A talk with former Egyptian PM Abdulaziz Hijazi
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Former Egyptian Prime Minister Dr Abdulaziz Hijazi, who currently heads the General Federation of Civil Society Groups, has urged the Egyptian Government and Army to intervene decisively to restore respect for internal national security and overcome the security breakdown prevailing on the Egyptian street since the fall of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak last February.
Dr Hijazi believes that the political Islam movements, especially the Freedom and Justice Party [FJP] which speaks for the Muslim Brotherhood, will win a majority in the coming parliament because of their [MB] discipline and their readiness to go to the polls when they are asked to do so. He said that the Islamists occupy center stage in the general situation in the Arab spring, as is the case in Tunisia. But he said that nomination of the remnants of the dissolved National Democratic Party [NDP] which Mubarak headed and the likelihood that many of them will win seats will affect the percentage garnered by the Islamists in the elections and that it was likely they can match the numbers of the Islamists in parliament.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Egypt is moving toward parliamentary elections. Some say that the security breakdown and other conditions can jeopardize this process. What is your opinion?
[Hijazi] There must be decisive and serious intervention by the Interior Ministry and the Army because it is not acceptable that the country should be left in this situation. We find 340,000 “amin shurta” [petty police officers] going on strike nationwide. We see the State’s housing buildings occupied and some people paralyzing a railroad line for nine days. The State should not be left like this. We have to restore internal national security. I expect strikes and “confusion and pandemonium” during the elections, but I do not think this will reach the extent of stopping the elections or postponing them. There will be precautions for the elections. There was a proposal that the Interior Ministry should bring in new elements to bolster police forces. It may enlist the help of elements from the Armed Forces.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But you are aware of the vacuum which occurred during the revolution and led to the collapse of the role of the Interior Ministry. How can the confidence in them be restored?
[Hijazi] Does this mean that we should leave the thugs on the streets and allow the violations that take place? There must be firmness by the Government and SCAF which must have the powers of the President of the Republic to adopt a serious position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why have the people not felt change?
[Hijazi] Because there were no blueprints they embraced and accomplished. We are trying to guide them now, but it is late.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Which parties or forces do you expect to reap the majority in the parliamentary elections?
[Hijazi] The Islamists, specifically the Freedom and Justice Party [FJP] which represents the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] because they have grass-root bases on the street.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But there are other forces that have bases, such as the Salafis?
[Hijazi] I believe there will be coordination between the Salafis and the MB because if they differ or wrestle they will hurt each other.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some believe that the ascent of the Islamists will be in the interest of the new Egyptian State?
[Hijazi] The Islamists have had center stage in the general situation in the Arab spring. They won a majority in the elections, and the Tunisia scenario will be repeated in Egypt like the Tunisian revolution was repeated. I expect that big families and clans will play an important role in the elections and that they can consequently nominate the “remnants” of the NDP. This will affect the percentage the Islamists will win in the elections and consequently will achieve a balance with the Islamists in parliament.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will an Islamic parliamentary majority have negative effects on Egypt, as many say?
[Hijazi] The Islamists are disciplined organizationally. Thus when they are instructed to vote they go to the polls. This is not the case with the other forces. If the political Islam current is moderate, this would not be bad because these groups were banned but are no longer banned. Their programs should be based on wasatiyyah [moderate middle-of-the-road doctrine in Islam]. But I fear the Salafis and their fatwas and other moves they make.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do the present programs of the Islamic forces represent a wasatiyyah Islam? Will the international community accept their rise to power?
[Hijazi] It will not accept it because the effect of the radical Islamists outweighs the moderates. We find that the imprints of the Salafi movement are more prominent, and consequently we find rejection on the part of society. If the wasatiyyah forces succeed in reaching accord with the radicals this can ease the attacks on them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would SCAF accept the ascent of the Islamists and turning over authority to civilians?
[Hijazi] I think so, and I do not think SCAF will deviate from this because it cannot stand in the face of the Islamic current which now forms a power as demonstrated in the referendum (last March). Even though the referendum did not reflect the opinion of the people who wanted the constitution first, the Islamists succeeded in controlling and directing the street to vote for the amendments.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the existing election system (mixed ticket and individual system) appropriate for the nature of this phase?
[Hijazi] I reject the tickets system because it is based on the programs of parties when the parties have no programs. It would have been better to adopt the individual system so that all the forces could be represented. The revolution does not mean a radical change in everything. Further, the rate of illiteracy is high among the people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Concerning the presidential elections, how do you assess the personalities that have come forward as potential candidates? Do you expect the nomination of a personality with military background?
