Interview with Amr Hamzawy on The Egyptian Political Scene

Interview with Amr Hamzawy on The Egyptian Political Scene

The following is a summarized translation of an interview with Dr Amr Hamzawy conducted on June 21, 2008 by journalist Abdel Monem Mahmoud for the Egyptian daily Al Dostour and rendered into English by Ikhwanweb. It has an interesting discussion about the current political scene in Egypt, besides Dr. Hamzawy"s opinions about some of the controversial issues surrounding the MB, including the latest internal elections. Since we may disagree with some of the points raised in that interview, official MB responses and opinions are stated below with links to statements of Dr. Mahmoud Ezzat and Dr. Mohamed Habib in that regard.


The political scene in Egypt is taking a hasty course towards a great deadlock, largely because of the ruling regime autocratic practices which is destroying any real opportunity for meaningful political participation, relying solely on its powerful security apparatus to crush its political opponents.  Moreover, the current partisan life is witnessing an unbalanced competitiveness between the regime with its monopoly over power on one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and strongest opposition group, on the other hand. The latter is actually heading towards minimizing its political and social roles giving way for a backpedaling on the political Islamic discourse, while the United States trying to open channels of a dialogue with all political powers in order to secure stability of its interests in the region.


Dr. Amr Hamzawy, a senior researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, DC, who recently visited Egypt to discuss his research paper on the draft of the Muslim Brotherhood party program.



What is your opinion regarding the recent appointment of five new members to the Muslim Brotherhood"s Executive Bureau?


Hamzawy: In order for us to clearly analyze the way these five members were appointed to the Executive Bureau, I should first point out that the MB is going through a state of strategic disarray. Despite of the Group attempts to move forward, it is actually moving backward, starting from how it tackled the so called “militia case “incident that took place at Al-Azhar University, and the bizarre confusion in the discourse it adopted in its unconvincing reaction to this incident. Add to this the undemocratic state of rows inside the Group over the proposed party platform and how it backed away from earlier commitment to continue discussions with the elite. However, in less than a year after the MB released its draft version it refuses to take part in discussions around its platform, most recently a seminar at the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies in which the MB declined to participate


The MB confusion was also evident during the latest municipal elections when it first announced it will field candidates and the MB Chairman stated that the elections are a kind of jihad, to only announce a day later that it is withdrawing from the elections urging supporters to boycott the voting process. This state of public confusion and ambivalence is certainly unjustified even if we take into consideration the pressure the Group is under from security apparatus and the government.


As for the internal elections within the Brotherhood Executive Bureau; it’s notable that the five elected members have mainly organizational roles inside the group, however, all of them have limited political awareness since they did not take part in the public work in professional unions or developed coordinated ties with political parties, except for Dr Mohamed Saad El Katatni who has recently delved into this field after the 2005 parliamentary elections.


Therefore, the choice of these five members in particular and their background clearly indicate that the Muslim Brotherhood Executive Bureau, the highest decision making-body within the MB, will be focusing more on the organizational aspects inside the group rather than its public role and its relationship with the society, which was probably the reason to exclude a prominent public figure such as Dr. Essam El-Erian.


We should link this confusion with the political milieu within the group which has three main elements:


First: The current repressive political atmosphere in Egypt which is aiming at isolating and neutralizing the MB politically and relies on heavy handed security measures in dealing with it.


Second: The political participation, according to the group, is yielding very little benefits at a high cost in the absence of any incentives, which makes MB doubt participation.


Third: Any organization in the world has a moment in which their members-amidst political tension- become obsessed and fear losing their organization’s foundation. The legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood presence is the legitimacy of its social presence. Therefore, there is seemingly a view of the conservative wing in the Muslim Brotherhood calling for necessarily returning to legitimacy attitudes, backpedaling on the political reform discourse. The group has been criticized in 2004 and 2005 for caring for the political work at the expense of the Da"wa "missionary" work and calling for applying Sharia laws.


 Aside from your objective assessment of the party platform, don’t you consider it in general a step forward into becoming more engaged with public work?


Hamzawy: This is actually a debated issue among observers whether or not coming up with party platform is in itself a positive step. I personally believe that there are four motives that made the Group present its party program:


First: Its attempt to positively deal with a surrounding tense political atmosphere created by the Group’s political initiatives in 2005, which resulted in escalating pressure by government to a point where the MB found itself pulling back and lost its ability for strategic maneuvering.  Therefore, the MB was in need for something positive to get out of state of negative atmosphere created by the daily news of arrests among MB member, Al-Azar mishap and the subsequent military trials which became the dominant stories circulating about the MB.


