An interview with ex-Intel presidential hopeful Lt. Gen Khairallah

Ahmed Eleiba, Monday 23 Apr 2012

Former intelligence officer who fought in the 1973 war with Israel talks to Ahram Online about being patriotic, standing by the army, his relationship with Omar Suleiman and how he sees the future of Egypt

Hossam Khairallah
ex-Intel presidential hopeful Lt.Gen Hossam Khairallah (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Lieutenant General Ahmad Hossam Khairallah is no stranger to politics. His grandfather, General Mohammad Hamed Khairallah was a police chief before the 1952 revolution and escorted King Farouk in his last trip out of Egypt aboard the Al-Mahrousa ('the protected'); his mission being to bring the royal yacht back to the country. His father, Kamal Khairallah was deputy interior minister and governor of Aswan.

Khairallah started out as a paratrooper for 12 years, rising to the rank of major and fighting in both the Yemeni war in the 1960s and October war in 1973, before joining the General Intelligence Services (GIS) in 1976. In 2006 he became chief of the Information and Estimation Unit. He retired in 2006.

As well as being president of a sports club, Khairallah is a veteran environmentalist. He represented Egypt in several international conferences related to the environment, as well as in Middle East talks and Egyptian-US dialogue. 

Many say that Khairallah is the army’s presidential candidate but he vehemently denies it.

"I left the army 35 years ago. As for my colleagues in GIS, I talked [about running for presidency] to some of them informally. Some warned me of the expense while others liked the idea."

Khairallah’s planned presidential bid will be the first time a current or former member of Egypt’s intelligence community contests a top government post via free elections. 

Khairallah says that he followed the revolution closely but didn’t go to Tahrir Square because he said it wasn’t prudent, considering the delicate nature of his former posts.

According to the ex-Intel officer, ousted president Hosni Mubarak is guilty of undermining Egypt’s regional and international stature.

"The situation in Egypt over the past 30 years was one of stagnation and corruption. This was clear to everyone especially in the past five years. Life was getting harder for the average citizen, who didn’t get much trickle down from the 7- 8 per cent growth."

Mubarak’s lack of leadership qualities, notes the presidential hopeful, undermined Egypt’s role in the Palestinian issue.

"I recall in 1996, when Likud came to power [Israel's current ruling political party], Mubarak sent a message to the GIS saying that Likud’s coming to power was good because it was likely to complicate the issue and prolong tensions, which would give Egypt, whose role had dwindled, a chance to get involved once more."

Following the Eilat operation in August last year, which Israel blamed on Sinai Bedouins, the Israelis set up a rapid deployment force for Sinai. This is something that worries Khairallah, who believes the army are too distracted with "domestic matters."

"The army must restore the country’s sovereignty in Sinai. The Israelis, by creating such a unit, are sending us a message."

As for the peace process, Khairallah says that the peace treaty involves three countries: Egypt, Israel, and the US, which makes it hard to scrap. However, it is important for Egypt to act in keeping with its international interests, sovereignty, and independence.

"Egypt has paid a high price in previous wars," Khairallah adds.

In Sinai, the Bedouins are dismayed at the government’s disregard for their needs, says Khairallah. He says development, not armament, is the best guarantee for Sinai’s security. "As long as Sinai remains isolated, it will pose a real danger to Egypt’s security."

Concerning Egypt’s future development, Khairallah says that the country does not have the luxury of inaction. In the face of a growing population, cultivating the North Coast, he adds, is essential as it can give Egypt a much-needed 30 million feddans [13 million hectares] of agricultural land.

"We live on 6 per cent only of Egypt’s area. At the current rate of population growth, which is 1.6 per cent per year, we will be 120 million in 2020. At which point, we will need to add 8 million feddans [3.4 million hectares] to our agricultural land. "

He also said that it was important to develop the Qattara Deression region, a largely salt pan and sand dunes desert region in the North-West of Egypt. We should also support the proposed development corridor, he said, which runs through the western oases.

"We need, meanwhile, to maintain equilibrium between machinery and labour, for we need to create jobs.”

Khairallah says that development calls for a new approach, which he believes he is working effectively on. "I have figures and maps and I have a world-class working team. We work closely with the best Egyptian minds."

When it comes to agriculture, Khairallah is willing to discuss facts and figures. He mentions a project which an Egyptian national started in Spain and he believes could be implemented here as well:

 "Rice grown in this country involves the use of 8,000 cubic metres of land per year. But there is a special type of fertilised soil that retains water and can be used to grow rice as well as barley."

Khairallah says that he read a lot about the Vietnam War, Islam, Zionism, and espionage. One of his favourite books is Shafiq Al-Hut’s From Java to Exile.

Would a civilian president have trouble dealing with the military? And how much is the latter clinging to its privileges? Khairallah answer is cautious. He starts by explaining how he has not dealt with the military for over three decades.

"There must be a common language and a true appreciation of the needs, the risks, and the cost of military deployment," Khairallah explains. "Modern countries not only have civilian presidents but have civilian defence ministers as well. It is the job of the president and the minister to provide for the army’s needs."

Citing what former US president Ronald Reagan and his Defence Secretary Casper Weinberger used to do, Khairallah maintains that strategic military tasks have to remain in the hands of the chief of staff or the top military commander in practical terms.

Despite widespread criticism of the army and the ruling military council across the political arena, Khairallah asserts that the military institution is careful to maintain its good name and record of public support. He believes the army expects to retain its status without claiming any special privileges.

So what happened in Tahrir Square? Khairallah says that the clashes were caused by mutual provocations.

"Any situation involving an assault on human rights and dignity is unacceptable. Had the army pulled out its troops, the whole thing would have ended. But the army soldiers became embroiled in street battles."