[Hijazi] Yes, I expect that there will be a military candidate. We might be surprised by new personalities because the door is open. So we must define the specifications that the next president should have, such as being as charismatic as Abdul-Nasser, as much of a politician as Sadat, have as much experience and real practice as (Dr Muhammad) ElBaradei (the former IAEA director), or a personality that has a background in practicing authority.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are these specifications met by the Personalities that have nominated themselves?
[Hijazi] They do not apply on any candidate. It is expected that there will be new personalities after the end of the parliamentary elections.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There were recommendations on dialogue among religions and on the sectarian incidents after the revolution in the document on (national) dialogue. How can this matter be handled?
[Hijazi] The incidents that occurred were for individual reasons but the media blew up the problem. There must be participation in dialogue and dealings.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The sectarian incidents have been frequent after the revolution, like the Maspiro and Imbaba incidents. Is this a problem that can be ignited at any time?
[Hijazi] It was evident in the Maspiro incidents that there were hidden hands that wanted to create sedition and splits. But the issue requires more dialogue. Indeed a family council (sponsored by Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church) was established to bring the two sides together in a joint dialogue. Differences in faith are something we do not come near, but there are common factors that could be built upon. We have not until now started on the right road for accord between the Muslims and Christians. I took part before in the dialogue among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism with Prince Hasan in Jordan. We focused in the first topic on the ethics of dealings among the three religions. We then talked about justice, accord, and tolerance. But this did not reach the grassroots even though it was announced. We hope that there will be meetings at grassroots level to accentuate these common factors.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] To what extent does the document on national dialogue announced lately in Egypt express the societal realities in the country at present?
[Hijazi] It expresses the opinions of those who participated in the national dialogue sessions which comprised the representatives of the political parties, the youths of the revolution, the unions, and the scientific and academic community. Consequently they involved all the segments of the people. We posted all the dialogue documents on the Internet to make the details of the dialogue accessible to all. There were also dialogues in 13 provinces. I salute the Egyptian expatriates in Saudi Arabia headed by the Ambassador and the Cultural Councilor because they conducted debates on the five axes of the national dialogue, namely democracy, human rights, human and social development, economic development, cultural development, and Egypt’s relations with the external world.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you received input from other Egyptian expatriates?
[Hijazi] No. The Egyptians in the United States made contacts to take part but they could not organize a dialogue there because they are scattered in various States. We considered conducting a poll on the national dialogue document but the lack of the required finances made us abandon the idea.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the forces that participated in the national dialogue since May, especially the youths of the revolution, are no longer effective on the street, in contrast with forces that have taken center stage now like the Islamic current?
[Hijazi] We cannot say that the youths of the revolution have no presence because we have 222 coalitions of the revolution’s youths at present. About 150 youths from various coalitions took part in the dialogue at the time. In the smaller dialogue sessions 20 specialists and five revolutionary youths participated. But the groups advocating change and the political parties were the ones who rode the wave. This is why I say that the revolution has been stolen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How was the revolution stolen? Who stole it?
[Hijazi] The lack of a leadership for the revolution and the dispersal of its forces (all this minimized) the importance of their activities except in sit-ins and demonstrations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did the national dialogue take the initiative to pool the forces of the revolution and unify their ranks from the start?
[Hijazi] I tried to do so and called for a conference for all youths to discuss their ideas and visualizations. But each group of five individuals for instance would come together and form a coalition, to the extent that some movements like Six of April split among themselves. I tried to weld a unified coalition among all these coalitions but this was difficult.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What difficulties did you face?
[Hijazi] The quest for leadership. Every youth wants to be a leader or a member in the principal coalition that is formed. I tried to organize a conference for them. I told them “pool the agendas and the names of the people that participate”. Indeed they presented an agenda and a group representing the coalitions’ met and they chose a secretary for that group, Councillor Ahmad Fuad, the Vice Chairman of the State Council [Higher Administrative Court]. Another group came and said “where are we in this?” Subsequently a contradiction developed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where is the role of the civil society organizations, especially since they are about 32,000 organizations?
[Hijazi] There are roles undertaken by these organizations. We counted in the federation about 350 pioneering experiences by the organizations based on real field work after the revolution. There are training centers which undertake training on the elections in the provinces. We seek to form specialized federations for health and cultural activities. But the powers of these organizations are weak because the law gives them no authorities. We drafted an amendment on the Law of Civil Societies and presented it to the Government and parliament before the revolution but it is still locked in desk drawers. The rights organizations objected to it because they get foreign assistance and do not want any supervision on them from the government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view this problem? What is your role in monitoring such financing?
