they weren’t willing to let go of that in terms of the new Egypt.
How do you respond to [people who] say that the Brotherhood didn’t give its opposition enough time and essentially was not responsible in the early days for sparking a revolution, comes along and hijacks it?
… I’m not suggesting that all the decisions made by the Brotherhood were stellar. But we need to understand the broader context. And the broader context [is] that there were vested interests that were still very much in play. It wasn’t a binary, revolutionaries and the Brotherhood. It was a much more confused playing field.
There were the revolutionaries. There was the Brotherhood. There were very aging secularist leaders and parties that were from the Mubarak era. There was the army. There was the security services, the police that had been disbanded, the national security, the intelligence machinery that had been at work for decades.
There were the vested economic interests that were the old political elites under Mubarak. And all of these were mucking around in postrevolutionary Egypt. So it wasn’t a binary. It wasn’t if the Brotherhood allowed more time, therefore by default the revolutionaries would rise up or would be strengthened. That’s my first point.
My second point is that I do believe the Brotherhood tried to, or at least the FJP, the Freedom and Justice Party, tried to be inclusive in some ways in the discussions leading up to parliamentary election. Various parties jockeyed around to establish alliances, and the Brotherhood, or the FJP really, clearly stated that they have no intention of developing an alliance with the Nour Party.
So if they had wanted an Islamist bloc, the easiest thing would have been to negotiate an alliance with the Nour Party from the get-go, shut out everybody else, and that will be the end of it. They declared that they wouldn’t. Nour in return declared that they were not interested.
And the FJP then sought to establish an alliance — it was called the Democratic Alliance for Egypt — with other secularist parties. Al-Wafd, one of the oldest if not the oldest political party in Egypt, was one of those parties that was included in the alliance and then quit at the last moment because it believed it could get a better result outside of the alliance. And they didn’t.
So I think at a minimum, a fair reading of that period would say that there were decisions made all around that contributed to a state where the Brotherhood continued to be the dominant player.
Take me to that period of time during which the parliamentary elections were going on, and describe the results. …
There was a decision early on by the FJP not to run for all seats in Parliament. I think that number was a third of the seats, that they would compete for a third of the seats. And that number was changed to 50 percent of the seats because of the intricacies of how the parliamentary election law works, where it’s a combination of independents and list system.
And again, that change was used by others to say: “See, the Brotherhood can’t live up to its commitments. They’ve only said they would compete for a third of the seats, but now they’re competing for 50 percent.”
The Brotherhood ended up getting I think 42 percent of the vote and 47 percent of the seats, something along those lines, which if you’re running for 50 percent and you get 47 percent, it’s pretty spectacular. And again, to simply reduce that to “Well, we’re not organized, and they are,” or, “The FJP is giving people bribes,” is a little bit simplistic.
How did it feel at the time to you, as an observer with deep sympathies for the movement, to see the Brotherhood do so well?
I distinctly remember having a feeling at the pit of my stomach. It was a very, very distressing result, because it meant, knowing the dynamics within the Egyptian political order, that there would be very little incentive for the opposition to join forces with the FJP and do anything; that given the spectacular success, 47 percent almost, they would be as likely to say, “Well, you go figure it out on your own,” than to actually say, “Let’s work together and build something.”
… Whether the Brotherhood and its party worked with the Salafi [Nour] Party or not, that was an Islamist bloc, a significant victory that surprised a lot of people outside of Egypt.
Right, and certainly the performance of the Salafi party, al-Nour Party, was not expected. We ended up taking, I believe, 25 percent of the seats so that together the FJP and Nour, the Brotherhood party and the Salafi party [respectively], had 70 percent of the seats, 72 percent maybe. And that was really even more disturbing.
But there must have been those in the Brotherhood who felt quite empowered by this victory?
None that I’ve met.
So there was a worry … that you were polarizing?
It’s not a matter of polarization. It’s a matter of just how difficult the task ahead looked. …
You’re looking at a country and a nation and a state that had been gutted over the course of 60 years of authoritarian dictatorship, wars, poor economic policies, extractive economic practices where wealth was concentrated in the hands of the very, very few. Or poverty was rampant. Illiteracy was rampant. Even the organs of the state barely functioned. You had a bureaucracy that was bursting at the seams with redundancies. And then you still had a very entrenched security sector, a very entrenched army with a huge economic empire. A region that was not entirely sympathetic to democracy and reform of any stripe, let alone the Islamist stripe.
So the task was daunting. And the people in the FJP that I spoke to recognized very, very clearly that there’s absolutely no way they could do this alone. So they needed other people to work with them. …
Let’s go back. So Parliament is seated, and among the first orders of business was the Constituent Assembly, and there was a lot of worry on the part of your opponents as to what kind of constitution the Islamist bloc would push through. Describe what was going on there.
… That was definitely one of those seminal events, the formation of the first Constituent Assembly. I think it was a mistake to try to rush through the formation of that assembly, which it was rushed. And President Morsi acknowledged that subsequently, that it was a very sensitive issue and that it should have been approached more sensitively.
Why was it rushed?
… We’re talking about spring of 2012, and the Parliament had already been sitting since January. There was a pattern of theatricality and obstructionism that was clearly emerging on the part of some elements in the opposition, members of Parliament holding up props in their speeches and speaking clearly to the camera rather than to the assembly.
