A talk with Former Muslim Brotherhood Spokesman Dr. Kamal al- Hilbawi
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Having spent the last 23 years outside Egypt in a period of “voluntary exile”, Dr. Kamal al-Hilbawi, the popular Muslim Brotherhood member, has returned to his native country to stay. He previously held positions in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Nigeria, yet his primary residence was in the United Kingdom, where he worked for a substantial period as the spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, and also as an adviser to the International Civilizations Studies Center in London. He is also credited as being a founding member of the Muslim Council of Britain, and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. Indeed, al-Hilbawi hopes that some of the centers he has helped to establish in Britain and beyond can be transferred to Cairo.
Dr. al-Hilbawi (72 years old) hails from Munufiyah, the northern Egyptian governorate which was also the birthplace of former President Hosni Mubarak. In fact, both Mubarak and al-Hilbawi studied at the same secondary school, “Al-Masa’i al-Mashkurah”, and despite being ideologically opposed, al-Hilbawi insists that there is no animosity between the two Munifiyah natives.
Asharq al-Awsat recently met with Dr. al-Hilbawi in Cairo, to discuss his views on the recent political changes in his country, and what the future holds for his political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. During the interview al-Hilbawi touched upon the Brotherhood’s regional and international status, as well as its internal positions, especially with regards to Copts and women. Dr. al-Hilbawi also elaborated on his recent activities since returning to his homeland, and offered his assessment of the current transitional phase in Egypt.
The following is the complete text from the interview:
Following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did you return to Egypt now?
[Al-Hilbawi] I never intended to stay away from Egypt for one moment except when it was necessary. When the opportunity occurred and I realized that matters have changed; the state security had disappeared; that a new era had begun with this revolution, and the criminals who had oppressed us and oppressed the people, stole their money, and restricted their freedom are now being made accountable, then I saw no reason for remaining outside Egypt. In fact, Egypt was more in need of care and I had to return the favor to it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How long have you been away?
[Al-Hilbawi] I have been abroad for 23 years.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were you in contact with those in Egypt?
[Al-Hilbawi] Of course, there was contact every day…with the family…with the Brotherhood, and politicians. The contact is continuous because a man does not forget his country, his environment, his family, and his people…those are not forgotten.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did it occur to you before the 25 January Revolution in 2011 that this regime could change?
[Al-Hilbawi] Not a moment went by without me wishing of course that this regime would fall, not only for me, but for the people of Egypt and for the sake of Egypt’s leadership of the Arab and Muslim world and for the sake of its own advancement. We were expecting this and were working toward it. We have been working on this for years; we established in London, the “Egypt Salvation Front,” the “Muslim Brotherhood Media Center,” the “Islamic Society of Britain,” and other research institutions. There is no personal battle or animosity between myself and Hosni Mubarak. As a man from Al-Munufiyah Governorate we should have been on good terms.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mean you are from the Al-Munufiyah Governorate where Mubarak comes from?
[Al-Hilbawi] Yes, and I studied at the same school as he (Mubarak) did. It was a school called the “Al-Masa’i al-Mashkurah” secondary school in Shabin al-Kum. We had a problem with (the former president’s regime) in the way he administered great Egypt, which had become a dwarf. It became a little village that lacked the value it deserved in the Arab and Muslim world in particular and the world in general. This was inappropriate for Egypt. Therefore, we were expecting the regime to fall and we were working toward it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Regarding the institutes that are currently in Britain, do they belong to the Muslim Brotherhood or you?
[Al-Hilbawi] Some of them work in the name of the Brotherhood such as the “Media Center” and some have no link to the Brotherhood. The “Egypt Salvation Front” for example is a large project and includes members of the “Brotherhood” and members from outside the Brotherhood. The research centers too have no relation to the Brotherhood, although they do serve the Egyptian people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When a leader of the “Brotherhood abroad” talks about the Muslim Brotherhood, does he mean the “Egyptian Brotherhood,” the “Brotherhood as an international organization,” or the “Brotherhood in general”?
