“The deep state in Egypt, Mubarak’s state -- the state where the military and all the institutions that were entrenched in the system under Mubarak’s 30 years of power -- have been active and they will not give up an opportunity to reclaim the regime once again,” she said for Monday Talk.
“As we were celebrating, we knew that there were hard days ahead. After Mursi’s win, after the euphoria was over, we started wondering what kind of disasters lay ahead,” said Howeidy, assistant editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram weekly.
‘Only a few of Mubarak's men are in prison, but the wealthy ones, the powerful ones who have connections, they have been active funding Ahmed Shafiq during the elections. We are anticipating a lot of problems ahead of us. One of the obvious damaging cards for Mursi would be the sectarian issue. I hope it doesn't happen, but it happened in Egypt before’
Officials postponed declaring a winner in Egypt’s disputed election in June, sending political tensions soaring as the country awaited its first new president in three decades. But for now Mursi has been focusing on his relationship with Egypt’s powerful military and with the US, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion in annual military aid.
Answering our questions in İstanbul at the dialogue conference “Foreign Policy and Competing Mediation in the Middle East and Central Asia,” held recently by the Washington-based Hollings Center, Howeidy elaborated on the issue.
Would you give us an overview of the situation in Egypt after the elections?
Well, the elections definitely were a replay of the polarization in Egypt between the secularists and Islamists, and also the revolution and counter-revolution. The polarization in Egypt materialized in the elections in the two final candidates: Ahmed Shafiq, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister [ranked second in the June 16-17 runoff], and Mohamed Mursi, head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. This revolution and counter-revolution dynamic culminated when the elections committee delayed announcing the results for about five days while rumors confirming Shafiq’s victory overwhelmed the Egyptians, and by then it was obvious he was the military’s candidate. The rumors also conveyed that the Freedom and Justice Party’s declared results were inaccurate.
What happened when the results were announced?
When the results were announced, there was a sense of relief among a lot of Egyptians; you saw the celebrations in Tahrir Square and the fireworks. It was a moment of victory. Now a lot of people ask whether it was an attempt by the military to rig the elections in favor of Shafiq. We are not quite sure what happened. There are so many stories. But the bottom line is definitely that the deep state in Egypt, Mubarak’s state -- the state where the military and all the institutions that were entrenched in the system under Mubarak’s 30 years of power -- has been active and they will not give up an opportunity to reclaim the regime once again. So, this was worrying. As we were celebrating, we knew that there were hard days ahead. After Mursi’s win, after the euphoria was over, we started wondering what kind of disasters lay ahead.
Talking about deep state, do you mean allied forces that have influence in the military, judiciary and the bureaucracy?
The judiciary is not part of the deep state, but it is being influenced by the military establishment because there is no separation of powers in Egypt, and that’s part of Mubarak’s legacy of dictatorship. We don’t have separation of powers. With deep state I mean the intelligence, I mean the state security intelligence, Hosni Mubarak’s powerful businessmen, his network of interests, his now-dissolved party [National Democratic Party], which is trying to regain power under another name. Only a few of Mubarak’s men are in prison; but the wealthy ones, the powerful ones who have connections, they have been active funding Ahmed Shafiq during the elections. We are anticipating a lot of problems ahead of us. One of the obvious damaging cards for Mursi would be the sectarian issue. I hope it doesn’t happen, but it happened in Egypt before. And there are so many wild cards, dangerous cards, which might be used against Mursi.
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It was a big victory for the Muslim Brotherhood after years of being banned.
Do you think the Brotherhood will be able to hold on to power?
It is something the Brotherhood worked hard for; that was their moment, and they deserved it. They worked so hard for this. But achieving victory doesn’t necessarily mean being able to retain it, because there are so many counter-revolutionary forces, and they’re not the most politically savvy force, either. Before the results were announced, a series of decisions were made by the military. The Supreme Constitutional Court issued a decision to dissolve the parliament. It was a full-fledged military coup, to strip the new president of any powers. We know that the Constitutional Court in Egypt is not the most independent court; its outgoing president [Farouk Sultan] was appointed by Mubarak himself.
