People should not doubt the Egyptian military’s desire for transition to a parliamentary democracy, says Abd El Aziz Hegazy, former Egyptian Prime Minister and a key figure in the bid to create a new Egypt. Bertrand Borg spoke to him.
As newspaper headlines announce Tunisia’s new life as a parliamentary democracy, Libya attempts to rise from Muammar Gaddafi’s ashes and the conflict in Syria escalates, news from the other Arab Spring’s great protagonist, Egypt, remains somewhat sparse.
Let me be frank: there is a big fight between the various factions
The youth-driven Tahrir Square protests that captured the public’s rapt imagination have yet to translate into a functional democracy, with Egypt still locked into military rule until the various factions can agree on a new constitution.
The man tasked with coordinating the talks is former Prime Minister Abd El Aziz Hegazy.
Dr Hegazy, who was recently appointed chair of Egypt’s National Dialogue, met with The Times when he was in Malta as part of a Universal Peace Federation conference.
Egypt’s national dialogue brings together the supreme council of the armed forces, which controls Egypt’s interim government, and the various loose political factions which have emerged following the Tahrir Square protests that toppled the Hosni Mubarak regime.
The dialogue focuses on a spread of issues but Dr Hegazy admits progress will be difficult.
“Let me be frank: there is a big fight between the various factions. The religious sides, the liberals, the socialists – they all want to push their own agenda. Everybody is confronting each other,” he says.
Part of the problem, Dr Hegazy feels, is the sheer number of factions elbowing for room at Egypt’s top tables. “We have at least 200 protest groups and around 47 political parties.”
Such plurality makes it hard for consensus to be reached. “The Egyptian revolution had no leadership. Everyone wants to lead, but if you want to organise something, you need to unify.”
The Tahrir Square protests began last January and Mubarak was gone by mid-February. Now, eight months later and with parliamentary elections looming, there is growing concern in the West about the Egyptian military’s grasp on power. The knee-jerk comparison is with Tunisia, whose revolution began a few weeks prior to Egypt’s and which held successful elections some weeks ago. Dr Hegazy, however, refutes the comparison. “You cannot compare Egypt to Tunisia. We are a country of 85 million, with so many different sects. Tunisia is different. It is much smaller and more uniform.
“There are many misunderstandings about the Egyptian situation,” Dr Hegazy says. “The military higher council intervened to defend the revolution, not to attack it.”
Describing the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s removal as “a complete up-heaval”, Dr Hegazy insists the revolution was very real.
“We have two prime ministers and a number of ministers behind bars now. Mubarak is being tried. Everybody is talking politics in Egypt – they want the poor to be empowered and they want an end to corruption. It is definitely a revolution.”
Parliamentary elections are scheduled to begin at the end of this month and will probably lead to Islamic parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood winning the lion’s share of the vote.
“I think the Islamists will easily get 25 to 30 per cent of the vote,” Dr Hegazy says, “although it could be more.” As with concerns about the transition government’s roadmap, Dr Hegazy assuages western fears of an Islamist majority in Parliament.
“Most of the things reported in the press in the West do not reflect the actual facts,” he reassures. “There is a misunderstanding of what the Muslim Brotherhood stand for and what their position is on several issues.”
Pressed as to the extremist factions among Islamist political parties, Dr Hegazy presses back. “Yes, there are a few extremists in some Islamist groups but there are extremists in every country. Look at Christian sects!”
The Muslim Brotherhood, banned from politics during the Mubarak years, has announced it will bring all of Egypt under Sharia law if the majority allowed it to.
“Human rights in Islam are greater than international human rights,” Dr Hegazy says. “There is no contradiction. It is in the implementation of rights that is the problem, not the principle of the rights themselves.”
The Arab Spring would seem to have struck a fatal blow to the pan-Arabism first mooted by Dr Hegazy’s first Cabinet boss, Col Nasser, but Dr Hegazy is not so quick to sound its death knell.
Part of the problem is the lack of strong institutions across the Arab world, Dr Hegazy concedes. “The Arab League talks about it but there is no real mechanism to make such unity happen.”
He sees the ongoing economic crisis afflicting the EU as a threat to this pan-Arabic notion. “The Arab world looks to the EU as a model of how to create regional union. So if that collapses, many Arabs will ask themselves: ‘why do we want to enter into a unified Arab world?’”
In the meantime, Egyptian society must shape a new political structure for itself and come to terms with its revolution. To Dr Hegazy, the Egyptian revolution was about three things: freedom, the empowerment of the poor and unemployment.
“When the revolutionaries first came, they shouted ‘Bread!’ Then they called for social justice, democracy and freedom. The revolution,” Dr Hegazy concludes, “is as much economic as it is political”.