Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—As president-elect Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi prepares to take the helm of Egypt’s government, Egyptians face a long period of uncertainty as the country’s new leadership attempts to turn their hopes for the revival Egypt’s struggling economy and the entrenchment of democratic values into reality.
Asharq Al-Awsat’s Editor-in-Chief spoke with one of the men best placed to comment on Egypt’s political scene and its future: Amr Moussa, a veteran Egyptian statesman who has served as both foreign minister and head of the 2014 constitution-drafting committee, as well as secretary-general of the Arab League.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is the main priority for the next Egyptian president: security or the economy?
Amr Moussa: It is clear that the agenda contains a lot of topics related to achieving security, reform and development. There is more than one priority at a time, because Egypt has become very imbalanced. Rebuilding is a comprehensive task, and there are multiple priorities. These priorities are political and economic, and they concern development and social justice. There are domestic priorities, as well as regional and international priorities.
Certainly the new president’s agenda will be packed. I trust that Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is aware of this, and I imagine that he will be quite busy. A lot also depends on the team that will implement and follow up on this. Of course, there will be a number of teams, not just one.
Q: The president-elect spoke about his priorities and his future work agenda. Will the team that works with the president also play a large role in this?
By himself, the president cannot achieve what he wants or what we want. The task required of him is to lead and manage the institutions of the state from different angles, according to his constitutional powers, with a focus on comprehensive reform. This is very important, because Egypt cannot afford to continue going in the direction it was going. The country underwent an intense ordeal, primarily because of the poor governance that was compounded by government after government. For a long time, era after era, we have seen nothing but poor governance, with predominantly negative results. It is therefore necessary to achieve good governance and capable management.
Egypt, in reality, begins its third republic under difficult circumstances. This is not the republic of Muhammad Naguib or Gamal Abdel Nasser or Anwar Sadat, and certainly not the republic of Mohamed Mursi. It is the third republic, with a radically different constitution, in a different time, facing different problems, and dealing with these problems in a different way.
Q: Is the new constitution a big step forward for Egypt?
Yes, it is a very big step, and we must work on its application and implementation. This is what we expect from the next parliament. It will issue supplementary laws and implement the directives and obligations of the constitutions. The constitution does not apply itself. Judges apply the law, and the law follows and applies the principles of the constitution.
There is a lot of momentum right now. The people have changed and woken up, and they will not accept a president or leader who strays from their demands. Despite the difficult challenges, we want the third republic to succeed. The people are waiting, but they know what they want and where they want to go. The failure of the previous government led to increased poverty, disrupted services and general decline.
What we are now witnessing is a different matter entirely. The masses have expressed their love for and placed their trust in Field Marshal Sisi. Citizens saw in him a man of the people, and his stand with them against the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule has been critical. He means to follow through on his intention to rebuild, because Egypt has reached a terrible state in various fields. Here, the new president and the new government must deal appropriately with the fields of agriculture, industry, tourism, energy, education and health care. The government must deal with all of this and more, but I do not think that this is impossible. What is required is good governance. We have specialists in every field, a sound plan, determination, and a strong will. This is why we can achieve success on the ground. If not, there will be difficult repercussions.
Q: How could Egypt achieve economic growth, in light of the political transformations taking place? Is it possible to create a culture of active party politics while also focusing on reviving the economy, or do compromises need to be made?
First, the issue of reviving the economy is also political. The action plans will follow the implementation of the president and the government. There are many projects we can take by way of example. We can think of the Suez Canal as one example of the creation of a major industrial area that includes maintenance, shipbuilding, a free trade zone, land reclamation, and a rise in tourism. All of this opens up numerous possibilities. If all of this were to be accomplished, people would flock to the Suez Canal to work and live. Suez Canal cities are currently not equipped for such an influx, and they would require the construction of cities, villages, factories, farms and resorts. This move would also include projects in contracting, construction, agriculture and industry. This plan would attract many people [to this area], while it also meets the standards and regulations of the 21st century, not to mention Western ideas, including a renewable solar energy project in the western desert. All of this is present in the president-elect’s program.
Additionally, the borders of the governorates of Upper Egypt are also set to change.
Luxor, for example, has focused on tourism. This governorate will now be expanded by several kilometers to include more territory, allowing it to establish various projects. This opens up various prospects. What is needed is proper management. The constitution speaks about new types of management, with elections at every level of governance—from village committees to municipal elections to governorate elections. This radical change, if successfully achieved, will put Egypt on a completely different path. In terms of sheer numbers, there will be approximately 54,000 municipal council seats up for grabs; additionally, according to the constitution, 25 percent of those will be reserved for women. A similar proportion will be allocated for young people aged under 30, and there are quotas for workers, Christians, farmers and others.
