Interview by Nadine Marroushi with Amr Darrag, secretary of foreign relations of the former governing party of Egypt, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The party’s leader and president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted in a coup d’etat by Egypt’s military on July 3, 2013. This interview is published on Mada Masr, Sept 14, 2013. Further below, see a report from The Nation on life in Egypt today–‘Egypt after the clampdown’.
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Mada Masr: Are there any warrants for your arrest or charges you’re facing? Have any of your assets been frozen?
Amr Darrag: There are no warrants, as far as I know, and my assets haven’t been frozen.
MM: Why not?
AD: There are many people out of prison, not just me.
MM: But you’re one of only two senior members, including Dr. Mohamed Ali Bishr, considered out of prison.
AD: No, it’s only because we were involved in public events. I was involved in the extensive talks that took place in Ramadan before the dispersal of the sit-ins with the Europeans and Americans, because it was within my capacity, not because there’s anything special about me. Maybe we’ve been looked at as good communicators, we have good relations with everybody, so maybe it’s useful for us to be free to communicate.
I saw an announcement that the Guidance Bureau and Shura Council [of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt] are taking decisions. It seems they are delegating extensively a lot of their decisions for the governorates and towns all over the country, because the lines of communication are of course difficult. I don’t know their calculations and I don’t really care. Most of my time now is dedicated to my personal affairs. I have a job at Cairo University and I’m a partner at an engineering consultancy firm.
MM: Who else hasn’t been arrested?
AD: The party secretary general Hussein Ibrahim, the deputy Ahmed Soliman, Siham El Gamal. Many members of the executive board are still free. Also, the secretariats in each governorate has 12 or 15 members. And there are lower levels at different locations.
MM: How many members of the Muslim Brotherhood are in prison?
AD: The figure in my mind is in the order of 10,000 people arrested since the coup. How many are Muslim Brothers or others, I don’t know. I’d say the majority is Brotherhood, but I cannot confirm.
MM: How would you compare this crackdown to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s in 1954, and other periods of repressions?
AD: What’s happening now is worse, because people are being killed in the streets. This is new.
MM: What would happen to the Brotherhood if the legal proceeding rules its dissolution as a legally registered NGO?
AD: It’s the least of our concerns. The Brotherhood has existed for more than 80 years, and subject to several crackdowns, yet it came back stronger. It’s not about an organization but an idea. It’s the adoption of the basic principles of Islam, which are deeply rooted in Egyptian society. Even if the Brotherhood disappears, somebody else is going to take that idea and call it by some other name.
The FJP is a two-year-old party. If we could establish it in one or two years with 500,000 people, we can do it again. The main concern is democracy and freedom. Through these, everything can be run for all Egyptians.
MM: Is the regime negotiating with you?
AD: No, despite claims that they want dialogue. They refer to Ziad Bahaa al-Din’s initiative, but as far as I know there is no initiative.
The government also said it sent me an invitation to join the 50-member constituent assembly. I never received a letter or a phone call. They have my number.
When they were forming the government they said they offered us three positions. I never heard of that, and don’t know who they’re talking to. In summary, there is no conversation and no negotiations happening.
MM: What are the Muslim Brotherhood’s future scenarios regarding political integration or withdrawal?
AD: I don’t represent the Muslim Brotherhood. I represent the Freedom and Justice Party; I’m part of the executive board. I’m not part of the leadership structure of the Brotherhood, whether in the Guidance Bureau or the Shura Council or any of the governorate administrative offices.
MM: But the FJP is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
AD: It’s related but an independent entity. It works on political issues related to the government or elections. There are communications with the Brotherhood, but I cannot speak on its behalf.
MM: How many members does the FJP have?
AD: As of three months ago, half a million people.
People argue that our popularity is going down, others say it is going up. This is normal and it doesn’t really matter. We represent a large sector of the Egyptian people. We don’t just represent the members, we also represent the larger group of Egyptians who believe in the principles of the party and are willing to vote for it. We have a strong base in society and a sound program. For us, the most important thing now is to regain the democratic path.
MM: Will you participate in any of the elections that are planned?