Some of the actual work of the committees was not proceeding smoothly, and there was this argument that was beginning between the government, the Cabinet that was appointed by SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and Parliament about the role of Parliament.
Would Parliament be allowed to form the Cabinet? No. Well, then Parliament must oversee the Cabinet. Maybe. Well, at least the budget must be approved by Parliament. No. And then there was a conversation that subsequently became publicized between Dr. Saad El-Katatni, who was the speaker of the House at the time, the lower House, and Dr. Kamal Ganzouri, who was the prime minister at the time, in which Dr. Ganzouri threatened Dr. Katatni with the dissolution of Parliament.
And the phrase that he used that was subsequently reported was that the decision to dissolve Parliament is ready in the drawer of the desk of the Supreme Constitutional Court, and if you create fuss, if you overstep your bounds as Parliament, the decision will come out.
So I think at that point in time the FJP felt very much that they are in a race against time; that in fact the revolution’s gains have not been consolidated. We have very little. We have a Parliament that could be dissolved. We don’t have a constitution, don’t have a president. And everything could be rolled back, could be unmade if you like.
By SCAF. So that was the reason why they were pushing very hard for the constitution. The feeling was that if we have a constitution, then that would create a more difficult, steeper curve, if you like, a more difficult choice for those who would undo the gains of the revolution. …
So in the initial arguments, there was an Islamist bloc that was very dominant. I imagine that was very hard for the secularist forces, the revolutionaries, to take at that time in the first Constituent Assembly?
… A number of the individuals that were nominated by the Islamists and supported by the Islamists in fact as being acceptable figures of objective individuals, people who really could add to the debate — like Dr. Nabil Abdel Fattah [of Al-Ahram Center for Social and Historical Studies in Cairo] — in fact were speaking out against the political Islamist bloc, or not siding with them, so to speak, in terms of their views.
But more importantly, and this was seen quite clearly in the second Constituent Assembly, the Brotherhood or the FJP ended up being the moderating force between two polar opposites.
So you had the secularists on the one side and you had the Nour Party on the other side, the Salafis. And the Salafi party, the Nour Party, was arguing for what I would label as if not extreme but at least polar opposite positions: more detail in terms of what Shariah means, a much greater emphasis on the microscopic detail, elements of how does it mean to apply Islam in public life or how does Islam guide public life, whereas the Brotherhood was much more content with a much more global picture, which would give the state considerable flexibility to adapt the rulings of Islam and the worldview of Islam to the challenges of modernity. …
We all saw here that remarkable moment when one of the Salafists stands up and [calls for the prayer]. What was happening there?
That was the very beginning of the sitting of the Parliament. But that’s precisely an example of what I’m talking about.
If I recollect correctly, he stood up. The time for the prayer had come, … and he wanted to stand up and call for the prayer. And the speaker of the House at the time, Dr. El-Katatni, told him that was out of order. And the member of Parliament insisted. I think he proceeded to do it, despite the objections of the speaker. The speaker then called him to order and I think essentially silenced him.
But that’s a very telling moment, because the Salafists used that as an example of how the Brotherhood, the FJP, are not really and truly committed to the principles of Islam, that they’re content to use Islam as a political gimmick, but when it comes to applying it in real life they will not do so.
Of course the FJP’s perspective was that if you think that that is what application of Islam looks like, you’re sadly mistaken. There’s considerable latitude within Islam to transact the business of the state as needed without disruption, that this was entirely unnecessary and that in fact focusing on things like that, whether now or in the future, is subversive to creating a real modern Islamic polity in our world today.
I think it would be reasonable, though, for a secularist or a revolutionary that was sitting in the Constituent Assembly to be concerned that the Brotherhood, however moderate a position they took, is being pulled to its right by a large bloc of Salafists.
That may be. But then if that is the conclusion, then the proper strategy to adopt is to support the Brotherhood so that they don’t have to veer to the right rather than also oppose the Brotherhood and on some things side with the Salafists, which they eventually did.
I think a lot of the revolutionaries already felt betrayed by the Brotherhood when it came to protesting against the police abuses or the military strong-arming them on the square. … That was conducive to the secularists to move into an alliance with the Brotherhood?
Actually we’re conflating two things. We’re conflating two groups of people. There’s a group that I would label, and I think most Egyptians would label, as the revolutionaries, and there’s another group that would be labeled as the secularists. They’re two distinct groups. There is some overlap, but they’re fairly distinct groups.
The secularists who are represented in Parliament were in fact not the revolutionaries. Many of them were throwbacks from the old regime. …The real revolutionaries, if you like, the young forces that were seen in the streets and failed to gain a toehold in Parliament, they were not represented, with very minor exceptions. So what was happening in Parliament has nothing to do with what the revolutionaries felt.
Let me move forward to the contest for the presidency. Initially the Brotherhood says they’re not going to have a candidate. What happened?
… My understanding [is] that it came down to the role of Parliament. As it became obvious that Parliament would have an ever-diminishing role with the threat of dissolution hanging over its head, executive authority became the only means, in the view of the FJP and the Brotherhood, of safeguarding the gains of the revolution and entrenching the new political order.
I think that is essentially what led them to designate a runner or a candidate. And I know this one firsthand. They attempted to approach a number of individuals to run for Parliament, highly respected figures in Egyptian society, all of whom declined.
