• October 22, 2006
  • 19 minutes read

An interview with Dr. Hala Mustafa

An interview with Dr. Hala Mustafa

During one of the most crucial stages of political developments in Egypt and political upheavals in the region, Dr. Hala Mustafa spoke about the urgent need for reform, the tight grip of the security establishments and the deteriorating women status in the political life in Egypt..

In this interview, Dr. Mustafa discussed the double standards adopted by the state security when it comes to individuals developing ties with the United States though considered as the major ally to the regime in Cairo. Citing the need to put an end to the on-going harassment of the elite under the banner of patriotism, she said that such move would usher in a new era of the long awaited political reform.

Raising, for the first time, the issue of the interest groups that have been surrounding Gamal Mubarak; the chairman of NDP Policies Committee entitled to lead the reform process in Egypt, Dr. Mustafa called for reconsidering the needs and demands of liberals in Egypt as well as meeting the demands of the minorities.

As part of its series of interviews with leading political figures in Cairo, Al- Masri Al Youm, interviewed Dr. Hala Mustafa, on the factors that hampered the way to reform in Egypt*.

By: AL-Masri Al Youm
Dr. Hala Mustafa has daring opinions on issues of political reform, relations with the West and the role of Islamists. With a PhD in political science, Dr. Hala’s opinions are based on her political knowledge, expertise and as a political writer in Al-Ahram daily newspaper and editor in chief of the quarterly Democracy Journal issued by Al-Ahram Establishment.

Recently, Dr. Mustafa’s views an opinions were harshly criticised, especially when her opinions became closer to that of the Americans’ on the necessity of reform in Egypt and the importance of change with special focus on media.. The resilient attacks against Dr. Mustafa became clearer when she met with US Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Condoleezza Rice twice. The first occasion was during a symposium held at the American University in Cairo while the second took place during a meeting held with the Secretary of State and attended by Egypt’s most prominent political figures. The criticism and attacks against Dr. Mustafa has recently been escalated by Journalists and individuals close to the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the party’s Policies Committee who opened fire through their writings criticising Dr. Mustafa’s articles published both by national and international newspapers. In this interview, Dr. Mustafa admitted that she had seriously considered resigning from the National Democratic Party. She was shocked by the harsh criticism and the personal attacks against her in a newspaper that is considered the mouthpiece of the party, particularly the Policies Committee, ignoring the fact that she is also one of the committee’s active members. She attributed the recent attacks to the influence of some interest groups backed by security bodies which were recently formed on the margins of the NDP.

* As a woman and a member of the NDP Policies Committee, do you think that women have achieved any political victories in Egypt, and what did you achieve for the interest of the women?

I cannot say that Egypt has taken a milestone as far as the political representation of women is concerned. The percentage of women representation is rather deteriorating. During the seventies of the past century, women representation in the parliament was certainly higher than today. Women’s share, at the time, reached 10% but currently the percentage reduced to sheer 1.6%. As for the government, only two women have managed to get the ministerial seat. It is rather obvious that the policy-making circles do not work on women integration in the ladder of state institutions’ leadership be it political or media foundations. There is a ceiling for women with regards to senior positions. I challenge you to bring me a woman that occupies a leadership position.
On the personal level, I cannot say that through my membership in the policies committee that I have achieved anything for women. This is a taboo in the political circles that have been dominating the arena for decades. I imagine that the regime, if serious in fighting extremism, would work on eliminating or at least trim down such forms of discrimination.

* What is your assessment of the criticism published against you in governmental newspapers, especially when you are being targeted by a particular newspaper? Is there some sort of a relation between such criticism and what you have published about reform in Egypt in the western media and the American press and think tanks?

I believe that I was extremely honest in expressing my thoughts and opinions whether in or outside Egypt. I am satisfied because what I say in here is very much what I say outside Egypt. I do not use double standards in my speech. I cannot say that all of the reactions in Egypt is objective or rationale. I believe that professional jealousy has also been behind part of the attacks targeted against me. It has also been used as a ploy to occupy senior positions at the cost of excluding others. However, there is a bigger problem concerning the system as a whole, specially at that stage. It is important to acknowledge that there is a kind of internal conflicts within the system and that what is being expressed is not necessarily a reflection of a trend adopted by the system. There are certainly more tolerant attitudes in the system but the mainstream tends to resist the change and reform and could be very in intolerant.

* About your complaint to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in Cairo that the governmental media were employed to defame the image of reformists and liberal intellectuals defending reform. Is this your opinion?

I oppose using the term ’complaint’ because as you well know this term was intentionally used by a particular newspaper and manipulated to falsely deform my image and affect my credibility and also to avoid dealing with the real problem that I raised. But of course I am not denying my remarks and I insist more than ever on what I said, it was a statement which I made publicly and was published by many news agencies.

* If you did not present that opinion in the form of a complaint, then in what form did you present it?

