Interview With Dr. Abdel Monem Abul-Futouh

Interview With Dr. Abdel Monem Abul-Futouh

Dr. Abdel Monem Abul-Futouh is a genial, energetic man who looks to be about 60 years old.  The thick, dish-like lenses of his eye-glasses magnify his eyes and give him a vulnerable, owlish look.  To see him at his office in the gracious old building that houses both the Egyptian Medical Society and the Arab Medical Union, you have to make the appointment well in advance.  When you arrive a tall, well-organized young man who glides around the building with a bundle of files in his hand takes you to Dr. Abul-Futouh’s office. We greet each other, and the doctor immediately lays out the terms of engagement for the interview.  "Ask anything!  How long do you need?  Is thirty minutes enough?"  I ask for forty, and am granted them.

Did I mention that, in addition to being the General Secretary of the Arab Medical Union, Dr. Abul-Futouh is also a member of the Guidance Council of the Muslim Brotherhood?

The most interesting part of the interview came when I pressed him to explain his view on Israel.

"We as the Muslim Brotherhood know that the Jews in Israel are human beings," he said,

and we know they should live, and should not be killed.  Just the same as the Palestinians who are the original owners of the country should live and should not be killed.  The Palestinian problem was made by the western regimes and surely they should solve it– but not at the expense of the Palestinians!

He sought to illustrate his argument about why the Jewish people of Israel should not be killed by describing an Arab custom whereby a person who is born as a result of a rape should not face any punishment or stigma on account of that fact.  "That person’s existence may be the result of a fault, but the fault was not his," he said.  "What fault has he committed?"

He continued,

The Jewish people can go or stay, but whatever they do the Palestinians should win their rights.  You could have an outcome with one state there– a secular, democratic state– or two states.  But I think one state would be better, because if you have two states, then they would fight.  It would be better to be one state– like South Africa.

I asked him, did he really say a "secular, democratic state"?  This seemed ground-breaking given the MB’s traditional opposition to the idea of secular rule, and I wanted to confirm that he really intended to say it that way– in Arabic, "dawla dimuqratiyya ’ulmaniyya".  He confirmed that he did mean that.

— But Israel refuses everything!  And now, the US regime– the regime, not the people– has joined Israel in imposing this very bad siege on the Palestinians.

Why does America attack us?  I think they do this because they are rightwing and extremist and have interests with the multinational companies which bring so many benefits to people associated with the regime there that they live well at our expense.

I had started the interview by asking how he saw the situation in Egypt, whre the MB has been the subject of a governmental crackdown that has grown increasingly harsh over the past year.

He said,

I see it getting worse.  I think the government is motivated by two main factors: the current discussion over the changes to the constitution here and the upcoming elections for the Maglis al-Shura [Senate].  But the main reason is the first of those.  The regime wants to block any move by the opposition regarding the changes.

Also, at the international level, the US retreated from what it had previously said about democratization.  You know, our regimes here in the Arab and Islamic world are helped and supported by the Americans, not by their own people.

But as we see it, the problem is that if the peaceful means for change are being obstructed then this will push people towards violent movements, and push more individuals to use violence.

Even inside the Muslim Brotherhood, I wondered?

He was adamant.  "No, not inside the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Brotherhood strategically chose nonviolence in 1984, and it was after that that we entered Parliament and the unoions and so on."  Indeed it was at that point that, in return for the pledge of nonviolence, the Mubarak regime gave the movement some leeway to enter public political life.  The MB has never been legalized as a political party– a process that is extremely tightly controlled by the ruling National Democratic Party.  But ever since the Egyptian elections of 1984, known MB candidates have run either through a coalition deal with another party or as independents.  That year, eight MB candidates won seats in the 444-member Parliament.  The number rose steadily until in the elections of fall 2005, 88 MB candidates won.  Meanwhile, they have also emerged as a powerful and generally permitted force within many of the country’s professional unions– a fact which partially explains why both Abul-Futouh and Dr. Issam el-Arian, a prominent informal spokesman for the movement, have executive jobs here in the physicians’ union.

"You Americans," Abul-Futouh continued,

should understand that the religious currents here are very strong– among both the Muslims and the Copts.  Much more than in the US!  We need to have workable, peaceful franeworks to contain these currents.  You as Americans need to understand how good our dictatorial regimes are at using all the issue about the the Islamic ’threat’ to get support from your government for what are really only tiny ruling cliques here.

The main Islamic streams are not against the American people, but against the American government and its policies.

We as the Muslim Brotherhood, in every country where we are, this movement wants to cooperate with all the other peoples of the world– the Americans, the Chinese, the Europeans– but to do so on the basis of respect from both sides.

