A well-known lawyer and activist, 40-year-old Khaled Ali
has made a name for himself among the poor by promoting social justice and defending the rights of workers, peasants and students over the course of the last two decades.
Born in 1972 in the Nile Delta governorate of Daqahliya, Ali received his law degree from Zagazig University in 1995.
In 1999, along with Ahmed Seif El-Islam, the prominent human rights lawyer and former LAC partner, he founded the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC), a law firm that has since become a major player in the country’s human rights scene. Ali served as HMLC executive director from 2007 to 2009.
In 2009, Ali founded the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), a prominent human and labour rights advocacy group which he directed until February of this year. He resigned his post at the ECESR, however, on announcing his intention to run in Egyptian presidency race.
Ali has made a number of notable accomplishments as a lawyer. Most famously, in March 2010, he obtained a landmark ruling in a class-action lawsuit that mandated an LE1,200 minimum wage for public-sector workers.
Ali announced his intention to run for president in late February 2012, championing a programme aimed at achieving the goals of the revolutions. His presidential campaign emphasises social equity, the redistribution of wealth, civil liberties and the revolutionary course as a continuing struggle.
Ali gathered the required 30 endorsement signatures from members of parliament, and officially filed his presidential papers on 7 April.
Ahram Online (AO): Why did you decide as a lawyer and activist to enter politics?
Khalid Ali (KA): I am no ordinary lawyer. I am a lawyer whose work is at the core of social issues in this country – my role was not merely to go to court; I fought in protests, at the lawyers' syndicate, and in Tahrir.
Only the narrowest perspective would restrict a lawyer’s possible career to the field of defence. I am like the late revolutionary singer Sheikh Imam, who used his oud to call for people's rights and fight dictators.
I was not a lawyer working on trade or commercial issues but on social and political struggles, fighting for and defending people's rights in the arena of freedoms and social dignity.
My entry into the race is an attempt to transport the causes I believe in from the arena of courts and protests to the wider arena of elections.
AO: On that note, what is your assessment of the performance of the majority party in parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, over the last few months?
KA: Their performance has been very disappointing – contrary to what I had expected. For decades, the Brotherhood had been seen as a strong and respectable organisation. People believed that if they reached a position of power, the Muslim Brothers would work with great capability to ensure fair representation and democratic decision-making. What we have had is an attempt by the Brotherhood, now in power, to maintain the old system.
This can be seen in the decisions they are making on the ground – for example, against trade unions. Although their political programme formally endorses freedom of association and the forming of unions – and this is what the revolution called for – they want to impose limits on the right to organise; they want the old system.
They also look suspiciously on anyone from outside the ranks of the Brotherhood who might call for social justice, immediately branding such people apostates, when in fact, I believe calling for social justice and human dignity is at the heart of Islam.
AO: You have suggested elsewhere that the revolution has been hijacked, what did you mean by that?
KA: There is definitely a process of counterrevolution against the Egyptian revolution and its goals; there are people who are defending the privileges of those affiliated to the former regime; meanwhile the revolutionaries have been exhausted by military trials and massacres. Most dangerously of all, the counterrevolutionaries have smeared the revolutionaries in the eyes of many as people who are against “the common man” and against “the wheel of production.”
I am trying to counter these false ideas, because I am a child of this revolution and one of its voices; as revolutionaries we are not against this society. On the contrary, we are focusing on social justice and dignity and the distribution of wealth.
All the post-revolutionary social problems stem from economic depravity and the widening gap between rich and poor; this is the fault of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the [Essam] Sharraf and [Kamal] El-Ganzouri cabinets, not the revolutionaries.
We have not yet occupied any official positions of power, and the people should give us a chance to see how we might cure their ills. I call on the people to choose a revolutionary to rule the country, to vote for a reputable opposition figure, to choose people who truly dreamed of this revolution – and there are many of us in Egypt.
AO: You fought for years in the courts for civil liberties and against human rights abuses; did the revolution bring about an end to Mubarak’s police state?
KA: The definition of a police state is a government that systematically uses security to violate the dignity of its citizens.
Based on this definition, and despite the human rights gains that have been made by the 25 January revolution, Egypt is still a police state. In fact, the levels of police brutality will increase as we edge closer towards the presidential elections and the transfer of power to a civilian administration.
However, the revolution has also brought out a number of policemen who are saying, "Yes, we used to torture people, but we now need to develop a new vision for how to deal with the public; and we want an interior minister who is a civilian. We want to remove the police force from politics; we do not want to be used as a sword in the hand of the person in charge but rather to ensure safety and security for the public."
These officers and policemen work under very harsh conditions and suffer from low wages, and they want to be treated fairly so that they can serve society better.
AO: Who will restructure the police force?
KA: The 25 January revolution proved that police repression only leads to rage and revolt against those who are tasked with the work involved. We cannot move towards a law-abiding society unless we rebuild state institutions. We need a huge change in our police – we need to restructure generations of policemen who have been trained based on a specific set of principles.
Society always needs police, but the question is what kind of police? We do not need police that use torture. We need police that protect all of society, not just the ruler. We can no longer accept the fact that lawyers or citizens feel intimidated walking into a police station to file a simple complaint. Yet at the same time we cannot expect those who are in power now to carry out the restructuring process; they are simply reproducing the old system.
We need new people – and we need to apply shock therapy to existing state institutions.