It was said to show the regime’s inconsistency. Political reform cannot be achieved unless there is media reform which secures the transformation of a political plurality. As we all know, the Egyptian media is responsible for maintaining the status quo and orienting the public opinion to sustain the old approaches. The local media is thus at the heart of the political reform. For a short time, it has witnessed some form of openness then it took a u-turn to become worse than it was earlier.

* You were criticised for accepting an invitation to be a visiting research fellow for one month last May with the Washington Institute for the Near East Policies which came simultaneously with the publishing of your policy orienting paper liberal Democracy by the Foundation for the Defence of Democracy in Washington. It was said that this foundation includes rightwing Jews supporting Israel. Were you were aware of that at the time that you accepted the invitation?

This is not an accusation for me to deny. I visited a highly respectable American Institute and it was not the first time for me to do so. Four years, I have been to several American think tanks as a visiting fellow. I also have good relations with leading members of the institute like Denis Ross and Robert Sattlof. In addition, Egypt has good relations with the US and claims to be in peace with Israel. So, I don’t see anything wrong with me cooperating with the Washington Institute for Near East Policies, particularly that the Egyptian Embassy and the Egyptian Ambassador are constantly in contact with them and they insist on sending delegations from Egypt to visit the institute. The question that should be posed here is that ’is this kind of relations good for some groups simply because they are blessed by the Embassy and a sin for others?

We should stop using a false weapon called ’’patriotism’’, which has been reduced to a political tool to exclude or include individuals and groups. This approach- in my view- is very much like extremists identify people as either believers or non-believers according to their agenda.

* Your claims to American circles that state security authorities in Egypt monitor you closely. Did that happen? What did you mean?

Again, this is a twist of facts. I did not say that to any officials. However, I did spell it out clearly in and article that was published last December in the Washington Post, one of America’s biggest newspapers, stating clearly and directly that the political system has inherited much of the traditions and behaviour that dominated the fifties and sixties of the past century, when the regime was based on the rule of a one party system, mainly depending on the state security to maintain power. My explanation is that we are currently in a stage of transition, sometimes we regress instead of progress and unfortunately it has been the case for the past few years.

The security establishment intervenes in the selection of political, media, and press posts and of course that explain the regression in the state’s political discourse promoted and backed by some of the new government newspapers. Generally, the state security bodies have a respected envisaged role and should not go beyond that. It is natural that when someone is nominated for a political or other position that certain authorities submit special reports on the nominee’s financial, administrative and security records. But during the past few years, security authorities have taken over the issue of selecting and approving the nomination of all those who will play a

leadership role at all levels; a fact that has harmed the political life. It is true that I was the first to speak out about this problematic issue but as you see yourself I’m not the only one any more. Most of the intellectuals, writers, political forces and civil society activists are speaking out about it now, and most interestingly the judges also raised clearly and strongly the same topic.

When Anwar Sadat burnt surveillance tapes to initiate his corrective revolution, it was a significant symbol that stressed the beginning of a new era and gave evidence that a police state should not exist any more in Egypt. Thus, we are in need for such daring acts and initiatives to put an end or at least limit the extent to which the state security establishments are intervening in all aspects of the Egyptian political life. This will be the departure point for reform.

Did these security interventions affect you whether personally or professionally?

Yes, of course it did, but- pardon me- I will not discuss the personal aspect. On the professional level, however, the intervention was in the form of restrictions and curtailment of my visibility or in the form of monitoring all my movements and my trips abroad, in addition to controlling my meetings and the circles that I move in. The reason for such tensed surroundings is that the external threat has been intentionally exaggerated which was the only way to create a political role for the security bodies that surpasses their established role.

* You have been criticising the performance of the Policies Committee. Some have expected that you would resign. However, this did not happen. What is your stance now?

I played my role in the committee as I imagined it to be. I defended reform issues and expressed my opinions in a realistic manner, putting into consideration that I am working from within the system. At the time, my opinions and recommendations were welcomed by the committee’s chairman, Gamal Mubarak. This did not last for long and I felt very sad when I found myself being strongly attacked by the newspaper that is considered as the committee’s mouthpiece. The attacks reached their peak when they started finding excuses to escalate the attacks through misinterpreting my meetings with American officials. Yet, I don’t feel vulnerable and I am proud of what I did because I am very honest.

It’s ridiculous that they accused me of getting funds because the government knows very well that I did not. I work in a governmental foundation and my income is known to everyone and is monitored by the administrative monitoring authority. So, I don’t need to prove that I never applied for or received any funds. Here, I would like to note that one of the difficulties I am facing right now is restrictions in getting funds from Al-Ahram administration for my Journal and I do not know how such problem will be sorted out.

* Have you considered resigning from the NDP?

I left the resignation issue for the party’s leaders albeit they want to remove me themselves.

* Did Dr. Osama Al-Ghazali and Dr. Yehia Al-Gamal ask you to join them in their new party?

