Heikal speaks to Al-Ahram on the necessity of action

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal , Thursday 19 May 2011

In the third and final part of his interview with Al-Ahram, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal discusses prosecuting the symbols of the former regime, soft revolution, and his opinion of current presidential candidates

Heikal

Regarding the trials of the symbols of corruption in the former regime, did you expect corruption to have run this depth and broad?

There are three main categories of corruption. First, financial and administrative corruption. Second, strategic and political corruption. And third, corruption pertaining to human rights crimes, such as torture in prison and murder. I don’t believe you should put the future on hold in order to bring the past to account. There must be a separation, and we should create a special legal and political agency to investigate what took place, because this matter must be thoroughly investigated and reach a final, absolute and just result.

Leaving everything to the General Prosecutor’s Office is unfair because they are very busy, especially with security issues. We are asking too much of the general prosecutor and his staff, and unfortunately in Egyptian society there are thousands of spiteful and fabricated complaints, which is a natural phenomenon in a society that has been victimised. Everyone is willing to file a complaint based on truths, psychological reasoning, or imagination. This has happened in other countries too.

We have a problem when dealing with corruption and we need new methods of handle it. The crux of the problem is that the former regime behaved as if it would stay in power forever, because there was no organised force challenging its authority. Accordingly, most of its actions were confident in the belief that it could do anything and everything.

In truth, having Mubarak stay in power for 30 years without any challengers is a force to be reckoned with, which bolstered the regime’s self-confidence and was a temptation to all to serve the regime, its officials and symbols. Those who flocked to the National Democratic Party (NDP) were not interested in party ideology or its platform, but instead wanted to parachute into power.

NDP members used all kinds of methods to protect their privilege, especially clandestine “operations” tasked with confusing party enemies, maligning them and undermining their effectiveness. This included spreading rumours or tales to distract them, using advances in technology, coining phrases and slogans and leaking them to newspapers. Also, creating a new unit for quick intervention in charge of sending letters to newspapers, calling into chat shows, making specific comments on websites, which they called “counter waves”.

A British Labour Party leader was once surprised that the ruling party in Egypt —whose members frequently travel between Cairo and London —did not pay attention to ideas, but rather to the operations unit of the party. “In Egypt, they only care about Peter Mandelson and his friends who come to Cairo often,” the leader said.

All this directed political action in Egypt to a dangerous place. The NDP allocated a special unit of the State Security Agency (SSA) to monitor telephone calls, including those by politicians, political thinkers and activists. All the telephones were tapped on behalf of the NDP, separately from the work of the SSA —albeit using the agency’s facilities. It was not unusual for a leading NDP figure to say that they have documents against anyone who dares challenge the party.

A few days ago I met one of the pillars of the former regime by coincidence, and he expressed his surprise at how quickly the NDP collapsed as soon as the January revolution started. He told me, and I know how influential he was in the old regime: “Ahmed Ezz established an ironclad communication network within the party relying on an electronic network for contact between all the offices, for which he paid LE200 million out of his own pocket. He also established other means for emergency communication, but all of this evaporated the instant the revolution took place.”

All this, and other matters, is a form of political corruption that no one could be held accountable for. It created an alarming level of intertwining, entanglement and chaos in Egyptian political life, making it difficult to pinpoint its effects. There is also a form of moral political corruption that is even more dangerous. How can we hold anyone accountable for that type of corruption of political life in Egypt?

 

Is this corruption related to what you called ‘the drying up of the political river’?

This kind of political action in the country made dialogue appallingly shallow, which is extremely damaging, even within the opposition. For example, when I talked of “the guardians of state and constitution” for the first time about two years ago, many reactions at the time, and until today, described it as “unconstitutional” and that the constitution contains no such thing. In the past, I would give them an excuse for saying so; I would say, some of us do not know that meeting demands relies on the amount of pressure exerted to make it happen. When push came to shove, that constitution collapsed at the hands of the 25 January Revolution.

 

Were you worried when one of your sons was mentioned in complaints to the Prosecutor General?

There were two issues at play; rumours and reports that one of my closest relations was involved in the privatisation process, and that he partnered with one of the former president’s sons. First, I want to confirm without hesitation that no one in my family took part in any privatisation deals, and anyone who knows me is aware how much I detest the process, whether in principle or how it was carried out. I am someone who would have preferred that the public sector remain in the hands of the people, and would be accompanied by a private sector that can develop with freedom according to the standard rules of capitalism, based on new and broad development not just the mere transfer of ownership from public to private to be pilfered and not improved.

