Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—In the final part of our two-part extensive interview with Hazem El-Beblawi, Asharq Al-Awsat talks to the former Egyptian prime minister about his experience in two transitional cabinets—in 2011 and 2013—and about the controversial decision taken in August 2013 to clear the pro-Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins out of Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares.
Asharq Al-Awsat: As you watched events in 2011 unfold in Egypt, did you expect a revolution to take place like in Tunisia?
Hazem El-Beblawi: I felt that the situation in Egypt was terrible, that there was great resentment and disquiet about the situation, but I also felt that there was apathy in the country. When the revolution erupted in Tunisia I never expected the same to happen in Egypt so quickly, and with such force.
I returned to Cairo in July 2011 and I joined the government of Essam Sharaf on July 22 or 23. I knew then that the country was facing problems, although it was not as bad as the situation in the second stage [the mass protests against Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013]. But the problem we had as ministers . . . [was that] we were in the post-January  revolution stage and the situation was complicated. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was in charge and the question was how to bring the situation back to normal, which required a new constitution and elections. The main issue was how to help restore the political system. The issue was that we were in a worrying situation and we needed to put our house in order.
Q: Did you feel that SCAF, then led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, had any desire to rule the country, or did you think they were serious about handing over power quickly?
I think they were serious. There were many signs which indicated that they wanted the transitional period to end and for the armed forces to return to their barracks. There were many meetings between SCAF and government ministers and I attended all these meetings. To be fair, I also noted that in most cases, when an issue was discussed, it started with the chairman of SCAF or one of its members giving an opinion; [but] they were happy to change their view following a discussion [of the issue]. That happened on a number of occasions.
For instance, I recall a discussion in one of the meetings on whether Egyptians abroad had the right to vote and [Tantawi’s] opinion was that they did have the right to vote, but that the situation was not suitable and time was short. However, there were other opinions in the meeting, especially from civilian ministers, that we should do all we could to enable Egyptians abroad to participate in the elections. The opinions within SCAF changed after the discussion.
Q: So, Field Marshal Tantawi was in favor of postponing the right to vote for Egyptians abroad?
Initially. At the start of the meeting his view was that time was short and we did not have the capability and did not want any problems. However, he changed his mind after we discussed the issue. For instance, in some issues that I was involved in [discussing], there were objections at the start to applying for loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), while my view was that there was no problem in acquiring a loan from the IMF to help the country. We were a founding member of the IMF and it was founded to help states; we now needed help urgently, and as soon as you receive a loan from the IMF you show the world that your economy is capable of recovering.
At the end of the day, I was insistent on my view, and when I met Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who was still a member of SCAF as director of military intelligence, I told him that rejecting a loan from the IMF was not good for the country. He agreed and told me to go to Tantawi to discuss the issue with him again. I went to Tantawi and told him I was not going to leave until we agreed on the issue of the IMF loan. He asked me to write a memo and sign it along with the central bank governor and the prime minister.
I signed the memo and presented it to the Council of Ministers. It was the first time, or probably the only time, that the Council of Ministers took a decision by a vote. Some ministers decided to vote against [taking the loan], but the decision was passed with a reasonable majority, and the ones who voted for the loan saw that it was in Egypt’s best interests. That is why I disagree with those who say the members of SCAF or its head always stuck to their views, which was not true; they used to discuss and agree when they were convinced that the issue served the nation’s interests.
Q: Did the parliamentary majority which consisted of Islamists, including the Brotherhood and Salafists, affect your work as a minister?
No. There was no arguing that those MPs who formed a majority in parliament enjoyed true public support, and I never felt that the revolution was hijacked. However, the weakness of the political parties and their divisions, and their lack of vision, was the cause [of this]. The [political] arena was almost completely left to the Brotherhood.
First, the Brotherhood had a strong and powerful organization, and had no past which people could use to gauge whether they were good for [Egyptian] politics. To the public, they were like a blank page. Second, the Brotherhood used language that was acceptable to Egyptians who had religious leanings.
Circumstances in general helped the Brotherhood. I therefore saw [their victory] as a case of democracy in action. I never thought that this was the best parliament, but they came in democratically. The problem was that they did not have anything to offer other than talk. They did not have any clear vision. I expected them to face many problems, but when I saw their performance, it was worse than I expected despite my not having high expectations for them.
Q: There were rumors that you intended to resign in protest at the security forces’ handling of demonstrations, such as in the case of the Maspero protests. Did you really offer your resignation, and to whom did you offer it if you did?
When I was a member of the Council of Ministers, during the demonstrations known as the Maspero protests, I expressed my view to my fellow officials that when innocent victims fell, the law says there must be consequences. The state must provide its people with security; and if security was not provided, even if no incident took place, the state must at least express regret, and there should be some procedure in place to show remorse, such as offering to resign.