AD: It is our right and duty to participate in elections in a democratic environment. But what I’m seeing now is no tendency to allow for free elections. And that’s not just allowing people to cast their vote but allowing the environment for free elections. This means allowing all political parties to participate with all their leaders present to lead their campaigns. Right now this does not apply for our party and a couple of others.
MM: So that means you wouldn’t participate?
AD: This would be by force, if we don’t have leaders to run the campaign or candidates to run. At that time, if we ever have elections, we would evaluate.
MM: So what is your plan?
AD: The only alternative we — Egyptians who reject the coup — have is to keep protesting peacefully, and hopefully increasing the size and diversity of the demonstrations.
MM: How can you tell if people joining the Anti-Coup Alliance protests have been growing or not?
AD: Just follow the media. Of course, the only available means is Al Jazeera, particularly Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr. And it gives you pictures from tens of towns and villages all over Egypt. Last week, they talked about 300 marches. Maybe this week it’s double that.
MM: What are the goals of the protests?
AD: It is the reinstatement of the democratic life, which includes the Constitution and President Mohamed Morsi.
MM: So putting him back in place?
AD: Yes, but to do what afterwards is the subject of negotiations. We have to realize there are new facts on the ground. There is a big sector in Egypt that is not happy with Morsi as president. If there is a way to make everybody happy within the framework of the Constitution, this would be the perfect solution.
AD: There are many ways. For example, clauses in the Constitution give various options. If he is unavailable temporarily, he can delegate his powers to the prime minister. If he permanently unavailable, it goes to the House of Representatives speaker. And, if that doesn’t exist, then the Shura Council.
At this stage, the Shura Council speaker would be president for a couple of months until new presidential elections are called.
The president could also simply resign, or complete his term. All of this would be discussed within a political dialogue that includes everybody.
MM: Is the Muslim Brotherhood willing to make revisions and admit mistakes in what many members see as a failed experiment in power?
AD: Any political power in order for it to stay and increase its supporters has to review periodically its policies.
But why is the FJP alone required to acknowledge that it made mistakes?
MM: As you said, you had the largest number of members of Parliament. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood were in government. President Morsi was from the Brotherhood.
AD: What I find difficult to accept is to only blame the FJP or the Brotherhood for everything that went wrong. Other political forces were not responsible enough to help put the country on a true democratic path. They kept saying, even before Morsi was elected, that he was a failure. Almost everybody refused to participate in the presidential team or the government. I witnessed a lot of these negotiations. They made sure there were no institutions for them to be included in, even in opposition.
Many of these political forces supported the coup just to get rid of the FJP and president. This is for their interest, but it shouldn’t be their interest to remove democracy from the country completely.
MM: What would you say were your biggest mistakes?
AD: We underestimated the power of the deep state. We thought that just having the revolution and elections, the deep state would diminish automatically or gradually. When parliamentary elections took place and only 13 members from feloul [remnants of the Mubarak regime] parties made it, we thought it was a strong indication that they don’t have much influence. But maybe at that time they were still gathering themselves.
As time passed, we found that they have much more influence. They managed to have their candidate be the second top presidential candidate. If you go through the government, as I did as minister, you find out that they are really deeply rooted everywhere. A more revolutionary path would have been necessary to expedite reform.
MM: So how does the party and movement need to adapt going forward?
AD: We have to come out of this crisis. If we do so, and we will, we need to form a front that really gathers powers to face the deep state. This is the top priority.
The front would gather more people, maybe involving more young people, because by definition they are more revolutionary, more daring in tackling these problems, rather than wise old men. This would be done through the parliament, government, or media.
MM: And for the army to be out of politics?
AD: Yes, this is a very important task.
As a movement, coalition, or front, we are not against the army. This is our army, our tool to protect us from external threats. Unfortunately, some army leaders are dragging the military beyond its mandate. The army is acting as if it is a political party by taking the side of some political powers against others. The military has to have the support of everybody, not just a certain political group.
