The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was not only a significant factor in Egyptian political life, but has always been a decisive force in international political action in countries where it has advocates and supporters. Perhaps that ubiquitous presence of the Brotherhood is what made it the focus of attention of world powers. Hence, out of its modern, moderate understanding of mainstream Islam, the MB was ever present in revolutions against suppression of freedoms, fighting for democratic transformation towards more freedoms.
The «Freedom and Justice» newspaper (FJN) sat down with Dr. Mahmoud Hussein, Secretary-General of the Muslim Brotherhood, for a comprehensive interview about the group on the anniversary of the martyrdom of its founder, Imam Hassan Al-Banna, about the changes experienced by the MB with the success of the January 25 Revolution, about the role the MB played in the revolution, the role the group will play with the announcement by Al-Shater (MB Deputy Chairman) and Dr. Mohamed Morsi (the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) Chairman) that the group is willing for its political arm, the FJP, to form a broad coalition government, and about the interactions and the state of transformation within the group and its youth, in addition to the qualities and specifications of the next President of Egypt. Here is a translation of the interview:
FJN: To Start With, a whole year has passed since the revolution and Mubarak’s resignation. What has changed, in this period, for the Muslim Brotherhood?
This year has been full of events and changes at all levels. The (MB) Brothers were strongly present in all events, including the ‘million-man marches’ that were held in Tahrir Square (Cairo) or the provinces, as well as other protest events and activities within those provinces. Also, the Brothers played a positive part in the historic referendum of March 2011.
Other changes include the opening of the MB headquarters, for the first time since the fifties era of the last century. The opening was in the full glare of publicity, and broadcast in various media. Conferences were also organized at national levels, of which some were for the sisters, and others for students. The MB Chairman also had numerous meetings with many young people.
During the past year, also, an MB dream came true. Back in 1990, the Brotherhood sought to establish its own political party.
However, former regime tyranny, repression and corruption prevented that from happening. Hence, although the Brotherhood presented its party program, it did not see the light until after the blessed January 25 revolution, when we founded the FJP.
For the first time, also, the MB Guidance Bureau elections were organized and held on the air, live, covered by all news agencies. This period witnessed many meetings between MB and FJP leaders and a great number of officials, ambassadors, dignitaries or heads of state.
It is worth mentioning, here, that many MB leaders – particularly members of the MB Guidance Bureau – were banned from traveling under the despotic regime. After the revolution, they were free to go wherever they wished.
Free and fair elections were held in Egypt, with huge popular turnout, which had never happened in Egypt’s modern history. The free Egyptian people, exercising their free will, spoke out and chose the Muslim Brotherhood as the largest parliamentary bloc in the People’s Assembly (PA). And so all the symbols and figures of the defunct National Party fell.
Brotherhood coverage in the media, in this period, was also remarkable. Despite the fierce campaigns waged by many media outlets against the MB, its leaders addressed the people, even in official government TV channels, for the first time, too. Indeed, it was delightful to see and hear TV presenters talk about the Brotherhood without branding it the ‘banned group’.
We hope, in the coming months, to witness the formation of a stable government, reflecting the popular majority, an elected President, a new Constitution. Then, the state's institutions will significantly improve and enjoy genuine stability.
FJN: Many spoke about the role and effectiveness of the MB in the revolution. What is the truth about the role of the group and Guidance Bureau in the 18 days leading up to Mubarak’s resignation, and the events after February 11th?
I must stress, right from the outset, that the revolution did not begin on January 25 (2011). Those who claim the revolution started on January 25 detract from the long history of struggle in which many political forces and stakeholders took part, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, for many years, the MB endeavored to stand up against the process of succession or ‘presidential inheritance’, against the prevailing corruption and injustice, and the falsification of the people’s will – which culminated in the notorious rigging of the 2010 elections - where no-one from all the opposing political parties, forces and stakeholders won any seats in Parliament. It was then that the political parties and stakeholders, led by the MB, showed the people what the despotic regime did so blatantly in the People's Assembly, local councils, or the Shura Council elections. Then was the spark on January 25.
