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“Asking for constitutional changes is the climax for the democratic movement,not its starting point”

4. March 2007

Interview with Prof. Dr. Ashraf el-Bayoumi, member of the Anti-colonialist Anti-Zionist Committee, Vice-president of Alexandrian Association for Human Rights Advocating

Q: You have been involved in the opposition movement in Egypt for many years, you were active in Kifaya and one of the main organizers of the First Cairo Conference, held in December 2002. What was the development of the opposition movement since then, what happened to Kifaya?

El-Bayoumi: We have to ask ourselves, where the opposition movement is today. Before invasion of Iraq there was a nucleus of a movement and it was centered around lifting the sanctions against Iraq and there have been certain points, for example in 2002 we sent a plane to Iraq with food in spite of the UN restrictions. That was a symbolic gesture of confronting the sanctions. There were lots of activities in the late 90s, and early in the first decade of this century, centered around preventing a war against Iraq and lifting the sanctions, against normalization with the Zionist entity and for boycotting Israeli goods and some symbolic American goods, especially McDonald and Coca Cola and the British firm Salisbury. This campaign was successful to a large extent, even kids in middle schools were joining such boycotts and asking their families to join.
And then the climax of the movement was in March 2003, when during the demonstrations against the attack on Iraq the Tahrir Square was filled by people, and it was filled spontaneously.
After that we saw this statement [Declaration to the Nation, ]issued by a number of people who had gathered at the home of one of them. They started to collect signatures for this statement. Now this statement tied the national issues, like the occupation of Iraq, the resistance in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, confronting imperialism, Zionism and so on, with the internal issues, meaning democracy, the constitution and reform and limiting the powers of the president. However in spite of the preamble of this statement there were no tasks as far as these national issues were concerned. Regarding the internal issues the tasks were reduced to prevent another presidential term of Hosni Mubarak.

Q: What happened then? What were the next steps?

El-Bayoumi: The government indeed did some changes, for example it made it more difficult to form a party, instead of fifty signatures you need now a thousand signatures. So it kind of pulled the carpet from under the movement and changed artificially the constitution to allow multiple candidates but in reality it was a farce.

And more important than that is that asking for constitutionals changes is the climax for the democratic movement, not its starting point. You have to have strong unions, strong professional movements, workers unions, students movements, one or two political parties that are standing on their feet. But in this situation where the opposition is definitely weak the constitution will always be changed counter to the wishes of those who asked for the changes.

So first you do not start from the very advanced step in an democratic action, secondly it is very clear that the American policy is to raise the slogans of democracy and reform and use it for their purposes. So if there is any period in time when the national issues have to be coupled with the democracy and reform issues it is now, because the United States are using these same slogans. So in order to distinguish yourself from their kind of democracy and reform, you have to be against imperialism, against US occupation, for Palestinian liberation or liberation of occupied land in Lebanon or Syria.

The other thing is that Condoleezza Rice, the editorials of Washington Post and New York Times praised Kifaya movement for several times, praised the Egyptian opposition for sticking to internal issues and not repeating the old nationalist slogans. Of course at that time the American policy was pressuring some governments including the Mubarak government in that direction. Now American policy had changed, since mid 2005, when they had realized they needed governments like Mubarak in order to face the mess that they are into in Iraq. But today there is no mention of Kifaya anymore; there is no support for Kifaya from that direction. But still lately leaders of Kifaya went to a conference in Istanbul, which is organized by the National Endowment of Democracy, that is in fact CIA, and of course this raises several questions about what is Kifaya up to.

Q: But can you speak of Kifaya as an homogenous group?

El-Bajoumi: This is exactly the next point. Our first statement answering to them was very mild because we believe until now that the majority of Kifaya consists of young people who want to do something, but their political education is superficial, they want action immediately, any action. And it was very attractive for them to go in the street but going into the street is not a goal, it is a mean. And actually they kind of aborted to some extent the idea of demonstrations because of repeated demonstrations.

Q: What about the other big part of the opposition here in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood?

El-Bayoumi: Now here we have to discuss another point, that is alliances, very opportunistic alliances. Can you tell me how the socialist revolutionaries ally with the Muslim Brotherhood? What is in common between them? As they are allied with John Reese’s party, they import the idea from England, ignoring the fact that the situation here is very different from England. And as I told Reese once, we do not want our relations with you like the relations between the Egyptian government and Churchill at the time, I mean there must be some sort of equivalence, you have to respect our views here. So we departed from this environment. Even the Nasserite group Karama, they ally themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood. And when we ask them why are you allied, they would answer that they are not in an alliance, but they cooperate on different issues. However, I ask what are these issues? The Muslim Brotherhood is using them because they can show in this way to the Americans and the Europeans, look, we are open for a variety of political forces, including Marxists. But the left is not benefiting out of this. Instead on focusing on the people in the streets, and most of the people are actually Nasserites, they involve themselves with the Brotherhood.

