Interview Mona Eltahawy
Eltahawy is a columnist and public speaker who, prior to moving to the U.S. in 2000, reported in Cairo and Jerusalem for Reuters. She is also a lecturer and researcher on social media in the Arab world, and says that "the regime … didn't count [on] how nimble [activists] were online. It was a cat-and-mouse game that the regime was bound to lose." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 9, 2011.
- How the revolution gave "the middle finger to so many things"
- What is the April 6 Youth Movement?
- The U.S. talks out of two sides of its mouth when it comes to Egypt
- The Muslim Brotherhood -- their history, where they stand now
- How this generation of Egyptian activists differs from those of the past
Being Egyptian yourself … what were you thinking as you started hearing about what was going on there?
Soon after the Tunisians managed to topple Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, I was hoping and praying that the Tunisia effect would take hold in Egypt. So when I saw the protest [that] had been planned for Jan. 25 galvanized so many thousands upon thousands of Egyptians, I was thrilled. I've been watching the uprising ecstatically because it's the most exciting event of my life. And I know every single Egyptian also following it is delighted that we're finally seeing Egyptians rise up against this brutal regime. And in a way, that also demolishes all these stereotypes of what we had been told we were. ...
What has delighted me the most about this revolution in Egypt is that it's basically giving the middle finger to so many things. The first one was to the Egyptian regime, which, you know, 30 years into it, never imagined that Egyptians could rise up against it and say, "Enough."
The second middle finger went to this hypocritical U.S. foreign policy that for years had sacrificed the freedom and dignity of Egyptians for the sake of this mythical thing called "stability," not realizing that by taking the side of a brutal regime, they were ensuring the very opposite of stability, and that would be a country that was enraged and angered and resented those five U.S. administrations. Five U.S. presidents have supported [Hosni] Mubarak since he took over.
The third, and I think a really important middle finger, went to all these kind of Western so-called experts on the Arab region, that for years had never seen this coming because they said Arabs were apathetic; Arabs were passive; Arabs did not rise up; Arabs liked a strong leader; Arabs liked Saddam, Mubarak -- all these other men who forever and ever were the fathers and now are the grandfathers of our nations. So watching this rising up against all of those things just delights me because it's like, well, none of those things are true, and none of those things are right.
And finally, Egyptians are coming into their own and showing the rest of the Arab world that this is what we've known all along, but now we're doing it.
… What sparked this? What are the long-term reasons why the Egyptian people had basically come to a point where they had had enough?
This revolution has been years in the making. You have a regime that's been in power since 1981, [and] every single one of those 30 years has been in a state of emergency. Security operators have been acting more and more with impunity. Police brutality, jails full of political dissidents, horrific torture -- systematic -- reported by human rights organizations within Egypt and outside of Egypt.
But also this idea by the regime that, you know, they controlled everything. No one could possibly stand up to it. And Egyptians could wish for nothing more or nothing better.
It's long in the making. But I think more short-term reasons were -- you could see Egyptians going up a mountain, further and further up a mountain. And I think what pushed them off that cliff top were several things that happened over the past few years.
We saw mass uprisings or mass demonstrations in Egypt in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. Tahrir Square, which we're watching now, filled with thousands upon thousands of people in the largest demonstrations Egypt had seen in a while. ... And even before that, there were also huge demonstrations in support of the Palestinians that coincided with the Intifada. ...
Now, both those things are things outside of Egypt. More interestingly, at the end of 2004, we began to see demonstrations in Egypt about internal Egyptian issues that were staged by the Kefaya Movement, a movement that brought together people from various political backgrounds. The word kefaya means "enough." And they weren't demonstrating against Israel-Palestine; they weren't demonstrating against the United States and its invasion of Iraq. They were demonstrating against the Mubarak regime and what people believed at the time to be his wish to pass on the presidency to his son; just against, basically, tyranny and dictatorship. ...
And then much more recently, we saw last year in Alexandria, a city on the Mediterranean coast, the police beat to death a young man called Khaled Said. Now, Egyptian police have been known to beat to death people for, sadly, too long, but what happened with Khaled Said was that they beat to death this kind of young, tech-savvy businessman who looked like a lot of the Egyptians who are on Facebook.
