Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Dr Isam al-Iryan, member of the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood group, and the press spokesman for the group, considered that the political scene in Egypt is murky and portends of danger. He said that what some of the opposition in the country call the hereditary rule and transfer of power from Egyptian President Husni Mubarak to his son Jamal is something that is far from reality. About the presidential elections in 2011, Al-Iryan said that the Brotherhood grouping is awaiting the programs of the candidates so as to study them. He said that the experience of Dr Muhammad ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is bearing good fruit concerning the call for change but that it is in need of a pause for revision.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in Cairo, Al-Iryan said that “the Muslim Brotherhood is the bloc in Egypt that is closest to practicing politics according to an integrated scientific and democratic concept”. He said that “the Brotherhood members are increasing by the day and that the youth represent 70 percent of the Brotherhood strength which means that the future belongs to us”. Al-Iryan denied the existence of any deals between the group and the Egyptian regime. He said that such deals are concluded with the [opposition] parties and not with the grouping.
Al-Iryan also said there were major opportunities for the group’s candidates in the coming Shura Assembly elections, recalling the group’s major achievement in the last People’s Assembly elections in 2005. He said that this achievement was unprecedented in the history of the Egyptian opposition.
Following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the current political scene in Egypt?
[Al-Iyran] The current political scene in Egypt portends of grave danger. The general picture is that ambiguity and the unknown await the Egyptians after 30 years of the rule of President Husni Mubarak. The situation has become extremely critical despite the recent attempts to amend the Constitution for the sake of a secure transfer of power and a peaceful handover of the presidential post. I see that amendment of Article 76 of the Constitution twice has increased concern in the light of the non-existence of a vice president for President Mubarak, the clear split in the [ruling] National Democratic Party [NPD], and the clear conflict between the old guard and the new guard. It is no longer possible to claim that this does not exist. It became evident most recently in the selection of the NDP candidates for the mid-term elections for the Shura Assembly. There is also the general deterioration which has hit public utilities and services in Egypt, starting from education and health and even traffic, and this now requires the intervention of President Mubarak to solve the crisis as we saw in the two meetings that Mubarak lately held to discuss the traffic crisis in Cairo. All this was accompanied by the appearance of the hereditary rule dossier then its retreat, a matter which heightened the state of ambiguity and concern. The result of that was an increase in the calls for reform and change. It was eye-catching that two prominent figures in Egypt’s history led these moves. The first was Dr Aziz Sidki, the former prime minister who prepared the country for the October 1973 war and who established (before he passed away more than a year ago) the National Front for Change. The second is Dr Muhammad ElBaradei, the former IAEA director who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and who began his call for reform in Egypt after leaving his international position. Finally the problem of the Nile waters which affects the lives of all Egyptians has appeared, and the Egyptian handling of this file is very confused.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the scenario for hereditary rule in Egypt from President Mubarak to his son Jamal is strongly denied by the regime on every occasion even though the opposition insists it will take place. What is your opinion?
[Al-Iyran] I see that the scenario of hereditary rule at the present moment is as far as it can be from reality, and I believe that the first fruit of the move of Dr Muhammad ElBaradei was the retreat of the hereditary rule dossier. But the unease felt by the worried Egyptian elite is that there is no alternative. If President Mubarak announced the appointment of a deputy tomorrow then the people will instantly say: “the hereditary rule file has been closed” because this deputy would be the first candidate to succeed Mubarak.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] From time to time talk is raised about secret deals between the grouping and the regime. What is the truth of this matter?
[Al-Iyran] The regime itself says: “I will not sit with the Brotherhood”. Therefore there are no deals. I wish the regime would open its bosom and mind to the Egyptian people and that it not shut its ears to the sincere calls for dialogue for the sake of Egypt, not for the sake of deals or distribution of crumbs. Such deals are concluded with opposition parties, not with the Brotherhood, and are admitted by the pillars of those parties.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You face much criticism because of the meetings of group leaders with American officials and diplomats. Is that not considered interference in Egyptian affairs or drawing on strength from abroad?
