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Q&A: Egypt's titans defend their party positions

Ahram Online talks about the transitional period and the new government with representatives of three key players: the Brotherhood's Amr Darrag, the NSF's Mohamed Abul-Ghar and the Nour Party's Nader Bakkar

Bel Trew, Sunday 21 Jul 2013
Three leading figures in Egypt's political crisis (Photo: Various)
Views: 4466
Views: 4466

Mohamed Abul-Ghar, leading member of the National Salvation Front and founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) that provided both the prime minister and deputy prime minister in the current interim cabinet

What are your thoughts about the new cabinet?

The new cabinet is reasonable, it is a very good group, people are happy with some appointments as they belong to the revolution. Of course, there are some ministers that aren't the best... as they had to fill spaces, there was not enough time to fish for new people for some posts. 

Are there any appointments you and your party disagree with?

There are some ministers like electricity and transportation that I cannot say are good choices. They are not politically involved, they are technocrats and chosen based on their capabilities, but I can't tell if they are good or not.

However the important portfolios - economy, foreign affairs, education, youth - they are very good. 

Mohamed Abul-Ghar, founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (Photo: official Facebook page)

Isn't it telling that all security forces ministers have stayed the same, including the interior minister?

The military should stay the same. The defence minister has always been the head of army. The interior minister was very much disliked during [Mohamed] Morsi's rule, but he has done a good job during the last few weeks. Personally I wanted the past minister to come again, Ahmed Gamal. I thought he was better. 

During the past three weeks, the minister of interior did a good job. We have to wait and see. The minister of interior has always served the government: when the power changes they automatically change.

But didn't the police come out against Morsi before he was ousted?

The police didn't come out against Morsi but they did support the people in the street, they did not stop demonstrations. 

Yes, they announced before they couldn't secure the Brotherhood buildings but when there is a conflict between civilians they keep away. They have done that repeatedly during the last three years.

There has been criticism that too many of the new ministers hail from political parties, including the ESDP, that stand to gain from Morsi's ouster

Most of the good technocrats joined the new political parties after the revolution, so it would be very difficult to pick a technocrat who is politically orientated and not part of a political party.

In addition we [the Egyptian Social Democratic Party] have frozen the membership of the prime minster and deputy prime minister, so they are now independent technocrats. Every member of this cabinet was chosen because of his abilities not his affiliation to political parties. 

There are no Islamists in the cabinet...

The Brotherhood and the Nour Party were invited and they did not join in. The direction was to include everybody but they didn't want to be a part if it. 

Nour was not only invited, their opinion was taken into account. They interfered in choosing other people but refused to join in themselves.

And the Brotherhood? Are you reaching out? 

We tried to reach these people, we said they are included. We don't want revenge, we want to have reconciliation, which we said on TV and radio repeatedly. Most of the secular forces, said this.

The Brotherhood doesn't reach out to us: they don't answer anything. We would love to have reconciliation with them, we would like them to join the political arena, as a normal regular party, like the others. 

Part of this reconciliation means those in jail will be released - unless somebody did something that deserves legal consideration. 

We made a clear announcement that we do not accept any killing like [the deaths of 51 Morsi supporters last Monday by the Republic Guard HQ] and we want an independent judicial committee to investigate. We will see the results of this committee and then we will find out what to do. We fear that [the military] used excessive force.

Only three police officers have served jail time for killing or injuring protesters since the start of the January 25 Revolution, so isn't it unlikely that we'll see justice for the 51 killed, particularly now the army is overseeing this period?

Probably we won't get justice, we have to see - if the committee says some people are wrong we will insist they should go to trial. 

The army is not in charge. The cabinet was formed independently apart from three posts concerning the police and the military - the rest are civilians. The temporary president is a judge and the vice president is a known civilian.

But the constitutional declaration, outlining the time frame for elections and the powers of the executive body, was written and issued without civilian input...

We did not accept the method by which the constitutional declaration was written, we were not consulted, we were against the content, we were promised that this will not happen. 

So you can't guarantee anything?

Nobody can guarantee anything in a third world country but we have to fight for it. 

I think the situation now will be better. The cabinet will be much more efficient than the Muslim Brotherhood's. The problem is that the Brotherhood is currently creating a lot of mess because they are really cornered; for the first time in their history they are unpopular.

They have lost student unions, they didn't get one seat in the journalists' syndicate, they lost the farmers' syndicate… I am certain they will never win presidential elections, parliamentary elections.

They wanted to gain popularity by doing all these demos, but they are losing support - people are very angry at what they are doing. The whole district of Nasr City [the location of the pro-Morsi sit-in] is extremely unhappy.

