Heikal speaks to Al-Ahram on a plan of action for Egypt

Monday 16 May 2011

In the second part of his interview with the daily Al-Ahram, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a highly respected political analyst, suggests a national plan of action


There are many concerns and fears in this phase about the future. How do you explain these feelings after a revolution, which by all accounts has been successful, although, you believe has not yet been victorious?

Let me be precise and concise. A distinction must be made between the state and its legal, institutional and administrative entities versus a political regime, which is chosen by the free will of the people to manage civil life according to various phases of development, needs and rotation of power, based on the right to elect.

The state must exist on the map as long as there are people living there. Often, change affects the status or existing order of a state, which has happened repeatedly throughout history, including Egypt’s recent history where between 1952-1954 the country transformed from a monarchy to a republic. The state continued to operate, although the regime had changed.

As for reassurance, stability and a sense of security and tranquillity; these will not be achieved by simply holding elections, unless they have a strong foundation and a constitution is drafted – as we have done many times. What provides people a sense of reassurance, stability, security and tranquillity is clear, exact knowledge of what awaits them: exactly what, when and how, one step after the other.

What’s needed is: First, a state capable of providing the basic daily needs of its citizens in terms of security and food. Second, a state led by an authority that can manage and organise. Third, a transition plan for state institutions, the presidency and national security council (currently represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)), government, larger council of state secretaries and constitution. Fourth, a political life that vibrantly motivates ideas and parties to create a new leadership. Fifth, a constitution written in a free environment by free people. Sixth, elections that resuscitate the political system. Seventh, elections for a presidency that will carry out newly-delineated, legitimate duties.

This would all be implemented according to a plan of action, not just spoken words, but rather in a clear, precise, organised and convincing fashion through a referendum to the people in an interim period where the state carries out its responsibilities. The people will decide on a clear agenda for an interim regime in power for no longer than two years; a bridge into the next phase.

Organising security, demands and interests are at the core of the structure of the state. This must be carried out by a comprehensive, legitimate system, which is based on a permanent constitution and a free political life.

Would you agree that this has already started, to some extent, with the referendum on the constitution roughly three months ago?

I was very surprised by that referendum. We voted on amendments to the ten articles in the constitution, although the amendments had already fallen apart and no longer existed. While the referendum was a remarkable event, that constitution was dropped in its entirety the next day. Then there was the constitutional declaration in an attempt to revamp it, but I do not believe this will achieve stability. This declaration included articles which cannot be implemented, for example, when we say “guaranteeing justice;” how will this be implemented?

I believe it is time that SCAF announces a national agenda. Some might say that they already did, to some extent, when they took power, but this was before matters became clearer and was self-restricted by an unnecessary deadline. Others could also say that SCAF has already issued a constitutional statement with many articles, but that declaration was about legalities, not a plan of action.

Today, we are waiting for parliamentary elections, but I don’t know how they will take place. There will also be presidential elections, but I don’t think they will result in anything new. A question we have not answered is: Why did the people call on the army at this moment? Simply because they realised that the army is the highest power in the country, and instead of being a tool in the hands of the regime it sided with the revolution, which needed to do what needs to be done.

Since matters are not clear-cut we fumble through because there is no organised quasi-institutional plan, but this will not do. There is a vision that the interim period is one of biding time, negotiations, compromises and postponement, but this is incorrect and is, in fact, a problem during a period which requires intense efforts and lengthy consideration to achieve the goals of the revolution.

I am talking about an interim period that should not last longer than two years in order to efficiently establish a political regime capable of running the country, through the direct authority of the people and by the people’s free will. We must remember that democracy is a way of organising life.

Some claim there is a conspiracy, quoting Condoleeza Rice’s former statements about creative chaos and a New Middle East.

I think that is mixing issues and a misinterpretation of what Rice said about creative chaos; we focused on “chaos” and overlooked “creative.” The former secretary of state believes there should be no fear of societies becoming chaotic because the dormant energy within them can create new laws to regulate society once again through fusion, interaction and dialogue. I disagree with her on all this, but what Rice said in itself is not a conspiracy. For example, the Allies had two wars; first under the pretext of democracy and the second claiming world peace. The goals themselves are not a conspiracy, but these goals were always used as a cover up any contradictory action taken. The problem with the Arab mentality is that it is suspicious of everything.