So, any leader could invest in all of these activities and leaderships. This would create economic, socia, and political momentum, as well as new policies that will be implemented through the parliament. The discussion of certain problems—economic or otherwise—in parliament will necessarily create new [political] trends, whether for or against the government. I imagine that the political schools will be composed from within parliament.
Q: You mentioned that the constitution confirms the restoration of Egypt’s “spirit.” What do you mean by this?
The constitution truly does restore the spirit of Egypt. The principles of Islamic law serve as the basis for legislation, while Christian and Jewish canons regulate the conditions for those communities. The constitution affirms that Egypt is part of both the Arab world and the African continent. It also sets forth the rights and freedoms of citizens, determines the powers of state institutions, and introduces the concept of decentralization. It not only restores the spirit of Egypt, but also draws up its future.
Q: Has Egypt moved backwards because of the circumstances of the last three years?
No, this was not because of these circumstances. It has moved backwards because of an incorrect assessment of the country’s circumstances. The downward spiral began at the beginning of this century and reached its lowest point over the past five years. President Mubarak’s approach at the time was in accordance with the Arab proverb that goes, ‘If the breeze from an open door allows a draft in, shut it and relax.’
The Middle East was boiling over with certain developments. From those years came the theory of creative chaos, and there was talk of a new Middle East. Then social networking movements became active, and links formed with global networks. The result was, as we have seen, a shutting off from and avoidance of the winds of change, and what started as a mild breeze grew into gale-force winds. Egypt cannot afford to close the door on itself.
Q: The Arab League, which you previously led, was once more respected. There have been many conversations about reforming the Arab League, but have we seen any such reforms?
Without prejudice to the Arab League, it is important to talk about the Arab Movement for Change, or what the West has dubbed the “Arab Spring,” as this is bound to produce changes in the regional system. We must try to find the most effective system for our region. During my recent visit to Washington, a call for change was made, and I spoke about this with everybody that I met. I have said publically that the time of Sykes–Picot is over and that one [foreign] minister—or even two or five—will not be able to determine the fate of the Middle East, because a revolution rejecting this would take place. For example, neither Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov or US Secretary of State John Kerry cannot decide the fate of the Middle East, as Sykes and Picot did in 1914. This should be for us—the Arabs—to decide.
Q: There is more than one civil war in the region, and it is difficult to agree to take action and prevent these wars because the differences are so firmly rooted. What is your position on this?
There are many differences of opinion, but by sitting together within the framework of the Arab League, it is possible to resolve at least some of them. The League previously met here, in my house, when I was its secretary-general, and we reached solutions for some of the issues and problems in the Arab world through discussion and understanding the limits and methods of our work. This requires that we work together to create a new regional order, to prepare ideas, possibilities and plans, and to agree on a common structure.
There are also new elements that must be considered. First, Morocco is no longer a younger brother. We should not forget the role it played in the changes that have occurred and that continue to occur in Tunisia and Libya. I mean it when I say that the opinion of Morocco must be taken seriously.
Second, we must accept a diversity that accommodates Berbers, Kurds, Christians and different Islamic sects. We need to move beyond the scope of Arab nationalism in its traditional, romantic sense. The Arab world must benefit from its diversity.
Third, we need to be aware of the causes of underdevelopment, how to properly manage certain issues, and what different issues affect society. First and foremost, we need a system of education that provides us with cadres that are suited for our current state of development, particularly as education is linked to the economy and can provide us with commodities that are globally competitive.
Fourth, we need democracy. We need to abolish the idea of bequeathal [of power] once and for all and seriously engage with democracy in a broad, sensible and sophisticated way.
Q: This brings us to the case of Syria, and the disputes over whether reconciliation needs to be imposed. What is your view?
There is a lot of controversy surrounding the Syrian case, and much has already been lost.
Q: Because of the nature of your work, you have connections to the late Syrian president, Hafez Al-Assad, and to Syria itself. How do you see things today?
Syria is a dynamo of pan-Arabism, and its fall, division or destruction would adversely affect the present and future of the Arab region. Here, democracy is also important, because without it, the problems will remain in place indefinitely. I think the current approach is not working, and the deceptive Geneva [peace talks] approach does not benefit Syria either. The solution must be based out of, and directed by, the region.
Q: Do you think there could be a “model” law or constitution that would guarantee the people’s needs and interests, in light of the complex realities that have been imposed on the drafting of constitutions and laws?
Possibly. But we should trust in the people who have grown angry and who revolted. We saw the Muslim Brotherhood model, which focused only on its own priorities. They ruled at the expense of the people and the poor, and the people grew angry and brought down the Brotherhood’s regime. There is no ideal, but there is reality. And the reality is that the people can no longer afford poor governance, where their needs are ignored and they are humiliated and ridiculed. From here, we move forward with the strength of our constitution’s guarantees. Whoever says we will return to the past experiences of so and so is wrong, because we are in a new era. We cannot live in the standards of the 20th century. We must live in this century. There will be no return to any previous regime. The previous regimes failed, so how could we go back to them once again?
