With Egypt set to hold parliamentary elections sometime this fall, many are watching the Muslim Brotherhood, which is expected to win the greatest number of seats. The Brotherhood, long suppressed by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, has formed the Freedom and Justice Party to contest the elections.
RFE/RL writer at large James Kirchick sat down with Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian in Cairo to discuss many topics, including post-Mubarak Egypt, Shari’a law, and why he wants to see fundamental reforms spread across the Arab world.
RFE/RL: What’s the biggest problem facing the country right now?
Essam el-Erian: I think there is no problem. The problem now is over because the biggest problem was to get rid of Mubarak and his men. Now the burden is to bring the country to have a new Egypt…All Egyptians are invited now in building the country.
RFE/RL: You said you had to get rid of Mubarak and his men but you still have the military running the country. You have his allies in charge.
El-Erian: Yes, because the Mubarak regime was infiltrating all aspects of life and all sectors in society. So you cannot get rid of the whole regime. You get rid of Mubarak and his men and they are in cages now. Of course, to get rid of the whole regime you [require] some time.
RFE/RL: And what’s needed to do that?
El-Erian: You can imagine you can have alternatives. Some other people they want to hang Mubarak directly without any ordinary cause and some want to implement the state of law and have justice, a very good message for the future that this is a new Egypt [which is being born] now. It is a state of justice not revenge…
Some are in the mode of revolution [and] until now want to destroy everything and then build anew. I think the mode and attitude of Egyptians is not so revolutionary.
It wants to have reconciliation…and to get rid of the old activities or things of the past regime and to build the country gradually. [It] will take three to five years to build a new country.
RFE/RL: Do you think the trial is fair?
El-Erian: Till now, we have only one session; the second is today [August 15]. I hope it will be fair. It is good for the future to be fair.
Finding An Egyptian Model Of Democracy
RFE/RL: You’ve supported writing the constitution after the [parliamentary] election. Why does your party insist on writing it after?
El-Erian: Because we want the Egyptians themselves to give the constitution to themselves. It is not imposed from an appointed committee. To have [an] unelected committee, you cannot get directly from the whole population. You can get it in second degree from an elected parliament.
RFE/RL: Do you want to make Egypt a religious state? An officially Muslim state?
El-Erian: Egypt is a religious population [and] society. Since ancient times, since the Pharaonic era, we are religious. And during the Christianity era, and Islamic era, until now the Egyptians are religious as individuals and the society tends to religious aspects, but it has the [distinctive] flavor of Egyptians. It is a religious country with [a] tolerant attitude, with reconciliation, a moderate aspect of religion.
It is not [a] clerical regime or something like that. The nation is a source of the authorities and this is an indication of a new democracy mixing the spiritual aspects with the moral aspects and the tools of democracy.
RFE/RL: So you have no desire to see Egypt look like Iran or Afghanistan?
El-Erian: Egypt is Egypt. Of course, it will come out similarly to other countries. We can coordinate with others. We can get lessons and study the experience of others. But we must have our own model.
America has, during the Mubarak regime, imposed its policy and vision via Mubarak himself as a pharaoh.
RFE/RL: Would you accept a Christian as president?
El-Erian: If the people choose him, we will.
RFE/RL: You would?
El-Erian: Of course, if they choose him. But if you go to the head of the [Egyptian Coptic] Church, he said it is not a matter to appoint or to run a candidate who’s Christian.
RFE/RL: What if a Christian runs for president?
El-Erian: He meant that the country is not ready for this and society cannot accept this. It will be like a joke.
RFE/RL: [U.S.] Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton has said she will open up a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. Is that something you welcome?
El-Erian: We welcome [it], if it can depend on dual respect and dual interests.
RFE/RL: What does that mean?
El-Erian: That means that America has, during the Mubarak regime, imposed its policy and vision via Mubarak himself as a pharaoh. Now there are no pharaohs. In the country, the institution must take its responsibilities. Any decision must be taken in the parliament, in the cabinet; maybe it will be taken to referenda. There is no way to follow all American policies in the region or the world.