You made the fight against poverty and for a minimum wage a key part of your career in law and presidential campaign, are you unconcerned about other priorities?
KA: We have widespread poverty in Egypt, and the economic policies of the state discriminated in favour of a tiny portion of the population.
Under Mubarak the economy grew regularly but only a specific class benefited. We had a situation where five per cent made up of businessmen took eighty-five per cent of all loans issued by banks. A small number of families acquired millions of acres through deals in closed rooms without any sign of the competition on which capitalism is meant to be based.
We need a living minimum wage for workers and the poor. I do not care about the actual number on that wage, whether it is LE1,200 or 1,500. It has to be tied to inflation and the costs of basic consumer goods; and the government must enforce it. Businessmen actually do not have an issue with this; I have attended meetings with businessmen in the Ministry of Manpower and they stated they are willing to pay.
The real hurdle in our way is that Egyptian workers pay one the highest rates of social insurance in the world – it eats up almost 40 per cent of their wages – and it doesn’t translate into actual pensions after retirement.
Higher wages and progressive taxes – I advocate both principles; and they are not antithetical to the interests of capitalists granted that the government spends its money efficiently on infrastructure projects and services needed for a strong economy that benefits all such as health and education.
In other words, we need a new social contract between workers and businessmen.
How do you see Egypt's foreign policy on questions such as Palestine, and relations with the United States and Israel?
KA: First of all, I feel ashamed as an Egyptian when you say the word Palestine because we have enforced an blockade on the Palestinian people in Gaza for years. That blockade has to end once and for all.
The 25 January revolution has bestowed new powers on the Egyptian people vis-vis Israel. When Israel forcefully entered our borders and killed the soldiers last summer, it was forced to apologise because the people, inspired by revolution, protested in huge numbers outside its embassy.
Camp David and the peace treaty, we’ve inherited from the old regime. We will follow through with it if they do so as well – anything more, any economic deals beyond a peace agreement, I have a right to cancel. We have to stop all natural gas sales to Israel (and to Spain and to Jordan, for that matter). We need gas to deal with our own spiraling internal energy problems – LE5 cooking gas disks being sold in poor neighbourhoods in Cairo like Imbaba at LE60 per item. We have to stop the gas sales to Israel and I believe that international law is on our side.
Cancelling the peace agreement does not mean that we will wage war on Israel. It simply means that the people who staged the revolution want to benefit from the wealth that they create – to build a new society and a new economy.
The Egyptian revolution has allowed Egypt to gain a lot of sympathy around the world. I think that we have to use this sympathy as the source for a new foreign policy based on the implementation of what I call soft power.
For one, we can pressure international institutions to drop the debt that Mubarak incurred on the country in an illegal, undemocratic way and which did not benefit ordinary people.
Generally, Egypt's foreign policy in the last years of the Mubarak years faced a serious crisis.
There was a scheme for the inheritance of power [for Gamal Mubarak to become president] and this was supported by Israel and America. All the key figures in our ministry of foreign affairs were handpicked because they could not challenge this scheme.
We need new diplomacy and new faces in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We need the ministry to place Egypt on the world agenda, to work with Africa in helping us build our own economy. We need south-south cooperation – to develop ourselves and become strong vis-a-vis the superpowers.
What is your vision for the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in the new Egypt?
KA: The army does not belong to anyone, not to SCAF, not to [Field Marshal]Tantawi, and not to the next president. The army belongs to the Egyptian people; all of Egypt's sons are in the army and it will remain great. But we have to hold people responsible for their wrong doings.
Does holding people responsible mean taking revenge? No, it's holding people accountable to the rule of law. We need a return to respecting the rule of law. When people stop respecting the rule of law, and senior people violate it, and judges violate it and the prosecutor violates it, don't be surprised when others violate it.
The army must do its job in protecting the borders. The army must get out of civilian industries such as food and construction, where it currently controls up to 40 per cent of the economy.
The army was forced to build its own factories to meet its internal demand for consumer goods because privatisation after the 1973 war decimated public industries which used to feed the soldiers.
All these army-owned industries must return to the public sector, which together with the private sector could play a major role in eliminating unemployment by hiring the unemployed instead of relying on conscription.
AO: Who funds your campaign?
KA: There is no funding for the campaign, but once the registration papers are completed and officially presented, we will then open a bank account for donations.
AO: Do you have something special to offer minorities in Egypt?
KA: We have discrimination in Egypt. However, discrimination in our society is not based simply on religion; it is based on social class. For example, a rich Coptic Egyptian was not discriminated against as much as a poor Copt.
I dream of a constitution similar to the South African one, whereby all shades of society participate in writing the document, and no majority excludes a minority.
AO: One last thing, where were you during the uprising against Mubarak?
KA:On 24 January, the day before people took to the streets, I hosted a lecture at the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Rights, which I directed at the time, examining similarities and differences between Tunisia and Egypt as regards the possibility of a revolution. I said we wanted a revolution in Egypt like Tunisia.
From 25 to 29 January, I participated in street protests. On 29 January, specifically, I used a friend’s car to transport the injured to makeshift hospitals. During the 18-day sit-in, my NGO remained open, providing mostly medical assistance to protesters.
Consequently, on 3 February, security forces attacked my offices and I was detained for a number of hours.
Interview by: Nada El-Kouny and Mostafa Ali