Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essam El-Erian says that with new political opportunities in post-Mubarak Egypt, the group seeks to “participate, not dominate”
Essam El-Erian is a spokesman and political strategist for the Muslim Brotherhood, founded as a political and social movement in Egypt in 1928. Known for its slogan “Islam is the Solution,” the group increasingly speaks the language of democracy and compares itself to Islamist parties in democratic nations like Turkey. El-Erian has spent numerous periods in prison as a leader of a movement formally banned from politics since Egyptian independence in 1952. In 1987 he won a seat in parliament, and in 2005 he helped organize a campaign in which eighty-eight Brotherhood members captured parliamentary seats running as independents. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed El-Erian in Cairo on February 21, 2011
CAIRO REVIEW: What happened in Egypt?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: A surprise. Till now, it is not yet completed. We are going on the run till now. What’s happening is going on, it’s still continuing. When the last election [in November and December 2010] was totally rigged, the only place for discussion between the people was the streets. They were pushed out of the parliament. Their representatives were pushed out of the parliament to the street. Then it resulted [in this]. It was delayed one month or one and half months.
CAIRO REVIEW: Not the first time you had a bad election in Egypt.
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: But this was a very vulgar one. It was not only the rigging of the election. It was the insulting of the people and the comic scene done by the president himself. He said to the people, “Let them have fun.” The people got the lesson and they got to the street “to have fun,” enjoy their time. The people were enjoying their time since Tahrir Square.
CAIRO REVIEW: The Brotherhood has been a banned organization in Egypt.
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Outlawed.
CAIRO REVIEW: Yet you tried to make politics in Egypt anyway.
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Not trying. We did politics.
CAIRO REVIEW: How would you describe the Brotherhood’s role in Egypt before January 25?
EL-ERIAN: Before, during and after, the same role: We are working with the people. Our target is the people. Not the power.
"I hope that America can discover also itself, that is not the overwhelming sovereignty in the whole world. It’s not the Allah, the God, for the world."
CAIRO REVIEW: But politics is about power.
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: No, this is your philosophy. This time, now, it is the power of the people, not the power of the regimes.
CAIRO REVIEW: But what were you doing before January 25, in politics in Egypt as an outlawed organization?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Our structure is the same. Participate, not dominate.
CAIRO REVIEW: Did you have a party?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: What’s the role of the party? The role of the party is seeking power, mainly according to the Western theories. But here we are not a party. We are still keeping our mind about our role that we are not only a party. We can practice politics but we are an organization, institution, group working for the people in all aspects of life, not only politics by the narrow perception.
CAIRO REVIEW: Meaning politics and what else?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Everything, everything you can imagine. We believe in Islam as a way of life: individual, family, societal, social, economical, educational. Everything.
CAIRO REVIEW: Why do you need an organization for Egyptians to live their lives?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: This is duty for all Muslims. It’s a duty for all Muslims in the Holy Koran, to advise, to educate, to be with the people. The people need each other. We are with the people, they learn from us and we learn from them.
CAIRO REVIEW: Why do you need an organization for that if it’s not a political party?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: But this is our duty also, to organize ourselves. We are not individuals. To keep your Islam, you must be organizing with others.
CAIRO REVIEW: Did you regret participating in the last election?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Never, never. The prize came on the 25th of January.
CAIRO REVIEW: Some people urged you to boycott the elections.
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Okay, they don’t understand.
CAIRO REVIEW: What was the advantage of the election?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: To discover the reality of the regime and to encourage people to be against the regime. There are two ways: to participate according to the state of law, or to be out and the people can determine their fate.
CAIRO REVIEW: What part did the Brotherhood play on January 25?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Part of the scene, participating in the events, guarding protesters, supplying them by all means they can, organizing them, everything. We are part of the protest.
CAIRO REVIEW: On a political level?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: It’s not political. Politics mean parliament, cabinets, this is politics. This is a revolution. It’s not politics.
CAIRO REVIEW: Did you formally call your people, your members, to the streets?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: We never call anybody. The people themselves come according to Twitter or Facebook. The masses in the street, they were invited.
CAIRO REVIEW: So, as an organization you didn’t play any role.
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: You can go back to our statements or announcements, which seemed to be daily. We say only that we are part of this event. We are not leading. We are not organizing. The people organize themselves by themselves, in the square, in the streets, in Alexandria, in Aswan, in Mansoura. The people do everything and we are with them, voice among voices.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is it only the latest election results that sparked the revolution?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was because of corruption, closing any window for free expression.
CAIRO REVIEW: What has this revolution achieved?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Changed the people. This is the most important.
CAIRO REVIEW: How?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Changed the Egyptians. The Egyptians changed themselves and broke the fear inside themselves. They rushed in the streets, and when they discovered their abilities, discovered their original nature, discovered they can do anything, they can clean the square, clean the streets, organize themselves, sing, dance, pray and dance, they discovered they are Egyptians, Christians, Muslims. There is no split in the society. Muslims and Christians are united. Not according to the regime’s “national unity,” the [Coptic] pope and sheikh of Al Azhar coming together, no. The ordinary people discovered they are not frightened by Muslims and there is no ghetto for Christians. There is the new discovery of the Egyptian nature.
CAIRO REVIEW: What else?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Mainly democracy, real Islamic democracy.
CAIRO REVIEW: You have it now?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: No, not yet. This is Egyptian democracy with Islamic flavor, Egyptian flavor. They discover they can make their present and future alone. There is no need for any help from anybody, from any foreign policy. The debate now in the United States is, “Was Bush Junior, or Obama, behind what happened?” You are still thinking that you are mastering the globe. The Egyptians discovered that they—according to their abilities, according to their power—can be independent. So, it’s not only democracy, it’s independence. This is a new independence for the Egyptians. I hope that America can discover also itself, that is not the overwhelming sovereignty in the whole world. It’s not the Allah, the God, for the world. That it can live beside others. We are not of course as strong as America, economically, militarily, but the power of the people is the same.