[Al-Iyran] We reject drawing on strength from abroad, for our opposition is at home only, and it is not relevant that we should place our hands in the hands of any party outside Egypt. Those meetings–and I am the one most accused of attending them–fall within the framework of the role of foreign diplomats meeting with all shades of political life in the country in which they serve, and there is no problem with that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] After the last constitutional amendments, the importance of the Shura Assembly has increased as its members now have the right to nominate a head for the state. In the previous elections for the Assembly in 2007, the group nominated 19 candidates and the result was “no one won”. This time, the group nominated 14 candidates. One wonders about their chances in the elections that are scheduled to be held on the first of June?
[Al-Iyran] I am always among the optimists. Therefore I see the chances of the group’s candidates as good and I expect the success of 5 to 7 of them in those elections. Among them could be the three members of the People’s Assembly who nominated themselves in the Shura Assembly elections, especially as the climate has changed, for in the last elections in 2007 the security escalation was at its highest and the candidates were arrested and their nomination papers confiscated. But this time, our nominees found slight security harassment in presenting their papers and the campaigns have begun with our candidates conducting their election tours among the people. All indications are that there is a different climate for these elections, and we have a strong chance in them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the wisdom of nominating three of the members of the People’s Assembly in the Shura Assembly elections? Do you not see that this is a loss of parliamentary seats that were already guaranteed?
[Al-Iyran] We exercise politics on the basis of our principal concern being what worries the public, not on the basis of concern for keeping seats or posts. Therefore we are different from the rest of the parties and political forces. We believed we should invest the popularity of those three members to enter into another chamber of parliament and benefit from them there. It will also be an opportunity for new capabilities in the same constituencies to enter the People’s Assembly elections slated for next October. This step will also demonstrate that those persons [Muslim Brothers] are not keen about holding any post as much as they are keen about serving the people. Here I would like to point to the electorate that when they cast their votes, they are voting for a particular ideology or current, irrespective of the individual candidates. This existed in Egypt before the July 1952 Revolution. When the Wafd party (the strongest and most popular of the parties at that time) nominated persons in the elections, the people were electing the Wafd not those persons. This happens in all democratic States in the world. The people vote for the political party irrespective of the names of persons.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But you are not a party?
[Al-Iyran] Even though we are not a political party in the acknowledged sense of the word, we are the bloc in Egypt that is closest to practicing politics according to scientific concept and full democracy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has the group nominated reserve candidates that it has not announced in the Shura Council elections?
[Al-Iyran] Yes, we have 7 or 8 reserve candidates, some have moved from the reserve position to the principal position after the constituency calculations showed that their popularity was higher than that of the principal candidate, so we pushed them forward to the principal position. There is also the Governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh where two candidates from the Brotherhood are competing with the NDP candidate about whom a judicial rule was issued barring her from nomination. Thus the rivalry will be between two from the Brotherhood, one of whom will concede to the other.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the People’s Assembly elections of 2005, the Brotherhood scored unprecedented success by winning 88 seats which represent about 20 percent of parliament’s seats. How do you assess the performance of the parliamentary bloc of the Brotherhood during that parliamentary session?
[Al-Iyran] The success we achieved was unprecedented in the history of the Egyptian opposition, not only in the history of the Brotherhood. Generally, the performance of the bloc was more than good in the domain of queries, requests for information, and coordination with the opposition and independent deputies, even though there was an intentional distortion of its performance by a media trumpet that hates all that is Brotherhood. I believe that the parliamentary role itself as a legislative establishment has weakened. I remember that when I was a deputy in parliament 25 years ago, my mere presentation of a query to the Interior Minister would raise a strong uproar. But now the volume of questions, queries and requests for information presented to the ministers is very large yet the ministers often do not show up for the debate.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that winning such a number of parliamentary seats is likely to be repeated in the coming People’s Assembly elections?
[Al-Iyran] If the climate and the current political movement heightened, and if the opposition was able to concur on the minimum demands among themselves, while the weakness of the government performance continues and the ruling party does not become cohesive and surmount the clear splits within it, if all that continued then we shall score a bigger number of seats than that we won in the 2005 elections. We still also have hope that all the opposition will unite and agree in a better manner.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is that the reason that delegations including leaders of the group paid visits to the various opposition parties lately?
[Al-Iyran] Yes. We started early visits to the parties for the sake of coordination on common stands. If the parties pick the ball and realize that their interests lie with the people not with the regime, we could see some kind of change in the coming People’s Assembly elections.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you wage the coming elections with the slogan “Islam is the solution” which the Egyptian regime considers as exploitation of religious slogans in politics?