“Here we are, the first democratically elected president in the entire history of Egypt, the first civilian to ever head Egypt in the modern era. It was like stepping into the warm sunshine after a long, long, cold winter.”
So they were left with having made the determination that they need a strong political figure in the executive office, and not being content or happy with any of the candidates that had declared their candidacy at that point in time, they felt they were left with no option other than to declare a candidate.
We also know, and this has been reported in some media, that there was internal lobbying by the younger generation of the Brotherhood who felt that this is their moment, that they, the Brotherhood, need not shy away from political power, that they have something to contribute; they have something to give back to the country; they can lead. …
Morsi was teased in the Egyptian media and called “the spare tire.” What did that mean?
The reference was to the Brotherhood fielding a candidate that was Khairat el-Shater and then fielding a second candidate in the event that the leading candidate was disqualified.
Put me on the campaign trail with Morsi. What were his promises to the Egyptian people?
What the party had elaborated was really a parliamentary platform, and as it became obvious that that is not going to be realized through the Parliament, parts of that were adapted to be the presidential candidate platform.
But they were focused on essentially three planks. The first plank was to try and make quick gains in five key areas. Those five key areas were security — that is, just crime and safety and whatnot; traffic, which is a notoriously big problem in Cairo and many other parts of Egypt; trash, which is again an incredible problem in urban areas; fuel; and bread. Those were the five areas that the president up lined as being areas for which quick, decisive action must be made to realize significant improvements, or at least palpable improvements, for the Egyptian people within a short timeframe. That was one plank.
Second plank was the economy, and the third plank was the democratic transition. The economic plank was based on a reading of the Mubarak-era policies that was being extractive. That is, a few individuals were allowed to suck the marrow out of Egyptian life through privileges in terms of license to operate certain businesses, cell phone companies, television channels, etc., and that what we need is an inclusive economic policy that does not simply allow for a trickle-down effect but actually does specifically address the middle or lower classes’ ability to rise.
And then the third piece was the political front, both domestically and internationally. Domestically it was to move along the steps of democratic organization, build institutions of government that would survive any one individual, starting with the presidency itself.
And the president talked about the institution of the presidency where the president is an important part but not the only part, and that in fact Egypt could maintain a direction and a set of policies and effective government irrespective of who’s leading it.
He talks in his campaign speeches that I’ve seen about inclusiveness. What were the discussions at the time about what that meant? And what was the message?
The message again was — and he had repeated this a number of times — that Egypt cannot move forward without everyone, without all Egyptians, that both in principle as well as practically, no nation stands on one leg, so to speak. No one claps with one hand. We need all hands on deck, and that the problems of Egyptian society are far too great to be fixed by fiat, by decree, by policy. They really require societal engagement at a very widespread level, so people had to buy in to this vision of reform and development if it was to succeed.
The general sense outside of Egypt is that Morsi representing the Brotherhood was by definition a divisive candidate. You had the liberal, the secularists, the revolutionaries, as well as SCAF and the security establishment fearful of a greater role or a formal role for Islam in Egyptian society.
I think that’s false, patently false on a number of grounds.
What’s not false about it is that that’s what a lot of people saw.
Right, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to address. And I think this has become a pervasive problem throughout the transition period leading up to and including June 30, is who gets to say a lot. And the position of the president and the FJP and the Brotherhood and many other people in societies would say the way to say that is to have elections. So let’s hold elections, and let’s see who people say, and if a lot of people say, “We don’t want candidate X,” then candidate X will not succeed.
What I will not dispute is that Egyptian society is polarized, but it’s not polarized in the sense that it’s against President Morsi, for example, or the FJP or the MB. It’s polarized against everyone. There’s not a single faction … in Egyptian society in 2011, 2012 or today that commanded the respect of an overwhelming majority of Egyptians.
We saw this in the presidential elections, where you have 13 different candidates, and the top candidate only managed to get a quarter of the vote. So President Morsi got 25 percent or 26 percent. Ahmed Shafik, [a general who had been the final prime minister under President Hosni Mubarak], got 25 percent. [Secular populist] Hamdeen Sabahi got 20 percent. [Muslim Brotherhood leader] Abdel Fotouh got 17 percent. Amr Moussa, [currently the head of the constitutional amendment committee], I think got 9 percent or 10 percent.
And so there’s sizable support for multiple candidates. To then distill that and simplify that and to say people are opposed to President Morsi or the Brotherhood I think is over-simplistic.
There was an understanding [between the Brotherhood and the military] that we’ll stay off the streets if you —
It was a game. And the Brotherhood did not always stay off the streets. They actually mobilized street pressures when they felt that that was the [most effective way] to prod SCAF to move forward. But it is reasonable to say that those times when the Brotherhood felt the need to be in the streets did not coincide always with how other people felt.
And so the young revolutionaries in particular felt that they wanted to take on SCAF, but there were times when they must take on SCAF and felt unsupported by the Brotherhood.
I think probably the pivotal moment came at a place called Mohamed Mahmoud, which is a street off of the Tahrir Square, and a lot of people died at the Mohamed Mahmoud by sniper fire, possibly by army fire. But if not by army fire, the army clearly knew who was doing the shooting.
The two incidents that we’re looking at right now in our film are the March 9 events, where people are hauled off to the Egyptian Museum and virginity tests were administered to some of the women, and there was torture of others. The Brotherhood did not participate in that demonstration. Why not?