The constituent assembly’s approach, which was criticized but I believe it was right, was to achieve a gradual shift of the military’s role from politics. Unfortunately, even this didn’t help. This was the advice we got from many all over the world. Countries that went through the same course of events from military to democratic rule needed at least 10 to 15 years. And we will still have to do it gradually; otherwise, it will be very difficult.
MM: What do you think annoyed the generals, what was their tipping point?
AD: They can’t take the idea that their supreme leader is a civilian, even if they kept their privileges in the constitution, including economic advantages.
Many generals were raised during the 1950s when the army was the most important establishment in the country. It is used to making independent decisions with the support of an ex-military president.
Having their budget approved by a council was also new. Even though that council was limited, it wasn’t the whole parliament, yet they are used to having one figure, billions to spend the way they see fit.
Maybe they could not absorb this idea yet, and maybe there was some pressure from the deep state, because the main beneficiaries really are the old politicians.
MM: Do you think the policies of the radical wing of the group were not fit for the organization’s survival?
AD: Who said that there is a radical wing? I don’t think there is one. There is a difference of opinion. But radical means using means that are not allowed or accepted by the law. I cannot say there are any radical ideas or wings.
MM: Who is taking decisions in the Muslim Brotherhood now?
AD: I’m not aware of the mechanisms, because I’m not part of the organization. I saw an announcement that the Guidance Bureau and Shura Council are taking decisions. It seems they are delegating extensively a lot of their decisions for the governorates and towns all over the country, because the lines of communication are of course difficult.
MM: Are you concerned that a small minority of disaffected members might create an Algeria scenario?*
AD: I don’t think so, because the Algeria scenario requires a lot of people not just a small group. Probably you could find some radicals wanting to face the state with violence, but all this will fade away because it doesn’t lead anywhere. Also, people are not really interested in shifting the political conflict to the zone of military conflicts. The only people who are not peaceful are the thugs, military, and security forces.
MM: Are you concerned by a rise in terrorist activity going forward?
AD: This is a threat, because those who have a tendency towards terrorist activity find this kind of environment perfect. In the absence of democracy, and with oppression, killings, this gives a lot of justification to those who have the seeds of terrorism to grow. This is a big risk.
* In late 1991 and early 1992, the then-outgoing government of Algeria ignored the results of a national election won by an Islamist-based political party. The government and the military it controlled launched a bloody civil war on the victors of the election in which tens of thousands were killed. Today, Algeria is a shell of a democracy and a close ally of France and the United States.
Egypt after the clampdown
Life here has shrunk politically, geographically and socially, with the vast majority of the public high on fascistic nationalism.
By Sarah Carr, The Nation, September 11, 2013
Cairo — Sinai aside (Sinai is always aside), calm has mostly returned to Egypt, interrupted now not by mass demonstrations but by bomb attacks on ministers and despair that this presages a return to the dark old days of 1990s terrorism. The massive street protests and clashes happen less and less, as Muslim Brotherhood members simply do not go out in big enough numbers anymore for major clashes to take place, and the security forces apparently know that shooting randomly at a pitiful demonstration of 300 wandering through the streets of a Cairo suburb would be difficult to pass off as a credible counterterrorism measure, even in the current climate.
Instead, the police occasionally tear-gas Brotherhood members in police vans when not rounding them up on a massive scale. For weeks the media has carried reports of another Brotherhood leader tracked down in a flat in Nasr City or a village somewhere in the Delta. Sometimes there are videos or pictures of said Brother squinting into a camera surrounded by masked special operations cops holding up victory signs. In some of these photos, the Brother is grinning weirdly, like a man jolted out of his sleep and informed that his daughter has given birth to his first grandchild.
Life in Egypt has mostly shrunk, politically, geographically, socially. For two long weeks, Egyptians in governorates affected by the unrest were under a curfew from 7 pm till 6 am. A frenzied scuttling began in Cairo around 5 pm, as shop shutters were banged shut and commuters began to head home. Daredevils who left too late faced the wrath of unpredictable army officers at checkpoints.
And then, from 7 pm, the terrible stillness. Curfew doesn’t suit Cairo, a city whose élan derives principally from its inhabitants and which is used to stretching and coming alive after the sun has set, in the cool of the evening. Without them there is nothing to see but the city’s decline, an ordinary face without the disguise of transformative makeup, the clear blue eyes of the river its only untouched feature.