What brought Mursi to power? It was the public, of course. But what was appealing for the public to vote for Mursi and not for the others?
A good portion of Egyptians are sympathetic to the Islamists. And then of course, he was not the only appealing person for voters. The second person was Ahmed Shafiq, the man who wanted to reinstate the Mubarak regime. He came in second. They both symbolize the two most powerful forces in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s state. The other candidates, while gaining votes, don’t have political forces behind them, they don’t have real political parties, they don’t really have a constituency, they don’t have a history. It is normal for Mursi, the candidate of an 83-year-old organization that has worked so hard to get many votes. But there is nothing particularly appealing about Mursi. He is the Brotherhood candidate and probably their most uncharismatic leader. There are many more charismatic people than him. But the votes he got, they were for the Brotherhood, not for him. From a radical revolutionary viewpoint, Mursi is not the most revolutionary person; the Brotherhood is not the most revolutionary group. However, they were the main opposition force against Mubarak, whom the revolution overthrew.
How were the Brotherhood activists involved in the demonstrations in Tahrir?
The Brotherhood was present in Tahrir. They were there from January 25 when the revolution started, not en masse, not in their full force, but they were there. And on January 27, the Brotherhood issued a statement saying they were going to participate as an organization in the January 28 demonstrations, which were the real beginning of the revolution, not the 25th. And they were there, they were there throughout the 18 days, and on February 2 when there was an attack on Tahrir Square, famously called the “Battle of the Camel.” The Brotherhood was the main protector of the square. I was there and was stuck in Tahrir, I couldn’t get out. A lot of people were saying, “Thanks for the Brotherhood, they are protecting us.” Had they not been there, the revolution might have been thwarted.
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How has the Brotherhood been evolving? Are there splinter groups?
The Brotherhood is an old political organization, and it has come a long way. They have young revolutionaries, mid-ranking revolutionaries and they also have among the leadership some revolutionaries. Some people defected from the Brotherhood and they have been attempting to have their own political party or join perhaps another political party.
How is the political landscape in Egypt and what is the support level for the Muslim Brotherhood? Would you also give us an idea about the influence of the Salafis in Egypt?
The Salafis are not close to the Brotherhood -- they are super conservative Islamists, but they do not necessarily share the same views of the Brotherhood in many ways. The Salafis in Egypt are not just one thing; there are three or four different factions. The very new Salafi Nour Party, for example, seems to have matured politically. They endorsed ex-Brotherhood leader and ex-presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboulfotouh, who wanted to build national consensus between all political forces, including liberals, secularists, Marxists and Islamists. In Aboulfotouh’s last rally before the first round of presidential elections, the Nour Party president took the podium and said things like [emphasizing] “state of justice,” even if it’s an “apostate” state. This high level of pragmatism and political awareness is amazing and completely defeats the stereotypes of Salafis, so they are not all the same. Some of them, but not all, are interested in political engagement and issues beyond Shariah. Engaging in politics makes you less extreme, as opposed to being isolated and ghettoed. Finally, most political parties in Egypt are not close to the Brotherhood except for the centrist El-Wassat Party. So basically the Brotherhood is fighting its battles alone.
The first visit Mursi has undertaken to a foreign country after taking office was to Saudi Arabia. How was that received in Egypt?
It was rather frowned upon; it wasn’t met enthusiastically. I think there is some consensus among all the political forces, among all shades of the political spectrum, that Riyadh was not the best option. Mainly because we know that the Gulf states are against the Egyptian revolution but Saudi Arabia specifically is against the revolution, and it was just a bad choice, but it seems his calculation was different and he may have been there for investment purposes because the economic situation is quite bad in Egypt. Had he chosen Tunisia as his first destination as president, that would have been an important political message since it was this North African country that triggered the Arab Spring. It’s disappointing that he chose Saudi Arabia.