Especially Facebook. This [is] Generation Facebook. Kind of upper-middle-class, middle-class generation of Egyptians that have made Egypt the number one Arab user of Facebook. And when he was beaten to death and pictures came out of his corpse and his shattered face, it spread like wildfire. ... Many Egyptians switched their profile pictures to pictures of Khaled Said, because they could connect on a visual level with this young man; because, whereas before we would hear of political activists or the very poor -- or basically, ... not enough people heard about the stories of police brutality in Egypt. But here was this young man who looked like them. And if it could happen to him, it could happen to them. This was a moment for Generation Facebook to understand what it means to live under emergency law and the Mubarak regime.
A group of activists launched a page called "We are all Khaled Said," which leads us to Wael Ghonim, this Google executive who is now known to be instrumental in launching the uprising, because this page, "We are all Khaled Said," began to call upon Egyptians to demonstrate against police brutality. And again, we saw unprecedented numbers. In Alexandria alone, we heard of 8,000 people demonstrating against police brutality. In Cairo, we saw the first-ever mass demonstration outside the Interior Ministry. So this was all kind of sowing the seeds of this much greater bubbling-up.
To coincide with Police Day, this holiday that is meant to honor the police forces who are now so reviled in Egypt, these young online activists, the "We are all Khaled Said" page, but also the April 6 [Youth] Movement, which was launched in 2008 to support solidarity of labor unrest and labor strikes across Egypt -- April 6 and "We are all Khaled Said" called for Egyptians to demonstrate across the country on Jan. 25 against police brutality, against the Mubarak regime and against poverty.
So this was the online connection. It started off in this kind of virtual space where these young people, men and women, are very comfortable. …
Asmaa Mahfouz, a young activist with the April 6 movement, decided to film a Vblog [video blog] to encourage Egyptians to join protests on Jan. 25, Police Day. And she filmed her Vblog at a time when several Egyptians had set themselves on fire, mimicking the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian who set himself on fire in December, thereby sparking the revolution in Tunisia that toppled Ben Ali.
So Asmaa, a young woman who wears a headscarf, who looked like so many other Egyptian young women in that country today, basically just turned on the camera and said: "Look, I know you're all scared. I'm scared. We know what the police are capable of doing in this country, but look, four Egyptians have already set themselves on fire. What are we waiting for? We must go out there on the street and claim back our freedom and dignity and say 'No' to this regime. I'm recording this to show you my face, to put my name here, to be out and say that I am doing this. And I am calling on every single one of you to join me in these protests on Jan. 25."
And she posted it on her Facebook page and it went viral. …
[To] the Egyptian public, why was [the revolution in Tunisia] so dramatic?
Tunisia had such a huge impact on Egyptians and Arabs in general, because what Tunisia did, this brave little country of 10 million people, was it sparked or set on fire the Arab imagination. It allowed Arabs to see themselves as revolutionaries who could topple a dictator who had, for years, acted like he wasn't going anywhere.
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator of Tunisia, was in power for 23 years. He basically presided over the most perfect of police states. No one would ever have imagined that he could be toppled. In the weeks running up to the Tunisian uprising, if you had asked any of these so-called experts on the Arab world, "Which Arab dictator was the least likely to be toppled by his people?," they would have said Ben Ali, because he ran such a perfect police state.
So when he was toppled in just 29 days, and … Mohamed Bouazizi -- unemployed, selling fruit and vegetables to make a living -- when he set himself on fire, he basically was serving notice to Arab dictators across the region that we have had enough; Arabs have had enough.
What you began to see then [was] a kind of division in the Arab world, because as the Tunisian uprising was taking place, every Arab dictator was watching with sheer and utter fear. They were sitting there going: "Wow, this is happening. It could happen to me." And every Arab citizen was watching in delight, because they were thinking, "We can do this."
And we were cheering on the Tunisians. I was on Twitter, glued on Twitter. And I had friends from Saudi Arabia, friends from Iraq, friends from Palestine, friends from all over the region cheering on the Tunisians as if we were watching some kind of match between gladiators, you know? "Come on, Tunisia, you can do it." And they got rid of Ben Ali. And that really was this huge push for the protest that had been planned for a while in Egypt on Jan. 25. …
Who are the April 6 Youth Movement? Who are they, and why did they seem to capture this spark in a bottle?
The April 6 Youth Movement was launched in 2008 to coincide with a strike that had been called in a big industrial town in northern Egypt called Mahalla el-Kubra. This strike by textile workers for minimum wage, better working conditions and a host of other demands had been one of hundreds of unprecedented strikes that Egypt was seeing.