So talking about the opposition here in Egypt, actually it is weak, there are rudiments here and there, but we have a long way to have an organized nucleus, that’s anti-imperialist and at the same time defending true democracy and political freedom and the rights to form political parties and reform and so on.

Q: What do you mean by reform?

El-Bayoumi: Reform means that we are interested in building up the universities, building up health infrastructure, and well being of the average person. So we have to offer alternatives, it is not only that we are against this and that, but we are for this that. So as you see we are busy to our ears here, we have to think of our vision for the future, science, development, in education and economy. People want to act but there is lack of knowledge, of analysis. You have to understand what the other party is preparing for you, you have to understand what the imperialist project in the world is up to. What is it in detail? How does it contradict with our project? What is our project? All these issues need reading and thinking and studying, but many of the spokesmen that appear on TV, they barley read. Some of them are charismatic, and wellspoken but frankly their knowledge and analysis is very thin.

Q: Coming back to the Muslim Brotherhood and the opportunistic alliances, how should the left deal with the Islamist movement here in Egypt?

El-Bayoumi: Expose them. Show their opportunism, show the fact that the government is using them to fill the vacuum. In fact the brotherhood in the 40ies was more responsible and had more knowledge than today. I happen to know Hassan el-Banna personally because my father was a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and I myself was a member for three or four years at college, but contradictions made me leave them. I am not against people advocating Islamic ideals, but with conditions. You have to respect Christians, and that is lacking. They now say that they accept Christians and so on, when did they issue a statement against some of their students, who are advocating to not even say hello to a Christian, a Copt in the university? How come the universities were filled with slogans for Afghanistan in the 80ies, while during the Israeli invasion in Lebanon, not one word was uttered, in 1982. When were they against normalization with Israel? They discovered this just a few years ago. And only symbolical. They are using religion to gain power. And also I really believe that when you enter politics through the window of religion you will be at the end sectarian, eventually. I do not believe that entering into politics should be through religion at all.

Q: If the Muslim Brotherhood is in fact useful for the state, why do they suffer from this harsh repression, having political prisoners and an amendment of the constitution that says forming a political party that is based in religion is forbidden?

El-Bayoumi: That’s a game, it’s a political game, cat and mouse. You are allowed filling the vacuum, but within the systems framework. If you exceed this framework, I will cut you into pieces. And that is the game that has been played over the past 25 years. As I said before I am against entering politics through religion. First of all we are a multiple religious society, we have Copts here. Their percentage varies, people who are against Copts would reduce it to a low level. But my guess might be that they are 10 to 15 percent. But the percents are not important, important thing is that they have equal rights. And of course people mention verses from the Koran and statements of the Hadith that show that Christians should be respected. But the criteria for judgement are very clear. How many presidents of universities, how many deans, how many ministers, how many governors are Copts? Although I do not believe in the appointment on the basis of religion either, but when there is a healthy society, when the society is open an Copts and Muslims are equally involved in society it becomes natural that there is a more healthy distribution of influential posts and that applies to women as well.

Q: Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood is a major obstacle for secular, left forces today to gain influence within the society?

El-Bayoumi: The government itself is the main issue. I mean when we are critical on the Muslim Brotherhood, we are speaking about the minor, lets say, obstacle. The one guilty for spoiling the political atmosphere is the Egyptian government. It is using Islam just like the Muslim Brotherhood. The government is using Islam to rule and the Muslim Brotherhood is using Islam as well to exhibit their power, so there is not much difference. In the final analyses the Muslim Brotherhood is pro-American and economically they do not even have capitalist ideas, they have the most backward form of capitalism on their mind, like just commercial activities. The Muslim Brotherhood presents itself as the biggest political force and yes, in this vacuum that we face today, they could become the biggest political force.
That’s why we say freedom before democracy. Otherwise we will repeat the Algerian experience, you can’t shift from dictatorship and then go to the ballots – to chose whom? We did not have a chance to have student leaders, unions and workers leaders and so on. You have to have a period from three years at least, in order to have a at least semi-free society, where some leaders will evolve and movements can develop.

Q: What position did the Muslim Brotherhood take on Hezbollah?

El-Bayoumi: First of all Hezbollah is something different, but also Hezbollah is not immune from some of the points you can criticize at the Muslim Brotherhood. But there is no comparison between Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Those who are resisting are different from those who are not resisting, as a rule. But the Muslim Brotherhood is a political party, they support Hezbollah because the people support them. Also the government would like to support Hezbollah, but they can’t, because they have to follow other dictates, which are obvious.