No, this did not happen. Anyway, I am still a member of the NDP and even if I had resigned from the party, I would have preferred to maintain my identity as an independent writer which is reflected in all my activities domestically and abroad.

* What are the chance that such party would succeed in light of the political and other parties performance?

Any new party should be an addition to the political life in Egypt despite our differences or agreements. Egypt needs new parties that carry new and different thoughts. The Islamic trend has taken a large share in the political, ideological and intellectual scene for several decades. The socialist thought has taken ample opportunities during the 60s of the past century. However, we lack the authentic liberal thoughts and its political weight. Even Al-Wafd Party (considered as a liberal party) echoes the political stances of the past and has been unable to create a new political landmark.

* In all your writings, you have been adopting the American point of view to the extent that they were termed ’’Americanization of articles’’…what is your comment?

This is a very naïve accusation. Most of my writings have been published in Arabic and in Al-Ahram Newspaper since the early eighties. This means that I have been a political writer for more than 23 years and thus I am secure and confident. It is ironic that I haven’t heard such trivial accusations except from some officials in the government and some people in the system and their newspapers. Doesn’t that raise a big question mark? Such accusations are inconsistent. As for my writings abroad, I will give you an example. I have recently had an article published by the Financial Times, but the article did not raise any of the harsh criticism like the ones published by the American newspapers. Obviously, what some are trying to do is intimidate liberal voices to adopt a certain line of thoughts or more precisely propaganda. But, I am not that vulnerable and I’m not on the defensive. I will not adopt a different view than what believe in on certain issues like my stance vis-à-vis theocratic regimes, political movements and their agenda in the region simply because they are in conflict with the US. As far as my stance from Iran or Hamas- my sustained opinion was expressed long ago and that was -of course- before September11. You can go back to my articles in the archive. The problem is that we don’t have a culture or the politics that tolerates and appreciates the controversial views or respect the differences of opinions.

* You have several studies on Islamic groups, how does the US deal with the Islamic file in Egypt and what about the channels between America and the Islamists?

I believe that the Islamic file has taken a great deal of attention in terms of propaganda. I think that super powers have an interest in building up bridges with different political powers in any country that it deals with or considers important for its strategic interests. The Iranian revolution experience, has probably been behind such attitude. England, for example, has always led the world in the same manner. I expect that by the end of the day the two parties will realize the big contradictions between them.

* Some sources claim that a deal is currently being conducted between the Egyptian government and Americans, for the US to support the succession file in return for some compromises made to be made by the government. What is your opinion?

I do not have the enough information to talk about this issue. But I know very well that the issue of Gamal Mubarak taking over is an issue that depends on several domestic considerations and not external or American factors. It really depends on whether Gamal Mubarak’s reform project is genuine and the extent to which the different sectors and political forces find the project credible. Thus, it is a matter of domestic factors more than external ones. In any way, as far as I know, the United Sates has never taken any direct stance with regards to this issue.

* You have conducted a study on Copts and minorities in Egypt. How does America manipulate the Copt’s file?

It is time to rid ourselves from the already prepared clichés that state that everything in Egypt is ok and that America is the party drumming the cards. If there are some demands made by the Copts, then they should be discussed and seriously dealt with. It is unacceptable to put a sword on the neck of the Copts and when they oppose or demand anything we say that it is an external conspiracy. I consider this a real insult and injustice against the Egyptian Copts. I believe that they were right in some issues and that we should find reasonable solutions to meet their needs. When Egypt decided to make Coptic Christmas as a national holiday we were not harmed. If the Copts see that they haven’t taken their political rights as they should be, then what is the problem of looking into that issue. I do not find any explanation for the NDP to nominate only one Copt in the recently held elections who was already the minister of finance. I do not think that the demands of the Copts would threaten the regime.

* Safwat Al-Sharif, NDP Secretary General, admitted that the parliamentary elections were marred by many violations. In your opinion, do you think that these violations reflect an oppressive regime that cannot change its skin or a regime that is afraid to leave?

Originally, I do not see that the regime is in danger to describe it as ’’leaving’’. But as I said before, some establishments within the system are trying to maintain the political influence by exaggerating the illusion of an external danger or ’’eventual invasion’’ as has been falsely portrayed in order to justify the current regression and to prevent the opening of very sensitive files raised by the public opinion. Most importantly, we are talking about a very small influential elite that is working on the exclusion of other circles to hinder their role which is very clear in the political scene.

* How do you sasses the issue of female journalists being assaulted during elections and attacked as monitored by civil society organisations? How do you evaluate this as a woman and an editor in chief?

I was very sad not only because of the violations that took place but because of the negative reactions that showed the indifference of the government. I was expecting a clear political message regardless of the elections because this is an issue that goes beyond the elections and is related to the respect of human rights. Unfortunately, this is our real crisis in our Arab culture and politics, which is based on collectivism and has no respect to for individuals (woman or man).