Agricultural Cooperation With Sudan
RFE/RL: What are those policies. What do you think America’s interests in Egypt and the region have been?
El-Erian: I can give you two examples in our foreign policy. One is coordination [with] Sudan in agriculture. The Sudanese president [Omar al-Bashir] said many times that he invited Egypt to cultivate more than 1 million feddans [acres] in Sudan [with] wheat.
But America rejected [this] and Mubarak said that it will be rejected. The second is to have ordinary relations with Iran. A diplomatic relationship with Iran was prevented by pressure from America.
RFE/RL: The Sudanese president is wanted for genocide by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Do you recognize that warrant for his arrest?
El-Erian: I think Egypt as a country has a big need for Sudan because the River Nile comes from Sudan. And Mr. Bashir visited Egypt after this verdict many times without any restrictions. That is Egypt; it is not America or Europe.
RFE/RL: So you would not recognize an International Criminal Court warrant for his arrest?
El-Erian: I think that the ICC is biased in this case because there are many efforts to solve the conflict in Darfur and now after about one year Darfur is calm and [there is] no revision for this verdict in the ICC.
RFE/RL: Do you support the secession of South Sudan?
El-Erian: We need a united Sudan, a safe Sudan, a secure Sudan for all Sudanese in Darfur and in east and in south. We are against any conflict in Sudan. We support Sudan for keeping security because it is a matter of national interest for us.
And so we can help in solving any problem in Darfur and in Khartoum and in any place. And this is the role of Egypt and not of the ICC.
Developments In Iran
RFE/RL: Do you believe the Iranian regime is trying to build a nuclear weapon?
El-Erian: The Iranian regime says all the time it wants nuclear knowledge for peaceful issues. And I trust this because to have a nuclear weapon is very dangerous for Iranians themselves and the [Persian] Gulf and is not accepted in the region.
But to help Iranians we must get rid, as Egypt said all the time, of all mass destructive weapons, mainly the nuclear weapons in Israel.
RFE/RL: The other Arab governments don’t agree with you. The Saudis, the [Persian] Gulf states believe that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.
El-Erian: I never heard from Saudis or the Gulf states that Iran is trying to have a nuclear weapon.
RFE/RL: It was all in WikiLeaks.
El-Erian: Of course, WikiLeaks cannot be depended on. I think these leaks may be to encourage the West to isolate Iran because a powerful Iran, of course, in the absence of Egypt was a danger for the [Persian] Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Now we have balance — [a] strong Egypt, and if we add to it [a] strong [and] free Syria, again we can be free to deal with Iran in a good attitude.
Mixing cards and putting Hamas and other resistance groups among terrorist groups was a fatal mistake of the West.
RFE/RL: Do you think Iran is a democracy?
El-Erian: I hope it can be a democracy but it is not our model.
RFE/RL: It’s not your model?
El-Erian: The restrictions on running the campaigns and elections are against democratic policies.
Dealings With Israel
RFE/RL: Do you see Hamas as an allied movement? Do you feel brotherhood with Hamas?
El-Erian: Hamas is a resistance group fighting for freedom and liberation of their lands from occupation. And the West must revise their knowledge about Hamas, [so] that war and terrorism come to an end. And mixing cards and putting Hamas and other resistance groups among terrorist groups, this was a fatal mistake of the West.
RFE/RL: You support the reconciliation attempts of the Palestinians?
El-Erian: We encourage, not only support. We can play a role to push both sides to reconcile.
RFE/RL: Do you think it’s realistic that they will reconcile given all the violence that’s happened between them?
El-Erian: Of course, the Palestinians can choose between going the track of Israeli negotiations, endless negotiations without any goal, without any target, or have a reconciliation to unite together to face the occupation.
RFE/RL: Do you believe that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state?
El-Erian: All Jewish individuals have the right to live among Arab countries. And they lived for decades and centuries in safety in our countries. Existence of a state for Jews is against all rules of states all over the world.
