London, Asharq Al-Awsat—A spate of recent attacks on security institutions and personnel has prompted the current Egyptian government to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Despite other groups taking responsibility for the incidents, the government insists the Brotherhood is responsible and has allied itself with a number of groups seeking to destabilize the country ahead of the controversial constitutional referendum scheduled for January 14–15.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Egyptian presidential advisor Mostafa Hegazy speaks about the country’s latest decision, and about the “working definition” of terrorism which the current government is using justify the use of the label. Hegazy argues that through its past and recent actions the Brotherhood has all but publicly declared itself a terrorist organization and insists Egyptian society now considers the group anathema to the Egyptian identity. As such there can be no guarantees for members wishing to rejoin society, he says, even if “they wash their hands clean” of the group.
Mostafa Hegazy is an advisor to Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour and a former professor of management, strategic thinking, and institutional development at the University of Southern California. He is a member of the Advisory Committee of the World Bank and CEO and President of ACME Corp, a strategic advisory and investment management corporation.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Let’s start with the most significant recent event. After an underground existence of more than 80 years and then a short-lived rise to power, the Muslim Brotherhood has been labeled a terrorist organization by the Egyptian state. How do you view this move?
Mostafa Hegazi: There is a widespread belief that the Brotherhood uses violence in an organized and systematic manner to achieve its goals. They pushed an agenda that was not open to interpretation, calling for what I called ‘the disruption of progress,’ meaning an attempt to halt all progress and damage society to the utmost degree. These systematic transgressions eventually reached a level of violence that amounted to terrorism. We said this earlier—perhaps even before the dispersal of the so-called ‘sit-ins’—that when violence becomes systematic and is used to harm the lives of ordinary people or disrupt the economy, it constitutes an act of terrorism.
This is something that had not been previously defined in Egypt or anywhere else in the world, thus we are using a working definition. We are denoting what actually constitutes an act of terrorism, and in the simplest terms, acts of terrorism are defined as systematic acts of violence. The concept has been applied on the ground and ordinary Egyptians agree with the definition. They demand a practical and legal response to what is going on.
Q: Some think this should have happened months ago, while others are opposed to the measure. What factors were behind the timing of the decision?
This was a reaction to what has been going on in Egypt. Many attempts were made to exclude the Brotherhood from operating as a political party. Others demanded that they be forced to answer to the law. In all cases, the state maintains that we must guarantee freedom of expression for all people and embrace a plurality of ideas. However, this must take place in the context of non-violence.
What was published in the way of presidential statements and announcements by the National Defense Council always upheld these rights and we will continue to defend them. Any state that respects itself will protect the rights of its people. The state’s primary mission is to protect society from terrorism, violence, or any other attempts to harm it.
Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization was, I think, an appeal to reality. Perhaps some felt that this was a matter to be determined by the courts, but in the end a ruling may be issued at any time. Some maintain that delaying the decree could have given others the opportunity to return to their senses, allowing them to the return to the fold of common society by emphasizing their Egyptian identity above their affiliation to religious groups. However, the Egyptian government issued the decree in accordance with an existing law: Article 86 of the Penal Code designates what is happening in Egypt as organized acts of terrorism. So labeling the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization reflects the legal reality and is in no way politically motivated.
Recently, the escalating situation in Dakahlia and Cairo made it clear that the Brotherhood has decided for itself that it is a terrorist organization. It undermines the integrity of the general public through intimidation, transgressions, and acts of terrorism.
Q: Some human rights organizations and the international community are wondering what links the Brotherhood to these events, since groups like Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis and Al-Furqan have put out statements claiming responsibility for the attacks?
There are two ways to carry out this investigation: we either deal with the reality on the ground or nit-pick facts from statements and announcements. If we look at it in terms of the situation on the ground, everyone can see that there is an organization that publicly announced it will resort to terrorism to achieve its ends. The goal is to hijack the entire Egyptian nation. This has been declared publicly and affirmed by the organization itself, so there is no room for interpretation.
Q: Does the international community accept this viewpoint?
Even before the dispersal of the sit-ins, the international community held that the Brotherhood did not carry out acts of violence openly and made all manner of excuses for them. These international groups toss around pretty words like “democracy,” “freedom,” and “public engagement.” However, the international community itself, to which some Egyptian government officials belong, was extremely clear in saying that it viewed the actions of the Brotherhood as duplicitous. Michelle Bachman wrote in one of her widely circulated articles that “in any fascist organization…double-speak is indispensable.”
Indeed, they have the uncanny ability to tell certain groups what they want to hear. They are always betting that you will give them the benefit of the doubt, consider them innocent until proven guilty—then they can do as they wish on the ground. The fact is that the Brotherhood failed all of the international community’s ‘membership criteria,’ as well as those required by Egyptian society.
We announced that they are behind these acts of terrorism because they themselves declared the same thing. The unveiling of the true culprit of any terrorist act is always preceded by a statement from that culprit’s backers, such as Bayt Al-Maqdis, claiming responsibility. We saw the same for rallies and demonstrations in the case of the Brotherhood. As we have seen, they can no longer act publicly under their traditional Brotherhood banners and symbols because of the widespread resentment towards them. This is why they replaced these banners with the symbol of the black hand holding up four fingers on a yellow background—all in an attempt to change their image.