Second: It is an attempt from the group to address concerns by the civil society about its attitude towards democracy especially following its considerable interaction with the public in 2005


Third: contradictory to the second element, is addressing the Group base by trying to send two messages: first, is that the group is adhering to its core principles expressed by the slogan "Islam is the solution" which emphasize on the role of religion in the public life and the relation between religion and politics. The second message is to assure the MB base that the Group is not only a political movement but also a missionary movement", and this is where the confusion within this program.


Fourth: Addressing a third party which is the West with its governmental “think tanks” and designated researchers. The group tried to send messages of assurance to the West which sided with the regime.


But doesn"t this program reflect a phased political awareness?


Hamzawy: The program does not reflect a phased reform or change because it has emerged during a critical moment to end debates by taking retrogressive attitudes as compared with the group"s reformist discourse that appeared in the 2004 initiative of reform and 2005 election program.


This is the problem of the political Islam groups’ double attitude approach, reformist moderate attitude and the more conservative one. However, from looking at the contents of the MB political party platform that this internal strive has been settled to the benefit of the conservative side at the expense of moderate attitudes.


How does the presence of these different trends affect the final decisions made within the MB?


Hamzawy: The Muslim Brotherhood has three distinct generations:

The first is older generation or the “old guard”, although I don’t prefer to use that term which is not tweaked in public life and is anxiously seeking to preserve the organization’s and its views are generally conservative.


The second generation is the 70s generation, includes Dr. Abdel Monem Abul Fotouh and Dr. Essam El-Erian. This generation understands its public role within society and is also their role within the Group. It adopts reformist views although it isn"t the dominant power inside the movement.


The third generation is the youth, which is mistakenly viewed by the media as reformists but in reality it is a very small part of them is indeed reformists while the majority are conservative.


So, overall, the organization is made up of these three generations that share common dominant conservative trend, however, the second and third generations are dotted with a weak and marginalized reformist voices.


 In this case, can we bet on the Muslim Brotherhood- being the biggest opposition group- to create a change in the Egyptian political life or at least strike a strong balance in the society?


Hamzawy: Many observers and those concerned with the future of Egypt though to bet on the Muslim Brotherhood at some point.


All of us seek alternative powers that may strike a balance. Any political life run by only one doer is unbalanced. The reality on the ground in Egypt is heading towards Tawreeth "a hereditary transfer of power", and restricting people"s freedoms through extending the emergency law and the expected anti- terrorism law.


Looking at the public action map in Egypt, we find that the Muslim Brotherhood is the most important opposition movement in Egypt, the most active and organized, which can actually be translated into a political weight during elections. However, I think betting on the Group, although legitimate, is rather wrong for the following reasons:


First: It is difficult to bet on the MB public role at a moment when it seems more inclined to focus on its internal issues, moving away from public action.


Second: Under the current pressures, the Group is actually eroding the democratic movement in Egypt because its options, through its program and the clear retreat in civil citizenship ideas, are undemocratic


Third: by betting on the Group, we are asking it to do what is beyond its capacity while security pressures are expanding in illegal and unconstitutional ways, and while the group is questioning the benefits of participating in the public work.


There is another level of analysis which in context of the coming scenario of hereditary transfer of power. The ruling elite will need a kind of compromise with main powers in the society when the moment of change comes. Will the Muslim Brotherhood be ready for this compromise? This will depend on what the elite will be willing to offer the Muslim Brotherhood.


The group has somehow escalated its discourse against the hereditary transfer of power through the MB chairman"s statements. It may be involving itself in the framework in a bid to get gains that may include easing security pressure. By this analysis, the MB will have a role and I think it will not refuse a partial compromise as long the offered price will be acceptable.


Regarding the Muslim Brotherhood"s relation with the West, where do you see these relations, if any, are heading after the Islamists’ impressive show in parliamentary elections in Egypt and Palestine which resulted, as some argues, into US backtracking from democracy promotion in the Middle East?


Hamzawy: During the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt, the US administration predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood will garner 10%, which wasn’t something the Administration would give too much attention as long as its allied regime will keep a majority, let alone the limited effect of the People"s Assembly on the political decision making process in Egypt.


The US administration through its embassy in Egypt, was showing some interest in the Muslim Brotherhood and the way it was thinking, especially since 2004.  This interest increased even further after the Muslim Brotherhood garnered 20% of the parliament seats, and with the evolution of its political discourse and introduction of its initiatives for reform. Moreover, the US felt a desire by the Group to open channels for dialogue by launching its English website, Ikhwanweb, and signals in articles by Khairat Al Shater [MB Deputy Chairman] like the one “No need to be afraid of us" published in the Guardian in 2005.


