Kamal El-Helbawi, formerly a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, speaks to Ahram Online reporter Ahmed Mahmoud about his career and differences with the Brotherhood. The interview was conducted in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of a workshop on constitutional reform. El-Helbawi starts out with some memories about his childhood in Menoufiya, one of the most populated cities in Egypt's Nile Delta, also historically known for churning out most of Egypt's political figures.
The ulema [Muslim scholars] in my village were all graduates of Al-Azhar and used to take the young students on really fun trips and excursions. We later on found out that they were members of the Brotherhood, but they didn't tell us at the time...
I went to the Masa'i High School in Shebin, the same school former President Mohamad Hosni Mubarak attended. The school had various groups engaged in politics, such as Al-Wafd, the Brotherhood, liberals, socialists and Young Egypt. It was easy to learn about the programmes of these currents and the slogans they believed in...
When I learned about these groups' programmes, I found that the Brotherhood's suited me best, since it was compatible with my village upbringing.
One day, a meeting was held in the Science Hall. The speaker was a young Brotherhood member who knew the Quran by heart and made an eloquent speech, of which I still remember parts to this day. I found it interesting that the school principal, Mohammad Ashour, and his deputy, Hosni Ragab, who were both very well-educated people, made a point of attending the meeting and listened attentively to this young man who spoke eloquently about jihad...
After the July  revolution, we, the Brotherhood, acted as protectors of the revolution. We had learned, from the National Guard, how to use weapons. But the situation changed, and the Brotherhood members began to be detained and tried.
I went to Nigeria, then Saudi Arabia, where I worked as manager of the World Muslim Youth Forum. The forum was conceived by Tawfiq Al-Shawi, who persuaded King Faysal [of Saudi Arabia] that religious practices in Saudi Arabia were becoming a liability and that fanaticism could lead to the isolation of Saudi Arabia, which endorses the [hardline] Hanbali doctrine [one of the four main doctrines for the interpretation of Islamic law; the other three being the Hanafi, the Maliki, and the Shafi'i]. Al-Shawi convinced the king to set up the World Youth Forum so as to tone down the extremism.
In 1988, I was the Brotherhood official in charge of the Afghan dossier. After the martyr Kamal Al-Sananiri died, I took charge of all of Asia, including Indonesia. One of my tasks was to supervise educational programmes, seminars and conferences. Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Ahmad Al-Malt were in charge of medical activities. We had no relations or communication with Al-Qaeda. Indeed, some members of Al-Qaeda accused us of betraying the Islamic cause.
In 1994, I left Pakistan because of [pressure by] the Americans and went to the United Kingdom, where I worked as an adviser to the Political Studies Centre. Then I became the official spokesman of the International Organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, a position which I quit in 1997. I remained a member of the Brotherhood until I announced, on air, my resignation from the group on 31 March 2011.
Is it true, as some media said, that the reason for your resignation was that Khairat El-Shater decided to run for president?
I resigned from the Brotherhood one year after I returned from London. In that year I sensed that the Brotherhood leadership became hesitant in a manner I hadn't seen before. The Brotherhood had said that they were not going to field a presidential candidate...
The fact that the Brotherhood fielded a presidential candidate is difficult to understand unless some pressure was exerted or some agreement was reached with the regime. The Brotherhood asked Al-Gheryani, Mekki, and Al-Bishri to run, but they refused. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood attacked Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and fired him from the group because he decided to run!
This attack [on Abul-Fotouh] was unjustified as well as immoral... It is not true that I resigned only because of Al-Shater's nomination. Nor is it true that I said that the Brotherhood were liars or takfiris [people who call others, including Muslims, atheists], as the media reported. I never said so and this is totally incorrect. What I said then - and repeat now - is that the Brotherhood leadership was wavering and indecisive...
The other reason [for my resignation] was that I found that the educational and preaching aspects of the organisation have slipped way below the standards we had set. We used to have a youth education programme where they studied the Quran, the hadith [Prophet Mohammad's sayings] and fiqh [theology] in all of the four doctrines. We taught textual interpretation, history, and sira [the life of Prophet Mohammad]. None of this is being done properly anymore and some of the teachers are not qualified to educate the youth.
The third reason is that the Brotherhood left Tahrir Square early. They only went to the square for their own interests and at one point described the people in the square as "thugs." This was unacceptable.