The Brothers were involved from the outset, but the MB had to refrain from announcing its participation so as not to provoke the former regime into painting the revolution in Islamic colors, and – supported by its ‘friends’ in the East and West – crushing it immediately. Perhaps the main reason that led the Brotherhood not to use any special slogan, banner or motto was their desire for this to be a broad and popular revolution.
Indeed, many Brothers were arrested on 25 and 26 January 2012. Some of these were well-known MB figures. Even former Interior Minister Habib El-Adli openly accused the Brotherhood of being the main player behind those events. Just check the newspapers of 24, 25 and 26 of January, where you will find those accusations.
Then, MB officials were summoned and warned against joining the revolution. Nevertheless, the Brothers refused those threats, and actively participated in these demonstrations. More than 20 officials from the various provinces, as well as 6 from the Guidance Bureau were arrested during those demonstrations.
Also, the role of the Brothers in the so-called battle of the ‘camels’ is recognized by both friends and foes. If it was not for the young Brothers, the outcome of that incident could have been a bloody end to the revolution.
FJN: Can you clarify what happened at the ‘battle of the camel’ and how the MB dealt with it? Also, is it true that the group wanted to withdraw its members from Tahrir Square?
There was information confirming that certain groups were about to attack protesters in Tahrir Square. The Brothers in Tahrir were asked to form human chains to protect the demonstrators. There were not enough Brothers, to start with. But when the attack began against the protesters, the Brothers in Tahrir called urgently seeking help and protection from Brothers in various places. Quickly, assistance arrived. Several groups of Brothers poured into Tahrir – including a Shubra group led by Dr. Mohamed El-Beltagy – and joined those already in the square. Together, they managed to halt successive attacks by thugs from the dissolved National Party.
As for the Brotherhood withdrawing its members, at a certain point, that is a distortion of the truth. What happened was that some Brothers telephoned MB officials, clearly shaken and perturbed, saying, “We are being massacred”. Some officials replied, “If you feel that resisting these attacks means certain death, retreat”. This was surly no defeatist withdrawal by the Brotherhood. When the true picture in Tahrir emerged – that MB youth already in the square were capable of beating off the aggressors – they were urged to persist and persevere. Then, more assistance and support were sent to them from neighboring areas.
The MB has many martyrs and wounded Brothers who fell in Tahrir right from the first day of the revolution. Certainly, everyone knows that Brothers led prayers on Qasr Al-Neil Bridge. Some well-known martyrs who were killed in the ‘battle of the camel’ were Brothers. Also, many of those injured on that day were Brothers, too, not only in Tahrir Square, or Cairo, but many of the wounded and the martyrs in the provinces were Brothers. Also, many of those arrested on 25 January belonged to the Brotherhood. I can even tell you that Brothers were detained in solitary isolation in the prisons and detention centers, away from the rest of the demonstrators.
In the meantime, Omar Suleiman tried to press the Brotherhood again and again to meet him. The MB refused, stipulating that Mubarak must first step down and violence against the demonstrators is halted. Only when the Brothers felt that Tahrir Square would be completely obliterated, if the MB did not agree to sit for negotiations, they announced they were ready for that meeting, again stipulating that attacks on Tahrir must stop first. That did come to pass. The Brothers went to hear what Omar Suleiman had to say, but only under the conditions that Mubarak must step down, the Mubarak regime came to an end – directly and completely, and protesters are allowed to demonstrate peacefully and express their opinion. And as soon as the Brothers felt that Omar Suleiman wanted to steer things in a different direction, and to show things in a different light before the media, they pulled out of the dialogue.
FJN: After the events of the revolution, the MB saw some Brothers leave the group, including Dr. Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Dr. Mohamed Habib, as well as a number of young people. Some lay the blame on the MB for not being able to contain them?
Those are good Brothers, with unblemished histories and valuable contributions to the Brotherhood. We are deeply grateful for all their endeavors, their devotion and generosity. I must stress, here, that the Brotherhood is always keen to embrace and appreciate its people and not to lose any of them at all. But – at the same time – the group is also keen on the values, principles and approach to which it has always been committed. So, the MB cannot tolerate violations by members if they insist on rejecting MB decisions – made through its various esteemed institutions – and persistently, defiantly and publicly announce differences.