The situation has slightly improved since the curfew was pushed back to 11 pm six days a week. Harried waiters now start the stopwatch at 9.30. But, stuck in your house for seven hours surrounded by that stillness, it is difficult not to feel trapped, to feel the walls closing in on you.
The invisible walls of the curfew are a variant on the physical walls the army has always been so fond of building. To walk in downtown Cairo near the Interior Ministry and Parliament is still to play human Pac-Man. Built to contain dissent after January 25, 2011, when people protested against rather than for the state, they now remain an obstacle course only for pedestrians, lost motorists and stray cats. People have knocked holes in them big enough to allow passage, using the rubble to create steps over which to scramble. And it has all become normal.
A principal reason Egypt is in its current political mess is that successive regimes—like regimes of poor governance everywhere—have equated shutting down the physicality of dissent with addressing this dissent. The best example of this was the August 14 dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-ins in Cairo. Conservative figures put the death toll at nearly a thousand, with many more injured.
I went to the Rabaa El-Adaweya area of Nasr City in Cairo, the site of the biggest sit-in, the next morning. It was a post-apocalyptic scene. Bulldozers roared up and down the street carrying away debris at great speed. The air was filled with the dust from their tracks. Donkey carts trundled between them and the smoldering remains of fires. Waste pickers worked over what was left: clothes, medicine, shoes belonging to the dead and to those who had fled. The image of deposed President Mohamed Morsi peeked out from posters trapped in the piles of waste that the pickers could not convert into profit.
In less than twenty-four hours, it was as if the sit-in—which had acquired the proportions of a small but developed village, with barbers, a children’s playground and even two-tier housing—had never been. It is the same story with the smaller Nahda Square sit-in in Giza, another patch of land that had been appropriated by supporters of deposed president Morsi. I went through an army checkpoint there after curfew a week after it was attacked, and all that remained was some graffiti and scorched land where tents—including the people inside them—had been set on fire.
While going through that checkpoint, an elderly man objected semi-vociferously to being patted down by a soldier half his age. “You are protecting us, may God protect you,” a woman standing in the queue behind him declared earnestly and repeatedly.
Erasing the physical presence of political opponents was a favorite tactic of the Mubarak regime, too. For years, handfuls of demonstrators would be sandwiched between rows of riot police or forced into the back of police trucks. Control the streets and you control the message, was the thinking, and while that might have worked in the pre-Internet age, it eventually stopped working for Mubarak.
The Brotherhood roundup and the closure of Islamist media channels, including those with a Brotherhood bias (such as Al-Jazeera Mobasher Misr, the network’s Egypt branch), has taken place in almost complete silence and with very little public criticism. The vast majority of the general public, apparently still recovering from its brush with Islamist rule and high on the fascistic nationalism that took hold of public life after the massive anti-Brotherhood demonstrations of June 30, think death would be too good for the Brotherhood. Defense Minister General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who forced Morsi’s removal and who as the embodiment of the army and intelligence services is running the country behind a fig leaf of civilian rule, is now a cross between a pinup star and Batman, fighter of the dark forces. Teslam el ayady, or “Bless Your Hands,” a jingoistic paean to the armed forces, is now reportedly the most requested song at weddings.
In one of Cairo’s public squares, there are badly produced posters for sale depicting Sisi holding a knife slaughtering a sheep with Morsi’s head. “This is what happens to those that don’t do as the people say,” the poster warns grimly. The general public, in its desire to see the Brotherhood destroyed, agrees with this sentiment, and it is this that is most dangerous about the current state of affairs. The regime has succeeded in hoodwinking citizens into believing that by physically removing the Brotherhood from the picture, it has neutralized the threat, real and imagined, from Islamists. The attack last week on the interior minister’s convoy, and the simmering insurgency in the Sinai, shows that they have failed. What is even more problematic is that the general public has once again accepted, so uncritically, exactly the tactics that it took to the streets to oppose on that dreamy day of January 25, 2011, so long ago.