[Al-Iyran] “Islam is the solution” is not a mere slogan. It is a practical translation of the Muslim Brotherhood approach and their project for change and reform. We are a group that upholds moderate middle-of-the-road Islam that deals with all aspects of life. It presents party and election programs that spring from that approach. “Islam is the solution” is not an electoral slogan. It is the name of the organization that we represent. There are other slogans that we have used in various elections in application of the principle of “Islam is the solution”, such us “we bring good to all people”, and “we work for the sake of reform”.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who will the grouping back in the presidential elections? Also, what is your stand on it?
[Al-Iyran] The stand of the grouping first is that we have no candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood in those elections, and we are not in a hurry to support any of the names that are being circulated for those who will wage them because all those names are hypothetical. We as a grouping will not enter into hypothetical arguments. Some interpreted our joining of the National Society for Change which takes Dr Muhammad ElBaradei as a symbol to be support for ElBaradei. This is incorrect, because we are with the Society and its demands not with the person. The Society for example has three members who announced their intention to enter the presidential elections. They are Muhammad ElBaradei (if the people asked him and if the Constitution were changed), Ayman Nur (despite the political impediments) and Hamdayn Sabbahi. This proves what I am saying in that we are with the Society and its demands not with persons. Secondly, when we decide to support a certain candidate in that election, we must study his program well and see if it will achieve the aspirations of the Egyptians or not, and if it accords with our ideology and vision or not.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that in case the candidates presented their programs it could be possible that the grouping would change its stand and support one candidate or the other?
[Al-Iyran] That is relevant, and in case there is a program we shall study it. I would like to affirm that our options are open, all the way from the most positive which is supporting a certain candidate to the most negative which is a boycott.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you assess the experience of Dr Muhammad ElBaradei in the Egyptian political life so far?
[Al-Iyran] His experience so far is bearing good fruit, but it is in need of a pause for revision, because as a person he needs to meet the political forces and not merely meet with individuals. This requires of him that he should stay in Egypt for a longer period to get acquainted with the political forces and the strength of each as well as its size and demands. Another point is that the National Society for Change that ElBaradei has founded needs a revision of the institutional structure it announced and a revision of the ability of that structure to perform its tasks. I also ask ElBaradei and the association to study the previous experiments, the last of which was perhaps the National Front for Change which was founded by Dr Aziz Sidki, to study the difficulties it faced that led to its failure.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Since the well-known attempt to assassinate the late Egyptian president Jamal Abdul-Nasser in Al-Manshiyyah Square in Alexandria in 1954, in which the Brotherhood was accused, the relationship has been tense between the regime and the grouping during the periods of the three presidents, Abdul-Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. In your opinion, what was the most difficult period of the three for the grouping?
[Al-Iyran] No doubt that the period of rule of the departed president Jamal Abdul-Nasser was the cruelest. What happened in it was unprecedented, from displacement and expulsion from Egypt to detentions for long periods reaching 20 years as happened with His Eminence the former Supre me Guide, Mahdi Akif, and many others. The period of Sadat’s rule witnessed a breakthrough that no one denies. As to the period of President Mubarak, its developments are strange. In it, the Brotherhood achieved unprecedented achievements in their history, politically and socially, but when we look at the number of detainees, we find that their number reached 30,000 since President Mubarak took over in 1981. It is true that they are detained for short periods, ranging from six months to two years, but the sentences that were issued against them totaled an average of 30,000 years in jail. This is something dreadful. Mubarak’s era also witnessed seven military trials for Brotherhood members. In general I consider that since 1952 Egypt has been living in one era that has not changed and that cannot be evaluated until it ends.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A few days ago, parliament agreed to extend the Emergency Law while limiting its application to combating terrorism and drugs. Does the grouping not fear that the charges that are directed to its members change from belonging to a banned group to terrorism in order to apply the law against them?
[Al-Iyran] According to Article 86 ditto of the Egyptian Penal Code, all opposition is considered terrorism. The text of the Article is broad and loose, and I see that the Government is facing a major challenge. Its duty is to exonerate itself if it does not want to use the emergency in the political field, for the text of the ordinary Penal Code provides for combating terrorism. But it does not want that and says the opposite of what it harbors.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Moving to the internal affairs of the grouping, some see that Isam al-Iryan was the key figure in the crisis that occurred in the grouping last January and led to a major change among the members of the Guidance Bureau, with prominent members departing. Do you agree to that?