Correct. … In the course of 2011-2012, from Feb. 11 until the president assumed office in June 30, there were 30 calls for a million-man march in those 14 months. And I think that’s important to understand that the pressure really was to have a million-man march essentially every other week.
But beyond that, the Brotherhood I think felt that the uncoordinated presence in the streets gave rise to and allowed other parties, whether it’s the army or the security services or others, to exercise violence. And so if you’re going to be in the street, you have to be there in massive numbers. It has to be coordinated, has to be organized, and you need to have a specific ask, if you like, that can be met.
Their feeling was that the revolutionaries did not understand that. The revolutionaries were just out there for the sake of being out there.
The revolutionaries say the Brotherhood didn’t respect the street, didn’t respect people power.
Right, and I think that’s one of those pivotal moments where the trust gap further eroded. Furthermore, the response of the Brotherhood to what happened with the revolutionaries was incredibly muted, if not inflammatory. And I think that was a huge, huge mistake.
After Maspero, [the state media building which was the site of deadly clashes between protesters and government forces on Oct. 9, 2011], the Brotherhood did not come out in sympathy with the Christians that were slaughtered in front of the TV, press.
Absolutely. And I think that was another mistake.
Describe that, if you will, what happened and why the Brotherhood took that position.
The fear on the side of the Brotherhood, as I understood it, is that criticism of the army is not intended to be a criticism that brings about a resolution to the transitional period; that in fact the revolutionaries’ effect on the street, their ability to actually change the political map, is very limited, and that all that would happen by confronting the army in the streets with violence, or in a way that elicits violence or makes violence possible, would give an excuse for the army to then intervene more heavily rather than withdraw from public life, and that frankly, if it withdrew from managing the political process, it was unclear how it would be managed.
I think the Brotherhood read correctly that the desire in the street, particularly as the months wore on, was for more stability rather than for more revolutionary action. …
The dominant narrative around Maspero was that Christians had weapons, … that they attacked the army and the army was responding in self-defense. This is a patently false narrative, possibly elaborated by the army, but swallowed up by large segments of Egyptian society.
And many of us, as we saw that narrative unfold, cringed really, that people are allowing that narrative to be elaborated so close to the removal of Mubarak. And I think that was one of the greatest failings of Egyptian society as a whole, but also the Brotherhood. …
What is the “deep state”?
So the deep state was a term I think borrowed from Turkish politics originally, but essentially it represents the idea that beyond the official organs of state, there are ways for different vested interests to continue to have a controlling stake in how the state runs.
What was the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship upon taking the presidency with the deep state? What did the deep state present?
… The president took a fairly simple approach, and that simple approach was based on many, many discussions that we’ve had at the presidency and with other stakeholders and other experts.
John Kennedy had a saying in 1960 that “The one thing that surprised us the most when we got into the White House was that things really were as bad as we had been saying all along.” I think for us it was a step further. The one thing that I think surprised us the most was that things were even worse than we have been saying they were.
That the deep state was deeper?
That the deep state was deeper and that the official state was almost nonexistent; that the normal organs of the state were dysfunctional, incompetent, negligent — any one of many other adjectives that are unpleasant.
That goes without saying, unfortunately. So he had very little that he could depend on in terms of the structures of the state, and he had a lot to fight against in terms of the deep state.
And the president came very quickly to the realization that an aggressive stance, a confrontational stance that fires people for various low-level, midlevel crimes of negligence, incompetence, corruption, etc., would leave you with very little by the way of a working state. …
So you remove people at the top, but you replace people at the bottom, and what that does is that allows the middle cadres to rise up. And in the case of Egypt, the middle cadres were people that were appointed by Mubarak, and the lower cadres — the cadres that came into the echelons of power in the last 10 years, whether in the judiciary, in the security sector or elsewhere — were handpicked for their loyalty to the Mubarak regime.
So what you’re doing is you’re removing people at the top and you’re allowing people to rise through the system who have even more entrenched loyalties to the deep state.
Describe the moment that Morsi wins the presidency. This is a particularly crisis-ridden moment. …
There were a number of pivotal moments during that second round. … On the 14th of June —that would be the Wednesday — SCAF issued a law that allowed members of the military police and military intelligence to arrest civilians on suspicion of a crime. It didn’t have to be an actual commission of a crime but rather just suspicion.
Then on Thursday morning, the Supreme Court issued two decisions, one that ruled that the law that had been promulgated by Parliament to exclude Ahmed Shafik from elections was unconstitutional, so he could continue to run, and then the second decision, which was devastating, was to dissolve Parliament in its entirety.
Those decisions were significant because particularly the decision to dissolve Parliament was widely felt to be unconstitutional; that in fact the Supreme Court had erred in its decision, that the decision didn’t make any sense whatsoever. …
For those of us who are not fully immersed in Egyptian politics, what’s the significance of this? What is going on?
So the three decisions coming one after the other … were seen in their collectivity as a signal by the deep state that they’re back; they’re coming; Shafik’s going to win, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I remember a frantic effort that day on Thursday to call as many people as we knew in the camps of other presidential candidates and to say, “Don’t be disheartened,” and finding, to a person, people feeling extremely defeated.
