Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Since the evening of February 11, 2011, when Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over the reins of power from former president Hosni Mubarak, retired Lt. Gen. Sami Anan has been pushed firmly into the public spotlight.
As former Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council under Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, it was natural he would take center stage during the transitional period following Mubarak’s overthrow. But throughout most of that time he kept a stern silence, only making intermittent comments or speeches—all of which fueled speculation regarding his political ambitions. This speculation recently reached fever pitch after comments he made in October, when he hinted that he would be running for the presidency. The prospect of two military men vying for the role—with Sisi almost certain to throw his hat in the race—raised many eyebrows in Cairo and beyond.
In a rare interview, Anan breaks his silence, speaking candidly to Asharq Al-Awsat about the prospect of his running for the presidency, his relationship with would-be rival Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the interim period after Mubarak’s overthrow, and Egypt’s relations with other countries.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is your perspective on the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood on June 30, and the January 25 revolution?
Sami Anan: The June 30 revolution was an extension of January 25, part of the process of correcting the errors and negative consequences that resulted from the first revolution. The Egyptian army played a prominent role in the two revolutions through its unconditionally bowing to the will of the people, who are the source of legitimacy.
Q: How do you view the accusations currently circulating in the media that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave Egypt up to the Brotherhood?
This is false, because we must implement what the people want as part of the democratic process. Elections were held and we worked to establish a democratic system without intervening directly or indirectly. We did not intervene in party, judicial or government affairs. We arranged a dialogue in order to bring perspectives closer, drawing from the foundational principle of listening to the peoples’ opinions.
Whoever claims something other than this is spouting empty words. There was a coalition between the Freedom and Justice Party and many other political forces. Parties joined the Brotherhood lists in the elections and later launched an attack on the military council [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces]. Therefore, those who insist the council handed the country over to the Brotherhood are spreading false rumors. Keep in mind that during the revolution the military council bowed to the will of the people and was a key supporter of the revolution. This is why the slogan “The army and the people are one hand” emerged. Everyone was bound together in pursuit of a single objective: realizing the goals of the revolution. This slogan remained popular for some time.
In fact, this slogan is real and comes from the observable reality on the ground: the army is a part of the Egyptian people. Officers and soldiers are the sons of the Egyptian people. This philosophy—this approach—is natural in light of the strong relationship between the army and the people and will always remain this way. The army is an unconditional supporter of the Egyptian people in fulfilling their dreams and building the state every citizen wants—a stable, secure and productive one that maintains their rights and the rights of future generations.
Q: But that slogan disappeared quickly. Why do you think that is?
The period was short because of the interventions that drove a wedge between the army and the people. After former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, demonstrations turned into factional protests with people demanding better wages and so on—and they had every right to do this. With the limited resources at our disposal, we tried as best as we could to deal with it.
Q: Are you saying, then, that this period in time witnessed popular, factional, high-pressure demands, and that other forces conspired to hijack the revolution?
Some forces were planning to implement agendas of their own. They were able to fuel the fires on the streets to spread the slogan “Down with military rule” which was spread among the youth.
Q: Some criticized this slogan for its potential to affect morale among the Egyptian army.
Not only that, but can you imagine that this slogan was being taught in children’s’ schools? They wanted to produce a whole generation with no loyalty to the armed forces. The goal was to break this proud eagle: the armed forces.
Imagine a scene where we hear four-year-old children chanting “Down with military rule.” When they see a tank standing next to the school to protect them, they react by shouting [this slogan] . . . The question is: Who brought it to this point? Is this not a conspiracy meant to harm the Egyptian people and the armed forces? My colleagues and I in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces realized the size of these sordid conspiracies to destroy the armed forces, which would lead to the demolition of the Egyptian state, its property and its people. However, we have patience, wisdom and perseverance, as well as our faith in God and our ability to endure, contain and sacrifice—like the blood which runs through our veins which throbs with a vibrant love of Egypt, and a sense of loyalty and belonging to her and her people. We were sure that this people, to whom God has granted an innate intelligence, would discern the dimensions of the plot. We were able, with the aid of the Almighty, to deal with these difficult situations and to foil the plans of those who, in league with corrupt individuals from the “deep state,” wanted to destroy the armed forces.
History will not hesitate to accurately record the military council’s role under the leadership of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. The armed forces’ role on June 30, 2013, is the best proof that the goal of maintaining a strong and capable armed forces is essential for securing the rights and interests of the great Egyptian people.