Now, going on strike in Egypt is illegal, needless to say, but working conditions and these demands for minimum wages had reached such a boiling point that people didn't care that they were breaking the law, and people didn't care about threats from security forces to break their strikes, because in the past, they really would be brutally cracked down upon. So the Mahalla el-Kubra workers said, "We're going on strike on April 6, 2008."
So a group of young people -- it was two actually. A young woman called Israa Abdel-Fattah and a young man called Ahmed Maher, they together launched this group called April 6. And they launched this page of Facebook, and they used the page on Facebook to call on fellow Egyptians.
Again, we're talking about these kind of middle-class, upper-middle-class Egyptians. It was an attempt to connect those classes with the working class in Egypt, because we've traditionally had this disconnect that has worked to the advantage of the regime. The working class, the unions were beginning to organize, and organize really well, and their strikes were beginning to have an impact. And recognizing this, the regime would kind of move in very quickly, meet the minimum of those demands, and hope that they would just shut up and not do any more.
And what April 6 was doing was that it was connecting now other classes in Egypt -- those who go online, those who have access to the Internet, those who are affluent -- with those workers in an attempt to create what activists for a while in Egypt had been trying to do.
The Internet did not invent courage in Egypt. The Internet did not invent activism in Egypt. But what April 6 was trying to do was it was trying to attract a generation, young people in Egypt, the majority, basically, that are politically disaffected, that are marginalized, and who recognize that they have no future in the country, no political future, no economic future under the Mubarak regime.
To coincide with the strike on April 6, the April 6 Facebook page said: "We call on all Egyptians to go on strike. Don't go to school; don't go to university; don't go to work in solidarity with these textile workers." And from then on, their page became incredibly popular, and hundreds of thousands of Egyptians joined it.
But their protests were largely kind of small and contained. And for a while, people would make fun of them and say: "What are these kids on Facebook? I mean, who cares?" This whole idea of "slacktivists," where you press "Like" -- just because you press "Like" doesn't mean that you're an activist. And people worried that they were taking up all this kind of energy from the street and putting it on Facebook.
But by calling for the protests on Jan. 25, I think what April 6 proved was that this youth movement that they had created was becoming this kind of alternative political power. In the absence of any viable opposition to the Mubarak regime, especially an opposition that could attract young people, April 6 became that place now where young people could go. But more importantly, it was able to take them off the virtual space and into the real world, because that really was the challenge; that it wasn't just limited to those who "Like" them.
And it caught the attention of the government. Why did they get targeted, these two individuals, and what does that say about the methods that they were using?
They were targeted from the very beginning because, in the days running up to April 6, Israa Abdel-Fattah, one of the young co-founders, was arrested in a coffee shop in Cairo and detained for about two weeks and was only released when her mother pleaded with the minister of interior to release her. And Ahmed Maher, her co-founder, was detained and tortured. And pictures came out [showing] his back was covered in welts from the beating that he received in police custody.
So what it said to many of us was that the regime began to recognize that these were young people who were serious, who were not just going on Facebook and pressing "Like," who were not just going on Facebook and just venting kind of into the ether; that they were actually taking a stand that was beginning to attract many other young Egyptians. And they were trying to kind of stem that in the bud.
But they didn't recognize that what social media was doing in Egypt was that they were able to connect these activists who could move back and forth between the virtual and the real. ...
Did the government completely misjudge what they were doing? There certainly were some of the early demonstrations [that] weren't very effective, and certainly the old methods used by the security police and the government to pound down on them worked to some extent. But as it went along, it seemed more and more that the government didn't get it in some way. What didn't they get?
The government didn't get that this was a young group of people that had captivated the imagination of their generation and said to them, "Right here on social media is the place that the regime has denied us for so long." And I think essentially what the government didn't get was that, in a regime that had denied empowerment, social media allowed Generation Facebook to say, "I count"; that the individual counts.
This is another myth that we get about the Arab world: that it's all about the family; it's all about the clan; it's all about the group; it's not about the individual. But I think what was happening on social media was that you were seeing the coming out of the individual, of these young people, saying, "I count, and I can stand up to this president who has been president for my entire life."
And the regime also didn't count [on] how nimble they were online. It was a cat-and-mouse game that the regime was bound to lose, because you're talking about an aging regime. Mubarak is 82, and the cronies who surround him are all in their 60s, 70s and 80s. And they were trying to outdo and outrun young people who were just experts online, who could use open source and Linux and change passwords. Ahmed Maher, one of the co-founders of this Facebook group, he was taken in and beaten so that he could give the police the password for the Facebook group, when there was no password all along.