So in the face of that, the president came out and gave a fiery speech Thursday night saying: “We will continue the fight. We’re not going to back down. We will win.” …
So Morsi is up against the deep state, right? And somehow, given all the corruption that exists at high levels of the deep state, he wins the election. Put me in that moment.
… It felt incredible. It felt disappointing there was only 800,000 votes. We thought it would be much higher than that. But at least we had it in black and white. Here we are, the first democratically elected president in the entire history of Egypt, the first civilian to ever head Egypt in the modern era. It was like stepping into the warm sunshine after a long, long, cold winter.
… Moving forward with the Constituent Assembly, the Parliament is a dead issue really at that point. It’s gone.
It wasn’t a dead issue in the sense that … the president attempted to reconvene it. …
For a day he did.
And then the Supreme Court of course came down and dissolved it. Or the administrative court came down and dissolved it again. No, but that’s the theme throughout the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. He worked very hard to try and bring about a representative sort of government, and people didn’t understand that. …
… What kind of pressure was coming down from the security state at that point? …
The security state was not exerting any overt pressure. The security state was exerting its effort through withholding the provision of services. There was a feeling that the police is absent from the streets, that there is a high crime rate, that people are getting away with things and the police was nowhere to be found.
What was going on?
So there’s two competing narratives. One says that the rank-and-file police members felt insulted by the reaction of the Egyptian people throughout 2011 and 2012 pre-presidential elections, that they were the butt of attacks by rioters and revolutionaries and whatnot, that the state did very little to protect them, so … they were withholding their services until such time as they got more respect from the state.
The other narrative, which the two are not mutually exclusive, is that this was a planned, orchestrated campaign to bring the democratic government to heel and to show them that they need the security services in order to survive and hence be more willing to tolerate abuses by the security apparatus.
And I’m going to ask you to choose between those two narratives.
I think it’s a combination of the two … plus a third element that we then saw firsthand is that the security services, the police in particular, are neither equipped nor trained to deal with demonstrators. … They do not have the training in crowd management or riot management to be able to handle situations like that safely. …
And what pressure were you feeling in the inner circle, was Morsi feeling, when it came to the kind of constitutional guarantees that were being discussed for the military?
… The idea of bringing a civilian or a civil servant to actually run these ministries is incomprehensible. So that’s one piece, that the army must be run, minister of defense must continue to be an army general. And hence it’s an opaque, insular machinery that is not subjected to outside oversight.
The second piece is their economic interests.
That’s something Americans don’t understand. The military in countries like Egypt is essentially a business. Explain that to us.
… The army has a huge economic empire that runs the gamut from making pots and pans to pasta to whatever else. And the people who work in those enterprises are conscripts, so it’s essentially forced labor, cheap.
It’s unclear what the profits are like. It’s unclear where the money goes. It’s unclear that that is in fact even legal to use those army conscripts for those activities. And the army was very resistant to bringing that under scrutiny. …
The narrative of the opposition to the Brotherhood’s rule is that the Brotherhood essentially allowed the constitutional process to go forward with guarantees to the military, protective guarantees.
I’ll shift by talking about the president, who even though he had no hand in the constitution-writing process certainly had a perspective, I think the desire, as he had made clear earlier, that the country needs to move together with all of its component pieces.
So we need to move together with the army, with the security services, with the young revolutionaries, with the NGOs [non-governmental organizations], with the oligarchs, provided everyone is willing to participate in the new Egypt based on the new rules. Unless there’s blood involved, unless there is murder involved, the president was willing to negotiate.
“People who have analyzed the roadmap post-coup have found it very difficult to understand what was different between what the president offered on July 2 and what Gen. Sisi read on July 3.”
So, for example, we saw some of the business tycoons who owed the state massive, massive amounts of money. One tycoon owed the state treasury $7 billion in tax that was avoided. The state settled with this individual for $1 billion, and the idea was, let’s just move forward. …
Let me be blunt here. Many people have said this — many people in the opposition, among the revolutionaries and the secular opposition — that in going forward with the constitution, guarantees were given to the military that their independence would not be challenged, that budget would not be reviewed. What about that?
I’m definitely not aware of that, but I’ll also remind your audience that many people said that Gen. [Abdul-Fattah el-]Sisi was a sleeper Brotherhood element.
Well, I don’t want to go there.
Well, no, but it’s part of the assessment of that period. People misunderstand the motives and attributes, certain motives to a particular behavior. I think the behavior is very clear.
… What I’m trying to explain is the president’s perspective at the time. This was a decision to say, “We will move forward together.” That decision to move forward together would have worked if everybody else played ball.
What the president was betting on is his ability to convince people to put the interests of the country above their narrow interests. To incentivize them to do that, he was essentially undertaking not to destroy all of the interests at the same time.
So we will take certain things away from you, but we will not take certain other things away from you. This was not just the military. This was across the board: the oligarchs, the business tycoons, other elements of the deep state and so on and so forth. …
Why is the opposition so fixed on this idea … that a deal was cut, that Morsi was soft on the military, was soft on the police, bowed to the interests of the deep state and threw the revolution under the bus?
I think that there’s a complex piece here. One of them is that they do not understand what the president was trying to accomplish. Now, to be fair, what the president tried to accomplish has failed. What died on June 30 is the idea that the country can move forward together. It’s become clear now that for the country to move forward, some people have to completely lose their entire power base. …
If you can just make it simple as to why the deep state opposed the Constituent Assembly, without naming names or getting into the minutiae of it.