I said this at the Council of Ministers and there was a majority who agreed with this view. Then the situation changed. When I returned home, I found myself unable to continue and decided that was it . . . I could not continue, so I decided to resign and sent it [my resignation letter] to the prime minister without letting anyone know. I switched off my phones and stayed at home.
Q: How long did you have your phones switched off for, and what happened after that?
I switched off my phones for almost a full day, and it was chaos among senior officials. I received a call on my home phone from [former planning minister] Faiza Abou El-Naga who told me Field Marshal Tantawi was looking for me everywhere, and that if I did not switch my phones back on, he would come to the house personally.
I switched on the phones and Field Marshal Tantawi called me. He said: “How can I see you?” I said I would go to see him myself. I went and explained my view on the Maspero events. He said the situation was no longer tolerable, and I said in any case we should apologize to the public for what happened, not because we were wrong, but because even if the events were not deliberate, an apology was needed. I also told Tantawi that what happened made me feel terrible, but I said, “If you ask me to stay at the Ministry, I will,” and that was what happened.
Q: What was your view of Mohamed Mursi’s victory in the 2012 presidential election?
I would have liked someone else to win the elections. This is not a simple issue; I was not involved in the election campaign, but was involved in the issue like any other citizen.
Q: Did you expect Mursi to win?
Actually, I was surprised that [Ahmed] Shafiq won the highest number of votes [in the first round of the presidential elections] together with Mursi. I expected the Brotherhood to win the majority of votes, and that if there was a second round, it would be against one of the civilian candidates. The choice between Mursi and Shafiq [in the runoff] was irritating, because they are as bad as each other; you do not feel comfortable giving your vote to either of them.
Q: Were you optimistic about a Brotherhood-led administration?
I expected them not to have a clear vision of what needed to be done. They have slogans, but they don’t have a full grasp of things. However, I did not expect the public mobilization against the Brotherhood to be as successful and powerful as the one we witnessed on June 30 , whether from the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement or any other group.
I felt that the Brotherhood were not running the country well. I felt that they were making mistakes, promoting their members, and excluding others who were capable. I also saw that there was growing public concern and I personally saw that it was very dangerous to mix religion and politics. It harms religion and harms politics.
Q: You became prime minister in July 2013, at a time when there were two major sit-ins in Cairo in support of Mursi. Did you think the dispersal of the two sit-ins by force to be the only option?
You cannot say “expect,” but the only thing which was taken into account was that the laws of the state had to be respected, and that if people began to take liberties with the laws of the state, it would not be able to carry out any task. Therefore, security had to be restored by applying the law to all. However, when someone has demands, and they are prepared to discuss them to find solutions, that is an acceptable situation; but [it is not acceptable] when they insist there will be no compromise, with no respect shown for the state. Let us suppose you have committed a traffic violation and disrupted road traffic, we will not come over and attack you, but we will give you the opportunity to vacate the road.
Therefore, the state had to regain its authority while accepting the right to object and voice opinions and hold meetings. But it is not acceptable to challenge the state and say you will not vacate the road, that you will intimidate the public, cause harm to the people who live in the surrounding area, and make provocative speeches over many weeks.
The operation to confront the [Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in] was not easy. There was a price to be paid and casualties were likely; therefore, it was important not to rush in and to give other options as much opportunity as possible, but without damaging the dignity of the state.
This was the balance which was applied and which was needed. We gave the protesters more than one opportunity to end the sit-in peacefully. There were attempts to mediate from inside and outside Egypt, but they failed. The language of confrontation became even worse and the harm to the public increased. It seemed like the state was not present.
The Council of Ministers decided unanimously in its second meeting to task the interior minister with restoring security and stability to the streets by dispersing the protesters, working within the law and the constitution. The decision was political, but the implementation was done through a plan. At the same time, the mediations continued in the hope that a solution would be found.
Q: But Mohamed El-Baradei was against the dispersal of the two sit-ins.
First, making the plan and deciding the time to start the operation took some time, and the Supreme Defense Council also held meetings [on the issue]. Dr. Baradei was a member of the council [as vice-president], and [former interim] president Adly Mansour was in attendance, as I was as prime minister, in addition to a number of ministers. The issue of the sit-ins was discussed by the council and Dr. Baradei aired his views on the subject, [namely] that a peaceful solution should be given more time.
The majority at the Defense Council meetings, and I personally as prime minister, thought at the time that after a while, if the Ministry did not take any measures which showed the state was capable of imposing the law on the streets, it would lose its authority as a whole.