So that just shows you just how clueless the regime and its security apparatus was.
… Can you explain what they did and what they learned, for instance, from Serbia?
I don't know about the Serbia connection, but I can speak generally about how they have been. I know from my connections with several young people in Egypt who have become politically aware over the past few years that they've started to look at ways to take lessons from the outside on civil resistance, civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance.
I know, for example, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been very influential to a lot of them; [also influential was] the book [From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation] by Gene Sharp about nonviolent revolutions that was instrumental in a lot of revolutions that we heard about in the past few years, like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and others.
They were learning from that material how to take the lessons of nonviolent revolutions and nonviolent resistance and trying to apply them in an Egyptian context. There's one group of activists who I think were affiliated with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog. They would describe to me, these young men and women who would basically spend the night in this office just kind of devouring all this literature like Gene Sharp and Martin Luther King, that they were just saying, "OK, how can we use this now in Egypt?"; putting [it] online, using it for their manifesto, trying to get the word out about how to rise up against this regime, and use methods that perhaps had not been used in Egypt in the past.
It's clear from the WikiLeaks reports that have been leaked that the United States knew of the repression of these groups and others. The United States was involved in teaching young people from Egypt and elsewhere how to use these new technologies, how to spread democracy; and at the same point, they had this very cozy relationship with the Egyptian government, and they knew of the repression that was going on. How do the Egyptian people view that?
There is a lot of resentment against the United States administration because of this, you know, one side of the mouth that says, "We support democracy and freedom, and we want to help people and train people," and there's all this kind of supposed support for Net freedom that is a huge thing for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But then the other side of the mouth is the one that has supported the Mubarak regime all along. Five U.S. presidents have been in office since Mubarak came to power in 1981, and they have all supported Mubarak knowing that he brutally cracks down on any kind of speaking out or any kind of attempt to rise up against his regime.
At the same time, the regime has used this against activists, ... and this is why activists in Egypt, especially online activists, have tried their best to distance themselves from the United States and any kind of potential accusations that the United States somehow put them up to this.
What we see in state-run media now is that they're showing all these [people] who supposedly had been in Tahrir Square with the demonstrators, pro-democracy demonstrators, who now claim they have seen the light, who claim that they were trained by Freedom House, a D.C.-based human rights organization. I've heard this on Egyptian television, state-run television, where they say: "Freedom House took us to Washington, D.C., and trained us how to use the Internet and how to rise up against the government. And so we took part in this uprising, but our love for Egypt persuaded us to stop this, and we've left now this movement."
This [is] just clearly kind of an attempt to brainwash the Egyptian public, but also a clear signal of this double game that the Mubarak regime now has long played, that surely the U.S. administration understands, and that is to take every year $1.5 billion from the U.S. administration and at the same time distract the Egyptian public with this anti-Americanism that it continuously uses to kind of push out and distract from what it's doing inside.
It's a very murky game, and I know from the online activists who are my friends that they do not want anything from the United States because of this tainted relationship. ...
So when is it that they understand and how do they view the fact that in the end, they were really on their own?
I think the online activists, and activists generally in Egypt, have known all along they're on their own, because although every now and then we'll hear a spokesperson [from] the State Department say, "You must release so-and-so blogger because we've seen a host of bloggers who have been detained and beaten up and tortured," every now and then they will make some noise about, "Do not attack unarmed protesters and demonstrators" and all of that.
At the end of the day, everybody in Egypt recognizes that the U.S. administration has always and will always side with the Mubarak regime because of many things: because the Mubarak regime promises them stability, because the Mubarak regime promises to keep the peace treaty with Israel, because of [concerns] from Israel that if the Mubarak regime [falls], who will come next? ...
Those who are taking part in the revolution in Egypt today understand that they have to complete the job. They're not asking for the United States to intervene physically. What they're asking for is for a moral stand that is in line with what the Obama administration has claimed it supports all along.
President Obama was in Egypt just a few months ago saying, "Democracy, freedom." President Obama, when speaking to the Muslim world from Cairo, made all kinds of noise about freedom, dignity and honor, all that. And more importantly, President Obama, during his inauguration speech, said very eloquently that there were tyrants who, ... you know, you must open your closed fists and be on the right side of history, and if you do open your fists, we will be with you on the right side of history. And right now what we're seeing in Egypt is the right side of history out on the street. People recognize they're on the right side of history. ...