We lived through a period lacking in security after the revolution, with many sectarian incidents and other events. Is there an explanation for that state of chaos?

No. Let’s be clear: The state of revolution is a state of transformation, which can only occur by taking apart the old and rebuilding anew, according to a model which everyone wants. During transformation, societies are naturally in flux and all the parties present – whether well-intentioned or not – are trying to manipulate this state of fluidity to reconstruct as they please. This is when chaos – the condition which accompanies revolution – occurs. This depends on the strength of the revolution, which has the right to hold the reigns and restore order.

There is too much procrastination in confronting internal and external forces, which are trying to shape this volatility to serve their own interests before matters are brought under control and things solidify. I believe one of the top priorities of the revolution is to protect itself by removing chaos from its ranks, and this is the role of the new authority.


Let’s detail the challenges obstructing victory; are these challenges insurmountable or threaten the goals of the revolution?

I cannot deny that I am worried, although I have read extensively about great revolutions, lived through some of them in modern history and was able to follow closely this great revolution in Egypt since the end of January, 2011. I know from history that revolutions are dissimilar and do not repeat themselves. They each have their own character, environment and circumstances. The current Egyptian revolution is also unique.

I also know that the next day after a big revolutionary event concern is expected and rightfully so, because the next morning is loaded; encumbered with burdens and concerns after such a historic event. There are five critical issues that challenge and obstruct the Egyptian revolution from transforming success into victory:

First, this is a revolution that does not have a united leadership. Second, it that does not have a guiding principle, which can be the baseline or a point of consensus. Third, this revolution had no alternative except to entrust the armed forces with establishing legitimacy in order to be able to continue its mission. Four, and most importantly, all the accumulated and suppressed problems were released [at once] after the doors of hope were flung wide open by the revolution.

This revolution took place in an important and influential country with a long history, in a critical geographic location, with a combination of a large population and cultural influence, which makes it of interest to a world, who used to be secure in the rules of engagement with you. Now, the revolution is revising these rules and preparing for a future it desires.

Can we also say that the youth and other sectors in society who revolted do not have the authority and tools to achieve their goals?

You cannot claim that anyone in particular generated the revolution because it is a joint effort; the youth went out as the vanguards and when millions joined them, this opened many doors. When the army refused to side with the old regime and said it stood with the people, it, too, became part of the revolution and, therefore, this distinction between the youth, the masses and the army is incorrect.

Is there a distinction in their ability to take decisions?

The issue here is regulating the relationship between the forces of the revolution. The three partners are unfamiliar with each other; the youth, the millions of people and the army, even if they all come from the same fabric - each has their own logic. Up until this moment this has been the dilemma: there is no format to coordinate expression and action. For example, when the youth took to the streets, attracted the masses behind them, continued their revolutionary state and made a demand to SCAF, it was met the next day. That was necessary then, but now we need a dialogue to regulate the relationship, which should not be limited to one party asking and the other complying. We lack the institutional means that engages and interacts between the three components of the revolution…

The problem is that the three axes are interacting with each other as independent parties; forgetting that the revolution brought them together and that a joint goal united everyone. We need an orderly transition. SCAF says it does not want to stay in power too long. I understand that and we don’t want them to stay long, but as long as they are in charge under these conditions there must be a structure for meetings, consultations, scrutiny, exploration and discussion. It should also allow for debate instead of one side making the demands and the other complying.

An immense and historic responsibility is shouldered by the three parties. The first party, naturally, are the forces of the revolution, including the youth and the masses. This is obvious, but should be viewed from a wider perspective. These blocs of people should send representatives to some kind of temporary, consultative or founding council whose legitimacy is recognised and represents the youth and all popular forces. In this way we can guarantee proper representation of different social forces: perhaps a quarter of members would be youth; another quarter those who helped mobilise the Egyptian streets, such as judges, university professors, politicians from political parties, groups and others; another quarter would be representatives from the echelons of production, such as workers, farmers, administrators and businessmen and the final quarter would be from the ranks of the military, who understand military issues, the requirements of national strategy and have experience in foreign affairs. This is just a suggestion for discussion.