The entire functioning of the Egyptian state, deep or superficial, was rooted in, essentially, lawlessness. By that I mean the guarantee that whatever you do, if it is politically acceptable, there will be some way of supporting it in a legal way.
The judiciary was one way that the state was able to circumvent the law. The security services was another way. The media was another way, and so on. And all of that would have faced an uphill battle with a Parliament that was elected, particularly if that Parliament actually had broad-based representation.
So if you had another Parliament in which the Islamists were not an overwhelming majority, there would be pressure on the secularists to take steps to reform those various elements. And then there would be a real societal consensus around threatening established interests. It’s as simple as that. …
The constitutional declaration. Describe that moment in history and why that was necessary. …
… This is November 2012. At that point in time, the president held both executive authority as well as legislative authority because of the absence of Parliament that was dissolved. And so really the hope that we had was for the Constituent Assembly to finish a constitution that would allow us to proceed to parliamentary elections.
We received confirmed information, very reliable, that some members of the Supreme Constitutional Court were willing to dissolve the Constituent Assembly and at the same time reconvene the Supreme Elections Committee, reconsider appeals by President Morsi’s opponent in the presidential elections from three or four months ago and actually accept them.
The net result of that would have been that we would have had a president whose win was questionable, whose victory was questionable, and no mechanism of writing the constitution, which would have taken us right back to square zero. The chaos that would ensue really was unimaginable. …
So what he did is then he took a pre-emptive move, and he actually consulted with people, with a number of experts despite what was being reported, and he was given a number of options. He was given three options, two of which he considered to be completely impracticable, and the third, which is to issue a constitutional declaration, in the sense that he has legislative powers, and immunized the Constituent Assembly from dissolution. But then the other thing he had to do is to immunize that decision from court oversight; otherwise the court could just come along and say, “Your constitutional declaration is unconstitutional,” and we would be no further ahead.
And that’s what he did. The other two options that were available to him that were recommendations was to declare an unrestricted state of emergency nationwide and then pass whatever laws he wanted, which he felt would be very inflammatory for the Egyptian public.
And the third possibility was to take down the age of retirement for judges from 70 to 60 years old — which is what most Egyptians have — which would be very crude and take out a whole bunch of very good judges, very clean judges, really for no good reason. …
Why did this constitutional declaration push so many buttons? People were furious.
I think it was a combination of things. I think we did an exceptionally poor job of explaining the reasons for it. I think people saw this as a power grab, and the street was very sensitive to that in the immediate aftermath of the elections and the revolution.
And frankly, I think the other side that was damaged by this action also tried to capitalize on the street anger that was a result of those two things. It was a complex phenomenon, but [it was] the combination of genuine fear of authoritarianism, which is a healthy sign, combined with agitation by vested interests that were damaged by that decision.
I’m going to skip six months. …What did you feel? You’ve worked so hard, and all of a sudden [you have] all these people pouring out, demanding the end of everything you worked for.
… There’s a very important piece here. The narrative about 30 million people, 6 billion people or 8 billion people, whatever, out on the street is a myth that has been built up, has been challenged by a number of people using a number of ways of calculating crowd numbers and densities. And yet it survives. …
I remember being asked by one of the foreign correspondents in Cairo, what are we hoping for on June 30? And my answer to him was that we hoped for very large, peaceful demonstrations with a focused demand. The idea that that focused demand would be the resignation of the president to us made absolutely no sense. And the president felt very strongly about this for a variety of reasons, but the most simple one is that if the street becomes the way of removing a democratically elected president one year into his mandate, then no other presidency will survive in the future.
And so it was imperative that we try to move beyond that, that street pressure cannot simply be used to bring down a recently elected president, particularly given that it was the very first time that we’ve had such a person in place.
Did you talk to him that day?
Tell me what he was feeling. What was that call about?
Early on the feeling was … we’ve had people in the streets over the course of the last two and a half years, and that’s fine. It’s their right to be on the street. It’s an entirely peaceful crowd at that point in time, and that’s fine. We’ll talk, and we’ll negotiate, and we’ll see what we can do.
He wasn’t upset by this?
“Upset” is the wrong word. I think he was very adamant throughout the year that one of the essential gains of the revolution was people could be out in the streets. So upset wasn’t it — perhaps disappointed, but definitely not upset. …
We knew that this was going to be an uphill battle. We knew that people may not be pleased, that people will object to various decisions. And that was fine, so long as the country is moving through a democratic trajectory, so any decisions within that overall democratic trajectory were quite acceptable.
Then Gen. Sisi comes knocking on his door. What happened in that meeting?
This is the meeting in which Gen. Sisi, then-Prime Minister [Hesham] Qandil and President Morsi discussed the demands of the opposition at the time. And the president actually acquiesced to all those demands. …
That meant a change in Cabinet, a prime minister from the opposition, a change in the public prosecutor, the prosecutor general, as well as a couple of other things that I now forget. And Gen. Sisi’s response to that was: “That’s good. I think that meets all the demands of the opposition, and that should really satisfy what they’re looking for.”
He went away. Came back 6:00 in the afternoon and said the opposition didn’t accept those concessions. Now, who he spoke to, whether he went to anybody, we don’t know, but that’s how that afternoon unfolded. …
So why was Morsi willing to concede these demands?