We've had mixed messages from the U.S. administration. It started off kind of unsure where to go, and then inched closer and closer to the demonstrators, and now it's inching back closer and closer to Mubarak. You can be sure that, for the Mubarak regime, [it] used to use state propaganda against the United States and kind of foment this anti-Americanism.
We won't need this in Egypt, because if the U.S. administration ends up siding with Mubarak, the propaganda becomes irrelevant. Egyptians will understand -- as if they needed any reminder, but they will understand, when push comes to shove, the U.S. administration is hypocritical to the "T" when it comes to freedom and dignity. And it will not side with people who are brave enough to stand up against the regime.
What kind of an Egypt will come out of all this, in your opinion?
I think a much better Egypt. I think an Egypt that is finally able to breathe without this dictator who has suffocated the country for three decades; an Egypt that is able to recognize the country in its diversity. I mean, when I look at Tahrir Square, when I see other parts of the country that also have risen up -- because it's not just Tahrir Square in Cairo; it's not just these upper-middle-class kids with their iPads and with their computers and with Facebook. It's unionists and workers in Mahalla el-Kubra and Suez and other parts of the country. It's the working class. It's mothers; it's fathers; it's grandparents. It's all of Egypt. What it tells me is that Egyptians are finally claiming their country back from a brutal regime.
I grew up hearing from my parents about a very different Egypt, an Egypt that was very open to the world, an Egypt that was very cosmopolitan. When you look at Egypt in the past century, despite class differences that we had, despite the fact that we lived under a monarchy, despite the fact that we lived under British occupation, we had this cosmopolitan air to Egypt. It was home to so many different ethnic and religious groups. We had a large Jewish community. [The] Christian community in Egypt did not feel as beleaguered or as discriminated against as it does today.
The atmosphere, the space for political and religious discussions and intellectual discussions was much larger. Egypt was the cultural home for the Arab world. We were the Hollywood of the Arab world. If you wanted to launch a newspaper, if you wanted to publish a risque book, you came to Egypt. Egypt was this magnet to this amazing kind of Arab cultural, political and intellectual isms of all kinds.
And the Mubarak regime -- actually, not just the Mubarak regime. Every single military dictatorship since the coup of 1952 has suffocated all of that out of Egypt. Muhammad Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and now Hosni Mubarak: You've had a series of military men that have just destroyed everything that we were always taught made us proud about Egypt.
What I see for the coming months in Egypt and the coming years is this renaissance for Egypt, this rebirth of a country that's not just for Egyptians.
And I don't say this because I'm biased, but I hear this from my Arab friends. I get e-mails from Arabs from across the region who write to me and say: "We want Egypt back. We want the Egypt that we lost to be back, because it's a country that we deeply love, and we are all Egyptians." And I get this from Moroccans to Iraqis to Sudanese. They're saying, "Take Egypt back for us," because they recognize that central role that Egypt plays for the region.
Could this have happened without social media, without these new technologies?
I recognize the wonderful and the courageous and the die-hard, relentless work of activists in Egypt for decades now. We've had human rights groups in Egypt since the 1980s working against all odds. But I think, without social media, they would not have been able to make that connection and get onboard so many other people in the way that social media have done.
And I think the biggest role that social media has done to enable this revolution and to create this ability to imagine that we could overthrow a dictator in Egypt is this new thinking -- is basically allowing this understanding of "I count." I think this is the biggest role that social media has done, allowing Egyptians to understand individual empowerment and their ability to rise up against the state collectively.
Is this a lesson to governments, authoritative dictatorships throughout the world, that they have to get more savvy about how to cut off the Internet and cut off communication? Or are we at a point where, because of this new technology and because of the savviness of people to know how to use this in communicating, governments are really realizing that they have to be accountable to their actions?
I think the Mubarak regime answers beautifully, whether cracking down on social media or recognizing their being accountable. ... The uprising started with these protests on Jan. 25, but then it reached everyone else. It became much bigger than just social media and the invitation on social media. It became something that galvanized all Egyptians.
But four days into it, the Mubarak regime thought: "Well, you know, the Internet was instrumental in this, so let's shut down the Internet. People were organizing through Facebook and Twitter, so let's shut down their ability to do that." But it was too late, because even though they shut down the Internet, people continued to pour out into the streets. Then they turned on the Internet again and thought, "OK, well, we turn on the Internet again, and all these kids that we've made angry will go home." But they didn't go home. It just brought out even more kids.
