Revolution in Cairo

Interview Heba Morayef

Heba Morayef

She investigates human right abuses in Egypt and Libya with Human Rights Watch, and says she's encountered the Muslim Brotherhood both as victims of human rights abuses as well as promoters of discrimination inconsistent with international human rights law. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 8, 2011.

You've been spending a lot of time in Tahrir Square, and I just wanted to generally get your sense of this moment. As someone who's watched human rights here, who's seen so many angles and aspects of this regime, what does this moment mean for Egypt?

It's an unprecedented moment, and it's not one that this generation of young activists in their 20s and their 30s are ever going to forget. It's one which has made the older generation respect the younger generation, because the last big protests we really had in Egypt were in [19]77, the Bread Riots, and a whole generation of political activists grew out of that. They're the ones who really dominate the political landscape and opposition parties, and then the human rights organizations, and they never really had any respect for the younger generations of activists. They saw them as the digital kids: They just do their online stuff, and they don't do real street politics.

“I would really distrust anyone who at this moment, which is unprecedented in Egypt's recent history, can tell us what fundamentally the Brotherhood is. The Brotherhood has a lot of different forces within it. ”

And I think there's been a shift in that, because this is just completely unprecedented in terms of the numbers it turned out on [Jan.] 25th and the 28th, in terms of the bravery of a lot of people, the fact that they were willing to take risks. And it wasn't just people who are poor and have very big grievances with regard to the socioeconomic rights and therefore feel they have nothing to lose, because many, many more people [were] really motivated, initially, by anger at police abuse.

... I wanted to ask you to comment a little bit on a sense that here is a middle class that's really mingling with people that maybe it normally wouldn't, and working together [in Tahrir Square]. What do we get from that? What does it mean for Egypt?

I'm hoping that the experience of the square will be one which will transform society. Optimistically, that would be my hope. I also realize, more realistically, that this experience remains confined to the square, and that there are many people outside the square who aren't experiencing this cross-class political moment -- the enjoyment of freedom of speech, of freedom of assembly, which is not something people could ever really experience. Because even though there is an independent private media in Egypt, people are still scared of reprisals, or were still scared of reprisals by the police. And yet here they are in the square, seeking out journalists, seeking out international human rights organizations, saying to them: "I want to tell you what happened to my brother." …

And regardless of what happens -- because there is a possibility that things could go very wrong in terms of what the protesters hope for -- that experience of political mobilization is not going to disappear and is not going to be easy to repress.

So one of the groups in the square [right now] is the Muslim Brotherhood, and you see them interacting with certainly, if not a different class, a different sector of Egyptian society than they normally are interacting with. Tell us about some of that interaction and this national dialogue that's happening in the square.

I think this has been a very interesting experience in terms of seeing how the different constituencies in the square relate to one another. Just in terms of Egyptian society, I think there are lots of different groups who wouldn't naturally hang out in the same space together. …

Just visually speaking, when you look around you, you see fairly conservatively dressed men and women who may be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, you see very Westernized, young Egyptians who clearly come from an upper-middle-class background. You don't generally see those people hanging out together in the same space, and you don't see them chanting together about torture, about the emergency law, about what they want their country to be like moving forward. That's a moment that's very exciting, and our hope would be that it will last beyond the moment in the square. ...

The government narrative has always been [that] the Brotherhood must be completely excluded, because they will take over and turn this into an Islamist state, and that's always worked to a certain extent with some of the secular liberals, and very much with the business class and the political elite. ...

The Muslim Brotherhood is represented in the middle class, perhaps not in the upper middle class or the richer families in Egypt who are really from the National Democratic Party [NDP], because the business community has been so aligned to the ruling party throughout. But there are many middle-class professionals who are from the Brotherhood, so there is a cross-class element there. ...

Obviously the Brotherhood is also represented across different social classes. They control a lot of the professional syndicates; the doctor syndicate and the lawyer syndicate have a very strong Muslim Brotherhood presence. There are many rich members of the Muslim Brotherhood. And if you look at the kind of funding that the Brotherhood puts out for its election campaigning, you see that there's a lot of money there as well.

But in terms of lifestyle, in terms of how women who are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood dress, even visually you can see the diversity in the square. And just anecdotally, I think it's also significant that I've been going to the square every day, and I haven't been sexually harassed once, and I haven't been told once that I'm dressing in too liberal a manner or inappropriate manner, which is something you experience on the streets, especially in more conservative areas of Cairo.

[It's] anecdotal but not insignificant, because I think it's a reflection of the fact that the Brotherhood and the more religiously conservative people inside the square are very aware that they must not give the government any excuse to allow them to portray this as a Muslim Brotherhood-orchestrated political takeover. And they must also send a message that citizenship values are what's at stake right now.