It is not the first time that we have seen the Brotherhood attempt to exploit humanitarian and legal statutes in order to protest their innocence. The rule of law says that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, but the general trend for the Brotherhood is to advocate for the crimes we’ve witnessed; we cannot therefore say that the group is innocent. It is possible that individuals inside the group reject violence, but these are the exception. Now an organization exists which practices systematic violence and acts of terrorism. Al-Qaeda has claimed that what is happening in the Sinai will stop only if the group’s demands are met. And it is happening in the Sinai has been recognized by the international community as a full-blown terrorist operation.
Q: And what about the the reaction?
The international community is hopeful that some groups can remain part of the political equation. But I believe that the international community knows that these groups have chosen to exclude themselves from the political roadmap, and the international community should therefore reevaluate its stance towards them and not blame those currently running the country. We have worked earnestly to include all parties, without exception. There are small sections of society that have withheld, but all are permitted and welcome to be part of the country’s future if they so wish. But contrary to that, no one is allowed to impose anything on everyone else.
Q: What is the situation regarding those who are attempting to disassociate themselves with the Brotherhood and return to the nationalist camp?
The former [Muslim Brotherhood] administration included figures such as Nagih Ibrahim, Tharwat Al-Kharabawi, and Kamal Al-Halbawi, who are Egyptian citizens in all senses of the word. No one is attempting to hold them accountable retrospectively. We have always said we will leave a door open for those who never committed crimes against the country and never took part in terrorist activity. Those who have committed such violations, however, will be held fully accountable before the courts. Those who advocated or were sympathetic with violence but never systematically engaged in it and are capable of forsaking their past associations will be permitted to request amnesty and return once again to society, provided that they understand that it is society in the end that will ultimately accept or reject them, and that it will be incumbent upon them to bridge the gulf which they opened between themselves and this society. They must admit that they are responsible for what happened, and pledge not to adopt any platform or promote any ideology that runs counter to the ideals of Egyptian life and culture. If they are genuine in their repentance, like those I have mentioned previously, and they have forsworn the ideology, then they may have a chance at rejoining society, but there can be no guarantees.
Q: How will those willing to forsake their ties to the Brotherhood be reabsorbed into society?
Not only must they unequivocally announce that they have forsaken violence in all its forms, they must also make it clear in word and deed that they have washed their hands clean of the Brotherhood. The real problem now is that the situation has degraded to the point that the ideology itself is a crime against society. Those who wish to return to society must forsake these ideas and rethink their understanding of Islam, and thus return to the Islam of forgiveness and reconciliation which encompasses all of us, as a society and as a nation.
There is another vital point which they must understand: they must understand that they have transitioned from what was previously a legal ban, under which there was room for them to interact with society, to a new phase in which they are permanently exiled from society for committing the great act of treason which I mentioned previously, and which is what has led to their ‘societal ban’ and designation as a terrorist organization. And by “terrorist organization” we mean that no one, from ordinary citizen to government official, will be allowed to interact with them under penalty of law. Thus their lot has become very difficult; they do not differ in any sense from those wandering the caves of Tora Bora, and nor does the punishment for those foolish enough to have dealings with them.
Q: Some Brotherhood youth have disavowed any association with the Brotherhood and announced their intent to return to serving society, even pledging to appoint a new Supreme Guide. What is your take on this? Will the state acquiesce leaving the Brotherhood intact organizationally, provided that it abstains from engaging in politics?
Egypt has already bypassed this stage in its history. Society will no longer accept this type of organization, regardless what it calls itself. This is nothing new, nor is it a product of the Brotherhood being labelled a terrorist organization. We have been trying to make this clear for the past year. Society will not condone the existence of such organizations, not only because it has come back to bite us once before, but because we are convinced that there is an evil lurking within these organizations. The West has long known of the dangers of such organizations, including the fascists and the Nazis.
Therefore this type of organization has once again been rejected by society. They can say what they want, and call themselves what they want, hoping to reestablish their organization; however, I can now safely say that if fate were to resurrect [Omar] Al-Tilmisani [the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood during the Sadat era, who died in 1986], who was one of the most reasonable and wise Brotherhood leaders, even he would not be permitted to lead a new version of the Brotherhood. Society refuses to negotiate on this point. They must now live without these organizations; simply as Egyptians.
The state is now the only organization in Egypt. It is the singular institution to which all belong. No banners belonging to other organizations exist in the state which looks after all of us. There is no place for a new supreme guide or organization—for these elements have acquired an almost ‘sinful’ status in the public eye and no one will allow them to take root ever again.
Q: If the violence on the streets of Egypt persists, is there a possibility that the emergency law will be reinstated?
I believe that we as a society have concluded that stage in our history. The most auspicious aspect of that period was that we attempted to rise above the obstacles as a unified group wherein no one was trying to outmaneuver the other. We do not require input from anyone else; we are only concerned with how we view ourselves.
This is how we approach the road map for the future and the legal system which we are striving to establish. If this were occurring in the days of former President Mubarak, the people would have accepted some fabricated pretext for reestablishing the state of emergency. But we know now that we can comprehensively defeat terrorism within a legal framework.
We are certain that within the bounds of human rights and common law, we will be able to defeat terrorism, and thus we need not resort to implementing a state of emergency. Rather, what we need is that all recognize that we are living in a state, and accept that we are a state, and that no one is permitted to challenge the rule or spirit of the law. I believe that this is more powerful and effective than a state of emergency.
Q: What is next?
If you are optimistic, good things will come to you. Egypt is progressing along its path, and the state and its people are stronger than any time previous, God Willing.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.