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Sinful Islamists?

Interview with Mohamed Wakid on the current stage of the Tahrir movement, the role of the military as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and the US line.

12. April 2012
By Anna-Maria Steiner and Wilhelm Langthaler
Mohamed Wakid is a leading activist of Egypt's Tahrir left. He is member of the “Revolutionary Socialists” and leader of the “National Front” [Pan-arabist] trying to politically unify the revolutionary forces. He is co-editor of [“Dialectics” in Arabic], a pan-Arab website in English and Arabic that is trying to grasp the developments of Arab society and promoting dialogue with the international movement against the global oligarchy.


Q: With the downfall of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) entered an instable bloc with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). What is the rationale behind and will they sustain it?

The bloc is mainly punctuated by the US influence in the region. We are not talking of SCAF/MB but of SCAF/MB/US.

Let us start with the army. Its leadership was fine with the revolution as they wanted to get rid of Mubarak and his son who tried to curb the army’s influence. They were against the succession of Mubarak by his son. Gamal’s idea was a kind of monarchy which the army could not accept. Actually it was Gamal who destroyed his father’s rule and it was clear that he was unable to carry on as his father has been doing. Already before Mubarak’s downfall it was the intelligence which launched attacks on Mubarak for example in the media. The generals wanted rid of Mubarak without changing the system.

This was a very difficult and dangerous endeavour as there has been a huge revolutionary movement in the streets. At the same time there was the powerful organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). So the army tried to cut a deal with the MB to share power – an arrangement in which the US was involved. Washington had learned from its Iraqi mistake and tried to play with local proxies for which the MB, with its branches all across the region, was a very good candidate. With the example of the Turkish Islamists it seemed a viable solution backed by Saudi money and the idea of a Sunni regional coalition. The negotiations started well before the revolution and we believe that Mubarak was aware of that. This is why in the last elections 2010 he kicked them all out of the parliament. We always tried to understand this stupid mistake as before Mubarak always has left them a certain margin of seats. This move to erase them from the parliament angered people and was one reason why the revolution erupted. But now we have a reading for this episode. He felt that the Americans would bet on the MB and so he kicked them out.

After the ouster of Mubarak came the movement across the region. The MB is everywhere and especially in Syria the US bets on them. Most of the armed people are Islamists whether MB or Salafis. But this bet is not based on strength but on weakness. They have no other option. The US can blackmail them as they get gradually involved in many countries which the US could stop if they want to.

So in a certain sense the US has imposed the MB on the military which has been causing troubles. In Washington’s design the MB shall rule and the army shall check. But for the brass this is not enough. They want more and that is why they are sending angry signals to Washington like by bringing their NGOs to court.

This conflict more and more creates an unstable situation which confuses all of us. The trio, however, needs each other but at the same time is harming each other. The longer this conflict continues the more it will strengthen us.

Q: The Tahrir and the left are fighting the SCAF and this bloc. Are there chances to break this alliance? Or is it even inappropriate to speak of the left?

Ultimately it is a left movement. And a large part of it is very radical.

They were fighting the SCAF and only indirectly the bloc. Only recently they added the MB to their list of enemies. It took the movement nearly one year to understand that the MB is part and parcel of that bloc. Some people were in total denial that the Brotherhood could be part a US agent. But the more time passes it become clearer and clearer.

If the conflict between SCAF and MB persists for a longer period, say one year or more, that will cause them serious troubles and they will both be undermined. But they start to understand that they harm each other. So if their conflict ended quickly and they manage to agree on who is getting what they will have a chance.

The left and the Tahrir are still not strong enough to take on this bloc. We need to play on their internal contradictions say between the big parties like the SCAF and the MB, their relations to the US and also with the Salafis. At the same time we need to have a much longer perspective of fighting military rule in favour of a civil system.

Q: Main asset of the MB are the elections which is a way to oppose the street movement. Isn’t that a trap for the left?

Yes and no. We lost a lot because of the elections, parliament, great democracy and so on. But ultimately the parliament lost a lot of credibility because the MB is steering it into a SCAF puppet because they have a deal. The SCAF is trying to squeeze the MB while the MB is trying to squeeze the SCAF. But they are careful not to delegitimize each other too strongly. That has harmed the credibility of the parliament.

Of cause the majority is with it but the majority has not participated in the revolution. It is not likely that in the next wave it will be the majority to take. Revolutions are the undertaking of an advanced minority. What we need is that the parliament loses enough credibility among the people who undertook the revolution. I would say that about the half of them already reached this conclusion as the parliament has not done anything besides attacking those opposing the SCAF. It has not changed the social, economic and political relations, the privileges of the elite inherited from the Mubarak regime. They are trying to reproduce the same regime we are revolting against. For the time being we can say that a quarter of the population is against the SCAF but not all among them are against the MB and the parliament, only a part of them already gave up the parliament. People have lost their hope in it and these hopes are shifting towards the presidency. So if things continue like that the parliament will more and more appear like a copy of Mubarak’s old parliament.

