In Translation: "The army's job is to protect us from foreign enemies, not each other"

Once again, the team at Industry Arabic brings us a new installment in our In Translation series. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a Brotherhood leader who left the organization to run as a moderate Islamist candidate in the 2012 presidential election. He is the leader of the Strong Egypt party. His party campaigned both against the Brotherhood's constitution, and against the one that recently passed (a few of its members were just given 3-year sentences for handing out flyers encouraging a No vote). We include the original headline and introduction, although it is rather inaccurate and tendentious -- Aboul Fotouh spends most of the interview criticizing the army's intervention and does not actually suggest that the Brotherhood is supporting potential presidential candidate General Sami Anan, just that they would sooner vote for him than for Aboul Fotouh himself. 

Aboul Fotouh in a conversation with Al-Ahram: “I reject the participation of the religious current in the political process…Morsi is a failure…what happened at the Presidential Palace was a crime”

Interview – Zeinab Abdel Razzak and Karima Abdel Ghani

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the chairman of the Strong Egypt Party, has announced that he will not be running for presidential elections. [He stated] along with this announcement what he felt were strong justifications, while others feel they were a cover for the decline in popularity of the Islamist current on the Egyptian street. Others still went so far as to say it was part of a prior agreement to clear the field for Sami Anan to be the Muslim Brotherhood candidate.

However, in his conversation with Al-Ahram, Aboul Fotouh asserted that his popularity in the Egyptian street had doubled, and that if he were to run in the upcoming elections, he would receive many times more votes than he had in the previous election. He stated that he rejects the Islamist current’s support for him and outright opposes the presence of Islamists in political life. Concerning the Brotherhood, Aboul Fotouh confirmed that the organization is “prepared to stand behind Sami Anan and not behind me.” As for reconciliation, he indicated he had made efforts in this regard, but was met with intransigence from both sides, though he is continuing his efforts.

The heated discussion with Aboul Fotouh revolved around these and other thorny issues, rubbing him the wrong way at times. In any case, however, frankness is the overarching quality of this interview.

Why are you not running in the upcoming presidential elections?

I made this decision early on, more specifically when I called for early presidential elections. At that time I made it known that I would not be running, as the Muslim Brotherhood had harshly attacked me because I called for the early elections. They accused me of seeking to run myself. However, my call was prompted by President Mohammed Morsi’s weak performance and failure to keep his promises. I felt it necessary to save our country and our nation from chaos. This is what I had been calling for throughout the three months leading up to June 30. We were rushed and I was personally shocked on July 3, thus I differentiate between June 30 and July 3.

Don’t you think that the army's intervention at the request of the masses protected the country from a civil war and all-out massacres?

Claiming that what happened on July 3 transpired in order to face down the prospect of a civil war is untrue. I reject such claims, since we don’t have Sunnis and Shiites or Christians and Muslims that are going to kill each other.

We do not deny that the people had rejected Morsi. I shared this opinion with them; however, there are democratic mechanisms through which to express this rejection.

There is a difference between political and judicial accountability. This does not mean that every time we get a failure of a president we call on the army to come in and remove him.

The army is the guardian of the people, so what is wrong with that?

The army’s job is to protect us from foreign enemies, not from each other.

What could the people do when faced with the Brotherhood’s militias?

What militias?

The ones that killed and tortured demonstrators in front of the presidential palace?

What happened at the presidential palace was a crime, though it has nothing to do with militias.

Don’t you think what happened at the presidential palace could have been repeated on June 30 if the army had not stepped in?

Let me be clear that what happened in front of the presidential palace is a crime that is punishable by law. This does not, however, justify what transpired after that. The army’s job is to protect the people from foreign enemies, period.

Do you want the army to let the people quarrel internally with the ruling power and not intervene to stop the bloodshed?

We were not quarrel internally and there was no fitna [strife].

Wasn’t the country on the road to perdition at the hands of the Brotherhood?

Not at all. Morsi was simply a failed president and he had to go. However he should have gone via the ballot box, which is where I differ with others from the National Salvation Front (NSF) who wished to bring down Morsi through a coup. This become apparent through the NSF’s statement in anticipation of the first statement from the army. Whoever prefers this does not love the Egyptian army, which is a national institution of which we are proud and the most protective of. However, its only role is to defend the country from any foreign enemies.

The internal political dispute should have been dealt with through peaceful means.

Why didn’t you oppose the army’s involvement in the January 25th revolution when it stood with the people?

The Egyptian army did not side with the people or with Mubarak on January 25th, nor did it fire a single bullet. The police were firing at us and at the youth. The army hit the streets after the police collapsed, and it took a neutral position. It did not carry out a coup against Mubarak – even though he was a corrupt president over the course of 30 years – in the way it did with Morsi for being a failure of a president.

