In conversation with Egypt’s human rights chief
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Abdullah El-Ashaal has been described as a legal expert, an Islamist thinker, and a veteran diplomat. In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the secretary-general of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) spoke about the political and economic situation in the country, the forthcoming June 30 protests, and President Mohamed Mursi’s achievements one year into the job.
Abdullah El-Ashaal has served variously as deputy foreign minister, ambassador to Burundi, and as a legal professor at Cairo’s American University. Ashaal was a founding member of the Free Egypt Party and unsuccessfully ran for president in the last elections. He announced the formation of a new, as yet unnamed, political movement in this interview, revealing that this political party will contest the next parliamentary elections.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What was the reason for your recent visit to London?
My recent visit to London included a meeting with members of the British House of Commons who are interested in Egyptian and Arab affairs. In this meeting, we discussed human rights in Egypt. Later, I had a meeting at the University of London to discuss the current circumstances that Egyptian society is passing through, as well as the Palestine question and Egypt’s obligation to help the Palestinian people establish their own state. My visit also included a meeting at Chatham House, where we discussed the situation in Egypt, the Islamist trend’s arrival to power, the role played by the NCHR to support human rights, and the need to reconsider the concept of human rights. I also met with members of the Union of Egyptians in Europe to consult about the constitutional rights of expatriates and the key demands of Egyptians abroad.
Q: What’s your view of the Islamist trend’s rule in Egypt?
The Islamist trend is not familiar with the political process and never had a prior role in this, particularly as [its members were] in prison. This is something which saw the Islamist trend face off against the other trends in the government, with every side claiming the right to dominate the scene. In fact, we should have introduced them to each other, thus improving both trends’ efficiency in dealing with each other and making them realize that Egypt is for everyone, not for any specific trend only. We should have shown them that their differences are more cultural than political. Unfortunately, the political elite should have played this role, but they did not and instead they took political stances which do not allow for such dialogue.
The phenomenon of the Islamist trend emerged most clearly after it swept the parliamentary elections. In fact, Egyptians were delighted by the Islamist trend’s success in sympathy with their members, who were relegated to obscurity and subjected to injustice, oppression and deprivation during the previous era. Egyptians thought that the Islamists would seize the opportunity to prove themselves after the revolution. I warned against this phenomenon at the parliamentary elections, saying that people should differentiate between religion and politics. In fact, bad politics may even have an effect on religion, and through my own research I have noticed a growing trend among youths moving away from patriotism and religious identity, not to mention the upsurge in atheism among Egyptian youth. Therefore, religion should not be involved in politics.
Q: Does the involvement of religion in politics alone account for these changes in the mentality of the Egyptian youth? Did president Mursi fail in dealing with and containing the young revolutionaries?
This issue is related to answering another question: Did those in power incite the revolution? This is the problem; the youth who carried out the revolution and bore its cost—both physically and psychologically—were targeted by the Hosni Mubarak regime. In other words, youth were the victims of both Hosni Mubarak and the revolution that toppled his regime. This issue should have already been resolved. I believe that the ones who assumed power are not from the youth, because they are not even qualified. At the same time, president Mursi should have responded to the hopes, aspirations and demands of the youth. Because of the lack of awareness, the youth are split on this issue. This is among the key issues that the new political movement that I am in the process of establishing will work to clarify and deal with.
Q: How different will your new, as yet unnamed, political movement be from other conflicting political movements in Egypt?
The new movement or trend which I am preparing to launch will allow everybody to gather around the country without bringing up religion at all, because religion is all about one’s relationship to God. This is a basic principle which complies with Islamic jurisprudence. I will set up this movement so that it shows no bias towards anyone, seeks to protect the interest of Egyptians, and emphasizes Egypt’s special nature. In other words, this movement will emphasize that Egypt is not under the domination of any one faction. Throughout history, Egypt has had a special nature, allowing all sides to coexist. Churches, mosques and temples coexisted with a degree of tolerance. This is something which complies with God’ first contract with Man, “Let him who will, believe, and let him who will, reject [it]” (Surat Al-Kahf; Verse 29). Besides, religious issues should not be brought into politics, because religion has priorities. We work to develop this country in order of the agreed-upon priorities.
Q: Have you chosen a name for the movement?
Unfortunately, I have not decided on a name yet because most names have already been exhausted [by the several factions] participating in the political process. The movement will be launched based on three principles: first, religion is for God and Man will be assessed on the Day of Judgement; second, rizq (wealth) has nothing to do with belief or disbelief, rather, it is commensurate with hard work; third, the country is for all Egyptians and no one is superior to the other except in their generosity to the country.
Q: Will the movement participate in the next parliamentary elections?
Definitely, we expect an effective participation. I believe my movement will offer an alternative to the political and religious affiliations and rise above the superficial and unnecessary divisions which have dissipated the energy of the Egyptians through internal conflicts.
Q: Do you agree with others on the need for international observers to oversee the elections in Egypt?