What has been the reaction to the recent visit of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?
Before the revolution, when an American official visited Egypt, it was something that Egyptians discussed. But now, the traditional superpowers are not that significant in domestic affairs and they’re not given much attention because of the dynamics in Egypt. We know that there is no room at this point for an American role. It’s ironic that her visit was met with anti-US demonstrations organized by the most unlikely lot: the liberals who were traditionally the least critical of Washington. The protest accused the US of aiding Mursi to come to power. The truth is, they’re mad at the US for not stopping the democratic process and not preventing Mursi from winning.
What is the stance of the media in regards to Mursi?
The more influential media outlets were championing Shafiq. Mursi is largely demonized, by both the state-run and private press. The privately run media in Egypt is run mostly by businessmen who were close to Mubarak. I’m not sure if this is going to remain the same forever; there are plans to establish TV stations that are funded by the Brotherhood, or funded by people who have ties to the Brotherhood, or funded by people who are not necessarily part of that network of interest.
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How has Turkey been perceived by Egyptians?
Turkey has been perceived very positively by the Egyptian public and very positively by politicians, Islamists, non-Islamists, liberals and secularists alike. Throughout the revolution, the only reference to Turkey has been when comparing with the Islamists: Will they be as good and as “progressive” as “the Turkish model”? When people talk about “the Turkish model” it’s usually comparing the degree of tolerance between our Islamists with the Turkish Islamists, without putting it in context. Turkish politics is very different. The AKP [AK Party, ruling Justice and Development Party] did not just appear overnight.
The Muslim Brotherhood alluded to the Turkish model when they were marketing themselves to us, to the public and also the West. But when [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan visited Egypt and spoke positively about secularism -- that it’s not evil -- some of the Brotherhood leaders were critical and suggested that he was interfering in our affairs. This shows that when talking about the Turkish model, they’re not really talking about anything specific; they’re just looking at the successful image and outcome of the AKP, in the absence of a local project or experience. The Brotherhood is definitely much more conservative than the AKP regarding personal freedoms, but of course, they wish to show more flexibility on that front. But the Turkish experience is definitely present, and recently El-Shorouk, which is a privately owned newspaper, ran a headline that asked, “Where is Mursi heading? An Erbakan defeat, or an Erdoğan victory?” [“Erbakan” refers to Necmettin Erbakan, late prime minister of Turkey, whose ruling Welfare Party (RP) was banned by the courts after the Feb. 28, 1997 postmodern coup, and Erbakan’s coalition government was forced to step down by the military].
Are there expectations from Turkey in Egypt?
I don’t expect anything from Turkey or any other country. I appreciate the Turkish experience and many of their foreign policy choices, but I think the situation is so volatile in Egypt that it’s very difficult to anticipate what other foreign powers are willing to offer. I think the Turks are very interested in Egypt and that the AKP is interested, but I think they need to understand the dynamics better. I don’t see any Turks in Egypt, I don’t see any Turkish think tanks and I don’t see any Turkish politicians; I don’t see any Turkish journalists -- whereas I see tons of American journalists and from all over the world, and they are trying to talk to us. Turkey is not present in that sense; it is not felt. They are watching, but from a distance, I feel.
An Egyptian journalist since 1992, she has published extensively on Egypt’s domestic scene and anti-Mubarak dissent movements since their onset. She covered the rise and repercussions of the Islamist militancy in Egypt in the 1990s, the political crisis in Algeria since 1994 and reported from Lebanon and Iran. She has published extensively on Palestinian rights, human rights and civil liberties. Howeidy is currently assistant editor-in-chief of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram weekly and is the Cairo correspondent for the Lebanese daily, Assafir. She co-authored a book titled “Informal Settlements in Greater Cairo” and co-produced the award-winning documentary “Guevara ‘ash” (Guevara Lives) in 2009.