It was evident that there was some agreement between the Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the transitional phase. This was clear in some of the Brotherhood decisions. Consider the fact that US defendants in the funding case [NGO's were accused of receiving questionable funds for political purposes] were allowed to leave the country. What we needed was a revolution of the type that Morsi spoke about in Assiut, or at least a million-man march, so that the issue would receive enough attention. But it was clear that there was some agreement going on [between the Brotherhood and the SCAF] - a pact of silence!
I don't think that the dismissal of [former SCAF heads] Tantawi and Anan were part of a coup, rather, they were part of an agreement. This is why Morsi defended both of them later on.
What are your thoughts on President Morsi and how he runs the country?
There is an improvement on the security front, but as a whole the performance falls short of the promises. Morsi promised more than he can deliver. This was for elections purposes and he knew he wouldn't be able to deliver, which is unacceptable. It is not right for a man claiming to represent centrist Islam to act in this way...
What do you think about the remaking of the state in the image of the Brotherhood, the so-called "ikhwanisation"of the state?
I wish they would ikhwanise the state so that the nation would be brought up in the same manner as the children of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood children are taught religious doctrines, history and sharia [Islamic law]. Give the people the same moral and scientific upbringing and allow them to choose.
You speak a lot about the teachings of Hasan El-Banna and call for their revival, as if the Brotherhood has deviated from his teachings.
The teachings of Imam Hasan El-Banna are great. Anyone who gets to know these teachings is duly impressed. Even the seculars who heard me speak of El-Banna's teachings in a programme phoned in and expressed astonishment at the tolerance and humanity of his ideals. For example, El-Banna says, "We do for the people, for the sake of God, more than we do for ourselves." He also says, "If we find someone who would govern in a good manner, we will be his foot soldiers."
El-Banna rejected the kind of rivalry that increases partisanship and polarisation. He called for the unity of the nation. This is far more than anything we or the Brotherhood can aspire to for now.
I wished, after the revolution, that the Brotherhood would be the first to call for free elections within its ranks, but they appointed Morsi as head of the [their Freedom and Justice] Party and didn't hold elections until he was already president...
How do you see the relation between the president, the Brotherhood and the FJP?
The relation between the Brotherhood and the FJP is unhealthy. The FJP should become totally independent from the Brotherhood. The FJP should take its cue only from the Brotherhood's General Assembly. Other than that, the Brotherhood should go back to preaching. The Brotherhood should choose its leaders from outside the political scene.
What do you think of the president's advisers?
Some of them are well-chosen, such as Ambassador Mohamed Rifaa El-Tahtawi, who has extensive knowledge and expertise.
One thing that would help achieve the revolution's goals is to stop relying on the men of the old regime, or the fulul, save under exceptional circumstances, such as when there is no one else to do the job. This is not the case here. For example, El-Katatni kept Sami Mahran in office.
How do you see the issue of freedoms in Egypt at present?
Freedoms in Egypt are in good shape. But sometimes freedom turns into chaos. I hope that freedom will not be restricted and that we will protect the freedoms of the press and the arts. All we need is a few regulations to protect moral standards and our traditions...
Also the national media shouldn't be affiliated with the ruling regime. This media is owned by the people and some of the things that were done on this front weren't good: the appointment, for example, of new chief editors without concern for standards; the conflict with the Higher Council for Journalism; the fact that some writers have turned coats and began to praise the new regime; the fact that some hypocrites are still allowed to write. Also, the decision to close down the channel of Tawfiq Okasha without court order, which raised quite a few eyebrows... Okasha should have been brought to trial and the matter should have been left to the courts to decide...
What are the things you don't like in Morsi's presidency?
I didn't like the fight in which the Brotherhood members got involved in [Tahrir] Square [on 12 October Morsi supporters attacked anti-Morsi protesters]. This was a wrong decision and deplorable conduct. I am all for Brotherhood members obeying [their superiors], but this was a case of misguided obedience. The Brotherhood members have placed their trust in a leadership that cannot be trusted in such matters...
How do you see the political future of the Brotherhood in Egypt?
If the Brotherhood continues to focus on politics and lose track of preaching activities, which is the case now, the Brotherhood will lose its edge both in politics and preaching...
Some accuse the Brotherhood of using religion to control society. What is your take on the matter?
It's all about the way one understands religion. To pretend to have a monopoly on the truth is wrong. To insult secular people who are known for their piety is also wrong. The Prophet is quoted in the Quran as saying "Either you, or we, are rightly guided, or in evident error." (Sabaa: 24) This verse tells us that no one has the right to decide who is right and who is wrong.
Lastly, what do you wish to tell Egyptians?
I wish to tell them what Imam El-Banna said, "Everyone should watch what they say, for only the Prophet is immune from error."