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Egypt: Succession, bread intifada and repression

25. February 2007

Abdel Halim Qandil, leader of the left opposition movement Kifaya, speaking out

Interview with Abdel Halim Qandil, coordinator for the national current for Kifaya, chief editor of the Nasserist Karama newspaper, about the general situation of the opposition in Egypt, the hesitation of the Muslim Brotherhood to join the radical forces, the impact of Saddam Hussein’s execution and the war against Lebanon on the Egyptian opposition movement.

Question: Could you give us a general idea about the situation of the opposition movement in Egypt today? There has been the impression that there was a reflux of the movement over the past months, especially Kifaya seemed to be troubled.

Qandil: There are right now three different parts of the opposition. One part consists of the parties that are recognized by the state, like Tagammu or Wafd party, that are not really opposition parties, the second part is the Muslim Brotherhood, that is illegal of course and that is under constant attack, and the third part of the opposition are the small political parties, Islamists, Nasserists, like the Karama party as well as the leftists. The last part also forms Kifaya, which is not a movement, but rather a call for change. Today we have here in Egypt a tense social situation, especially regarding strikes that took place here during the past few months, that were wild strikes, against the official workers union, that is totally controlled by the security forces. Unfortunately there is a deep gap between these social forces and the political ones because of the oppression.

Regarding the situation of the regime today, it is in a transforming process, that should allow Gamal, the president’s son to be the successor of his father. The amendments to the constitution have to be understood in this sense, that they will allow Gamal to become president. There is some sort of depression among the intellectuals and political opposition figures. They often see no other choice than either to join the Muslim Brotherhood or to follow the “bread intifada”, the social revolts.

Regarding the three parts of the opposition, the radical groups triy to push the Muslim Brotherhood to work with them.

Qu: What is the position of the Muslim Brotherhood today, regarding the constitutional changes and the repression against them?

Qa: First of all the Muslim Brotherhood that was in its beginning a religious group has been transformed into a political force. It is mainly a rightwing force, you can see this if you look to their ideas about economy, if you compare them to those of the regime, you can see that there is no difference. The contradictions they have with the regime are regarding Israel, the USA and national issues and the general freedoms, like political rights. So you could say they are the main rightwing force in the country. Actually there is no real ruling political party, as the party of the state, the National Democratic Party is not a political party, but a security party, which employs seven million people, one million of them as soldiers, and this is the basis of their power, its not political. The Muslim Brotherhood is a part of the opposition regarding the national issues and political freedom but regarding the economical issues they are a rightwing party. The constitutional amendments are more security amendments than political ones as they should ensure that Gamal becomes president after his father. For example only the recognized political parties are allowed to enter the elections on the one hand, and on the other hand they forbid the Muslim Brotherhood to form a political party, that is the lesson the state took from December 2005 when the Brotherhood had a great success in the elections. Of course the Brotherhood is against these constitutional changes, like Kifaya. Kifaya stated, that they want to boycott the referendum that will be held concerning the changes of the constitution on 7th of April. They are suggesting a national movement of opposition that should be broader than Kifaya itself to organize a boycott campaign, and that should include the Muslim Brotherhood. They have two points. First of all they want a peaceful end of the current regime, secondly they want to sit together in a transition period of three years under which democratic rights should be established like supervised elections, a new constitution and so on. This proposal is called a New Era-a New Constitution. We refuse to have anything to do with the current constitution amendments. Such a movement should consist basically of Kifaya, the judges movement, the Muslim Brotherhood and the other radical parties that are not recognized by the regime, that are mainly Karama, the revolutionary socialists, Amal and Wasad Party, also intellectuals. And the person to lead this should have a national consensus behind him so he could also lead the transition period, along with others.

Qu: What reasons did they put forward to forbid the Muslim Brotherhood to become a political party?

Qa: There is an institution, called the Party Committee, that is led by a figure of the ruling party, who has been a minister under the regime for a long time. Basically this committee does not recognize any groups when they are sceptical towards their loyalty towards the regime. They took away recently the license of the Islamic Labour Party (Amal Party), they three times refused to issue a license to Wasad Party, and twice to the Karama Party. And regarding the Muslim Brotherhood there is a text that is prescribed for the Brotherhood in the constitutional amendments, saying that its not allowed to form any political party that is based on religion.

Qu: Are the radical forces successful to push the Brotherhood to cooperate with them?

Qa: Until now they have been very unsuccessful.

Qu: But why does the Brotherhood hesitate to join them?