And you see them trying to integrate fully. You see a lot of Muslim-Christian solidarity chants; Muslim-Egyptian; we are all Muslim-Christian; we are all Egyptian. And that also reflects very sectarian issues that you have here in Egypt at the moment. So strong Brotherhood presence, but an approach that is very much about working and coalition, and stressing Egyptian citizenship above everything else at the moment.

Is it the real Muslim Brotherhood, or is it just a facade for now? ...

I don't think anyone knows right now. And I would really distrust anyone who at this moment in history, which is unprecedented in Egypt's recent history, can tell us what fundamentally the Brotherhood is. The Brotherhood has a lot of different forces within it. And we've seen this over the last decade. We saw especially post-2005, when they were included in Parliament, they controlled 88 seats at the time. They became a lot more open, a lot more known to the Egyptian media even.

The last internal elections of the Brotherhood were strongly contested. And we knew about the process; we knew about the infighting; we heard different factions. When [Mohamed El]Baradei came on the scene, there were disagreements again within the Brotherhood about whether or not to join his coalition. All of [these] are things that we never used to hear about, because the Brotherhood used to be this secret organization in the shadows.

I think it's only by their inclusion in the political system that they became more open to the outside world, and we started to hear about internal divisions between the more reform-minded Brotherhood members, who wanted to push for the Brotherhood as a political organization that would engage with other opposition groups and would unite with the opposition to push against the NDP dominance of the political sphere, and between other, more conservative elements, who really wanted to prioritize a religious piety and were less interested in a more modern outlook on past suspicion as a political party in the system. And that diversity is still there within the Brotherhood. And we won't know until the end of this transitional phase which sections of the Brotherhood are going to win out and how they will behave within the context of working with other political forces as well.

Which do you think will win out? Where do you see this headed for the Muslim Brotherhood and this larger role going forward?

I don't believe the very simplistic narrative of the government, that the Egyptian government has sold the West and has sold the Egyptian people over the past years. That narrative is that the Muslim Brotherhood is waiting for one opportunity to get into power, to break off the Camp David agreement, to turn Egypt into Iran. Too simplistic.

And I hope also that Western governments who have dealt with the Brotherhood over the last five years, especially within the context of their presence in Parliament, have moved beyond that view, because the Brotherhood is very sophisticated and very pragmatic, and their primary goal is to have political power.

They've worked within the system. They're very focused on elections and representation. They're seen as sellouts by other, more conservative Islamist groups who don't accept the fact that at times the Brotherhood makes compromises with the government.

They're sometimes seen as sellouts by leftist activist groups, who when there's a demonstration, if the Brotherhood comes to it, if it's a demonstration, let's say, about the war in Gaza, you'll get the leftists starting off with, "We're anti-war, we're anti-war," and then shifting to anti-Mubarak slogans. The Brotherhood does not chant anti-Mubarak slogans unless it has specifically decided to. So [they are] very disciplined, very strategic about when they choose to make their opposition known.

Interesting also to remember, they didn't participate in Jan. 25 formally. They announced that they would not participate. Obviously, a lot of their members did in their personal capacity. And then they chose to join the 28th once they realized what was happening.

So they are strategic, and I think they, like all the other Egyptian opposition parties right now, see a real opportunity for a position in power, for presidents in power, and now that they're also being negotiated with. A lot of senior NDP officials would never even say the word "the Brotherhood" in Parliament. They wouldn't recognize their existence. Sometimes the more progressive ones would refer to it as "the bad movement." But the old guard of the NDP didn't even refer to them. They didn't exist as far as the NDP was concerned. So there's been a shift there.

And I think they're also strategic enough to see this as an opportunity. I'm not saying we wouldn't have serious human rights concerns if the Brotherhood were in government and were in a position to make decisions about a lot of key issues. But I am saying that they are part of the political sphere at this point, and we also need to judge them by their actions, because this is an unprecedented moment.

So you just said that you have some human rights concerns with the Muslim Brotherhood. What would they be?

In 2007, when the Brotherhood had that presence in Parliament and was much more open and more integrated in the political system in Egypt, they started to discuss coming up with a political platform internally. The idea was to make the Brotherhood into a political party like other political parties.

At that time, we wrote to the Brotherhood and publicized our concerns about the political platform that was being negotiated at the time. The obvious issues are the status of Copts, the biggest Christian minority in Egypt, but the status of Christians more generally in Egypt, and the status of women, because obviously, the Brotherhood derived their political platform and their constituency from a Shariah-inspired framework. Shariah [Islamic law] is different from one country to another, and in Egypt, it's applied mostly in personal status codes.