[Al-Hilbawi] We must separate a number of issues. First, he who talks as a member of the “Brotherhood,” he who talks as an official spokesman of the “Brotherhood” or he who talks about a general matter that concerns the “Brotherhood” and is concerned about the entire Egyptian people. At one point, I was the official spokesman for the entire “Brotherhood” in the West, this was because of the security restrictions in Egypt. However, many of the interviews, lectures, opinions, or articles I write are my own personal opinion. Some people may see things differently…my background is that of the “Brotherhood” but I do not speak in the name of the “Brotherhood” as I do now…this interview is not in the name of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is an interview with Kamal al-Hilbawi, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood Group.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Okay. However, we have not reached the junctures as to when the term “Brotherhood” means the “Egyptian Brotherhood” alone, when the term means the “international organization of the Brotherhood,” and when the term “Brotherhood” expresses the opinion of he who says it?
[Al-Hilbawi] There is no international organization whatsoever. (However), there is international coordination that has not reached an international organization because of the security pressures in Egypt and elsewhere. Egypt (used to) ban people (the Brotherhood) from traveling. Syria also bans people from traveling, Libya prevents people from traveling and at the same time it kills people. Therefore, you were facing a problem that was a somewhat general problem. The Muslim Brotherhood was not recognized openly anywhere in the entire Arab world except for Jordan. Other countries would pursue anyone who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood in different ways. It is true that sometimes there is no clear and concrete difference because the idea is one idea and the project we are talking about is also one. Therefore, my articles, ideas, and opinions are my own unless I am an official spokesman, a member of the Guidance Office, or a member of the World Shura Council, or have been tasked to do so. This is a personal matter and is related to me personally and my opinions. If I am talking about Iraq in the name of the Iraq Organization and I have been tasked with doing so then I can be talking on behalf of the Iraq Organization. But the general talk expresses general opinions pertaining to the view of the Muslim Brotherhood in general and not of a certain organization.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this include the international organization?
[Al-Hilbawi] As I said, there is no international organization. This is a “Brotherhood” dream, but after the revolution in Egypt, the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Bahrain maybe matters could improve and the call would come with the emergence of a strong organization similar to “world socialism” or other organizations or (for example) the “Zionist Movement” in the world. They all listen and obey one amir or one official despite the particularities of each of the different countries, according to their laws and so on.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So if the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood Group becomes easier in the new phase in many Arab countries, what shape will the organization take since you just compared it to the “World Socialist” Movement or the “Zionist Movement?”
[Al-Hilbawi] I mean the existence of a nucleus for moderate Islamic action worldwide. This is one of the steps that Imam Al-Banna (Muslim Brotherhood founder), may God rest his soul, aspired to. Why not if it is possible? However, there are great obstacles and countries that will not allow for something called the Muslim Brotherhood to be established. They will not allow such freedom. Some countries view themselves as representatives of Islam and some countries believe that they are more advanced than the “Brotherhood” ideology. This means that the grounds are not completely there for the establishment of such an organization. However, it is a hope and a dream that every brother in the (Muslim) “Brotherhood” has, so that links and relations are established and maybe this will be a nucleus in the future for Arab and Islamic unity.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How about political calculations with ruling regimes…some believe that the group did not protect the “Iranian Brotherhood” for example, or the “Syrian Brotherhood?”
[Al-Hilbawi] First of all, the concept of confrontation does not exist among the “Brotherhood” and the “Brotherhood” does not seek confrontation with any regime. However, if a regime pushes it toward confrontation, then there is no way but to work on the issue and exit with the least sacrifices and least cost. However, the “Brotherhood” prefers and always seeks to avoid confrontation with any regime, regardless of which regime it is. Second, the “Brotherhood” in Egypt does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. In Syria, there is a law in place that says all those who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood must be executed. This is criticized by the “Brotherhood” and those who do not belong to the “Brotherhood” because it goes against freedom. However, the “Brotherhood” in every country has the right to discuss with the authorities and talk to them (the regime) about anything that concerns the people. The other point is that the position of the Brotherhood is different and varies according to its domestic views.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Different to what degree…can you explain this point?