Qa: There are two main reasons for this. First of all there are two different directions inside the leadership of the Brotherhood, which is the Guidance Council. One of them is in general political and has an activist approach and wants to work with Kifaya and other democratic parties. The other wing politically is deriving from the era of Nasser, they are simply fearing a confrontation with the regime. They are afraid of entering into combat. Secondly the Brotherhood has been exposed to a very hard security campaign and now they are suffering from very hard attacks, they have 300 leading members in prison right now. So these attacks are also expected to continue, this is another reason why they do not enter the stage. There are personalities also from the Brotherhood that are active members of Kifaya, also from the highest leadership of the Brotherhood. But the old leadership was active during the anti-political climate of Nasser, so their way of thinking is a different one. We had many dialogues with the Brotherhood, and they are always promising to study the proposals made by us. We had common works regarding the union of engineers which has been closed. There were no free elections there and there should have been a demonstration regarding this issue, but the Muslim Brotherhood just stayed away, for there had been threats to arrest them all. So the repression against the Brotherhood is indeed a mayor obstacle for them joining the opposition movement.

Qu: Do you expect them to join the campaign for boycotting the referendum?

Qa: Finally they won’t have any other choice. The regime does not want to work with them and also the USA are pushing now for a campaign against working with the Brotherhood.

Qu: So in this sense what do you expect from the Cairo Conference?

Qa: I do not have any concrete information about this, but recently the journalists syndicate, which is situated close to the lawyers syndicate, where the conference is supposed to take place, denied the Karama Party to hold a conference there. So I fear that this year there could be problems with the place. But it is important to mention, that both unions are controlled by our friends, but still there is obvious pressure by the state on both of them.

Qu: What are the political results you expect?

Qa: It is to be expected that with the execution of Saddam Hussein there might be some problems, not internal here in Egypt, but from groups coming from Iraq. But all the political forces here in Egypt are with the Iraqi resistance and the Palestinian resistance. Other problems I also expect are from the security, because the situation is more tense than last year.

Qu: In the last year the final declaration of the Cairo Conference was quite strong on the Iran issue, defending Iran against western aggression, although there had been interventions from Iraqis denying that there was any threat against Iran. Do you expect this to change this year, after the execution of Saddam Hussein?

Qa: This has the ability to create problems, because you have Iraqis that consider Iran to be the same as Israel but if the conference is held, it will condemn any aggression against Iran. And regarding the Egyptian forces, all who are participating in the conference are against any kind of attack against Iran. And this will be stressed even further.

Qu: Now already talking about Iran, what do you expect, is there going to be an attack soon?

Qa: No, not in a short while. The Americans still have too big problems in Iraq, but yes it appears like the Americans are going into this directions, there is a general orientation towards an attack against Iran. There was a meeting in Beirut where I was asked by Iranians close to Hezbollah, what the Egyptian position would be if there was an attack on Iran. And I said that there will be a general opposition against an attack on Iran, but the strength of this position will depend on the Iranian role in Iraq. If the Iranians continue to support the puppet government there and the Shiite sectarian forces, the strength of this position will not be the same as if they would be together with the resistance.

Qu: What is your comment on the internal situation in Iraq now? Is there already a civil war?

Qa: It is a terrible situation in Iraq now, but anyway regarding the possibilities of the civil war, I think if the Americans would leave the country now, yes there might be a short war about the power in the country. But the longer they stay the worse these civil tensions will become.

Qu: What was the impact of the war in Lebanon last year on Egypt? The impression was that the movement, or the demonstrations here were less than expected.

Qa: No this is not true. There is a very strong support of Hezbollah, especially of Hassan Nasrallah. For example owners of small stores or microbuses would put up pictures of Nasrallah, and putting up pictures of political leaders did not happen since the days of Nasser. Kifaya made a statement on the war against Lebanon, in which we said, that the weapons of Hezbollah are not only the weapons of the Lebanese resistance but also of the Arabic nation. The Muslim Brotherhood totally supported Hezbollah without any hesitation and the war in Lebanon made all the enemies of the Americans unite. Maybe the demonstrations did not seem to be very big, but in the Arab world it seemed like Hezbollah was victorious, and this of course did not create the same mobilizing anger.

Qu: Maybe you could give us a short comment at the end about the Palestinian situation?

Qa: During a speech I gave at Al Manar TV station together with a speaker of Hamas, I suggested that the Palestinians should abandon the PA and return to their role of resistance. The Mecca agreement might have helped to ease some of the internal problems, but it did not solve the problem of the resistance.

Qu: Thank you for the interview.

Cairo, February 21