Why was he? I think initially on June 30 he was not willing to concede, but the events of the next couple of days, July 1, July 2, we became fairly clear that there’s an endgame here, that in fact this is not something that’s going to blow away… [this could lead to] the dismantling of the entire of the entire presidency, the entire democratic experiment. So [what] the president was willing to do, by July 2nd, was to try and salvage something, not for himself but for the Egyptian people.
So there was no need for a coup?
People who have analyzed the roadmap post-coup have found it very difficult to understand what was different between what the president offered on July 2 and what Gen. Sisi read on July 3.
How do you explain what happened then? Gen. Sisi just wants power?
I think we oversimplify when we distill everything into the person of Gen. Sisi. There are clearly numerous individuals as well as groups that have a vested interest in upending the revolutionary order. And what we’ve seen since the coup is a very rapid descent into authoritarianism where the security services are privileged. They’re above the law — extrajudicial killings, arrests, detentions, etc.
I suspect what we will see, if the coup stands, is a further apportioning of the pie to the various players, whether it’s the oligarchs and the tycoons, security services, the army, members of the judiciary, the political castes that supported the system and so on.
Where were you on July 3? And tell me how you found out that your president had been deposed?
I was on the phone with the team throughout the ordeal. On July 3, we were talking every 10 or 15 minutes as I was waiting for updates. And I was told that it was coming to an end. And they were just essentially waiting at that point in time to see how the end would be transacted, if you like.
Did you cry?
I didn’t cry. I think I was far too stunned for that. I had thought that the bleakest day of my life up until that point in time was June 15 2012, when it looked like we were about to lose everything. But this definitely was very painful. Very few people in the audience will know the feeling of losing your country, but that’s exactly what it felt like. We lost our country on July 3. And for no real reason.
Describe the situation at Rabaa the day of July 3.
… Talking to people who were there, I think they had exactly the same reaction, which is just the stunned disbelief. There was a narrative that had developed that the clock does not go back. So to experience a military coup in the most populist Arab nation in 2013, and seeing it play out on live television, and seeing essentially the world, the international community just accept it I think it was a huge sense of betrayal. People felt alone. …
“The idea that we can assemble an undetermined number of people in the streets and therefore demand whatever we want is a terrible precedent to set in a young democracy.”
… But once people shook themselves out of that stunned feeling, there was a quick decision made, a quick realization that we don’t have to allow this to happen. We don’t have to tolerate this. The coup is not a fait accompli, and so we can fight this. We will fight this.
And that was when a strategy started to build around trying to restore democracy. It started with the sit-ins, evolved into marches. And of course that was met by unprovoked and incredible use of live force.
Everybody describes this whole process as President Morsi being in complete denial that he would have to deal with that moment. …
People have consistently misunderstood the president, and on that point they also misunderstand him. The issue wasn’t denial. The president was well aware that this was a possibility.
He was aware of that as early as December 2012, and he told me in December 2012 that we will see a coup, personally. This is a conversation that I had with him.
But he saw it happening differently. He thought that he would be assassinated and that the net result of the assassination would be to galvanize Egyptians against the coup so that in fact it doesn’t stand. He didn’t foresee that it would come about this way. …
Is it odd for you to know that the people were beseeching the army to come in?
No, not at all. … Post-authoritarian societies yearn for stability. Stability is much more important in many ways than democracy is. So that’s not surprising.
It was surprising to see it coming from certain quarters, people who had given us lectures the previous year about democracy and representative government and inclusiveness and whatnot, cheering not only the exclusionary transfer of power but the murder of Egyptians on the street.
That was very disappointing and very surprising. But Egyptians as a whole suffered tremendously over the last two and a half years in terms of the loss of stability, and many of them just wanted a stable country back, whatever way it looks.
So the people sitting in Rabaa, you’re looking at your friends determined to stay. What was the plan then? You said there was none at the first 48 hours. And then what?
… The plan that evolved was to try and move quickly and try to galvanize opposition to the coup and to show people that something different is possible. …
And the feeling was that if we get hundreds of thousands of people, couple millions into the street, then we establish that there is a polarization that can only be achieved through … the ballot box, through a democratic choice.
But wasn’t that an option given to Morsi the first time around? “Let’s call for elections.” And as I understand it, he refused that option then. That was the [grassroots opposition movement] Tamarod’s demand.
Absolutely. So the point here is — and again, we come back to the issue of, what’s the default state here? So under Morsi you had a democratically elected president who had not even finished a year in office, or was barely finishing a year in office, and there are street demands of whatever number for his removal.
A day, two days into this process, he agrees about the change in terms of the Cabinet, prime minister and so on. But fundamentally — and again, this is the context that people keep forgetting — what the president was pushing for throughout 2012 was early parliamentary elections.
In fact, he issued a call for parliamentary election. Dates were set in April, May and June so that by July we would have had a sitting Parliament. And under the circumstances, everyone was saying that the Brotherhood or the FJP had so compromised their credibility and their popularity that they wouldn’t win much in the ballot box.
So if that was true, there was absolutely no reason why that process couldn’t happen. And it was the Supreme Constitutional Court that scuttled that process. And I’ll remind your audience that the temporary president installed by the coup regime was in fact the head or became the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, that same body that scuttled elections.