We took our responsibilities very seriously, and tried as much as we could to help forge Egypt’s democratic experiment.
Q: Moving on to the Brotherhood: Would you say they disrupted the formation of the constitution?
Certainly. We met in May 2011 to develop criteria for the constituent assembly, but the Brotherhood created many obstacles. The military council tried to reach a solution and form a balanced and proportional constituent assembly representing all the different groups in Egyptian society, with no one group dominating the others. A constitution is not established by a majority, but by representatives of all the people, and this was a source of great conflict and disagreement with the Brotherhood.
Q: Where are the young people and their representation in constructing the future? Were they marginalized during the two revolutions?
We have not and will not marginalize the youth. Some parties, however, have attempted to polarize them. During my time in the military council we attempted to make them part of the future within the framework of a plan to support them formed by new leaders. We wanted to establish a political party through which the youth could be trained in political action and accountability. Even today, we see the importance of involving them in political action. I met with some young people even after my departure from the military council and they reminded me of what I said before about our national responsibility requiring us to pass on our experience and expertise to them, and I do wish them a promising future. I have tried as much as possible to motivate the youth to participate in political parties or blocs, to have a role in society, even with the existing government—they should work alongside the existing regime and obtain experience. When the right circumstances arise, they can take over.
Q: Do you think some parties were able to break up the youth’s ranks, polarizing them so they would not interfere with their political ambitions?
Indeed, the youth have been divided and have lost their strength. Now there is no longer a promising and potent youth movement, which they have finally realized. However, the plan for the future is to prepare these young people to eventually become the leaders of Egypt.
Q: When will you make a decision regarding running for the presidential elections?
It is too early to discuss running in these elections. When the door to candidacy is opened and the rules are made clear, and when I can evaluate public opinion and understand the electoral process, only then will I announce my position—bravely, as a military leader who does not know cowardice and has no respect for evasiveness. Direct confrontation is a weapon that I will always cherish, and my only goal for the busy work year ahead is national service. I do not need a position; my journey in life has already given me all the position a human being can aspire to.
Q: And what about your relationship with Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi?
The Egyptian military is a family, and my relationship with Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is good. He worked under my leadership for quite some time and is very committed to his work.
Q: What is your assessment of US–Egyptian relations, and what do you think about the idea of a relationship of dependence?
Relations with the United States are strategic and must be based on mutual interests and mutual respect. Egypt is especially important to the US, and the idea of dependency is irrelevant. They know Egypt well and realize the influence Egypt wields, as well as the implications of Egypt’s achieving balance and stability. In return, Egypt needs the US, not just on the military front, but also on the economic, scientific and cultural fronts. The climate of turmoil in which we live may negatively affect relations, but our common interests overrun temporary tensions. International relations are governed by logic and poise, not tension and emotion.
Q: Can Egypt reach a stage of balance in its foreign relations?
Balance is a necessary part of international relations, and in the world in which we live the US is not alone: Russia, China, Europe, Asia and Africa represent strategic opportunities to Egypt as well. We must strive to have good relations and cooperate with everyone. The traditional path that relied on playing the Russia card when tension arose with the US, and vice versa, no longer exists. We are not demanding a choice. I was one of the officers who trained in the former Soviet Union. We fought in [the October war of] 1973 and achieved victory thanks to Russian arms. During my time as a leader in the Egyptian air defense forces, cooperation with Russia and China had developed to an unprecedented level, and this has had a positive impact on the overall development of the Egyptian air defense system. As such we have directed ourselves towards a policy of diversifying our arms sources. The real objective is to search for our interests together and to keep in mind at the same time that others have their own interests. There is no room for emotions and slogans. True friendship grows and flourishes with the presence of mutual interests, and this reflects positively on our people.
Q: How do you view current Egyptian–Arab relations?
Egypt is the heart of the Arab world, and therefore our success, stability and strength will be reflected across the whole of the Arab ocean. Our failures and weaknesses threaten the entire region. Egypt’s rank in the world is as much a message as a duty; Egypt is a historical, geographical and cultural reference. Some like to draw out contrasts between Egypt and its Arab brothers and exaggerate the smaller differences until they escalate into a crisis. Yet all problems are solvable, and the idea that must prevail is that peoples are eternal and systems will die out. I am convinced that our unifying factors include language, culture, religion and geography. These make coordination on a scientific basis possible and form an entry point into the unity we all aspire to. We can look at the experience of the European Union, for example: members have had their differences through the many wars they have fought, but the voice of reason has brought them to unity.