Q: Regarding the problems with Kifaya, do you have the impression that this idea is still viable? Do the individuals and parties involved still stuck to the idea of Kifaya?

El-Bayoumi: Kifaya is gone. Nobody is sticking to them seriously. Finally they had Dr. Al-Masiri elected as new spokesperson, whom I respect personally for clarifying in his works that Israel is an imperialist project and not a Jewish project, and distinguished very clearly between Zionism and Judaism. But as I told him on the phone, I cannot congratulate him for being the head of Kifaya. Kifaya is doomed. We need a group that is not in haste, that has to take the steps needed to create a nucleus of a political organization. It does not have to be radical, but at least there is a minimum: equality between the citizens, anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, for development based on knowledge and more independence, on the economic, cultural and political road, and pan-arabist. But ideology does not matter here, not matter what your background is, as far as you agree to these minimum points you could be part of this coalition. And also not to forget respect of women. We cannot cooperate with people who consider women as sexual entity, either to be nude or to be covered, in the end it’s the same.

Q: Kifaya came up with the idea to organize a boycott campaign against the referendum for the constitutional amendments. Do you think this is going to be successful?

El-Bayoumi: No, I do not think it will be successful. Frankly, it is not a priority. We do not have a movement! Look at Hezbollah in Lebanon! Fifty percent of the people are with them in the street, but of course the government is weak although backed by foreign forces. But when we face the Egyptian government we also have to face those who are backing it, so lets be modest. We need to build a political group. Let us be serious about that. Building up a political group means educating young people, and part of this education is, that going into the streets is a mean not a goal. Yes, demonstrations are important, also symbolically, they are important to show that we are still alive, we are resisting, we are saying ‘no’, but to think we are going to change a system by a few hundreds of thousands in the streets is not serious. And anyway demonstrations without guidance and framework structure can be dangerous. We are not advocates of creating chaos, we want constructive change. And change does not mean removing Hosni Mubarak. A change would involve the whole framework of the state, the way it is functioning, the corruption.

Q: You mentioned that you were one of the organizers of the first Cairo Conference. How do you see the development of this conference?

El-Bayoumi: A conference is a mean, not a goal and it has to have a particular purpose. The first conference was held to prevent the war on Iraq. And also to bring the Egyptian intellectuals together with European and American progressive intellectuals. So we invited Ramsey Clark, Dennis Halliday, von Sponeck, some progressive professors from the United States, people from Cuba, George Galloway and John Reese, also participants from France. We made some mistakes in our choices, but in whole our objective was achieved. We were able to break up this idea of the west as an homogenous entity and to have exchange between western intellectuals and arab intellectuals. But now I do not participate anymore in the Conference. First of all it became a platform for the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide to perform and we have to ask ourselves what’s the objective now, what’s the goal?

Q: What do you think of the Arab peoples Resistance Alliance Conference, that claimed to be an practical alternative, without the NGOs, to the Cairo conference and will be held after the Cairo conference?

El-Bayoumi: I think it is okay, their positions will be better than those of the Cairo Conference but I really believe that there are priorities. And the priority is that in Egypt we have to concentrate on building an infrastructure. There are many frameworks for pan-arabic interactions that already are existing and working. I believe in the necessity of pan-arabic activities but we are still far from that.

Q: Over the past six months there were wild strikes reported, mainly in factories in the Nile Delta region. What do you expect to come out of these social tensions?

El-Bayoumi: That is the most important development, the workers strikes. But the negative thing about it is that there is no organization. And their demands are restricted to payments and maybe conditions of work. But this again shows that things are not stable. As a physicist I make a distinction between stable and meta-stable, although they appear exactly the same, but meta-stable situation collapses suddenly. So we could call the social situation here meta-stable, which is also dangerous because in absence of organization it may be aborted easily, and that happened before, and it will not lead to anything and that can put even a barrier for genuine change. So our duty is to create an organization, that is very important.

Q: Due to the fact that the left is so weak, would it not be easy for the Muslim Brotherhood to gain advantage out of this social tensions mixed with absence of organization?

El-Bayoumi: Sure, sure. The problem with the left is, that many Marxists have been coopted. Most of the NGOs that are funded from European Union and the USA have people working in them that are former Marxists. After the Soviet Union collapsed they shifted almost 180 degrees. So this is the challenge, we have to start from reality. It needs hard work and resistance, but the situation is not hopeless.

Q: What role did the trade union play in the wild strikes?