I also said that no one should be allowed to openly challenge the state and carry weapons. This is not acceptable. Dr. Baradei had a different opinion and said we should give more time [to find another solution]. I think he has the right to give his opinion because he feared a repeat of what happened in Algeria, and feared a long civil war in Egypt. Baradei announced his opinion openly at the Defense Council meetings and he was insistent on his view until the end; but the council as a whole saw that things had gone too far, and the decision was made.
Q: Were there any others Defense Council members with similar opinions to Baradei’s?
I do not recall. I mean, there may have been some who kept quiet, but if so, how would I know their opinions?
Q: Did Sisi, then defense minister, express his opinion during the Defense Council meetings when you discussed the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in? Did he have a specific view which showed whether he was for or against the dispersal of the sit-in?
No. He was like most others; I mean there was nothing which marked him as standing out from the general direction of the meeting.
Q: And the stance of former president Adly Mansour?
The president listened and gave everyone an opportunity to talk and express their opinions.
Q: How did you feel when Baradei decided to resign?
First, he resigned without telling anyone. I was sorry, of course, but since he thought the issue was in conflict with his beliefs, it was his right to resign. I thought the man was consistent. If the majority agreed, it would be wrong to try to impose your opinion on the majority, and if you found your conscience did not allow you to accept the situation, you could leave the group. I though he took a logical decision for a man who had an opposing view, whatever his reasons, as this is his right, and he subsequently resigned. In fact, I was surprised because he did not tell me he was resigning, but I was pleased he did not leave Egypt after resigning, and that was his decision too.
Q: During that time and in the days that followed, Egypt was in the global spotlight, with foreign delegations coming and going. What concerned you most as prime minister?
All I was concerned with was the position of the Egyptian street. I wondered [back then], if this tension continues and the sit-in goes on, what will become of this country? First, you must give it an opportunity, and second, you must also know that the issue is not that simple, and the continuation of the sit-ins was much worse than their dispersal; therefore, the decision had to be made.
Q: Did you know the start time for the operation to disperse the sit-ins?
I knew the time it was going to take place, but it could have been delayed by a day or could have started a few hours earlier.
Q: How did you follow the progress of the operation, on TV or at the scene?
On the telephone with the interior minister.
Q: What was behind the decision to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization?
First, we received a court order banning Brotherhood activities and ordering the confiscation of their assets; so [originally] we were implementing a court order. But after the attack on the Dakahlia security directorate at the end of last year, which left dozens killed and injured, the Council of Ministers took a political decision to categorize the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The reason for this is that in Egypt, unlike in the US for instance, there is no system which states when a group can be designated as a terrorist group.
There are, however, some offenses that are considered to be terrorism and are listed in the Egyptian Penal Code. A terrorist crime is one which is committed by a person who is then indicted by the prosecution and referred to court. However, there is no procedure which allows the state to make such a decision, but it can take a political stance. If the government issued a legal resolution, it would be an administrative decision, which can be annulled by taking it to the State Council which specializes in resolving differences between the state and individuals. Therefore, the state behaved lawfully, and when a judicial decision [against the Brotherhood] was made, it implemented it.
Q: At the time, around the summer of 2014, Sisi was reportedly hesitant about running for president. What was your recollection of those days?
What is certain is that I believed it was in Egypt’s best interests to bring in a popular president, and that Sisi was the only person who enjoyed such popularity at that stage. He was aware of the country’s problems and had great vision. I believed that he was the most suitable of those who could have led the state, even if he did not have the desire at that time. However, I saw this as a national duty to which he should respond.
Q: What were the circumstances surrounding your offer of resignation to former interim president Adly Mansour?
The first time I offered my resignation to the president, he told me the time was not right. I offered my resignation because this was an important phase which had ended and which was sensitive, and which followed the ratification of the new constitution. I saw that there was a second stage [coming up] which needed new faces. After that, I told the president the time may have not been suitable then, but that it was now; he agreed.
Q: Some people believe the government should hold its course and Egypt will become more stable, while other say reconciliation between the government and the Brotherhood is needed. What is your opinion?
There must be a clear principle that Egypt is for all Egyptians, and no one is condemned unless they commit a crime according to the law. How do you punish someone who has not committed or participated in any criminal act, other than disagreeing with you?
Q: Do you believe the projects announced by Sisi, some of which have already started, are economically viable?
The Suez Canal project is very important and necessary, and it will help Egypt. But I am not a believer in magic solutions. All solutions must be there and small and large projects must be established to open the door for investors inside the country. It is not a process which can be solved with one project, but Egypt will overcome its economic crisis even if it needs more time [to do so]. I want to stress here that I am optimistic, but the issue is not easy and needs effort. Egypt is in a better state now than it was six months ago, and every day the situation improves further.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic. The first part of the interview can be read here.