[Al-Hilbawi] I mean the “Brotherhood” in Iraq, for example, adopted a position vis-à-vis the occupation that I did not like and I would not adopt myself. I believe the majority of the “Brotherhood” around the world would not accept it — i.e. when Saddam Hussein was defeated and Baghdad fell, it was very regrettable that the “Iraqi Brotherhood” linked its hands with those of Bremer. I do not accept this and no free person would accept this. The “Brotherhood” should not have accepted this whatsoever. The “Brotherhood” in Syria at one point reached some conclusions and reached an agreement with Khaddam, who split from the regime. This conclusion was welcomed by some members of the “Brotherhood,” saying that it was a good political deal, describing it as good as it could cause a split within the Syrian Administration; meanwhile, some members of the “Brotherhood” did not agree with it, and did not see it as a good deal because it was a deal with someone who was a member of the same regime. I say there is a great degree of freedom available in every country where the “Brotherhood” group moves. Some may do the correct thing and some may make mistakes. This is the same with the rest of the people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us return to Egypt after the fall of Mubarak. The “Brotherhood” is now recognized as a group and it will have a political party as well, is this not a double gain?
[Al-Hilbawi] This is a good analysis, first because the “Brotherhood” as a preaching (entity) believes that efforts and reforms are necessary in all fields, that this is a duty and necessity. It believes that Islam is a comprehensive system that organizes the entire life. The “Brotherhood” believes that Islam is a religion, a country, a holy book, and a sword; a sword in the sense of power…and that governance is one of the foundations of Islam, i.e. that a country must be governed by justice, freedom, and correctness; this is a necessary matter and not a side matter. It is also an order from God Almighty. The “Brotherhood” has been denied political action for years, even during the days of Imam Al-Banna, may God rest his soul, when he wanted to run for election, the government and king put pressure on him to stand or otherwise its wealth and assets would be confiscated. Action for Islam is comprehensive.
The “Brotherhood” does not agree with the saying: “What belongs to Caesar belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God belongs to God.” It believes that everything belongs to God. Therefore, Al-Sadat’s saying that “there is no religion in politics and there is no politics in religion” is ridiculous. The “Brotherhood” does not believe this. The call must continue because it is an order from God. There is also a need to participate in political action. The advantage that the “Brotherhood” sees in political action is that the members (of the Brotherhood) have been raised in a certain way and they have built a cultural, ideological, and jurisprudential structure that makes them different from those who have not received this education or training in the political field. This is something that is an asset to the people and the nation, and it rectifies the path. I believe this is something good of the “Brotherhood,” which is to have a party and to also continue the call (to Islam).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some fear that the presence of a “Brotherhood party which has a religious reference, will give justification for other groups such as the Christians to form a party based on their own religious reference. What is your opinion on this?
[Al-Hilbawi] If you want your opinion to be accepted then you must accept the opinion of the other . If you want your opinion to be respected then you must accept the opinion of the other person. We have learned that the Coptic Christian citizen has the same rights and responsibilities as we have. We refer to our religion and they have the same right to refer to their religion and faith. We must not impose anything on them just because we are the majority, even though the majority rules in democratic systems. Therefore, you respect the opinion of others and give others the same freedom you have. This is not a gift from you it is an obligation; “Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it)” (Koranic verse, Al-Kahf 29;18). In Germany there is a Christian Democratic Party formula and in Israel there is the Shas Party that is based on religion. It is true this is an extremist party. So if there is a party that has an Islamic reference for the “Brotherhood” and another party that has a Christian reference that allows all citizens to participate whether they are Muslims or not, so what is the problem? Give people the freedom…
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But some Salafist movements started following the 25 January Revolution and frighten the Egyptians because of sectarian incidents; most prominent among them was the cutting off the ear of a Christian as a punishment. What is your comment on this?
[Al-Hilbawi] Let us distinguish between a number of issues: the first issue is that the Salafists are not the Islamic Group neither are they the Al-Jihad Group, the “Brotherhood,” nor the Sufis. Second, the current Salafists in Egypt belong to a number of groups and are not one group. They have very different views regarding political action. As you know, during the revolution some of them banned their members from demonstrating and some supported the demonstrations; some permitted the killing of Elbaradei and Al-Qaradawi, on the other hand there are some Salafists and preachers that are very level headed and balanced, therefore, we cannot make one judgment for all these groups, this is not fair.