The Bush administration was distinctly differentiating between violent movements and the Muslim Brotherhood. This distinction became even clearer after the 911 attacks, after which the US administration tried to open channels of dialogue with nonviolent Islamist groups.


The problem was not in the image of the Muslim Brotherhood as a peaceful or violent movement. The main problem was in the regional presence of the group in the region of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The administration knows very well that the Muslim Brotherhood"s activities in Egypt are peaceful but it knows also that the Muslim Brotherhood supports Palestine’s Hamas (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) and this is the point at which the Muslim Brotherhood"s discourse- of justifying resistance- is different from the US discourse.


The Muslim Brotherhood sensed the positive US pressing for democracy in Egypt despite the feeling that the US discourse is lying and that America was occupying Iraq but there were real lines of contact.


However, in 2008 all this changed when Bush administration took hands-off approach after Hamas ascent to power in Palestine, the United States reverted back to ally itself with rulers in the region especially in Egypt and Jordan. The US official interest in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faltered and the Administration gave a blind eye to the flagrant security violations against the MB and other political powers in general.


The scenario of change in Egypt has become a highly anticipated issue domestically and probably regionally for its implications on neighboring countries in particular and the Arab world in general. What is your assessment for the overall climate of change in Egypt and the possible scenarios of power succession?


Hamzawy: There is media hype in Egypt about the hereditary power transfer from President Mubarak to his son Gamal.


I believe the regime will deal with the transfer of power in a constitutional way like what happened from the July revolution.


The regime has three possible scenarios:


First: Direct transfer of power to Gamal Mubarak, which requires a state of social calm and easing up the Security [State Security Investigators] grip, because Gamal is popularly rejected and he can"t assume office under current mounting political and social tensions.

Second scenario is a military alternative, especially if the social pressure persists. The regime may seek a nominee from within the military establishment who would maintain its control over Egypt. This nominee might be Omar Suleiman, head of the Egyptian National Intelligence, or an unknown figure while Gamal Mubarak maintains his political role.


Third: a yet-to be known civil substitute: a figure from the general secretariat of the National Democratic party may be promoted to carry out this role. He may be a compromise especially under social tensions and demands for ending the military control over the country.


Who will agree on these scenarios?


Hamzawy: The ruling elite, which fears nothing other the pressure created by society, not the Muslim Brotherhood, not the civil society, intellectuals, or political parties.


Is there any agreement among these ruling elite?


Hamzawy: The three scenarios I just mentioned are based on the fact that there are some sort of agreement among the elite, and that there are no internal conflicts although there are factions. However, I think that the ruling elite are still united because they are still obsessed with their interests.


What is the most likely scenario in your opinion?


Hamzawy: Knowing how unpopular the NDP is, I believe that the military scenario is the most plausible. The public strongly rejects the power succession even if it will mean a president from a civilian institution. Moreover, the military establishment is regarded by many Egyptians as a nationalist and neutral institution that is still capable of restoring law and order when the government fails as it was the case during the bread crisis. Compared with the NDP businessmen and their monopoly of power, I believe the public will favor a president outside this circle.


What about the US role in the hereditary transfer of power?


Hamzawy: In my opinion, it is a mistake for the U.S. not to formulate a clear stance regarding the power transfer issue, which could be because of the U.S. desire to maintain its strategic relation with ruling regime to protect its vital interests in the region

Therefore, the United States has relations with all Egyptian establishments, including Omar Suleiman, Jamal Mubarak"s protégées. It also talks with the old bureaucrats inside the party and the security apparatus mainly the SSI (State Security Investigators). However, the United States is worried over the succession scenarios since it is difficult to predict which one is going to become reality especially under mounting social tensions. It is not case as it was decades ago when the line of succession was fairly known ahead of time, from Nasser to Sadat then Mubarak. But at the end, I believe the United States will support whatever serves its interests.



Is there a fourth scenario, a popular role for example?


Hamzawy: There is no popular scenario. All powers are with or against the three scenarios and the ensuing benefits.  However, there is a danger regardless of who is the coming president of Egypt because for the first time in Egypt’s history, since the July Revolution, the coming president will lack legitimacy. This means that the president will be weak in the midst of an autocratic arena, an environment which will consolidate the influence of security apparatus to help him impose his legitimacy.



The Muslim Brotherhood has responded to critics of the latest Executive Bureau elections, and denied any attempt to ensure the "conservative wing" hegemony over the group. The deputy chairman and the secretary general completely denied excluding Dr. Essam el Erian or any other MB from competition, and reaffirmed the MB’s commitment to sound democratic procedures regardless of the winners or losers.