Q: How do you interpret the soccer conflict? Are the conditions for the Tahrir now more favourable?

The soccer incident exemplifies what is happening in Egypt. It is about a match between the teams of el-Ahly and Masri in Port Said which ended up with the death of officially 79 people, but unofficially nearly 200. Some were hung, others had their necks broken. So who actually did that? It is not credible that it was done by football fans only. So people believe that thugs were implanted among the fans. There were very strange circumstances around it. They changed the head of the police of this governorate only four days before for an incompetent guy. Witnesses say that were plain cloth policemen instigating the fans. There were people with weapons inside and many other incidents that show that is was not just a struggle between football fans.

The ministry of interior had his fact finding mission that said that it were the football fans who did so. Then the parliament came to the same conclusions with the only difference that were was a good deal of negligence on behalf of the security forces but no complacency. That showed on which side the parliament is on.

At the same time there was an attempt to hold the population of Port Said responsible with calls for collective punishment. In the first days it was very difficult to get food into Port Said. Cars from the city were smashed and Port Saidis discriminated against. It was an attempt to collectively criminalise the people to cover the real perpetrators.

They also tried to criminalise the football fans. Rivalry between clubs, however, belongs to the soccer culture not only in Egypt but across the world. In clashes between the fans rarely people get killed and the security is there to go between them. Why they have managed to avoid clashes throughout years and all of a sudden it is no more possible? They basically criminalised the victim.

Islam historically is based on a siege and on a boycott of the early Muslims in Mekka, so then they left to Medina – called Hijra. Our calendar is based on Hijra. The prophet left Mekka to Medina because of the siege. The siege is a very big sin. Only Kuffar, unbelievers, do sieges. Israel does so in Gaza. Now we have a parliament with an Islamic majority and the first thing they do is a siege on Port Said. Under the Islamist we are thus committing a major sin.

The liberals have been talking of individuals rights and denouncing collective punishment as a crime against humanity. But the first thing the parliament does is such a collective punishment. The revolution was talking about an all-inclusive Egypt, a civil state, no discrimination. First it went against the Christian minority, then against the Nubian minority and now against the Port Saidis.

Port Said has always been known as the city of resistance for example against the British occupation in 1956. Port Said shows us where we will end up if we continue to betray our own history: Islamists promoting sins. Liberals promoting crimes against humanity. Creating minorities out of nothing and discriminating against them. We will all get third class citizens. This is what you get when you are betraying the revolution. The football incident shows us the cost of betraying the revolution.

The main responsible is the SCAF which has to take care about security. If there is a plot they should have done something. They have been talking for one year about a plot against the nation and they have not held one single conspirer. They have been inciting people via their media against Port Said. There is an accumulation of hatred which now is being channelled against Port Said.

What happened in Port Said is catastrophic and shows the future if we do not win. This is the only way they can stay in power – promote incitement to fight each other. On one hand the events discredited the SCAF and the parliament for the reasons explained, but on the other hand there are still enough people to believe the official stories complicating things for us. So it is a double-edged sword.

Q: Does the bloc SCAF-MB lead to troubles within the Islamic milieu? Is there a chance to drag a part of the Islamic milieu away from the SCAF and into an alliance with the Tahrir/left?

I do not think that this is possible. The Islamists as a bloc will survive. They will obey. The Salafis on the Tahrir are a very, very minor part of the bloc. Also the Egyptian Current, the left wing of the MB who got kicked out, is also a very small minority. The mainstream bloc will come out of it intact but will lose votes. Most people, who gave them their votes, did this because their think it is their duty as good Muslims. And they did it for stability as the MB has been standing for it through the years and against strikes and upheaval. The majority longs for stability and you must take into account that 85% of the population did not participate in the revolution and 95% did not participate in the revolutionary struggle after the ouster of Mubarak.

But now people see the MB co-operating with the SCAF. This perception is starting to sink into the masses and voters are turning their backs on them. They could lose up to two thirds of their electorate. Only their straight bloc will remain. This can be detected from the turnout in the upper house election in January where less than 10% cast their ballots while for the lower house it were about 60% only some months back. The MB is strongly mobilising their constituencies so the low turnout displays their problems. People thought the upper chamber to be useless and the MB could not convince them to vote for something useless. Their hard core is not more than 15% of the population.

Q: Is it possible that the SCAF tries to play the anti-US card putting the MB into the pro-Imperialist corner?