Despite that, the president persisted in trying to push for parliamentary elections. So throughout the first part of 2012, the president was pushing and pushing and pushing for elections for a body that everyone acknowledges the Islamists would have had not much representation in.
That is how democracy lives. This is how democracy grows. But the idea that we can assemble an undetermined number of people in the streets and therefore demand whatever we want is a terrible precedent to set in a young democracy.
… When did you think, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to lose a lot of my friends today,” or people, my brothers? When did you know that was going to be certain?
I had family members actually in the protests as well as friends, and I would say that the first time that that crossed my mind was July 8. That was the Republican Guard’s massacre. That was the, as now people know, entirely unprovoked, premeditated — or seemingly premeditated — massacre of dozens of people, unarmed, and for no reason at all.
There really seemed to be very little thought put into it other than an attempt to break people’s will. I think that’s when people first realized that the army is really not just bent on removing the president. They really want to re-establish absolute and total control, including psychological control, over the country.
And then everything that happened subsequently just affirmed that. There are two other incidents, three other incidents by now of mass violence against protesters.
How was Rabaa Square cleared?
… Security forces moved in very quickly. They started firing from multiple directions. There were snipers placed on rooftops. People were picked off as they helped the injured. People were picked off as they were trying to escape along side streets. A massacre I think is not evocative enough to describe what happened.
And this has happened in the past, but this was of a different magnitude.
… There was another incident of mass violence against unarmed protesters a few days prior at the Sadat Memorial, and of course the Republican Guard’s massacre. But this was notable for its brazenness.
Everybody knew that the foreign correspondents were there. The world media was there. I think people counted a sum total of two people with weapons in the entire 100,000-[person] crowd. So it was a demonstrably unarmed, peaceful protest. And the degree of force that was used, using live bullets from the get-go, using snipers, people shot in the head or in the chest, is unprecedented in the history of Egypt. …
How did the revolution respond?
I think the response was muted. There were a few lone voices here and there that spoke up. Some chose to blame both the victim and the perpetrator equally. You got the sense that people were blaming the protesters, the demonstrators, for bleeding when they were shot, or for it happening in such a public way. But there were very few voices that actually spoke out, very few voices that recognized the disaster that this is creating.
What does that say about where we are and about Egypt and the revolution and the promise of Jan. 25?
I want to be hopeful, and I want to say that it just means we need another crack at it. I think with a little bit of time, with a little bit of effort, we can heal a rift that widened over the course of 2011, 2012, and we can reclaim the promise of Jan. 25.
Egypt is a vast country with 60 years of authoritarianism but with a much longer tradition of tolerance and diversity and acceptance. It was the place where people came for sanctuary from all over the Middle East and beyond for thousands of years.
Sixty years of authoritarianism are not going to succeed in altering the fundamental nature of the Egyptian people. Egyptians will survive and will find their way through this. And if people think that this coup regime is going to last, I think they are mistaken.
The bloodiest day in the history of Egypt, what does that say about the regime that that exists now? What point were they trying to make?
Frankly, I don’t know what point they were trying to make. Everybody knows that the economic situation in Egypt is very tenuous and that Egypt is dependent on tourism, foreign direct investment and internal production, if you like, economic production to feed the millions of people who are living in a borderline kind of state.
And widespread violence like that certainly doesn’t encourage tourism. Nor does it encourage foreign [direct] investment. Nor does it do very much for people working. So it seems like they’re leading the country to the precipice.
The fact that Mubarak is now at home, what’s the irony of that?
Somebody was saying the other day that Mubarak’s at home, Morsi’s in prison, and [opposition leader Mohamed] ElBaradei’s in Vienna, so somebody pushed the reset button. We’re back to 2010. But the reality is, as other people have noted, this is not 2010. This is far more brutal and repressive and bloody than Mubarak ever was. …
Where is the Muslim Brotherhood today?
I don’t know. I think by now communication’s really quite on and off. And my communication with the Brotherhood was never that robust to start with.
But certainly on the political side, the Freedom and Justice Party, there are still individuals who are communicating on behalf of the FJP, and they’re continuing the fight.
They’re continuing to try and bring attention to the fact that this is not a sustainable regime; this is not a path that’s going to lead Egypt out of its difficulties or its challenges, and it’s unlikely to be able to survive.
So you don’t think you have a new dictator that will take hold, a new regime that will quash the Muslim Brotherhood forever?
I think it’s maybe a little bit ironic for someone like me to be quoting Marx, but Marx said that history repeats itself. The first time is a tragedy, and the second time is a farce. And I think we’re definitely in the farce stage. We may see a dictator, but it will be a farce. …
I must say it’s sort of upsetting to see people cheering on Sisi and [to see] the posters. And I don’t know. I’m just watching this from my living room, but what does that say about society?
I think it says that Egyptians have suffered a lot over the last 60 years, and they just want to see a way out of their suffering. We want some stability. We want some economic prosperity.
At the cost of killing 1,000 people?
We shouldn’t underestimate what people are seeing on Egyptian media that may make that more palatable to them. Do you know there’s a verse in the Quran that’s really been a source of immense comfort for myself and other people through this time that says that God will bring about kindness and love between you and even those that have been your most severe enemies?
So I come back again and say Egypt will survive. It’s been a cohesive country for 7,000 years, one nation, irrespective of religion, irrespective of geography, irrespective of economic levels. Egypt will survive.
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