Any state is a state of all citizens, as Egypt is a state for Muslims, Christians, and Jewish. As Morocco is for Jewish, Christians, and Muslims.
RFE/RL: There aren’t many Jews here in Egypt.
El-Erian: To push emigration from Russia, from Poland, from everywhere to be concentrated in one [state] is against any rules of any state.
RFE/RL: So you believe in a single Palestine for everyone, not as a Jewish Israel?
El-Erian: I hope it can be again the big Assyria. For all individuals, for Jordanians, for Palestinians, for Syrians, for Lebanese. You know this was before the Second World War, one state. This region, under the British.
Two states were born after the war. Jordan and Palestine and Israel. And both are still unstable. I hope the revolutions in the Arab world can change the map. All the maps can be changed. Since the Sykes-Picot [Agreement] in 1916, this map was the false one. It is not the one.
Spreading Reform Across The Region
RFE/RL: So you’d like to see the Jordanian monarchy fall?
El-Erian: I hope to have a secure region without divisions [and] without conflicts.
RFE/RL: You want to see the revolution come to Jordan, to Saudi Arabia, to Qatar?
El-Erian: It differs from place to place. Now King Abdullah II [of Jordan] launched amendments to the constitution last night [August 14]. And previously King Mohammed in Morocco also launched [them]. The reform can avoid the revolution. Without reform you can have revolution.
RFE/RL: Do you think the war in Iraq has played any role in this. Do you think Iraqis have democracy today?
El-Erian: Iraq was one of the causes for revolutions. Because the failure of importing democracy in Iraq after the invasion and the millions [sic] killed by Americans and the torture of people in Abu Ghraib was a very big and strong message to the Arab world to revolt.
RFE/RL: Against their leaders?
El-Erian: Against the overwhelming strategy of America in the region.
RFE/RL: What is the strategy of America?
El-Erian: Support dictatorships. Having oil at low prices. Supporting Israel.
RFE/RL: And you want to see all that change?
El-Erian: This must be changed. This is the triad of war and terrorism also. And this war failed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in south Lebanon, in Gaza, and failed even in the West. In Europe, the safety of the Europeans [is now a very big thing] and we are going to a new era of international relations.
RFE/RL: And what’s going to define that era?
El-Erian: An era full of hope for respect for all cultures, all civilizations. Respect the life of the people. Innocent people cannot be killed and those are equal in opportunities in Iraq as in Madrid as in London as in Afghanistan, all are equal. The souls of Iraqis equal the souls of Americans.
RFE/RL: The tourism industry here is very important and it’s been really hurt by what’s been going on in terms of unrest and the revolution. What will you do?
El-Erian: We support tourism and we encourage Europeans in all delegations we meet with to encourage more Europeans and more Americans and more Japanese and Asians to come and visit the country. And of course the revolution can give us a big push because the people are all excited by the Egyptian revolution.
And the trial of Mubarak can also be a cause for more people to come [laughs]. So we hope this season will be a high season.
RFE/RL: Do you have any opposition to the consumption of alcohol, to women wearing bathing suits?
Shari’a is not punishment. Shari’a is a way of life
El-Erian: Alcohol is forbidden for Muslims mainly and I heard from Pope Shemouda of the church of Egypt that it’s forbidden for Orthodox Christians; he said that in front of me.
Muslims, maybe 95 percent of Muslims, are keen to avoid alcohol.
Tourists have the right, of course, because they are not Muslims and they [may] be unbelievers so they have the right to do what they wish, but they must respect the culture of this country as you see during Ramadan fasting — even the people who are not breaking fast keep polite to respect [the] feelings of other people.
RFE/RL: So your party has no desire to impose Shari’a law?
El-Erian: That’s Shari’a. What I mentioned to you is Shari’a law, of course. Shari’a is not punishment. Shari’a is a way of life. And Shari’a is not only penalty or punishment.