The fight between the US and the SCAF is real. But it is not deep in the sense that both of them are in the same camp. They disagree on how to deal with matters in Egypt and how much authority should be given to the SCAF. This conflict does, however, not mean that the MB is dragged into the pro-imperialist camp – they are already there. They think they can work with the Americans, bluff them, get the maximum out and then ditch them. This is a major mistake of them. The MB had a lot of popular legitimacy and a very decent vote. They used all of that to bargain better with the Americans and not in order to set the country on track. And they will continue like that as their programme in neo-liberal, they want to bring in the multinationals and they rely more and more on Saudi Arabia. They are in bed with the Americans irrespective of what the SCAF does. More and more the MB regional projects brew and unfold, the more they will depend on Washington. Coming back to the conflict between Washington and the SCAF: Despite the struggle they will find a compromise because at the end they need each other. And the MB is also moving more and more towards the US by the very logic of their plan and not by the SCAF tricking them. The SCAF might expose some of the machinations happening between the MB and the USA but this is not the reason why they are falling into the US camp.

Q: What is your position on the presidential elections?

As with the parliamentary elections also with the presidential elections we do not know what we are voting for. We did not know the authorities of the parliament and we do not know what the presidency is about. The description of the job should be stipulated in the constitution which has not been drafted yet. This is true for all the functions of the state like the legislation, the judiciary and the executive. But with the presidency it is even worse because there are many different models. There is the parliamentary variant where the president has a more honorary role like in most European countries or a powerful president like in the US or like in Egypt under Mubarak. Yet we decide first who it is and later what his prerogatives are – that is of course rubbish. They are doing this to have all their cards in place so that the SCAF can later design its authority before it leaves maintaining a puppet.

Q: In which way Palestine and Gaza imports for the Tahrir and the Islamic milieu? Or is it being misused?

The Palestine question and Gaza are unfortunately less visible than under Mubarak. People are too occupied with other stuff. The only international issue which got attention was Syria. This is because the MB is mobilising protest on Syria. But they did not mobilise for Palestine or against Israel at any point of time. Actually all the protests against Israel have been staged by the left and the Tahrir. The programmes of the Islamists including the MB and the Salafis have no mention whatsoever of Israel. But also for the left it is not on the top of the agenda. It comes up whenever there are incidents.

There is that blame game. The SCAF has come up with the third party beside themselves and the revolutionaries. It is a dubious party. They claim to have some information but they will not tell us. The SCAF wants to hunt people for reasons they do not want to share with us. According to them there are some revolutionary organisations which want to harm Egypt in the name of the revolution but they won’t tell us their names. And everybody is talking about this third party including parliament. This was the case also with the Port Said soccer incidents. Basically we know who this third party is: the SCAF itself.

Q: In which way this is related to the bomb attacks on the gas pipeline to Israel?

Yes, also here they speak of the third party. Once why claimed to have arrested somebody but they again did not present them. Later the pipeline has been blown up several times again. I think it was done by either Arab nationalists or Islamists who are not part of the deal who want to harm Israel and its relations with Egypt. It has nothing to do with sabotaging Egypt and its economy. Economically it is even better for Egypt because we will sell the gas to somewhere else for a much better price.

Unfortunately regarding Palestine we follow a kind of fire-fighting strategy. Whenever something happens people move to act. But it is mainly the left and the Tahrir and not the Islamists. They have stopped dealing with this issue probably not to get into troubles with their new masters in Washington. And if the Islamist bloc wants to make the Egyptian people forget about Palestine they can do so for a certain period. The only thing which matters to them now is Syria.

Q: Was the recent general strike a success or did it compact the Islamic milieu against the Tahrir?

The strike was a complete failure. Even on the left nobody endorsed it. It is much too early for a general strike let alone civil disobedience. So we were opposed to that strike which was not possible. Actually the left knew about the strike only three days before. The best we could do is to hold the strike in some sectors.

The people, who called for the strike, are all liberals around elBaradei. They have never worked with labour before. They thought that people would massively join the action and enter into disobedience measures. People do this only in very advanced situations. The liberals were misled by the large number of strikes which have been happening. But they ignored the reasons which were all directly economical or related to workers’ right. Workers never went on strike for political goals except in the 18 days against Mubarak which was an advanced moment.

It was easy for the SCAF to go against it. They showed it on TV as a threat to destroy Egypt. And when it failed they pointed at it saying that the Egyptians are all on the regime’s side.

We spoke to the organisers and tried to help them to tone it down and to limit the damage. But the SCAF would not allow us and their TV channels kept enlarging it. But it was not only the SCAF but the entire ruling bloc including the MB. They focused on civil disobedience which they condemned as a sin. We do not see where God is in this case but it is very sad to see that their constituencies buy that stuff, they accept it.

Q: What about Mahalla, one of the centres of the worker’s movement?

Strikes and labour protests are moving on not only in Mahalla but all over Egypt. Often their economic demands are even met. If after the presidential elections the left suffers a lull, most of the revolutionary energies would go naturally to labour. But the worker’s movement needs to take some qualitative steps ahead which will need time. They need to form sector-wide and national co-operation and develop demands. We have a lot of strikes but few cross factory solidarity. For the time being the only common slogan is for a minimum wage of 1200 Egyptian Pounds (about 150 Euros) and even this was not easy to reach.

This interview was conducted in Cairo in late February 2012.

The views expressed in interviews do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Anti-imperialist Camp.