CAIRO REVIEW: What else has the revolution achieved, since it’s not finished?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: The president stepped down. His men are still in power, they must step down also. A new cabinet must come, a new parliament, a new president, a civilian one. This transfer of power to civilians is very important. They discover that the army can be a guard, not a political army. It will take time, maybe five years to bring a democratic system and to train the people to vote. Trial and error. It can take time, but we are on the right path and this is very important.
CAIRO REVIEW: What are the next steps?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: The next step is transfer of power, of course.
CAIRO REVIEW: How will this happen?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Look, sir, surely you studied the history of revolutions in France, in America. I think you had some time from George Washington until the constitution. How long? Ten years? Twenty years? We need time.
CAIRO REVIEW: What’s the next step?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: I don’t know. There is still debate between the military, cabinet, the media, the intelligence and the people. The debate is still going on.
CAIRO REVIEW: What does the Brotherhood see as the best solution for going forward now?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Cleaning the country, by the political meaning, because [officials of the former regime] are corrupt. They need to be brought to justice, the stolen wealth needs to be restored, the people who are still in power from the last regime must be out, and this needs of course pressure. The people are ready. They are still not indoors. They are ready to be pouring to the streets again if there is no meeting with their demands.
CAIRO REVIEW: So you want them all [from the regime] to be arrested?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Of course, it can be step by step. But people want to see something. The media are still controlled by those people, all the media. No changes till now.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is there active resistance on the part of the regime?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Is this history or is this investigation? You are asking as a prosecutor. If an American comes to interview us as Muslim Brotherhood, he knocks at the door and we say yes or no. America is doing fatal mistakes as America, and you know what I mean. It must review its strategy and listen to the people, not listen to the regimes. You are biased till now, biased. You are hypocritical. This is not beneficial for America. The people here need to listen to American people not American administration. Please, that’s enough. People here said enough to Mubarak and they are ready to say enough for everybody. That’s enough.
CAIRO REVIEW: Are you saying that America is interfering in this revolution now?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Of course, it was a fatal mistake to be hesitating from the start, and till now they are hesitating. They don’t get the message till now.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is America against the revolution?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Look, it’s an international game. It was between intelligence and government and military. Now the people are in the game. There is no leadership to negotiate with, to satisfy them by anything. It is demands of the people. This is a revolution. Now the people need to have democracy, a real democracy. And democracy is not an American invention or French invention, it’s a humanitarian principle. Islam is compatible with democracy. You are still in your country, in your media, literature, in your news, still speaking the same old language. This will create catastrophic consequences for the whole region. Why are you silent about what’s happening in Libya now, a massacre in Libya now. Your new friend Gadhafi is killing people in the streets. Bush junior said that, “We committed a fatal mistake when we supported dictatorships for sixty years,” but you came back to the previous support. Why? It’s time now to discover that Israel is not the only democratic oasis in the region. We can have many democratic oases. Can you deal with all as the same? This is an historical moment. I hope you can review yourselves. It’s not advice. I’m a very little man in a very little organization in a little country and you are mastering the globe. But it’s time to discover realities, not to run the same way, to go the same way. And we can be friends, the people of America, people of Egypt, Arab people, Muslims. You know, there is the fall of the legend of Al-Qaeda. The legend of 11 September also has fallen. There is the fall of false theories about terrorism, about Islam, about many things. This is a moment of truth. I hope we can discover ourselves, all of us.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is the Brotherhood creating a political party now?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: We are ready. We are not going to run in the presidential elections with a candidate. We are not targeting to have a majority in the coming parliament. We are not speaking on behalf of the people. Our demands are the same demands of the people. We don’t have a special agenda. We are not going to negotiate anything for our own interests. Our prisoners still in jail. We are not looking to bring them out alone. All detainees must come together. We are not going to have party for ourselves alone. All Egyptians are to have the same rights. We are not to dominate. We are going to participate. All of this is not to send message, it’s our policy. We do it and we believe in it.
CAIRO REVIEW: Are you suggesting that if you fielded candidates in all constituencies, you could win a majority?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: We are not targeting such thing.
CAIRO REVIEW: Why not run candidates everywhere?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: This is not our strategy. Why not? It’s up to us, not to others.
CAIRO REVIEW: What’s the reason?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: I told you from the start, we are not just a political party. We are not seeking power. I say that frankly. Believe us.
CAIRO REVIEW: What’s your program?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: We said to them all, wait and see, wait and see. Our program will be in the proper time.
CAIRO REVIEW: Will it endorse a civil state?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Of course. Islam never talked about a religious state. Islam from the start is pro-civil state, in which the nation is the source of power, the nation elects the president, elects the parliament. Accountability, transparency and multiplicity. This is a civil state.
CAIRO REVIEW: Why did the Brotherhood propose an ulema council for this civil state?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: We in that debate said that this council is cancelled. It was a wrong idea, written in a wrong language.
CAIRO REVIEW: What about disallowing a woman, or a Christian, to be president?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: Everything can be reviewed. It’s one interpretation of many interpretations.
CAIRO REVIEW: You agree that this will be an important signal if this remains in your Brotherhood program.
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: The election of president is not our opinion only. It’s the rule of the people. If the people elect women, if the people elect Christian, it’s up to them. We cannot stop this.
CAIRO REVIEW: Why not be in favor of it?
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: We are not going to have a candidate, neither men, neither Muslim, neither women. We are not going to have a candidate now, at all.