RFE/RL: What about other elements of Shari’a law?
El-Erian: All others are respected by the people. Shari’a comes from inside the people.
RFE/RL: So you have no desire to make adultery illegal?
El-Erian: You look only at Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. Even if you go to Iran, Iran describes itself as an Islamic republic. You cannot find such punishment as you mentioned.
RFE/RL: Well, they stone adulterers in Iran.
El-Erian: How many cases? I think one case. And it was also in Nigeria, which is not applying Shari’a. And in Singapore, I heard that one young American was also…
RFE/RL: He was caned.
El-Erian: Yes, he was caned. So it is culture.
Meeting With Salafists
RFE/RL: Does your party, or the Muslim Brotherhood, does it speak for God?
El-Erian: No, nobody, no Muslim can dare to say that, not even Al Azhar [University] itself. Nobody can dare to say that he speaks for God. This was even in [the Christian] church only for a few centuries and even pope cannot say that now. He can believe [it] inside but he cannot dare to say that he speaks for God.
RFE/RL: Are you organizing with the Salafist movements?
El-Erian: We organize with all political factions. Yesterday [August 14] we had a meeting with about 34 parties from all factions, from many streams, liberals, leftists, Islamists and nationalists, all were here in our headquarters and we are going to coordinate in the coming election together and we all addressed documents and respect the state of law, democratic statehood, to keep and preserve the rights of the people, individuals, and institutions.
And this was a very important role for all Egyptians to see that there is a bloc which cannot [be] defeat[ed] in the uncoming elections which represents all streams in the society. And I think if we succeed in our cooperation in the incoming campaign and parliamentary election we can win a majority.
RFE/RL: Do you think the Salafists respect democracy?
El-Erian: I advised them to revise their source and ideas and literature about relations between Islam and democracy. They have some disasters in the past. And now they appear to respect, but I advised them in public if they don’t give a new address, a new literature about this there will be doubt…
RFE/RL: There have recently been some problems in the Sinai [Peninsula] where they’ve sent out some vigilantes in the streets.
El-Erian: They’re not Salafists.
RFE/RL: They’re not Salafists?
El-Erian: Not everyone [who has a] beard can be a Salafist…Look, Sinai is a very special issue. The people of Sinai suffered a lot from underdevelopment, unemployment, pushing them to be in secret commerce.
And Israelis play a very important role in encouraging them in this secret commerce. So they look like criminals facing the law but they are not criminals; they are victims of this strategy for a long time, 60 years or more, and now Sinai is under big attention and the military, the police, the political parties, the society, the Egyptians all are invited to invest in Sinai and the Sinai peoples themselves must have rights equal to all Egyptians in developing their island.
RFE/RL: Do you support maintaining the peace treaty with Israel?
El-Erian: The peace treaty is maintained if both sides respect it. Mubarak during 30 years not only respected it, [he] over-respected this treaty. But during this whole period the treaty was violated by Israel. From the start, bombing [an] Iraqi nuclear factory or nuclear project. And then invading south Lebanon and keeping it under occupation for about eight years.
The main target of the peace treaty was to have two goals, first overall peace in the region, second, an independent Palestinian state. During 35 or 37 years, we have [never had] peace or a state [of peace] due to the Israelis, not the Egyptians.
So violation of the treaty came from the other side. And if Americans are keen about the treaty they must push the other side to respect it.
RFE/RL: So you’re willing to pull out of the treaty, even though it could mean billions of dollars?
El-Erian: This is a decision [for] the parliament or the cabinet.
RFE/RL: What does your party advocate?
El-Erian: We want peace, but without respect [from] the other side of the treaty, [it is] is nonsense.
RFE/RL: I see the name of your party is the Freedom and Justice party. Do you have any relationship or do you see yourself as similar to the Justice and Development party in Turkey?
El-Erian: We are an Egyptian party. We respect all other experts and examples all over the Islamic world and we hope we can in Egypt give a better example than has the AKP in Turkey.