There are criticisms that this cabinet will not be able to achieve anything.

This cabinet will do, in a very short time, things that all cabinets since Mubarak's time have failed to do.

There will be anti-corruption measures, transparency, a new good NGO law. There will be the problem of the economy and they will deal with it, after talking to all political sides. The people will share in the decision. 

This is the first time we have three Copts and three women in the cabinet in the history of Egypt. [The military] only had one, Mubarak only ever had two.

Nour Party spokesperson Nader Bakkar told Ahram Online he expects fights in this cabinet as it is not cohesive.

So far there have been no fights. What the Nour Party rejected was accepted, we were not happy about this but we accepted them. 

Is the six month time frame realistic?

I don't think six months is long enough, but I'm sure everything will be done in less than a year. 

Nader Bakkar, spokesperson for the Salafist Nour Party which refused four portfolios in the interim cabinet

Nader Bakkar, spokesperson for the Salafist Nour Party (Photo: Ahram Hebdo)

What are your thoughts on the new cabinet?

From a technical point of view, this cocktail of ministers cannot work together effectively. They lack the minimum level of integration in order for them to work effectively. Secondly, we advised them to shrink the cabinet to 15 or to 20 ministers.

I hope they succeed because I want Egypt to be stabilised but from a managerial point of view I doubt this collection of people will.

The return of Ashraf El-Arabi in the planning ministry is positive, he's a good guy. Hisham Zaazou for tourism, he's a clever man, we've worked with him a lot before and we know he's very honest. [Prime Minister] Hazem El-Beblawi is a good choice himself.

Regarding agriculture and others, there is a big question mark. Even the minister of electricity, why leave him in his post when we were complaining about electricity problems before [Morsi's ouster]? We also asked them to merge electricity with petroleum into one energy minister in order to solve the overlap but they didn't listen. 

Why do you believe this cabinet will not succeed?

They lack a shared vision. They belong to different schools, points of view, generations, different backgrounds.

We asked people to forget about names, concentrate on the criteria…. for example, the appointment of [Mohamed] ElBaradei as prime minister. When you substitute an elected president for someone who is actually the competitor of Mohamed Morsi and a party leader at the same time, by military force, how can you talk about democracy? 

We asked them to choose someone with economic and the necessary government experience. They listened to some of our points, for example the culture ministry appointment.

What offers were made to the Nour Party, why didn’t you take them?

They offered us four portfolios, as well as the position of the vice prime minister, but we did not want to benefit from the 30 June protests. We are a political party and only decided after some time to share in the roadmap in the interests of this nation.

... We don't want a political umbrella for this cabinet: it should be run by technocrats. We advised other political parties not to fall into this trap.

What positions were you offered?

[Pause] It is not important. No comment.

But you not participating now means there are no Islamists in this cabinet?

From the beginning we wanted technocrats. We suggested technocrats from outside the liberal and secular stream. However, you cannot say Ashraf El-Arabi is secular. Hisham Zaazou, you cannot say that he is secular…However, yes, the National Salvation Front (NSF) is benefitting from this cabinet, which will increase tensions.

All the security forces ministers stayed the same, including the much-hated interior minister. Doesn't this send out a clear message?

Of course. [laughs] Why change him? … I have nothing to say [pause]. Okay, I have no comment.

There are reports the Nour Party are mediating with the Brotherhood.

We have been in communication with them, but they are very angry and very worried about the future. How can you convince these people of reconciliation, while they're watching the security treat [leading Brotherhood figure] Khairat El-Shater like that? To film someone while you are arresting him from his bedroom is against human rights, against democracy, against religion, against everything.

Dignity is a key issue here. Security is a key issue here. No one can guarantee that if [Brotherhood figures] go back home, they won't be arrested, even if the military says there's a gentleman's agreement.

What is being said in your discussions with the Brotherhood?

They want guarantees. We told them we believe in negotiations, in roundtable discussions, come sit down with us and with others, to say everything they want. But until now they haven't.

... We're trying to convince them, but every day things get more difficult.

Former Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag told Ahram Online they cannot negotiate while a "gun is being held to their heads."

I can understand their argument. It is a valid argument… [The Nour Party] tried to keep the constitution, and we succeeded partially, now they are talking about amendments, which is a partial success. The Shura Council, yes, we were promised that nobody would touch it, and they broke their promise.

One of the criticisms leveled at the Nour Party is that it has no right to veto cabinet appointments as it did not participate in June 30 protests or the revolution.

No comment. Who cares. I respect their opinion. So what?

…From the beginning we said we will not protest for or against Mohamed Morsi.