The most basic rule of organization and management in any party or group is that members do commit to the said group or party’s decisions, if issued by the competent authority, after proper consultations, expressing the view of the majority within that group or party. In all parties in the world, when a member, whether a leadership figure or individual from the rank and file, publicly announces his rejection of a decision made through proper processes, he gets dismissed from the party.
We have been pursuing this approach ever since the days of Imam Al-Banna, the founder of the MB. Even Imam Al-Banna himself, whenever he held a different opinion, he used to commit to the MB’s opinion, and no-one knew that he had a contrary opinion. That is the spirit and practice of Shura (proper democratic consultation) that we learned in Islam.
The Brotherhood, now and always, opens its arms to anyone of these Brothers whenever they wish to correct the situation and return to the group. The door is ever open, and the Brotherhood embraces these Brothers or others. This is a natural result of the events of the revolution, which has brought about great openness. It is worth noting that the members so dismissed from the MB were only twelve.
FJN: There have been speculation and analysis pointing to the possible disintegration of the MB after the Revolution, with media reports surfacing, every now and then, confirming mass resignations from the ranks of Brotherhood. What is truth in this?
There is no doubt that the revolution, the changing political climate and the new security situation in Egypt encourage Brothers to try and express themselves and their opinions, to generally speak their mind, more and more freely than ever before. You may hear widely differing, even contradicting, opinions. This is not true only at the grassroots level. We disagree at the Guidance Bureau, too. But that usually does not go so far as leaving the group for good. There were young people who expressed views contrary to the MB leaders’ opinions. These views may be correct; but within an institution, they must comply with the rule of Shura. A number of young people did break this rule, which led to 12 Brothers, in addition to Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, being dismissed. Moreover, Dr. Mohamed Habib resigned. He was not dismissed.
FJN: There are foreign reports claiming that the U.S. is adopting a new approach in dealing with the Arab region, to promote the so-called liberal Islamic current, to face up to the conservative Salafist current and the MB reformist movement. What do you think of that?
I do not believe there is any change in European or U.S. views towards Islam or Islamists. For decades, they supported authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. Now, they claim that their interests require them to deal with democracies. I do not believe this is a turn-about. What happened is that they felt there is a general atmosphere, amongst the region’s peoples, of determined Islamic leanings, choosing Islamists and an Islamic regime. So, in order for the U.S. and Europe to best serve their own interests, they decided to try and coexist with these emerging Islamist democracies. However, if they could contain or control these new regimes, they would derive significantly greater gains. Hence, they may try to help establish an apparently democratic regime which, in fact, should be subservient to its will in one form or another, and at them same time be acceptable to the people on the Egyptian or Arab street. But I believe the Egyptian street is above all these political antics.
I think that, until now, the West has not recognized the change that has occurred in the Arab region, the change that happened to Arab peoples and their goals and aspirations, demands and dreams. Evidently, some people bet the Brotherhood would not win more than 20% of the votes of the Egyptian people. They bet on what they called the silent masses with the greatest voting power, which previously did not participate in elections, and which could possibly change the balance of power. All of this has been proven wrong. Note that despite the fact that there have been re-elections and runoffs in some constituencies for three, four or even five times, and the selection ratios have remained the same. This is consistent in elections for the Shura Council as well as trade unions or Syndicates, clubs and universities. In all these repeated elections, and at every opportunity, the Egyptian people have spoken and persistently, positively expressed their choice, their will, their option, namely an Islamic regime.
Contrary to the elitist condescending view, the Egyptian people are both knowledgeable and experienced. They tried communism; and suffered greatly. Then, they tried good relations with the U.S. administration and suffered equally. For long decades, they tried military rule; and suffered even more. Now they have lost faith in all these leanings, trends, philosophies or ideologies. They have now asserted their resolve and determination to revert to their Islamic leanings, by choosing the Islamists. On the street, and in most households, Egyptian people, in general people, believe Islamists are the most efficient, the most honest and honorable, the most loyal to the homeland, and the most benevolent, as well as the most capable of solving the problems of this country.