[Hijazi] We have a philosophy about this issue. We have spoken with the donor establishments and told them that there is no objection to channelling assistance to NGOs but according to the priorities seen by Egypt and not according to the programs they draft. If I want assistance for education, they [donors] should come and we would introduce them to the NGOs specialized in this domain, instead of their channelling assistance to specific NGOs. This was the cause of the difference with them. The other thing is that we demand disclosure about the use of this money, its amount, and how it was spent. We find for instance one NGO getting 25 million and another getting 30 million whereas other NGOs get nothing.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why does the General Federation of Civil Societies not monitor this financing to solve the problem?
[Hijazi] We have nothing to do with this because the law does not give us this right. The Ministry of Social Solidarity might be able to follow up this matter.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The issue of foreign financing to the NGOs is regarded as involving foreign agendas implemented inside Egypt through these NGOs. What is your view on this?
[Hijazi] Abroad, those who get financing this way are considered under the law as agents on whom the death penalty applies.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But have the establishments and societies that get financing from abroad managed to accomplish something for society?
[Hijazi] I asked them a year ago to form their own independent federation for societies involved in democracy and human rights, and that there should be coordination among us. I did speak with them, but they refused this because they do not want supervision from any quarter. The money these societies obtained should have been spent on activities of benefit to society like (remedying the problems of) poverty and illiteracy, not on conferences, seminars, and invitations in major hotels. This money is abused. I told the former US Ambassador [evident reference to Margaret Scobey] that “you have spent three trillion dollars on democracy and human rights but despite this have not attained democracy or protected human rights. It would have been better if this money had been channelled to the people”.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But there is financing flowing in also to political movements and groups like the Salafis, and like what was said about the Six of April movement?
[Hijazi] I am calling at the present time for issuing a law to regulate zakat [Islamic alms], donations, and contributions. I recommended this in the national dialogue document.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some accuse the Government of Essam Sharaf of dealing with crisis through the approach of sedatives?
[Hijazi] Dr Sharaf has an array of challenges that prevent him from fulfilling the role expected from him. Every day he appears like somebody who just extinguishes fires. Every day there is a new incident and a different crisis. Consequently his preoccupation has been diverted away from the basic issues. Daily problems have come to dominate his activities. It is natural that he should use the style of sedatives because of the recurrent incidents.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your advice to the Government of Dr Sharaf?
[Hijazi] He must focus on the problems of the poor and the marginalized. The Government was not able to control inflation to a great extent but it succeeded in making the basic commodities available. However the loans, debts, and general State budget require a major effort.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You were Prime Minister during an important period in Egypt’s history, the period of the 1973 October War. Are there differences with the period we are now living?
[Hijazi] There are no major differences. The same rules could be applied because (the late Egyptian President Jamal) Abdul-Nasser laid the foundations of what we applied in what is known as the 30 March statement in which he spelled out the general policies and appointed officials to follow up the program. Consequently the objective was defined, namely the people and their demands. Accordingly we should specify the objectives and the financial system to be followed, whether it is capitalist, socialist, or mixed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You were Finance Minister under Abdul-Nasser and Prime Minister under Sadat. You lived in Mubarak’s era. How do you assess the period each of them spent in power?
[Hijazi] Abdul-Nasser was a leader in the full sense of the word. His mistakes in (the war of) 1967 were because of an American-Israeli conspiracy to get rid of him. They said “he is the turkey we want”. As for Sadat, he was a man of politics more than anything else. He did not preoccupy himself with internal problems. When I brought issues to his attention he would say “this is your responsibility”. His main emphasis was on preparing for the October battles at the highest level. Consequently we entered the battle with each one of us having a clear objective. We did not go bankrupt and there were no problems.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about Mubarak’s era?
[Hijazi] During the tenure of every president there were negative and positive aspects. The entire era cannot be all positive or negative, for there was land reclamation and development projects and the subway. But there were negative aspects.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did the people revolt against him as long as he was pursuing development?
[Hijazi] Because of political corruption.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You described Mubarak before the revolution as a wise man?
[Hijazi] Yes, because he is a pilot. A pilot takes everything into consideration and is aware of the dangers he faces. But he was not actually ruling after 2005 and this was the biggest mistake.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You said that you are seeking to unify the forces of the revolution. Are you going to run for the presidency, for instance?
[Hijazi] The youths of the revolution have actually demanded on the Facebook that I should run for the presidency. I asked them to remove this because I have performed my role and can be of benefit through my experience. Further, my health circumstances do not allow me to run at the present time.