Egypt's New Guiding Lights
Interview by Mahan Abedin
Asia Times Online
4 March 2001
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen) was formed in 1928. Over the past eight decades, it has become a political, social and religious organization of unparalleled influence and depth in its Egyptian homeland. The Muslim Brotherhood is also an international movement with branches in most Arab countries as well as in the West
The downfall of president Hosni Mubarak in February and the onset of a transitional period in Egypt herald the prospect of full-scale participation by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian national life. Having endured decades of repression, the Brotherhood now stands to gain the most from the emerging political system.
Ibrahim Mounir was born in 1937 in Egypt. He studied law at university and has practiced as a lawyer for decades. Mounir joined the Muslim Brotherhood in his teens and steadily rose through the ranks. He is currently a member of the Brotherhood's executive bureau known as the Maktab Al-Irshad (Guidance Bureau) and is widely considered to be one of the most senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Do you think the protests in Cairo and elsewhere climaxed too soon?
The revolution hasn't fully unfolded yet. The mass street protests were required to topple Mubarak. The next stages of the revolution may require different forms of protest and resistance.
To what extent can we talk of regime change in Egypt?
Mubarak has departed the arena but the structure of the regime remains in place. However, this structure isn't strong because it has no ideology or philosophy behind it.
It appears that the Egyptian regime has fallen back onto its main pillars, namely the armed forces. The Egyptian army says that it will manage the transitional process fairly and will prepare the grounds for democracy. Do you take the army commanders at their word?
In principle we trust the army. One important point that is often missed by international observers is that the Mubarak regime continuously employed the divide and rule strategy. Mubarak created divisions within the army, as well as divisions between the army and other institutions, in particular the various police and security forces.
The main security forces number 1.5 million whereas the army is only 0.5 million strong. He conspired to create animosity between Omar Suleiman [former chief of security] and Habib el-Adly, the former interior minister and head of the security forces. Mubarak even created divisions within his own National Democratic Party. The main goal of this policy was to keep the institutions weak with a view to securing Mubarak's power base. No single institution was allowed to become too strong and as a result we shouldn't overestimate the political and security capabilities of the army.
You say you trust the army but are there adequate safeguards in place to bind the army to its pledges?
First the whole world has set its gaze on the Egyptian army and expects it to deliver on its promises. Second, there are divisions between the top brass of the army and junior officers. The younger officers are much closer to the people and are loath to undertake actions that undermine the fundamental interests of the Egyptian people. Third, even if it wanted to, the army, with half a million men, can't control Egypt.
Does that mean that if the army reneges on its pledges the people will go back to the streets?
The Egyptian people have overcome the fear barrier. They have shown that they are serious about pursuing their legitimate political aspirations.
There has been a lot of speculation in the Western media about the role (or lack thereof) of the Muslim Brotherhood in the protests. What was the true extent of the Brotherhood's participation in the revolution?
It is impossible to speak with precision about what was happening on the streets. But the protests were taking place all over the country, not just Tahrir Square in Cairo. I can confirm that much of the protests outside the capital was organized by the Brotherhood and its affiliated networks and organizations.
Moreover, most of the logistical services in Tahrir Square were provided by the Brotherhood. I've been told that even the public toilets were constructed by Brotherhood members and supporters. As you can imagine, sanitary facilities are important when you are conducting a prolonged protest movement in a specific area.
Much of the attention is focussed on the army and very little attention is being paid to the deep state, namely the Egyptian intelligence services. It appears that the revolution has failed to displace these organizations from their privileged, albeit secret, position on the political scene. What plans do you have to overhaul these secret organizations and bring them into line with democratic norms and values?
The entities you refer to are still in place as you say and they are very influential but not necessarily all that powerful. Reforming these sensitive institutions requires time. This is a program for all elements in Egyptian politics, not just the Muslim Brotherhood. All the main political actors, including the army, have to participate in the process of intelligence and security services reform in Egypt.
Some observers are of the opinion that unless there is root and branch institutional and cultural reform of the security services, democracy will not take root in Egypt.