It does not have to be a state and council on the constitution, it could be an all-encompassing national congress, or the like, in order for the formula to stop being one party demanding and another complying or not, where the masses are just spectators who approve or not. We need to organise the transition on a well-defined base.

Who is the second component of the revolution and what is their role?

It is SCAF that was legitimately entrusted with the responsibility to run the country. Although I am certain this council was unprepared for the burdens it was given, I have repeatedly said since 25 January that the Egyptian army is the strongest pillar of Egyptian nationalism. It played a prominent role in modernisation and construction in the country throughout history, and SCAF should be given a chance under these extraordinary circumstances. I believe now they have the chance, and action is necessary.

A distinction must be made between two entities. First, there is the state, the institution that is founded on a social order to safeguard what is shared by everyone, and second, there is a structured political regime chosen by their free will. The state must have an executive structure with a president who has state responsibilities. We are not the first to invent this. In France, for example, there is a distinction between the head of state and head of the republic. It is possible that during the interim period, the head of state could be one person or more, while the head of the republic is another matter.

We must admit that today the state is absent because there is confusion about how to establish permanent, institutional, legitimate leadership - namely the head of the republic - and a transitional phase. No peoples can live without a state. Personally, I would support the appointment of Field Marshal Tantawi as president during this interim phase, in light of circumstances, facts and appreciation of his direct actions during the transition crisis. If a presidential council is preferred I don’t think it would be difficult to find another two members to join him while he stays in charge of the Ministry of Defence and SCAF, which could then become a Supreme Council for National Security.

Alongside the presidency there could be a state and constitution council to prepare for elections, which would propose a new constitution. This would guarantee the integrity and legitimacy of the interim period. We must, without hesitation, separate the omnipresent state [on the one hand] and the members of its political and constitutional structure [on the other].

After World War II France applied this after the state was restored and General Charles De Gaulle became temporarily responsible for the presidency until legislative elections brought in parties and other political forces. I sometimes feel there is unnecessary and excessive sensitivity towards this issue. The people, the armed forces and the entire world are watching: there is nothing to fear. In response, I quote former US President Roosevelt: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”


The youth and masses are the first component, the armed forces is the second, and the government is the third. What are your observations about its performance thus far?

I believe the executive power needs immediate support because managing the country is an immense task. There are a number of qualified ministers – whose names I will not mention – but there are others who are not up to par. This is something that should be handled forthrightly; this country right now needs the strongest, most efficient and active ministries more than at any other time.

What is important is a plan of action for the interim phase, step-by-step requirements and precision. This would transform the energy of the revolution into real action, guarantee a safe transition and exude confidence. The society must know what lies ahead without any ambiguity or suspense. At this critical moment, the country is subject to unknowns and surprises, especially since the economic situation is at a critical state, which means that everyone should pause.

A headline in Al-Ahram estimated Egypt’s economic losses in the first month of 2011 at about $70 billion. This is an alarm bell that we cannot ignore. While in Paris, I read a reliable report indicating that if Egypt’s economy continues down this path, the economy this year will suffer a two per cent deficit, which is a huge burden.

How do you expect the situation in Libya to end, especially that people have been killed and blood has been shed on all sides? What are the dangers of division?

I believe the Gaddafi’s regime has lost its legitimacy, but it still controls a capable army that is fighting on its behalf and tribes that remain loyal to it. When this ends we will face a critical dilemma because once Gaddafi loses legitimacy NATO missiles cannot build a new legitimacy. There are foreign forces trying to manipulate and hasten the demand for change, which is harmful to the movement for change.

The Arab League is at fault because instead of assisting the people of Libya we deferred the matter to the [UN] Security Council, which, in turn, handed over responsibility to NATO. Oil resources are always in the background, since they are the prize and target. This has harmed the Libyan revolution, destroying the country and tearing it apart. Unfortunately, this is similar to what we did in Somalia, Iraq and Sudan; I might even add in Syria and Lebanon, as well.

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