Q: How can Arab–Iranian relations be improved, and Egyptian–Iranian relations specifically?
All peoples have the absolute right to choose the regime that governs them. The Iranian issue is a crucial one for the region. Iranians have their own goals and ambitions and we have no right to interfere in their internal affairs, nor do they have the right to interfere in matters that do not concern them. Gulf security is a red line, and Iran under the Shah and during the era of the Islamic Republic did not hide its ambitions or retreat from them. What we need now is decisiveness from Iranian decision-makers: Do you want peaceful coexistence, mutual respect and constructive cooperation? If this is the goal, the slogans must be translated into practical action and the aggressive statements must end. We must also discuss Shi’ite Arabs who are being placed under Iran’s tutelage as though they are nationals.
Then there is the subject of the Iranian nuclear issue. Despite the partial lifting of trade sanctions thanks to the interim nuclear deal that was concluded in November last year, some voices, especially in Washington, continue to remind everyone that there are still sanctions imposed on Tehran. Some parties aid Iran in evading oil, nuclear and military sanctions, and at the same time provide support for activities sponsored by Iran in Syria and Afghanistan. I think Iran is working to lift trade sanctions by reaching a long-term nuclear deal. I believe Iran will be open to dialogue on the issue of the Arak reactor that has been a cause for concern for many, since plutonium produced there could be used to build a nuclear weapon.
In all cases, we view the need to address the Iranian nuclear issue from the perspective of a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction. This includes Israel.
Q: And the Palestinian issue?
Egypt has made many sacrifices since 1948 to restore the Palestinians’ right to administer the state at its capital in East Jerusalem, but the issue has been complicated by a number of subjective and objective factors. The most important thing, in my opinion, is the unity of the Palestinian people, because the political divide presents a great danger that threatens everyone. Unity, identification of interests, and setting goals in a scientific manner will allow Palestinians to translate these objectives into rationally calculated steps towards progress that take into account the map of international relations and the balance of power. We must avoid slogans and dreams that are mere fantasies. Unfortunately, Arab and regional powers sacrifice the Palestinian cause for the sake of various personal interests. Add to that the fact that the international community has for decades been keener on managing the conflict, rather than settling it. No just political settlement based on international resolutions and references and the Arab peace initiative has been achieved. What Israel has offered, “peace for peace,” is the only proposal on the table.
Q: What is your vision for the Arab League’s role in resolving crises?
The Arab League does not play a large role in resolving crises because the mechanisms through which they take action cannot keep up with the rapid changes taking place in the world, nor the challenges faced by the Arab world. The defect does not lie with those in charge, as they are all capable and patriotic, but in the system that governs the body as well as the disputes between regimes that adversely affect the group’s performance. Additionally, the League’s decisions are not binding and do not hold much influence; they are closer to recommendations than resolutions. Therefore, what the League does over long periods of times is limited to support and, sometimes, condemnation.
I openly say many people feel that in recent years the Arab League has played the role of an analyst who provides a pretext for foreign intervention in Arab affairs. This feeling emerged during the NATO intervention in Libya and also during attempts to address the crisis in Syria.
Q: Where has the Arab League, nicknamed “the House of the Arabs,” been with regards to all of the problems and dilemmas faced by the Arab nation, whether they be in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya or others?
What has the group’s role been in the systemic scheme to fragment and weaken the Arab states? Unfortunately, all those interested in Arab affairs find that the Arab League follows the lead of foreign countries and does not have an active or influential role in solving the problems Arab states face.
We must all observe what is happening in the Arab world clearly and envision future events. What happens in any Arab country can spread to the others, as these events form a chain and influence each other. What is happening in Anbar and Fallujah in Iraq is closely tied to events in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. This has an impact on Jordan and many other Arab countries, and as such, we must be aware and read and analyze current events before it is too late. It is imperative that we put the interests of the Arab nation above the national interests of any one Arab country. What binds us together on points of agreement and unity is far stronger than the points we disagree on.
However, the role of the Arab League should not be underestimated; it is a reference-point for Arab decisions and the umbrella under which acts of solidarity and joint Arab action can be organized. Therefore, in the coming years, we need the Arab League to be capable of making decisions and implementing alternatives to intervening in sovereign Arab nations across a region that is suffering.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.