[Al-Iyran] I do not like this being said, and I do not agree to it. Even if we adopt this interpretation, what happened had many positive aspects among which is that this is the first time in the history of Egyptian political life in which a political leader decides to be a former one and even insists on it, and there becomes a former Supreme Guide and not a departed one. The former Supreme Guide, Muhammad Mahdi Akif had an opportunity to continue in his post but he refused and His Eminence the Supreme Guide Muhammad Badi was elected. For the first time also, the Guidance Bureau has former members who are still alive such as Dr Muhammad Habib, Dr Abdul-Munim Abu-al-Futuh, Muhammad Abdullah al-Khatib, Sabri Arafa and Lashin Abu Shanab, all of whom are distinguished Brotherhood personalities with a well-known track record. For the first time as well, there is a drop in the average ages of the members of the Guidance Bureau to less than 60 years, and I expect that it will drop even further. What most characterizes the Muslim Brotherhood grouping is the percentage of the youth in it, for the Brotherhood youth under 30 years of age represent around 70 percent of the group.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If the youth represent 70 percent of the group members, then what is the number of its members?
[Al-Iyran] Once the grouping gets a legal permit we shall have official and open lists of the members. But before that, it will be difficult to record the number of the members because we are a group that is growing on a daily basis, and joined by new members in a continuous manner, so how can such numbers be registered? In my opinion, it is not important that we be a grouping of a large number, but what is important is that its effect be large. We do not have at present a precise calculation of the number of members in the grouping and we are not keen to have that now.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why have the group’s efforts to establish a political party stopped?
[Al-Iyran] Because the present political climate in Egypt does not allow the birth or the survival of a new political party, for it is a deadly climate that is expellant of parties. Even the parties that came forward with a request to gain a license for a political party saw their demand met with rejection. Some of them declared themselves a party such as Al-Karama Party, and some insist on trying again and re-applying. The result is always rejection.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But some of the points in the party program that was announced by the grouping raised strong controversy, such as the stand on Christians and women and on the treaties with Israel.
[Al-Iyran] Our stand on Israel is firm. It is an occupying and usurping entity and it does not enjoy any legitimacy. We hope that the international community revises its stand on it. In my opinion the solution is simple. If the international community accepted the right of the Palestinians to return, this means that the state has become Palestinian because the number of Palestinians will exceed that of the Jews. If the Jews wished to live in it, let it be, and if they do not they can return from where they came. As to the Christians, there is no problem with them. We previously nominated Christian candidates in the parliamentary elections and they won, and we supported Christian candidates in other elections and they also won. The matter is entirely about the presidency of the state. If Pope Shanuda III, the Pope of the Orthodox Christians, has said himself that there should be no Christian head of state, then what is the problem? I see that it is the right of the Brotherhood to say that they prefer a Muslim man for the presidency. This is their right and no one can object to it, when it is the right of another political force to possibly elect a Christian man for the presidency, this is its right and no one can object to it. As to women, what applies to the Christians applies on them, keeping in mind that we have previously nominated women in the parliamentary elections, and we have no problem with that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some see that the tensions in the relationship between the Hamas movement and Hezbollah on the one hand and the Egyptian regime on the other hand, have been reflected on the relationship between you and the regime, because the group supported Hamas and Hezbollah. What is the reason for this support?
[Al-Iyran] We do not support individuals, movements or organizations, but we support the legitimate right of the Palestinian people against the Zionist occupation. I affirm that the security of Egypt and its stability is in supporting the Palestinian people gaining their right and expelling the occupation. It is not acceptable that Egypt should be hostage to a treaty or a policy that has proved it is not in the interest of Egypt, the Palestinians, or the Arabs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Next month of Ramadan will see the airing of a television series about the history of the group. What is your stand on this work?
[Al-Iyran] I sat with the author of the book Wahid Hamid at his invitation, and he showed me a few papers that indicate his seriousness in producing a serious effort. I would not have wished that Wahid Haim would be in such a situation because the series will be aired during the time of elections in which the grouping is participating, and the Egyptian television is the first source to buy the rights for airing the series, a matter that gives the impression that the series is against the Brotherhood. I am still hoping that the series will be produced in a fair manner.