The second point is that there is no punishment in Islam called “cutting one’s ear”…unless it is a punishment for a person cutting someone else’s ear first. There is no such punishment in Islam. The background to this story as I read it has nothing to do with religion or Salafists. Therefore, linking these issues to the Salafists indicates that religion is being placed in the circle of accusation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the current Salafist trend in Egypt capable of integrating into the political life or does it need to be reviewed?
[Al-Hilbawi] Why not? Of course the moderate Salafists and those moderates from any direction can participate in political life. However, those extremists whether religious or ideologically extremist people cannot participate in political life. People must have a methodology and a program to build Egypt and not to kill people, cut off ears, or demolish graves.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people call on the “Brotherhood” group to carry out ideological reviews similar to those carried out by Islamic and jihadist groups in the past?
[Al-Hilbawi] The Islamic Group and Al-Jihad Group carried out reviews because they were on the wrong path and they were not on a moderate path. They returned to what the Muslim Brotherhood was saying. So what ideas are the Muslim Brotherhood asked to review? As for reviewing the Muslim Brotherhood’s program and position vis-à-vis the Copts and women then this is very important. However, the “Brotherhood’s” methodology, mode of action, and gradual approach on which they were raised cannot be rescinded.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The issue of the participation of women and Copts in the “Brotherhood” continues to worry people.
[Al-Hilbawi] The “Brotherhood’s” political party must change its ideas that were placed by the “Brotherhood” program that was drafted in 2007 otherwise the “Brotherhood” party will have no place in the country. The way must be open for women and the Copts even the post of president of the republic. If the people choose a woman to lead the country, do we kill her? If the elect a bishop, do we kill him? No, we must refer to the people. The people choose who they want through elections even if he were a Copt, provided that they adhere to the Constitution and meet all the requirements of the Constitution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this not bring about a dispute over the custodianship of Muslims?
[Al-Hilbawi] The issue of the Greater Custodianship is something that is disputed in jurisprudence. The nation is divided. Is Bahrain a “Greater Custodianship?” Is Qatar a “Greater Custodianship?” The Greater Custodianship comes when the nation unites and becomes one nation. However, there is no greater custodianship by any country. I believe that each country alone is not a greater custodianship.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The “Brotherhood” participated in the revolution. Some are asking why it did not cooperate with other political trends to form a revolution command council to achieve the hopes of the people?
[Al-Hilbawi] A revolution command council was not established by the people because the effective element that would help the revolution in succeeding was the army. Had it not been for the army’s interference and for General Sami Anan and his wisdom in dealing with the matter and his insistence that Mubarak must step down, then the revolution would have been similar to the one we are seeing in Libya or Yemen. There is no need for a revolution command council in order to achieve the democratic dream in Egypt. The referendum that took place after Mubarak left over the amendment of a number of constitutional articles and parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2011 – if these elections are fair, then they will be a step toward democracy, this will be followed by presidential elections. Egypt needs an honest man who will protect Egypt’s national security.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion is there an organized political power that is capable of protecting the revolution and achieving democracy in Egypt?
[Al-Hilbawi] I believe that the army has so far kept to its promise. So far it continues to protect the revolution, even though I do not agree with transferring some accused people to military courts following the Imbabah incidents. I do not agree with that. There must be swift trials for sectarian sedition matters. I do not agree with handing people over to military or extraordinary courts.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You will be traveling from Egypt to Iran within days, why?
[Al-Hilbawi] To attend a conference in Tehran about alliance against global terrorism for the world peace (forum) that will last three days since I am the head of the Terrorism Research Center in Britain, and to represent a different perspective from London as the secretary general of the Islamic Unity Forum which calls for rapprochement between Sunnis and Shia and calls for unity of the Muslim nation. My visit has nothing to do with the “Brotherhood,” my being an Egyptian, or the “25 January” Revolution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If you decide to reside in Egypt on a permanent basis, what will happen to your centers in Britain?
[Al-Hilbawi] I will hand the centers over to others to take care of, and some I will work on as projects from Egypt such as the research centers and so on, especially because of the new free atmosphere in Egypt. I have decided to remain in Egypt and I will give everything I can to the people.