What does the referendum on the constitution represent for you?

A constitutional text that was very poorly amended.

Doesn’t the large turnout of Egyptians casting their votes on the referendum signify that the popular will backs the road map?

Who are the Egyptians that turned out?

More than 20 million Egyptian citizens.

You mean the Egyptians who voted on the constitution; do you want to ask whether or not this is a constitution? We'll say it's a constitution.

Don’t you think that the broad popular turnout represents the Egyptian will to support this roadmap and discredits the theory of a coup?

Everything you are saying is incorrect. It [the road map] was not submitted to the people in order for them to vote on it. What was submitted to them was an amendment to the constitution, which is a respectable procedure. However, what we demanded from the current authorities in order to gain some sort of legitimacy was for the people to approve the road map via a referendum, but the authorities refused.

If the people were opposed to the road map, wouldn’t they go out in the streets and object like they did against Morsi?

Not necessarily.

Some think you are not running for president because you know your popularity in the street has declined.

If I ran this time, I would receive many more votes than I received last time.

But the climate of these elections is different.

There have not been any changes in the Egyptian street or in reality. Egyptians rejected the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood; they will not reject Islamists. They will accept the idea of an Islamist candidate; we cannot mix between Islam, religion and the Brotherhood, since the latter is a political faction. Egyptians rejected them because of their political practices; they did not reject them from the beginning as shown by the five elections in which they gave their votes to the Muslim Brotherhood with their full desire and awareness and without having drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid.

Were the people deceived by the phrase: “Those who know God”?

Do not say deceived. They rejected them after they tried them out and found them to be weak and their performance poor. I was certain that if the Muslim Brotherhood was left to continue in its weak performance, it would not have won the next elections.

Don’t you think what we’re suffering from as a people and a state is because of the Brotherhood’s violence?

No, and it would have been better to wait out the four years.

And for the country to collapse?

This rhetoric is false and is only propagated by the media. The Egyptian people are not oblivious and their army would not stand by while their land was squandered and sold.

Aren’t you bothered by the number of terrorists let into Sinai by the Brotherhood?

There has been terrorism in Sinai since the days of Mubarak; under the Military Council; and during Morsi’s presidency; and it still exists there now under the current regime. Terrorism entered into the Sinai because of the army’s involvement in political life!

And the terrorists that were released by Morsi?

Most of those who were pardoned…Field Marshal Tantawi was the one who released them, while Morsi released some of them. However, they were not terrorists, but rather a group whose sentences had ended and they were wrongly being detained. They were released.

How do you respond to accusations that you are a Muslim Brother by inclination and belief and just left the organization because of conflicts and issues around positions in the Guidance Bureau?

It is not commendable to pretend to be heroes or brave now and to speak about and defame the Muslim Brotherhood. I was the strongest of those who faced them and their errors during their time in power.

What do you say about the acts of violence carried out by them?

Whoever commits violence must be arrested.

Why do you regard those who are arrested for acts of violence as [political] detainees and not as accused?

That is not true. What is happening now is that people who did not commit acts of violence are being arrested. Did Ahmed Maher [head of the youth grassroots movement April 6] commit any violence? What about [secular activist] Alaa Abd El-Fattah, [head of the Islamist party El Wasat] Abu al-Ala Madi or [former speaker of parliament] Saad El-Katatni? They are being held captive to settle political scores.

They are all being held on charges and in most of their cases voice recordings have emerged that condemn them…what do you think about that?

Which cases are you referring to?

How do you think the trial of the deposed President Mohammed Morsi is being handled?

I am not in a position to evaluate Morsi’s trial.

Do you think that he is not being given his right to a fair trial?

Morsi himself proclaims that he is not permitted visits from his family. Regardless of how the trial is being handled -- which is evaluated by the judiciary itself – we reject the fact that as an accused detainee he is being subjected to abuse, no matter who he is.

Witnesses say that Morsi is being treated well, but he does not want this. For example, the prison food.

Have you tried prison food? Everyone who speaks about prison, including those in power, I challenge them to put up with one week in prison.

How can you consider Morsi's being held at the naval base in Alexandria to be a sort of kidnapping, when EU Foreign Affairs Representative Catherine Ashton was able to visit him where he was being held?

Was Morsi the one who asked Ashton to visit him?

He is being detained appropriately in a way that is not degrading to him…and Ashton visited him where he is being detained.

Did I say he was being degraded? Are you making up things I haven’t said?