We also believe that the Egyptian people will no longer accept or tolerate a President with absolute powers, even if he was from the Muslim Brotherhood. Real power and authority must remain with the people. The West must bet on reconciliation with the peoples, in order to secure its own interests.
FJN: You say that the parliamentary system is the optimum for Egypt; but until the partisan idea is fully accepted in Egypt, you will aim to establish a mixed system. Dr. Mohamed Morsi, the FJP Chairman; and Al-Shater, MB Deputy Chairman, have recently stated that you are able and willing to form a broad coalition government. How capable is the MB to achieve this? And how feasible is it?
Let's agree that it is the People, not the government, who can take Egypt out of the current crisis. Now, if it is up to the people to rescue this homeland, let a government take control that expresses the people’s will and choice, to lead them in the direction of their choice, to achieve the goals they want, and to fulfill their demands and dreams. On the other hand, the belief that the government, without the positive participation of the Egyptian people, is going to make miracles is not valid. There is no government, of the MB or otherwise, capable of doing so.
Right from the outset, we said that the crisis experienced by the Egyptian people required concerted efforts by all; and cannot entirely be addressed and resolved by any one faction, group or party, whatever it is. From this perspective, we said we want a government that represents all the people as much as possible, a broad coalition of all spectra of Egyptian political and social hues, so we can combine the efforts of all to emerge from this crisis.
I believe that those who think the MB, or any other major party now on the scene, does not have the capabilities necessary to manage the next phase in Egypt, give too much credit to previous governments, of the defunct former regime. For one thing, from 1952 to the present day, previous governments were simply figureheads receiving edicts from the President and his family - no more, no less. Some, perhaps, had seasoned technocrats, but those were never given the chance to work. Indeed, throughout that period, no government genuinely held alternative opinions or independent views, except very rarely. For, invariably, any minister who dared hold such independent views was immediately relieved of his job.
Egypt is full of technical talent, skillful specialists and resourceful experts who can effectively and adeptly manage all its affairs. The MB boasts broad cumulative experience and immense practical expertise. For many years, it led Egypt’s various syndicates, which witnessed significant leaps forward; likewise youth clubs and student unions. In fact, wherever we’ve worked, we have been eager to lead the people to monumental leaps forward – as far as possible. We certainly hope to achieve a stunning quantum leap, if the Brotherhood formed a government.
FJN: In light of your experience with the Democratic Alliance, which initially had some 40 parties, but ended up with only 10, how do you envisage success in forming such a broad coalition government when consensus seems to be a rare commodity and differences are clearly obvious?
Well, that coalition does not necessarily have to engage all existing currents, parties and stakeholders. I would certainly hope that happens. But, practically, that may not be possible. Nevertheless, we will endeavor to form a coalition with various political currents and leanings. We did try that in the parliamentary elections, when it was decided that the Speaker of the PA would be from the FJP, the first Deputy from the next largest bloc: the Nour party, and the second Deputy from the third biggest bloc: the Wafd party. Those parties agreed on these selections and arrangements. When PA Committees were formed, some approved, while others disagreed.
I believe there are many parties that will agree and participate in steering the helm of this homeland. Because we believe we all aim to serve Egypt's interests, first and foremost, and put them above all else.
FJN: What are the exact bases for the MB’s confidence that it is capable of forming a government?
We always said we do not seek ruling power. But we also said: If the people chose us to rule, we cannot possibly let them down. Also, after the recent parliamentary elections, we became the majority bloc in parliament. This basically means that the people want us to play a major role in administering the affairs of this homeland. And we cannot fail the people. We must announce that we are fully prepared, especially since there were rumors that the MB refuses to form a government. We reiterated that since the people chose the MB and insisted on putting the Brothers in the lead in the PA as well as in the Shura Council, the Brothers cannot abandon this responsibility entrusted to them. Accordingly, we said: We agree to form a government. We never changed our stance. Certainly, the presence of good, sincere and patriotic figures in the Egyptian government will help take this homeland out of its current crisis.