We are talking about short- and long-term time frames here. In the short term, the cancelation of the Emergency Law, guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary and securing media freedoms will go a long way to making Egypt a more transparent and accountable country. The media in particular should be vigilant in the face of corruption and abuses; this will put enormous pressure on the security services to clean up their act. The cultural reforms you allude to will take time. We have to train our security and police officers to think in terms of serving the people and respecting international norms and standards of human rights.
What is the precise legal status and circumstances of veteran Ikhwan detainees, in particular Khairat al-Shater; are these individuals still in prison?
Yes, they are still in prison. More broadly, once the Emergency Law has been lifted and the constitution has been reformed, the Muslim Brotherhood will enter politics in earnest.
Talking about the present, has the daily security and judicial pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood eased in the wake of Mubarak's downfall?
It has to a large extent. But there is still a cat-and-mouse game between the Brotherhood and the security establishment. Despite this one of our members, Sobhi Saleh, was a member of the committee which was tasked with reforming the constitution. This reformed constitution will be put to a referendum within two months.
Elections are scheduled in six months time; will parliamentary and presidential elections take place simultaneously?
We don't know. But we expect the army to hand over power once the transitional period expires. Many expect the army to withdraw from center stage at that point, but still continue to watch developments very carefully. This kind of oversight role is not dissimilar to the role played by the Turkish military over the past decades.
Will the Muslim Brotherhood field an official candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections?
The mood, both internally and externally, doesn't favor such a move at this stage.
Does that mean you are afraid of winning the presidential elections?!
For the past 60 years, the Egyptian people and sections of the international community have been bombarded with anti-Brotherhood propaganda. We are not just looking for power, we want to change the way the Egyptian people perceive us and think about us. At this early stage it is not so important who rules Egypt, the important point being how we are governed.
Provided the elections are relatively free and fair, do you expect to dominate the next parliament?
We expect to secure around 30% of the vote. We may secure more if we contest the parliamentary elections as part of a coalition with one or more parties. But this will depend on the prevailing conditions.
To what extent do you aspire to change Egyptian foreign policy?
This is a decision for the Egyptian people. We will respect their wishes.
But foreign policy is a specialized sphere and as such it is crafted by specialists and not directly by the people. My question is once the Muslim Brotherhood secures a strong position in the Egyptian political landscape, to what extent do you wish to change foreign policy?
I can't answer this type of question at this stage. In any case, events are occurring at a very fast pace across a range of sectors, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the relationship between Palestinians themselves. But generally speaking, our country's regional and global policies will be decided by the people.
Allow me to field a few specific questions. Do you want to restructure Egypt's relationship with the United States?
We would like to stop illegitimate American influence over Egyptian affairs. Nobody in their right mind can ignore the United States, particularly its cutting-edge scientific and technological advances, but as with any other independent country, we aspire to curtail foreign influence over our affairs.
Do you want the United States to reduce or even cut off its annual aid to the Egyptian military?
We reject the whole concept of aid as a matter of principle. But as regards broader relations between the two militaries, this will depend on the democratic process in Egypt.
So you don't rule out the possibility of a future Egyptian government asking the United States to cut off its annual aid to the Egyptian military?
Our answer to this question is very clear. We won't ask for this aid! Much of the corruption in our country is rooted in this aid package.
How soon should Egypt break the siege of Gaza?
From our point of view, this siege should have been broken yesterday rather than today.
In other words it can't happen soon enough?
What are the likely long-term scenarios with regards to Egyptian-Israeli relations?
Israel has posed a threat and a set of deep and intricate challenges to the entire region since 1948. But we don't have access to much of the information relating to this case. It is not fair of you to ask this question when we don't have access to all the pertinent information.
What category of information are you referring to? Are you referring solely to classified information?
I am referring to all the existing information and facts that relate to this case. We have to review everything before arriving at conclusions and policy choices.
So you don't rule out the renegotiation of the Camp David peace treaty?
It is meaningless to ask this question now. As I said, we have to review everything before we reach conclusions. Moreover, the Egyptian people will be fully involved in the process. Their values, beliefs and feelings towards international conflicts and the world in general will have to be taken into account.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.