They were like damned if you do, damned if you don't, which surely is a clear signal to every dictator out there that it's not about shutting down the Internet. It's about finally a realization by your people that you have suffocated for so long that they will not put up with it anymore. If there's one clear message from the Egyptian revolution, it is this, and I think this is why it captivated the imagination of people all over the world. It is a clear message from people saying: "No more. Enough." ...
The Muslim Brotherhood. Let's start before recent events. What role in the past did Muslim Brotherhood play in Egypt's societies? How big were they? Who were their base of support? Who were they before? And then we'll talk about who they are now.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, so they have a long history in Egypt. Parts of that history do have connections with violence, but they renounced violence several decades ago. And for at least ... five decades, their position has been: "We will not use violence. We want to take part in the political process. We believe in pluralism, and we want to be included."
They are outlawed in that they're not allowed to form a legal political party because Egypt does not recognize political parties based on religion. But then they're outlawed in a way that many other political groups that have tried to launch parties are, in that to apply for a license to become a political party in Egypt, you must go before a committee that issues these licenses. And this committee is dominated by the regime, so it's basically the regime allowing or not allowing opposition.
But the Brotherhood's relationship with the regime has been very interesting in that when it has tried to contest elections in the past, it used to contest elections running as either independent candidates for Parliament or in correlation with those recognized and established political parties that have been in Egypt for a while.
In 2005, something very interesting happened: The Muslim Brotherhood was allowed -- and I use that word intentionally -- was allowed to contest or to run in the parliamentary elections, and they did very well. In the first round, they did very well. And recognizing how well they did -- I mean, they had posters up all over Cairo, and they were canvassing very openly across the country. Recognizing how well they did, the regime kind of back-pedaled and decided to really crack down hard. You saw scenes where security forces were sent out in areas where the Muslim Brotherhood were very popular and were physically preventing people from going to vote, and often using violence, tear gas, weapons -- I think at least three people died in election-related violence -- detaining Muslim brothers and preventing them from contesting the remaining two parts of the parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, they ended up winning 20 percent of seats in Parliament, and they became the largest opposition bloc.
Now, the history to all of that is, of course, the regime has traditionally cracked down hardest on the Muslim Brotherhood, detained them in the hundreds. Torture was rampant. ... But when they did win that 20 percent bloc in Parliament, it made a lot of Egyptians wonder just what kind of deal they struck with the government, despite the fact that the government did crack down to prevent them from winning more seats.
Now, the Brotherhood obviously denied striking any kind of deal with the government, but opponents of the Brotherhood began to wonder, now exactly what is the Brotherhood willing and not willing to do to keep those seats in Parliament?
And those questions came up especially when activists like Kesaya activists would launch protests or would call for protest in the streets. ... And the Brotherhood would traditionally bring out people in the thousands to protest against what was happening in Gaza, the siege of Gaza or anything to do with Palestine and sympathy for Palestine. Even though individual members of the Brotherhood would join Kesaya protests, the Brotherhood itself as a movement would not call on its members.
And people knew that they had that power at their fingertips, basically, but they would not call upon it. And that's why people began to wonder: "Is the Brotherhood in this for their own kind of power? Are they in there kind of as part of the general political opposition to the regime?" This came to a head in the last parliamentary elections in Egypt in 2009, when the opposition generally said, "Let's boycott these elections because they're going to be even worse than the last elections." But the only two parties or two groups, because the Brotherhood isn't a party, that defied these boycott calls were one group ... that is a recognized party ... and the Muslim Brotherhood.
And they decided to contest the first round of parliamentary elections and didn't win one seat. And this was a clear example of the regime basically not allowing -- again, that word "allowing" -- the Muslim Brotherhood to win one seat. So they lost all their seats in Parliament. Seeing this kind of blatant forgery, the Muslim Brotherhood then decided to pull out of the second round, but it was too late, because for their opponents -- and I've heard people who belong to much smaller opposition movements -- for their opponents, that was a clear signal that they chose the Muslim Brotherhood over Egypt, because they did not join this general boycott call.
Now, I say this, you know: I'm clearly anti-Muslim Brotherhood. I mean, my sentiments are clear. But I also have to say that I admire their perseverance, and despite all this kind of crackdown on them and the torture and the detentions they've faced, they have been very doggedly determined to take part in Egyptian politics.
How big are they? How big a group, and how are they funded?