When we decided to be part of the road map, part of the [army chief Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi picture we knew we would pay a price. If this act failed, then we would be in jail… We advised on the cabinet. Hazem El-Beblawi and Adly Mansour respected our advice. This is our power, to advise.

There will be a constitutional committee looking at amending the current constitution – what are the red lines for the Nour Party?

The articles that are talking about identity: so number 219, the fourth article, and the second one, by default.

Anything else is subject to negotiation.

Amr Darrag, leading Brotherhood figure who was the minister of planning and international cooperation until Mohamed Morsi was ousted

Amr Darrag, leading Brotherhood figure and former minister (Photo: official page)

We are in a deadly political stalemate right now. Are we likely to see some movement towards reconciliation any time soon?

I don't think any reconciliation can take place under the umbrella of a military coup. It has to be between equivalent totally free partners, and while our leaders are in jail, we are subject to arrest warrants, many of our leaders had their bank accounts frozen, our TV channels are shut down, what kind of reconciliation can there be? It's like you put a gun to someone's head and asked for reconciliation.

What terms are you willing to accept, would you let go of Morsi as president?

It is not the issue of Morsi. We have legitimacy... We have the president, the constitution, the Shura Council, the parliament - this is an elected body - the constitution, approved by the people… it was approved by the majority according to democratic rules.

Even if we accept that the president is not back, how can we accept that the constitution is suspended? Who has the power to suspend the constitution and the Shura Council that was elected by the people?

So you might accept that Morsi is out?

He has to be back, after that anything can happen. Maybe he's back for one minute and we have some sort of agreement that he's back and the first decision is to resign. Fine. Or the first decision is to call for elections, or a referendum, or whatever is agreed upon.

Are the Brotherhood in talks with anyone?

I'm not involved in these talks. My information is that we're talking to everybody, Nour, other parties. I don't know… they are accusing us of terrorism all the time on TV, how can we talk to them? If it was up to me I wouldn't talk to them, to be honest... One week ago we're good people, now we are terrorists. This is not the environment to talk. But we are open to talk to anybody.

What's your strategy then?

Our strategy is to depend on the people. We have no other option. The state is totally against us… we don't mind that we have opposition in terms of people who do not like our program, or do not like us, but what we are sure is that this time we will be able to convince people that it is the wrong position to take the side of the military, even if they oppose us.

There are rumours of splits within the Brotherhood.

As a matter of fact this is unifying the Brotherhood more. We are attracting the support of others, people who are not in the Brotherhood.

...In times of crisis, people tend to get together, even if there are differences within the group. So this is actually unifying us rather than splitting us.

Surely you've lost membership?

Nobody is keeping track but I believe we are gaining more. If we lost popularity during the last few months, I believe that we are gaining much more now.

The Brotherhood praised Morsi for wrestling power from the military, so what happened?

We've been telling people that we didn't have control [of the state] and people didn't believe us. We've always been accused of the "ikhwanisation" of the state, controlling the bones and joints and everything, spreading our people everywhere… but nothing collapsed, there was nothing, there was no control to collapse. We tried our best, having a minister here, a governor there, some employees, to make some achievement with a lot of power against us, a lot of deep state resisting what we're trying to do. Gradually we've been trying to clear things up.

The president had maybe 25 percent control, but not more than that, and the control he had related to his power of legitimacy rather than physical power. The security forces, the police force was totally against him, not protecting, not doing that it should be doing, the military was concentrating on building the military establishment itself, they were not interfering on the surface, the judiciary was totally against us, and that was repeatedly proven, of course the media all the time, and the deep state.

This coup succeeded because we did not really have that much control.

There are accusations the Brotherhood are contributing to the violence by inciting your supporters on the sit-in stages.

You have to accurately follow our statements. We said that those who called for demonstrations had to take responsibility for the safety and well-being of the protesters. And when we organised protests, we never allow women to be raped in the streets, we never allow any harassment of women. We protect the people who are there.

You are staying put in your sit-ins, so will this drag on for years?

Of course, depending on how easily we can convince the people. The main power in this country is people. So you have to have landslide support to a movement in order to be able to achieve that. The moment that we manage to convince all the patriotic forces and people that it is not to their benefit to accept the military rule, they will be back in the streets like the 25 January.

The ouster happened very fast, with very little resistance from the people, how do you feel about that?

Maybe it was a mistake to underestimate what was going to happen. We did realise there was a lot of opposition, we acknowledged that. What we did not anticipate was that the army would make use of that to make its move that, in our opinion, was endorsed by the Americans. This is very important. The army would never have done this without the endorsement of the US, so we didn't even meet [Deputy Secretary of State] Bill Burns when he came because we know quite well that he is part of the scheme.

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