So this shouldn't automatically evoke pictures of Taliban-style Shariah being applied in Egypt. But they are obviously very inconsistent with international human rights law and the kind of standards we call upon the Egyptian government to respect.

How so? What's specifically the problem with the Muslim Brotherhood around human rights with women and the Christian minority?

It's a problem of not recognizing full equality as defined by international human rights law and a modern civilian state. The Brotherhood still believes that a woman or Christian cannot become president in the country.

Now, the rest of society is still very patriarchal, and also quite discriminatory against Christians as well. So I'm not saying that in real life that the NDP would have ever allowed a woman or a Christian to actually take over. And this is perhaps a reflection of the broader battles we as a human rights organization have to fight in Egypt. But formally speaking, the Egyptian government is in favor of the political participation of women.

Formally speaking, there's a lot of problems with regard to the rights of Christians to construct and renovate places of worship in particular, in terms of freedom of religion. And those are issues that the Brotherhood are not progressive on and were problematic in terms of their platform. And their platform was never finalized.

And with the exclusion of the Brotherhood from Parliament after the last parliamentary elections, before Jan. 25, the likelihood of them coming up with an agreed platform that would be negotiated and would somehow be acceptable to society more broadly speaking was nonexistent. But should the Brotherhood become more integrated in the political system moving forward out of this phase we're in right now, then those would remain key issues that we'd want to push them on.

One of the things that really interested me is the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood has been sort of on both sides of your work. Can you describe that? ...

Well, the Muslim Brotherhood has experienced a great proportion of the human rights violations and abusive practices by Egyptian security services: mass arrests in the lead-up to elections for peaceful campaigning; tortures; state security trials; military trials. So we've worked with them as victims of human rights violations over the years, and we've defended them.

At the same time, we've always made clear to them that we would also challenge any positions that they promote that are discriminatory in terms of women's rights or in terms of freedom of religion for Copts and Christians in Egypt more generally.

… What have you learned about the Muslim Brotherhood through your own dealings with them? How is it dealing with them?

Well, I deal with the Brotherhood in the context of human rights discussions, and I've found them actually very helpful to our work at times. They're very aware of the power of human rights as a framework, having experienced the violations. They believe in the framework.

I don't say this because of a personal assessment. I say this because when they were in Parliament, they were the ones raising torture cases; they were the ones flagging to the rest of [the] human rights community when a new repressive law was coming up for discussion in relation to the emergency law, for example. They were the ones also protesting outside the Parliament when the emergency law was extended.

So I think having been victims of a lot of these violations, they've recognized how to use that framework. And that's one of the reasons that I personally have hope that they would not then necessarily commit the same violations, having experienced them, or would push for a different structure, which would limit the kind of violations that were experienced.

[What are some of the big human rights issues the Muslim Brotherhood has been facing lately and in the past?]

I think what we've seen since Jan. 25 is initially, in that first phase, in the first three days, the usual Ministry of Interior crackdown on demonstrators, so mass arrests. The Egyptian Organization of Human Rights estimates 1,200 people were arrested in those days. [There were] numerous cases of excessive use of force, beating against protesters. And then the police withdrew from the streets on Friday night, and it was the military police that was arresting people in that follow-up period.

There are many families right now who are saying that their children have disappeared. And I suspect that in many of those cases, this may be due to the fact that their relatives have been arrested by the military police, because the pattern of arrests that we've seen by the military police, which in many cases we think is arbitrary and completely illegitimate in terms of targeting protesters and activists, the military police don't announce when they take somebody into detention, and they don't allow them to make phone calls to their family or to lawyers. So in some cases, where families have come to me saying, "My son has disappeared," three days later he's released, and it turns out he was in military detention.

In terms of the Brotherhood and how they fit into this overall, so far we haven't seen a targeting of the Brotherhood yet by the government, because when the government tries to send a signal to the Brotherhood about the fact that it's gone too far, or it needs to realize that the government isn't going to allow it to grow in strength, such as before parliamentary elections, they arrest hundreds.

What we can see from the last parliamentary elections is that between Oct. 9, when the Brotherhood first announced that it would run in the elections, and Nov. 24, 1,300 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested. Some of these arrests were short-term, but this is the kind of government crackdown that we're used to with regard to parliamentary elections.

This happened with the previous parliamentary elections in 2005 -- the arrests were well over 1,000 then -- and in previous years also, because this is something my organization has worked on. So that's the kind of crackdown against Brotherhood that we haven't yet seen at this point in time. It may come, but we haven't seen it yet. ...


blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

Posted Feburary 22, 2011

Watch Revolution in Cairo »
FRONTLINE series home | Privacy Policy | Journalistic Guidelines | PBS Privacy Policy | PBS Terms of Use

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation