Hamdeen Sabahi Interview: The Brotherhood Has Divided Egypt

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Egyptian potential presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, meets with people during his presidential campaign tour in the "Martyrs" underground metro station in Cairo on 7 March 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

By: Alain Gresh, Mustafa Bassiouni

Published Saturday, May 18, 2013

An interview with National Salvation Front leader Hamdeen Sabahi, who epitomizes the squandered opportunity of the 2012 Egyptian presidential election. Though the vote ultimately went to Mohamed Mursi, Sabahi, who came third in that poll, was the better choice for the anti-Mubarak vote.

Al-Akhbar (AA): How do you frame your visit to the Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, politically speaking?

Hamdeen Sabahi (HS): Supporting al-Azhar as an institution of moderate, centrist Islam, and protecting it from falling into the hands of political Islam and being used to the authorities’ advantage, is part of the fight against monopolizing religion by political groups. There must be a level field for the current [political] battle, which the extremist factions have defined in the context of the struggle between Islam and infidels. This is a distorted representation because it means that a particular political faction has monopolized religion.

The various political factions have helped solidify this monopoly by distancing themselves from the religious heritage of the people, which does not espouse the conservative discourse that urges obedience to the ruler and prohibits rebellion, but rather the revolutionary discourse that accepts enlightenment and progress. This is what al-Azhar must promote through independence from the authorities.

AA: Nearly a year after the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt, how do you evaluate their work?

HS: Success is not defined by taking power, but by how power is managed. The ascent of religious groups to power is a good opportunity to liberate Islam from the grip of those groups that monopolize religious discourse. For one thing, Islam in the collective consciousness implies safety and tranquility: “Who provides them with food against hunger and with security against fear.” (Quran, Surat Quraish)

The record of the Islamists a year later expresses none of that. One clique has replaced the clique of former president Hosni Mubarak. Dissatisfaction is growing among the people.

The approach taken by Mursi has obviously failed, while exposing the Islamist project to even stronger blows than those that hit the pan-Arab project in 1967. The Muslim Brotherhood made many promises to the people when the group was not yet in power. But all those promises evaporated after they took office.

What actually happened is that the Muslim Brotherhood in power has successfully divided Egypt into Egyptians and Muslim Brotherhood partisans. But one must bear in mind that assessing the record of the Brotherhood in power is not confined to Egypt, as the verdict on the group will be global and will affect the future of the Islamist project worldwide.

AA: While Mursi may want to reproduce the structure of the Mubarak regime, do you not believe that the opposition too is rehashing the old arrangement of the opposition under Mubarak, which was widely seen as an extension of the regime?

HS: There are significant differences that were imposed by the revolution. The opposition under Mubarak, and I mean official parties, were part of the regime. The radical opposition to the Mubarak regime was built outside formal frameworks and traditional parties, such as with the Kifaya movement.

Today, the old parties are no longer the main component of the opposition. The main component is the partners in the revolution and the factions that emerged in the midst of the revolution. Their project was not drafted by the political elite, but by the masses of the revolution who toppled Mubarak and are now seeking to finish their revolution.

AA: You speak about toppling the regime. Do you not see any possibility for reforming the regime through power transfer mechanisms?

HS: Reforming the regime depends on the regime itself, when it becomes aware of the extent of dissatisfaction with its conduct and responds to popular pressure. But it also requires organized popular pressure to push popular demands forward. The opposition must be open to both “public squares and ballot boxes,” that is, mobilizing the masses for peaceful resistance to change the regime, and mobilizing them in elections. The revolution has created new realities and methods, and the opposition has adopted those.

Some factions observe a theoretical separation of what is “revolutionary” and what is “parliamentary.” This is a weak point in their thinking, because steering clear of elections means vacating the arena in favor of the Islamists and the fulul (remnants of the Mubarak regime).

Furthermore, elections offer a way to build up presence among the masses. Finishing the revolution and standing against the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood are the goals.

Elections can be a revolutionary choice in certain instances. There should be complementarity between the public squares and ballot boxes, and intellectual inertia must be shunned.

AA: You declared your support for the Tamarrud, or Rebellion, campaign, which is gathering signatures for a vote of no-confidence on Mursi. Do you believe that Mursi has lost legitimacy?

HS: Mursi took office through elections, and we must respect the results in accordance with democratic principles. But democratic rulers who take office through democratic means must also exercise power democratically. Indeed, taking power through democratic means does not exempt rulers from the obligations of democratic practice.

Here, for example, we recall the anti-democratic Constitutional Declaration, and the casualties outside al-Ittihadiya palace. Such incidents naturally undermine Mursi’s legitimacy. Mursi has legal legitimacy, which is under criticism, but his political legitimacy collapsed with the Constitutional Declaration, and his moral legitimacy too when Egyptians lost their lives. In other words, he is ruling with debatable legal legitimacy, and inexistent political and moral legitimacy.

But the issue is not only about legitimacy or otherwise. No matter how legitimate, a ruler who is unable to meet the demands of the people should also be resisted. The issue is therefore about how to accomplish that.

AA: Recently, there were many voices requesting the help of the army against the Muslim Brotherhood. Where do you stand on that?

HS: Appealing to the army took place after violence was used against peaceful protesters by organized militias during the incidents of al-Ittihadiya. Prior to that, reliance was primarily on the power of the masses. For its part, the Salvation Front emerged as a political alternative, but not as an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned militias.

Such appeals also emerged when rumors spread among the public over a struggle between the military institution and the Muslim Brotherhood. But we must also stress that the appeals to the army aimed in part at circumventing civil resistance. The undeniable truth is that the revolution cannot be finished except by the popular forces that initiated it on January 25.

If the army intervenes, this would satisfy some popular segments and elites, if it is meant to protect the people from organized violence and allow the masses to resume their role. However, the army is not fit to rule, and these are the acceptable limits to the role of the army.

AA: How do you see the recent cabinet reshuffle?

HS: We called for a government of competent, patriotic independents. We do not want any portfolios in the cabinet and we do not ask for it to be a coalition government, but we want to have consensus over candidates [for major positions] because these posts are directly or indirectly related to overseeing the next elections.

But exactly the opposite happened. The recent reshuffle brought more bias by adding more Muslim Brotherhood-aligned ministers or figures that do not represent consensus. In other words, Mursi threw down the gauntlet and refused accord with the opposition.

As a result, Mursi does not want national dialogue or reconciliation, and is closing all the doors in the face of the Salvation Front and all factions outside the Muslim Brotherhood, including those that are Islamist.

AA: You had a meeting with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). What is your opinion about rejecting the IMF’s loan to Egypt?

HS: Our rejection of the IMF loan is not based on ideology, but on former experiences with the IMF. In our meeting, we set out our conditions for approving the loan, including no additional burdens on the poor. Subsequently, we refuse for the loan to be used to reduce the budget deficit given the lack of transparency. We also asked that the loan be allocated for productive projects and creating jobs.

AA: What is your view on events in Syria, especially following the Zionist aggression?

HS: The Zionist aggression against Syria is yet another Zionist crime against the Syrian people, and I mean all the Syrian people. What is happening in Syria today is a regional proxy war taking place on Syrian territory. Regional and international parties are both publically and secretly providing support to the warring sides, and the Syrian people are paying the price.

It must be stressed that the future of the Syrian people lies in [safeguarding] the unity of Syrian territory. Furthermore, any serious project to resolve the crisis must be based on the popular will of the Syrians.

Syria needs a popular choice to emerge from Syrian popular forces that should have a decisive stance on Bashar’s regime and the militias at the same time.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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