He talked a little about two or three visits he has made to the US, and how warm and welcoming he had found the people there. "There are many areas of agreement between us and Americans.  We ask, what is the difference between mainstream Islam and American democracy?"

Their views on the trreatment and role of women, I suggested?

He replied,

Yes, it’s true that women are largely marginalized in our society.  But this is a cultural phenomenon here, and not specifically Islamic.  You know, we prepared 25 women to run in the last elections, but they nearly all dropped out of the race because of the intense family and social pressures placed on them not to do it.  At the end, only one of them was left: Dr. Makarema ad-Deeni.  She was the onbly one to continue, but the election was stolen from her by the regime.

We treat women with more respect than the west, which treats her as a commodity.  If a woman goes out and is active in the public sphere, we encourage that, and think she should do so as a fully human person.  But if she wants to be a woman, then she should do that at home.

He also said that inequalities between men and women regarding inheritance could be explained by the fact that those same "cultural factors" imposed more financial responsibilities on men, in some cases.

So how about the Brotherhood’s stated desire to restore the Islamic Caliphate, I asked?  Shouldn’t we in the West be concerned about that?

"If different Islamic states want to come together and make a political union, why shouldn’t they?" he replied.  "If it’s okay for the Europeans to come together, and before that, the various north American states came together and made a union– why shouldn’t the Islamic states do it, too?"

But maybe you’ll want to come and extend your Caliphate over our countries, as well, I said.

No, no!  Islamic understandings make it haram [religiously forbidden] to overcome others by force.

But anyway, why do you speak of this fear of being overcome by us when it is you who have overcome our countries.  You’re occupying our countries and controlling so many aspects of our lives here!  So it is foolish for you to speak of a fear of being overcome by us.

We then had the short discussion on Israel, described above.  At the end of that, he spoke briefly but passionately on the vast amount of resources that the US has wasted on wars and killing…  "But in contrast, Islam respects life so much!"  He described an Islamic story about a woman who went to hell for harming a cat.  "We say if you kill one person, you are killing the whole world."

So how about Hamas, I asked, pointing out that even if the main Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had renounced violence in 1984 and had more or less kept to that pledge ever since, still, its offshoot in Palestine had founded Hamas three years later and Hamas had gone on to undertake many acts of violence–

No, no, no!  What they do is resistance, not violence.  And what about Nelson Mandela?  His movement had a military wing, too.

We differentiate between resistance and violence.

The Israelis use so much violence.  Remember how they killed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin?  An old man, a paraplegic in a wheelchair– and they just killed him with rockets from the air.

Israel refused everything peaceful, including the Arab peace plan and the Road Map.  remember how Sharon defined 14 points of opposition he had to the Road Map, after the Palestinians had accepted it completely.

As the 40 minutes drew to their close we returned to the topic we had started with: the MB’s position inside Egypt.

The fear here is a popular explosion– not controlled by us, or by anyone.  This is a very dangerous prospect that may come about if the regime doesn’t stop its oppression and move toward more political inclusion.

We’d like to have cooperation with the regime, and with all the forces in society.  The system here should be made more democratic.  The regime should take true steps towards democracy.  We understand they can’t do it overnight, but they should do it with a clear timetable.  They should take true steps against corruption.  And work for the true inclusion of all the peaceful political trends here– the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communists, everyone.

It was an interesting interview.  Abul-Futouh is reputed to be from the "liberal" wing of the MB, so I was curious to find out what kind of positions he would espouse and what arguments he would make.  I certainly had not been expecting the support he expressed for a single, secular democratic state within all the area of Mandate Palestine.  That had, of course, been the position the PLO espoused between 1968 and 1974 (before it moved over into supporting the idea of two states living side-by-side there.)   And back then as I recall it, the MB opposed the idea, mainly because of its opposition to secular rule anywhere within the historic lands of Islam.

The MB is still closely linked to Hamas.  I did not have the time to probe the current status of those links more closely during this interview, though I was able to, a little, during the interview I conducted some ten days earlier with Abul-Futouh’s MB colleague Dr. Issam el-Arian. I should imagine, however, that the positions espoused by the MB leaders here in Cairo on matters Palestinian have at least some effect on the positions followed by the Hamas people in Palestine.  In that regard, it was significant that Abul-Futouh said that either a two-state outcome or a South-Africa-style one-state outcome would possible and– from his perspective– permissible, though he did express a preference for the one-state version.

Anyway, that’s all I have time for now. I’m actually finishing writing this post from Jordan, where I arrived yesterday…