We in the NCHR accept international observation missions to oversee the elections and demand that the government allow such missions to operate, because I am certain it will serve the interests of the Egyptians.
Q: Do you believe that President Mursi failed to deal with the judicial reform crisis?
Mursi could have been more prudent in dealing with this crisis by cooperating with all state agencies without having to wage struggles. The judiciary is sacred, and the president should have fought corruption without offending the system.
Q: In your opinion, what caused the crisis between the presidency and the legislative branch on one hand and the judiciary on the other?
The constitution guarantees several rights and freedoms for the Egyptian people; however, the people were denied these rights on the ground. Although the judiciary guaranteed their rights, the Mubarak regime did not respect the judicial rulings. Therefore, we should not convict Mubarak of illicit gains; rather, we should convict him of destroying state agencies.
The current standoff between the judiciary, the People’s Assembly and the president was caused by the dissolution of the parliament and the suspension of the constitution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) drafted a new constitution and formed a new government, but left the judiciary intact. Therefore, the current conflict is between the judiciary system that has not been amended yet on the one hand, and the presidency and the People’s Assembly on the other. Had the authority amended the judiciary system, we would have had a new system that is compatible with the current regime, constitution, parliament and government. However, the judiciary is still old—a thing that explains its resistance to the changes occurring at this critical point of Egypt’s history.
Q: Who is responsible for this crisis?
The responsibility lies with the SCAF, which ruled Egypt half-heartedly, trying to adapt to the new regime as much as possible, yet deep inside wanting to return to the old regime. Without doubt, the SCAF placed a heavy burden on President Mursi. The SCAF committed a grave mistake by failing to prepare Egypt adequately for the next president to assume power during the transitional period. It also made a mistake by not drafting a constitution prior to the presidential elections; it also halted the revolution, slowed down progress, and committed a number of massacres comparable to those carried out by Mubarak.
Q: Given your position as NCHR secretary-general, what’s your view of the condition of human rights in Egypt after the revolution? What led the public to feel that human rights are deteriorating?
Human rights deteriorated in Egypt because we only concentrated on the right to live with dignity and avoid arrest and torture. These rights are passive; priority should be given to positive rights, such as safety, life, education, food and water. We should be interested in these basic rights. Unfortunately, these rights have not been guaranteed yet. This is something which is related to instability, protest, and underdevelopment [in the country]. What happened is that people thought that the revolution would guarantee their rights. However, there was a disparity between ambitions and capabilities, prompting the opponents of Mursi to take to the streets. Mursi was required to show some understanding of people’s reaction and prepare for it with the help of an extremely powerful team to reassure the Egyptians about his ability to achieve even if it was otherwise. This did not happen, and the media also played a serious role in that.
Q: How do you assess the performance of Mursi after one year in office? Do you think he failed in his duty?
President Mursi does not have a vision and has not made use of the abilities of Egyptian society. People have legitimate demands, which Mursi should respond to. He must form a strong government instead of the current one which is inefficient. Mursi did not even benefit from some of his good advisors. Mursi’s decisions concerning the new constitution split the Egyptian people and lost him his support base. Several other issues negatively affected Mursi’s rule, particularly the conspiracy to topple him and the Islamists. Unfortunately, Mursi’s ineptitude played into the hands of some of the presidential candidates who considered him too inefficient for a president. This is not to mention the influence of the remnants of the former regime in all state agencies. This resulted in Mursi being a victim of circumstance.
Q: What are your expectations for the June 30 demonstrations? How do you assess the Tamarod [Rebellion] and Tajarud [Impartial] campaigns?
Despite all the criticisms of Mursi, it is wrong to demand that he step down. On the contrary, we should make sure he remains in power, because he is the first elected president in Egypt’s history. Unfortunately, many mistakes have been committed. All we want is to keep the country stable. At such a critical time, we should differentiate between those who are wise and the activists. While activists burn with zeal and lack vision, the wise are past this point and can deal with issues in a more reasonable manner.
Therefore, I believe that allowing people to take to the streets on June 30 to topple Mursi will mean the end of the concept of elections. Moreover, if we force Mursi to step down in this manner, Egypt will slide into absolute chaos. Those calling for the demonstrations should ask themselves: What is next? They think that Mursi, who came [to power] through elections, will step down if asked by some to do so. The supporters of the Islamist trend have now threatened to overthrow anyone who assumes power should Mursi be ousted. This is something which will rupture the social fabric of Egypt, and we will see people, instead of finding solutions for Egypt’s problems, attempting to attack each other.
Q: Is the current crisis in Egypt part of a planned plot against the Arab Spring states?
Egypt leads the Arab world; if a revolution happens in Egypt, the rest of the Arab world will be affected. Since the Egyptian revolution has not been completed yet, the other Arab revolutions have not settled and are stalled. Therefore, some sides are trying to head off the Egyptian revolution and prevent it from achieving its final goals in a bid to prevent revolutions from spreading into their own countries.