I am certain that none of my children befriended or partnered with anyone from former president Mubarak’s family, and even if they imagined such a friendship or partnership they would have been turned down because my views are public and well known. Nonetheless, I do wonder, and let’s be honest, who wouldn’t have wanted to befriend or partner with the president’s sons? Everyone competed for this position and many sacrificed themselves under the feet of the president’s son, the president, his wife and anyone who is connected to them. But my children did not do that, simply because of my positions and the sensitive nature of what I always talked about, especially the issue of succession. My children chose to stay away and I said that if they tried they would never succeed. In all cases, they kept their dignity and maintained a good distance. I am certain of it.

I would have never discussed this issue if it weren’t for the fact that my name was used in this controversy. I would also like to confirm a few things. First, no one is above the law; no one has immunity preventing their interrogation and accountability if they make a mistake or transgress. Second, no one should overlook the political, historical and human nature of the phase we are in. In light of the fluidity of society right now, understanding is necessary and needed. Third, our public life has seen many historical events that have left their print on action and sentiment.

My final word on this is that no one is above justice and morality.

 

Do you think the Egyptian press was of the same calibre as the revolution?

My only concern about the Egyptian press until this moment is that historical cognizance has not yet reached some pages and satellite channels that broadcast concepts and values. I hope that mixing up issues stops, because I am worried without being pessimistic. I wish that at this moment all those in charge of the Egyptian press and media would abide by a code of conduct.

There isn’t much news anymore, but there are plenty of scandals; there aren’t many truths but instead tales to stir fear, etc. There are other stories that are too incredible to believe and are ridiculous exaggerations. For example, and I personally read this in documents submitted to official bodies, they tell us that Hosni Mubarak has an account in the Bank of Caledonia worth $820 billion. The wealth of the two richest people in the world, Gates in the US and Carlos in Brazil, amounts to between $50-60 billion, therefore $820 billion is difficult to believe.

Egypt’s national income is $220 billion annually, so it is unreasonable to say that Mubarak kept all of Egypt’s national income for four years and deposited it all in one bank.

 

Several political and religious movements emerged from the underground after being suppressed or banned by the former regime. What is the effect of their sudden emergence on democracy in Egypt?

I am very concerned because some people view the interim period as a phase of biding one’s time and postponing action at the level of institutions. This is a misunderstanding, because an interim period is not a time for waiting and laxity, it is a defining moment and specific phase. It is true that there are conferences for dialogue, but this should be coordinated with the capable authority of the revolution. Where is this authority? I am concerned because we have succeeded but are not yet victorious.

 

You harshly criticised the current presidential candidates, saying that Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei do not have the right political history and have no ties to Egypt because they did not always live here. The natural response by millions of Egyptians is, who are the alternatives?

This was a headline that misquoted me and I have reproached them. I did not say that Moussa and ElBaradei don’t understand politics or that they have no ties to Egypt. On the contrary, I know the value and advantages of both men. This is what I said exactly: one of the symptoms of the current crisis is that candidates have come from outside the domestic political arena —those who spent most of their lives abroad because of their diplomatic careers.

As for alternatives, we must ask ourselves: What makes a leader? It’s the interaction of ideas, presence, and competition over visions for the future. This will occur when we realise that the interim period is one of action, political activity, dialogue, presence by all forces and finding a framework for connecting the youth, the masses and the army. Once this happens, hundreds of leaders will appear. Hamdeen Sabahi and Judge Bastaweesi, Abdel-Moneim Abul Futuh, and others, have already become visible, and there will be more. What is important is for interaction and dialogue to continue within society to enable serious male or female candidates who can shoulder the responsibility to become visible.

ElBaradei did not appear on the political scene until one year before the demise of Mubarak; men are made through their interaction with history and their presence at the centre of events and opportunities.

 

But there were others who were at the centre of events, such as Ayman Nour, Hamdeen Sabahi, Sameh Ashour and others

There is a difference between rising within the ranks of a certain party and structure and climbing up onto a wide, open local, regional and international stage.

 

In January 2006, five years before the revolution, you talked about Baheyya and her famous blog. Did you ever imagine that the whispers of the youth in the virtual world, which many viewed as nonsense and musings, would become loud cries and a torrent that succeeded in changing reality on the ground?

I reference my interview with Al-Jazeera conducted by Mohamed Korayshan that was broadcast at the end of last year, one month before the revolution. At the end of the interview, I said that I have high aspirations for the youth on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. I was not only trying to spotlight Baheyya, whose identity still remains a mystery to me, but the new and influential virtual world.

Baheyya wrote better than any chief editor in Egypt at the time; she had excellent analysis, especially on the crisis of the judges. My point was to draw attention to other means of expressing opinion. Since then, many bloggers contacted me to tell me that after I talked about Baheyya they too decided to start blogging, and the phenomenon expanded. I am happy with this and I view it as a feature of the future, though it will not replace newspapers.

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