Funding, I don't know. To be honest, I can't speak about funding. But I do know that the estimates of their support in Egypt ranges from 20 percent to 35 percent. And 35 percent is kind of the top. If we had free and fair elections in Egypt, they are estimated to get 35 percent [of the vote].
They cut across classes in Egypt, because when you look at their support in big cities, especially in unions -- because they've been very organized in union elections -- you get a lot of professional, kind of middle-class, upper-class support, especially in the medical union or the syndicates as they're called in Egypt, the engineering union, those kind of support where, again, they are seen as being very organized and very determined, and they can call upon their supporters to come out.
This idea of when do they and when don't they call upon their supporters became a big factor in the Jan. 25 protest, because a lot of opposition, I think about up to 17 opposition movements and groups heeded the call by April 6 and "We are all Khaled Said" to protest on Jan. 25. But the Muslim Brotherhood did not. The Muslim Brotherhood, as a movement, would not jump on. But individual members of the Muslim Brotherhood did.
So again, this question of, when do the Muslim Brotherhood kind of bring out their muscle and their support? And they decided to finally, when they saw that hundreds of thousands of people were beginning to join these protests, ... what was called the Friday of Anger or Rage, then they decided as a movement to join in. But it says to me as someone who does openly oppose the Brotherhood, it does say to me that they really missed the boat on this, because this was an opportunity for them to bring out their protesters, their movement, their base in the thousands, and they chose not to.
Why were they never able to mount demonstrations such as these we've just seen to help bring down the government or to change things more in the direction they wanted to take the government?
It has been said that they have pulled back or just kind of resisted the temptation to wield this kind of strong base that they're said to have because they preferred to continue this kind of negotiation with the regime that would give them a greater and more legitimate political space, because don't forget that they're an outlawed movement, so the regime uses this against them. The regime kind of uses it as the kind of push-and-pull, because most of the time, they can't contest elections. But every now and then they're allowed to contest elections. And obviously their ambition is to become a legitimate political party.
So if they were to bring out people in the hundreds of thousands, and clearly take on, head-on, the regime, that ambition is gone. I think a lot of people recognize that they've resisted doing this because they want to be much more subtle in their opposition to the regime. But at the same time, that has called into question just how serious they are in taking on the regime.
This also happens with the backdrop of hundreds of their supporters and their members being detained. So they have a very painful history of standing up to the regime, and no one questions their courage in doing that. But I think that the questions come in about when do they choose to turn on and off that massive base they have. And so far, it looks like they've chosen to do it when it's issues that don't concern Egypt; i.e., Palestine and Gaza.
When it comes to issues that concern Egypt, they've been very cautious, which is why individual members kind of have broken away from this movement stance and individually have said, "I am taking part," because I know from friends in Tahrir Square that they thank these individual members of the Muslim Brotherhood for being with them in the square, and they recognize that they are there along with so many other political movements. And it speaks also to this interesting kind of generational schism that we're seeing develop in the Muslim Brotherhood, where younger Muslim brothers and sisters are questioning this stand of the older regime.
And it's almost like a microcosm of what's happening in Egyptian society at large in that you see the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is this kind of old, often out-of-touch men -- old, out-of-touch men, much like the Mubarak regime is old, out-of-touch men.
You really saw that come to a head at the end of 2007, when the Muslim Brotherhood issued a draft platform, and one of the points in the draft platform that enraged a lot of people was that [women] and Christians could not run for president. And a lot of young Muslim brothers and sisters broke away from their leadership on that point. I have personal friends who left the Muslim Brotherhood because of this point, because they said, "This is 2007, and this is not democratic." So it called into question just how democratic and how reform-minded and pluralistic the Muslim Brotherhood really is if it believes women and Christians can't run for president.
How and why have they gotten to the point where they are a very important part of the folks at the negotiating table?
The Muslim Brotherhood is recognized as the most viable opposition to the Mubarak regime for several reasons, the main one being that Mubarak had successfully, over the past 30 years, crushed any political opponents to him. And the only thing that he could not crush, because he recognized he couldn't, was the mosque. So basically, religiously based opposition to him -- i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood -- was allowed to survive.
But even more so, I think what surely he recognized was what helped the Muslim Brotherhood, too, was that to stand up to the Muslim Brotherhood and their claims that the Mubarak regime was Westernized and pro-American and didn't care about Islam, he used Islam against them. ...
It was like, let's outdo each other in religiosity. So the state has at its disposal hundreds of clerics who are very conservative who they put on television, who they advise on what kind of sermons to give on Fridays, who promote a very conservative line when it comes to Islam, which has basically created this situation in Egypt that has sucked the life out of any kind of religious diversity.