Doesn’t the entrance of Hamdeen Sabahi into the presidential race indicate that there is equal opportunity, contrary to what you have said?

Although Hamdeen Sabahi has decided to run, I do not feel that the presidential elections are following a sound democratic course. Here is a question: Does the propaganda for Sisi allow any candidate, whoever they may be, to enter into the competition with him?

Why don’t you run and get all the supporting votes that in your opinion are being repressed?

The ballot boxes have been prepared ahead of time!

Do you think the presidential elections and the ballot box will be rigged?

I did not say that the ballot would be rigged.

Do you deny that there exists a real, popular will for Field Marshal Sisi to run?

This popular will does exist…but we must know who manufactured it, who told them Sisi’s name and if they knew of him before.

The people are the ones who sought his help to do away with the Brotherhood’s rule.

The media propagated this to the people and told them: Sisi is the savior who rid us of terrorism.

Why don’t you bet on the awareness of the Egyptian people, who are capable of choosing and making their own choices?

I cannot “bet on” the awareness of the Egyptian people amid the power of businessmen and their control over the media, be it state or private media.

What about the Islamist current and the Muslim Brotherhood…can’t they help you win the presidency?

I do not want the support of the religious current and have been opposed to its involvement in the political process since 2007. As for the Brotherhood, they and the Salafis were my biggest obstacle in the previous elections, and now it’s worse. This is clear from the declarations made by their leaders, since the Brotherhood could vote for Sami Anan or Hamdeen Sabahi, but they cannot vote for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. I base this on my own understanding of them and not on any information I have from them.

How do you respond to the accusation that you refused to run for the sake of Sami Anan, the Brotherhood candidate?

I have not seen Sami Anan nor have I met with him, neither before nor after the January 25 revolution. I have never met him. I reject Sami Anan’s candidacy just as I reject Sisi leaving the army.

You always criticize the way Brotherhood violence is dealt with; how can the state deal with such events?

The difference between normal citizens and the police is that the latter must be trained to deal with acts of violence and unrest. An officer is entitled to defend himself, and the law is against whoever tries to deal with him.

There is a difference between a police officer who shoots someone in the foot for inciting unrest and throwing Molotov cocktails and a police officer who aims for his head or heart in order to kill him. There is a difference between security institutions trained to face violence by stopping its perpetrators without killing them, which is how it happens all over the world.

What do you feel about the acts of terror and the assassinations sweeping the country?

They must all be confronted by a professional police apparatus.

And what about the assassination of policemen themselves?

It is wrong and a crime…No one applauds terrorism or assassinations against policemen.

Aren’t these assassinations and explosions sufficient justification to classify the group as a terrorist organization?

I have nothing to do with the group. Go and ask them.

What do you think of the comment made by the wife of a Brotherhood leader on the bombing of the airplane in the Sinai, which provoked not only the families of those killed, but all Egyptians?

In a surprising response from Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, he said: “You’re talking like the Kharijites."

I interrupted him with my laughter in order to salvage the situation: How can you compare me to the Kharijites? That makes me mad.

He began to tone down the way he was speaking at this point and said: I’m comparing you to the Kharijites in that they cursed whoever kills a flea when they were the ones who killed Hassan ibn Ali. You are talking about a crazy woman who said something on Facebook. You did not come and carry out a discussion with a leader of the Brotherhood. I left the group in 2009 because of mistaken ideas help by its members, however I am proud of my association with Islamist thought and civilization and I fully stand by it.

Aren’t some of the ideas you say you rejected the sort of extremism that has brought us to the sort of violent acts happening today?

None of them were extremist ideas. This was never a point of discussion between me and anyone. My differences with them had to do with my rejection of the idea that the group should become a political party, as my vision was that its role should be preaching and education. They insisted on turning it a party, however.

In your view, what is the solution to patch things up and avoid violence and terrorism?

The solution is that the media oppression and the hatred it transmits among Egyptians must end. Likewise, the security oppression must stop and the freedoms and human rights that have been violated must be restored. Whoever uses violence must be held accountable in order for the country to rise up again.

The idea of reconciliation has been proposed by numerous figures, but it has not yet happened.

Reconciliation was one of the points in the roadmap that was not carried out and it will never be if the oppression and animosity continue as they are. For this, all Egyptians are paying the price.

Why have you not tried to make an effort to reach out to all sides in order to reach some sort of reconciliation?

I did do this; however, I was met with intransigence from both sides of the conflict.

The Strong Egypt Party has recently been experiencing a great number of defections within its ranks.

There have not been any defections; some of its members have left since some of them are aligned with the Brotherhood and others seek to antagonize the NSF. It is the party’s principle to reject polarization.