FJN: You stressed that you represent and enforce the will of the people, which obviously chose Islamic reference. Meanwhile, you assert that you will not be fielding a candidate for the presidency of Egypt, nor will you endorse or support an Islamist. How do you reconcile these two apparently contrary statements?
Well, we certainly will not support or endorse a candidate with anti-Islamic leanings or one who will not back an Islamic reference. We stated only that he should not be an Islamist or actively affiliated with the Islamic movement. So, he does have to be Islamic in orientation, and a supporter of the Islamic project – a supporter of the people's choice. We will make a final decision on which candidate we endorse after the closing date for presidential candidacy – when we know who the candidates are, analyze their electoral programs, and assess their ability to implement these programs. Only then shall we talk about endorsing one or the other.
FJN: How would you describe your relationship with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF)? Has it developed or changed in any way with the unfolding of events?
The position of the Brotherhood with regard to the military is the same from the beginning: We will praise and encourage its good endeavors; point its mistakes when it errs, and effectively stop any wrong-doing; and if it slows down the march towards democracy, we will warn and advise it. This may well be direct advice – through meetings between us – or public, through the various mass media outlets. We will continue to offer our advice to SCAF until the end.
To sum up, I can say: There have been no changes in our relationship with SCAF. There are not and there have not been any deals between us, contrary to what some say. When Dr. Ali Selmi’s initiative sought to establish special status for the military, we rejected it completely. When there was a slowdown in the elections, we rejected that, too. Further, when the Egyptian street demanded expediting the process of power handover, we backed that as well. Indeed, from the very first moment, in the very first meeting attended by the MB Chairman, he told them, “Make sure the transitional period shall not exceed 6 months”, which is our unchanged view and position.
FJN: What is your assessment of SCAF and its performance, a whole year after the revolution?
Certainly, there have been mistakes made by SCAF, perhaps because it is not meant to engage in political work, and perhaps because of its slow decision-making processes. Evidently, many decisions could and should’ve been made faster, and would’ve made a great difference with the people one way or another.
There are many question marks over incidents which cannot be blamed on SCAF. But there are parties, so-called hidden or not so-hidden hands, that play with the stability and security of Egypt and its future. Many hands, it seems. Of that, perhaps, are the bloody events of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the Cabinet building, Port Said stadium and the recent Ministry of Interior incident. Most youth coalitions announced that they did not play any part in those. The football fans called ‘the Ultras’, too, denied any involvement in those events. It seems no-one knows who was involved, then. There are thugs wandering and spreading chaos, lawlessness and destruction throughout Egypt, our homeland. There is also the recently uncovered issue of ongoing communications amongst the heads of the ousted former regime and certain media outlets. This was revealed live, on the air.
Furthermore, to date, no one of the real culprits has been held accountable for any of the afore-mentioned crimes. No police officers were brought to trial for killing or participating in the killing of demonstrators. SCAF is ultimately responsible for all this, regardless of whether or not it is actually complicit in crimes. Therefore, we have to hold SCAF and the Public Prosecutor accountable for all of that. We feel that there is collusion in one form or another, and that the heads of the former regime are steering the helm, somehow, or that SCAF is part of that regime.
FJN: The MB has announced the start of the development phase, including announcement of the Brotherhood’s detailed structures, committees and competences. What is the latest news on this matter?
First of all, development does not affect the constants, the basic principles of the group. The fact is, development is a perpetual and continuous process. Hence, there may be talk, at some point in the future, about the possibility of making changes in the structure of the group or its regulations. This is premature, just now, because everyone is preoccupied with current events and changing political realities in Egypt.
In our talk about development, there are urgent topics that have been decided upon. Most of those decisions have already been implemented. Other issues need some research and analysis. Specialist committees have been formed for these, to study each issue separately, and then make its own executive decision on the matter. There are also deferred issues that require further study and consultation with the leaders of the Brotherhood. Once all that is accomplished, the MB basic regulations will be amended, to facilitate coordination amongst the various departments and committees which may be formed or added to the existing structure. Details of all those will be posted on the MB’s internet sites, soon.