El-Bayoumi: The trade union is totally coopted by the government and the secret service. There are no independent unions. But ironically you see this movement in the factories, they did what they did in spite of and against their union leaders, who are essentially government agents. Still, the government fulfilled many of their demands during the strike because it cannot afford to confront these kind of social uprisings openly, because it is somehow infectious. If one factory starts than the strike can spread easily from one factory to another. But of course we do not know what is developing inside the factories there. We did not see any organizations, but still it is most likely that these strikes created leaders that are trusted by the workers, at least in some cases.

Q: At the beginning you mentioned the danger of sectarian violence or splits within the Egyptian society. How close is this danger to reality?

El-Bayoumi: In any society you can ignite sectarian or ethnical tensions. A country can be broken along these lines very easily, any country in the world is subject to this. We have seen the Yugoslavia experience. And we see it in Iraq. I have served in the United Nations in Iraq for one year and a half, I was responsible for distributing food. I never heard this Shia Sunni thing at all. Although here in Egypt we almost have no Shiites, there is propaganda against them in order to cut down the popularity of Nasrallah and also in preparation of the attack against Iran, because the USA are trying to frame a Sunni alliance between Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt with the USA, and Israel confronting the new enemy, Iran. We are very critical of Iran meddling in Iraq, we are against it, we denounced it, but we do not consider Iran an enemy, we disagree very much on what they are doing in Iraq but we support their positions regarding nuclear technology, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. I am against nuclear weapons, but when Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons it is unacceptable to prevent one single country in the region to develop such technology.

Q: Having touched Iran now, do you think that an attack against Iran is to happen very soon?

El-Bayoumi: There are signals that are very contradictory, and I cannot make up my mind. But my guess is that there may be a compromise. There is a possibility of aerial attacks, but I do not think a war and occupation like in Iraq is possible now in Iran. Israel is pushing in the direction of at least air strikes. Israel was actually more interested in attacking Iran than Iraq.

Q: What reactions do you expect from the people of Egypt if Iran would be attacked? Would the sectarian propaganda be successful in terms of limiting opposition to such an attack?

El-Bayoumi: People will be against it. Forget about the intellectuals who calculate their positions and do not react spontaneously, but the interesting thing about the people in the cafes, in the streets, is that they may have a simplified but very clear opinion against such an attack.

Q: Talking about international politics briefly, what would you comment on the situation in Palestine?

El-Bayoumi: I am very unhappy because Hamas entered the government. Resistance does not enter a government until they had won. And now they are sliding towards compromises. The PFLP and also Jihad were not part of that. The peoples support will shift.

Q: Hamas should not have entered the elections at all?

El-Bayoumi: They should not have entered the government. The elections is a different story. Could have been a tactic to show how popular they are, but actually the popularity of Hamas is a bit exaggerated because people voted against Fatah. However it was a good signal, because it was also a vote for the Resistance. But entering the government was a disastrous mistake.

Q: So you think it was the correct decision of PFLP at the beginning not to join the government?

El-Bayoumi: Yes. Hamas is now subjected to tremendous pressure, of the European Union, the Arab governments, Fatah. I do not know where this will lead to.

Q: Do you think that in Lebanon there is a possibility of somehow integrate Hezbollah again in the existing state framework?

El-Bayoumi: No, Hezbollah is careful, they showed signs lately that they are not even going to be part of negotiations, they will have others negotiating on their behalf. Lebanon is a very complex situation and were not the United States involved, they might have reached a compromise. But the USA want this international court, which in reality has very little to do with the assassination of Hariri. It has to do with getting rid of Nasrallah. That’s why we are asking Nasrallah to be very explicit on the other international court in Iraq, which is not very different, you have to be against both. He issued several statements over the past several weeks that are on the website of Al Manar, that are in this direction, supporting the Iraqi resistance, there are very good steps in that direction. Maybe not as complete as I want them to be, but still in this direction. We are pushing them, and it is the same with the Iranian government. You cannot be against imperialism and giving at the same time political cover for the occupation in Iraq.

Q: What do you think is the challenge for European leftists today?

El-Bayoumi: I consider true leftist people to respect other leftists and deal with them as genuine allies and seeking collaboration and interactions within the framework of our priorities is very important. Maybe I was one of the first in Egypt who advocated this, I really believe that the struggle is not only local. I follow what is happening in Europe. The development of true leftist movements in Europe is very important, that’s our hope, not that they will solve our problems, but this is part of the common struggle. But you have to be honest. In order to be really sincere you have to give priority to your own countries, this does not negate international issues. I do not believe that you can do only one thing at one time. There is no such a thing as sequential tasks, it is ridiculous, its stupid, it reflects ignorance if you follow this idea. The struggle is complex and you cannot separate the internal from external factors, and the external factors become more and more important, but this does not negate the priority of the internal issues.

Q: Thank you very much for the Interview.

Cairo, 26th February, 2007, Anti-imperialist Camp