Khairallah does not believe that these battles caused irreparable damage to the reputation of the army. "In these confrontations, the soldiers reacted in personal rather than a professional manner, as a result of provocation."

However, he does condemn instances which sparked public uproar, such as the female protester who was dragged, stripped to her bra and badly beaten by the army. "This was unacceptable. This incident must however be seen as an individual error, not an institutional one."

According to Khairallah, the next president is not going to have the power Mubarak used to have.

"The next president should be responsible only for national security and the broad lines of foreign policy. The rest must be taken up by other state institutions, which should act in cooperation with specialised national councils. We don’t have time to experiment. We don’t have a margin for error."

Khairallah sounds optimistic when he comments on Islamist politicians. The more time will pass, the more pragmatic they will become:

"The main challenge is economic performance, not political performance. With time, the Islamist currents will become more experienced and pragmatic. We mustn’t question anybody’s patriotism. If the Islamists fix the economy, this will give them some stability."

Copts and women are in no imminent danger, Khairallah adds. The church is an integral part of the country’s fabric, he explains and women are essential to the workforce as they support 40 per cent of all Egyptian families.

"We cannot ask them to step aside now after all the achievements they made. Those who want to marginalise women are dreaming. Al-Azhar will remain a firm defender of Egyptian moderation."

In television debates, Khairallah seems to be at odds with Mubarak's vice-president and former head of Intelligence Omar Suleiman. However, he says that there is no personal hostility between him and his old boss. "I used to talk to him about a lot of things," he added, when they worked together.

Khairallah admits to voicing objections over certain issues but his criticisms were based on facts, he says. For example his objection to Hosni's son Gamal Mubarak's presidential candidacy.

"Available information suggested that Gamal Mubarak was not qualified to become Egypt’s next president. I was sure that Gamal was being groomed for the job, although he was a conceited man with no ideas of his own."

During Khairallah’s work in the GIS, he was in favour of stronger ties with Africa and the Arab world.

"We demanded that a minister be appointed for African affairs, just as was the case with Boutros-Boutros Ghali. The aim was to stop the erosion of Egypt’s role in Africa and do something about the perils coming from this direction. Mubarak’s reaction was that he didn’t wish to repeat the experience of Boutros Ghali. The same thing goes for relations with Arab countries. We kept writing reports, our experts worked hard on these reports.  This wasn’t just my opinion."

Khairallah says that he met Mubarak for the first time in 1984 and came out with a negative impression, saying the ousted leader used to "listen without talking."

"We were guarded in our dealings with him when he first came to power. We were very cautious about him, for all of his policies were mere reactions," Khairallah explains, "This was a disaster, for Egypt with its weight and history cannot allow its policies to be confined to reaction and to be so lacking in independence."

Even Osama El-Baz, Mubarak’s political advisor was opposed to this line, Khairallah added. "El-Baz used to say that foreign policy cannot be subservient, but needs be assertive."

Military people have reservations about Khairallah introducing himself as a Lieutenant General firstly because it the same rank held by ousted Mubarak when he was appointed vice-president by late president Anwar El-Sadat in 1975. Secondly, because former colleagues assert there is no such rank in the intelligence agency. However,he goes on using this title, which is his official title after all.

"I have the rank of Lieutenant General by a law passed under El-Sadat. The law gives the staff of the GIS the same ranks as our colleagues in the army, because we work together on many issues."

Khairallah says that the next president should be aware of the volatile nature of the region, describing the surrounding countries to the East, West and South as "balls of fire." He is particularly worried about Israeli influence on neighbouring countries.

“According to some reports, Israel is thinking of [having] a military basis in Jabal Akhdar [Libya]. This is not proven yet, but if it turns out to be true, then we’re in for real trouble. Also, matters are unstable in a lot of areas around us, in the south, in Africa. And we need to do something about it.”

Some Islamists have been demanding posts inside the security institutions, especially the army, from which they had been barred. Some Islamist currents, it is feared, may be tempted to establish "outfits" within the army.

Khairallah says that the army is not going to allow it:

"The army is known for its ethical commitment. Religiosity exists within the military institution."

However it is essentially he asserts for the army to stay away from any political affiliation.

"The army belongs to all of Egypt and not to a particular political faction. We have a patriotic army and it should remain patriotic. We need to keep any outfits from getting into the army. This is a red line."

He recalls that the army suffered in the past because of its involvement in politics and should go back to its "main" mission, securing the country's borders. "Many in the army agree that politics is not the job of the military."

As for Mubarak’s trial, Khairallah prefers not to comment, saying the case is still in court, adding that Egypt needs to "focus on reconciliation and accountability, not on revenge."

Khairallah is of the opinion that the new president should be elected after the constitution is written. "We need a clearly-worded constitution that establishes checks and balances, and thus reduces frictions."

As for Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri's government, Khairallah believes that it should be given more time and that it is making progress. Had this government come to office five months earlier, he said, the security situation would have been quite different now.

Khairallah is not in favour of Egypt copying the political models of other countries.

"I don’t want Egypt to go for the Turkish or Iranian models. The Egyptians have their own needs. What we need is to encourage professionalism and work ethics. It used to be that Egyptians were role models in the Arab world."

Khairallah sees nothing wrong with American officials and diplomats holding consultations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. "The Brotherhood cannot do without the Americans and the Americans cannot do without the Brotherhood. Discussions have been going on between the two for quite some time, and there is nothing surprising about the ongoing dialogue."

Khairallah stresses that he has respect for all the presidential candidates but feels that what he has to say is different from the rest.

"If I agreed 100 per cent with [other presidential candidates] I wouldn’t have run," he explains, "Still, if my bid for the presidency stalls, I will be happy to serve my country through my work in the environment, as I always did."

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