And it's a very conservative line that is used to kind of butt heads with the Muslim Brotherhood, and anyone who's tried to go out of that line has either faced the state threat or has faced threat from groups that are much more radical and more violent than the Muslim Brotherhood. ...
This fear that's out there that the Muslim Brotherhood will hijack the revolution, how much of a possibility is that?
I don't think the Muslim Brotherhood will hijack the revolution. For many reasons, I think the fact that they didn't launch the revolution is working against them. The fact that they did not throw their institutional heft and weight and behind the revolution until four days into it works against them; the fact that, when you look at this committee that people are talking about, that [they are] kind of supposed to morph into this transitional government, once we persuaded Mubarak to finally step down, on this committee of 10, only one of them is from the Muslim Brotherhood, which says to me it's a fair reflection of the voices and ideas that are out there on the street. ...
But I think even more importantly -- and this is the reason that I kind of hold on to -- Egyptians have changed forever. They have been changed forever by this revolution, because this revolution has basically served notice, not just to the Mubarak regime, but any regime that follows -- hopefully it's not a regime, but any government that follows -- that we, the Egyptian people, recognize our power now, and if you try to rule us in the way that these regimes have tried to rule us, we know now we can bring out millions of people on the street against you. Once you taste that kind of power, it's very difficult to put it back. ...
My friends will appreciate the Muslim Brotherhood as Egyptians. Don't get me wrong: The Muslim Brotherhood is an integral part of Egypt. No one is trying to deny them that part. They are part of Egypt; they should be represented in a future government of Egypt. But they cannot dominate Egypt, and they cannot turn this into a Muslim Brotherhood regime, because the Egyptian people will not allow them to rule them as a regime with God on their side, as opposed to a regime with Mubarak on their side.
How has Mubarak used the fear of the Muslim Brotherhood in dealing with America?
Mubarak has successfully, very, very cannily used the fear of the Muslim Brotherhood as this bogeyman, where he's somehow convinced his Western allies, mostly the United States, that if you get rid of me, or you support anyone getting rid of me, you're just going to have these lunatic radicals in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. What that did, basically, was it exaggerated the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, because they're not that powerful. They will not be able to overthrow him or gain the support of the majority of Egyptians.
But it also magnified the fears that after Mubarak is chaos. Mubarak is just one of 80 million people. The Muslim Brotherhood is just one of many kind of waves of opposition that stand up to the Mubarak regime. But somehow the United States and other Western allies of Egypt have bought this Mubarak line, that if it's not him, it's the Muslim Brotherhood.
When you look at the demonstrations, the pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt now, they give the lie to that, because it's everybody in Egypt who's come out, not just the Muslim Brotherhood, which says that all along the majority of Egyptians were against Mubarak, not just the Muslim Brotherhood.
So I hope this revolution in Egypt finally, once and for all, lays to rest this myth that it's either Mubarak or the crazy lunatic Islamists.
Talk about a little bit about the overlap between groups like the April 6 Movement and Muslim Brotherhood. Is there overlap? Why is there overlap? What do the secular youth in Egypt think about the Muslim Brotherhood?
The generation of activists that are probably 35 or 30 and younger today in Egypt are very different than their parents and predecessors in the sense that they are able to talk across political affiliations. In the past, you would see the Nasserists talking to each other, the liberals talking to each other, the Muslim Brotherhood talking to each other, and everyone in their own kind of atomized spaces, not reaching out and not recognizing that there are others out there that they could form this kind of unified opposition with, to stand up to the Mubarak regime.
What you're seeing with young people is a very different kind of political map. They are talking to each other. They're talking to each other online; they're talking to each other in the street, because the street protests, even before the Jan. 25 uprising, would draw out people of various political affiliations and would draw out individual members of the Muslim Brotherhood. And when the Mubarak regime has cracked down, especially among those young activists and bloggers, it ended up putting in the same kind of prison people of different political affiliations.
So some of the young activists I know who grew up on communist youth camps would be blogging after they were released from jail about how they just spent two weeks with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they've all figured it out. They know how to save Egypt now.
So what Mubarak essentially did was he put together in one space, or kind of forced together in one space, all these young people that managed to break down political barriers that their parents had been hemmed in by. And in breaking down those political barriers, they recognized their collective power, whereas in the past, people were diminished by their inability to talk across political lines.