Q: What about support for the Egyptian economy and the experience of others, particularly the experience of Portugal, which President-elect Sisi spoke about in our recent interview with him? What about the breadth of powers of the prime minister?
The constitution limits the powers of the prime minister. He is a partner in policymaking and supervises its implementation. There is no space for executive discretion. The president is the leader and director of the government. As for the government, it is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the president’s decisions. If we must choose an example or model for our reconstruction, it would be, in my opinion, Brazil, and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Q: Does this include Brazil’s substantial monetary reform package?
I mean political democracy and economic freedom. President Lula is a meticulous observer, which is needed to achieve both economic development and social justice. This is the theory of President Lula.
Q: The term khaskhasa, or privatization, has become increasingly negative in the Arab world. What is your view?
Yes, the word khaskhasa is strange. However, 75 percent of the Egyptian economy is in the private sector. From that angle, we can discuss the word and its meaning. For three years, from 2011 to 2013, the wheels of production stopped and the national reserve was spent. But industries continued to carry out private-sector work, comprising a significant portion of employment, income and production—in the context of small and medium enterprises, as well as a few large projects.
Q: Are you optimistic?
My answer is always that I have a little bit of optimism. We have significant problems ahead of us, but the task of reform and reconstruction is possible.
Q: What about the topic of youth in the constitution, and their participation in the movement of change in the Arab world?
The constitution, as I mentioned before, gives young people up to 25 percent of seats in local and governorate councils. This means about 14,000 seats. This is a large figure, and the youth have already entered into the political process. According to the draft parliamentary election law, each parliamentary list will include three women, three Christians, two youth, one person with disabilities, and one expatriate. The youth have been guaranteed seats in the legislative process. This is in addition to the training policy for those in positions of power. And, of course, guaranteeing quality education and a broad base of knowledge is important.
Q: What is your view of these quotas? Are they compatible with the democratic process?
This is a partial quota system, limited to 120 seats in the upcoming parliament. The goal is to maintain a minimum level of representation for women and youth, but the freedom to elect [additional] women into parliament remains in place. The participation of women and youth will contribute to the expertise of the parliament, and accordingly their participation in new parties and alliances will rise. Thus, the numbers of women and young people participating in politics and development will increase, and with it, the subject of the quota will develop.
Q: Did the Muslim Brotherhood push through their candidates in the past, and will they do it again this time?
Egyptian society is very angry at the Brotherhood for their poor rule and their violent policies. The Brotherhood should try to take advantage of the new constitutional situation. The new constitution differs from their constitution, which isolated hundreds of political figures and former regime officials. The 2014 constitution, on the other hand, does not isolate anyone, and the door is open for all to participate in the political process. But the Brotherhood must recognize this constitution, stop their violent practices, and announce that they recognize the new legitimacy.
Q: How will Islamists in Egypt deal with the situation, given the presence of other Islamist regimes in the region?
The Islamists came to power in Egypt but failed within a single year. No one did this to them; they did this to themselves. This must be taken into account. They were incompetent and unintelligent rulers. Their management was poor, and they fell from power. This fall drastically affects their position, and a return is not possible. It may take years, or even decades, for them to adjust their thinking, to understand that when a faction comes to power, it must work to achieve the interests and respect of the people, and to implement democracy. This applies to everyone.
Q: How will President-elect Sisi deal with countries that took a negative position on what happened in Egypt?
He completely understands the domestic, regional, and international situation. He knows that there is a possibility to turn a new page and achieve the requirements of the 21st century. This is the third republic, and more than ever before it requires that we turn a corner from the previous era. This is what I said in the United States: We need a new framework for Egyptian relations with international actors, particularly the United States. Egypt cannot allow its policies to be dictated to them by foreign powers over the phone—this is based on Egyptian self-respect. I do not see Sisi as one to say “yes, sir” to anyone. He will discuss the topic, return to the state institutions, and he might say “yes” if he feels the policy is acceptable. In this way, Egypt has implemented the foundations of a democratic system.
Q: What about relations with Qatar and Turkey?
I ask Qatar and Turkey to open a new page in their relations with Egypt. There is a new republic in Egypt. This will take a lot of work to build, and there will not be room for space for turning back the page.
Q: What about creating political leaders and providing them with expertise? Previously, diplomats were seen as distinctive in this field.
In order to produce a statesman, one requires quality education and the ability to continually access and monitor developments. From there, quality practice comes into the government or decision-making centers.
A statesman is conscious of the era in which he lives. He is sensitive to its demands, and he is not torn by a desire to return to a previous era, since the choice is simple. History does not return, but it may sometimes repeat itself, though in different forms. A political leader is a man of the times and not a man of the past.