Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Dr Al-Sayyid al-Badawi Shahatah, head of the Egyptian opposition Al-Wafd Party stressed that Al-Wafd Party will participate in the next presidential elections but that he will not be among the possible candidates. He revealed that the National Association for Change headed by Muhammad ElBaradei, a possible candidate for president of Egypt along with some opposition movements, used Al-Dustur journalists on the eve of the crisis that brought down the head of Al-Dustur, as a spearhead for the sake of a “media show.” Shahatah stressed that nobody will harm the political movement of the Al-Wafd Party in the streets.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat from his party headquarters in Cairo, Al-Badawi added that Ibrahim Isa, who was dismissed as chief editor of Al-Dustur [newspaper] is the one who insisted on selling the newspaper. He revealed that Al-Wafd is preparing observers at the highest level in order to report any rigging action as soon as it happens inside the election committees in the upcoming parliamentary elections. He said that it is unlikely that the Egyptian regime will rig the elections because in the event rigging does occur, then bloody clashes will take place and threaten Egypt’s security, as he said.
The head of the Al-Wafd Party said that all his ambitions are to bring the party back to the forefront of the political scene where it has been absent over the past ten years. He said that true democracy will not take place unless there is rotation of power and that the campaigns in support of President Mubarak, his son Jamal, and ElBaradei all fall within the framework of random political action. Al-Badawi said it was unlikely that succession will take place in Egypt and stressed that the next president will be Hosni Mubarak himself.
Al-Badawi stressed that there is a need for Egyptian judges to supervise the elections since they are trusted and respected among the Egyptian people. Al-Badawi announced that Al-Wafd is currently preparing an initiative to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Tell us the details about the turbulent past 40 days, why did you buy the Al-Dustur newspaper?
[Al-Badawi] I did not seek to buy Al-Dustur newspaper, Ibrahim Isa, the newspaper’s chief editor who had been dismissed wanted to buy it, as did journalist Iman Abdul-Munim, wife of Abdul-Munim Mahmud, the editorial general secretary of the newspaper. They went to Rida Edward, the newspaper’s executive board chairman and asked him to buy the newspaper in light of the health and family circumstances of the newspaper’s owner Isam Ismail Fahmi. Indeed, Edward met with the newspaper owners more than once and the newspaper was at the time suffering from great deterioration. The number of pages had reduced to 14, and there was no surplus in the newspaper’s coffers for the salaries of the editors and those working there. There was also a lot of pressure to sell the newspaper, particularly by Ibrahim Isa, who was eager to sell the newspaper shares in a way that created many question marks in the mind of Rida Edward.
According to the memorandum presented by Edward to the Egyptian Journalists Association, Edward pointed out: “we were taken by surprise during the newspaper’s registration process that Ibrahim Isa’s brother was one of the shareholders who owns 10 percent of Al-Dustur shares.” Then we discovered the reasons why Isa was eager to speed up the process of selling the newspaper. Rida Edward did not seek to buy the newspaper, but Ibrahim Isa and the son of the former owner of the newspaper Ahmad Isam Ismail Fahmi sought to buy it. Meetings were held between them and I was not part of these meetings. Edward asked me to buy the newspaper with him because I had leading experience in the media industry, namely, in the Al-Hayah channels.
Indeed, I accepted to buy Al-Dustur newspaper after Edward Isa insisted on m y doing so because I saw it as an addition to the Egyptian opposition and the liberal opposition Al-Wafd Party, who had never in the past owned a newspaper, but was supported by some independent newspapers such as Al-Misri, which is owned by a member of Al-Wafd Party’s supreme authority. I saw this as an opportunity to rescue the newspaper from collapse and closure. At the time, Isa said that he was ready to leave the editor-in-chief position, but I refused his offer and I insisted that Isa remain in his position because Al-Dustur is Ibrahim Isa.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What happened after that?
[Al-Badawi] I was the one who asked to increase the newspaper’s number of pages, to add some colored pages, and to improve the printing paper after its distribution had declined to below 130,000 copies. I asked that the journalists’ salaries be increased by 300 percent, and the trainee journalist salary increased from 250 Egyptian pounds to 1,200 Egyptian pounds (210 US dollars) and this is regarded as the highest salary in Egyptian newspapers.
I was then surprised to receive an email sent to my private account from publisher Ahmad Isam Ismail saying: “The journalists are striking and have issued a statement threatening to strike and stop publication of the newspaper because a percentage of the salaries had been taken away for tax purposes.” I asked him whether this was a new procedure, and he said: “everyone had tax deducted from his salary, the only one who had no tax deducted from his salary was Ibrahim Isa.” I asked him another question, how much deduction was made [to cover] for Isa? He said 3,500 Egyptian pounds (636 dollars) and he received a salary of 71,500 Egyptian pounds (13,000 dollars) despite the fact that Isa’s old salary was 30,000 Egyptian pounds (5,454 dollars).
I told Ahmad Isam at the time that I hold the editor-in-chief fully responsible because he was in charge of all the journalists and everyone was loyal to him. Then I realized I was not up against an institution, it is anything but an institution. I wondered how salaries can be increased in such a way. I am surprised by such behavior by journalists. These taxes are merely “pennies” and they are the state’s right and not my right.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But what caused the crisis to erupt from your point of view between Ibrahim Isa and Rida Edward?
[Shahatah] Rida Edward was refusing to increase the journalists’ salaries because the newspaper had no advertisements and people did not want to advertise in it. In the meantime, there were verbal exchanges and much to’ing and fro’ing between Isa and Edward, the main owner of the newspaper at the time, who is now the sole owner. The relationship between the two came to a dead-end. According to Edward’s memorandum to Makram Muhammad Ahmad, chairman of the Journalists Association, “Isa incited some journalists not to pay the income tax and he pushed them to issue a warning to the management that the newspaper would not be published on time.” Edward saw this as blackmailing the management.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the article written by Dr Muhammad ElBaradei, the possible Egyptian presidential candidate, who was said to be the cause of the crisis?
[Shahatah] First of all, the article that caused the crisis was published by the newspaper. The story is that I was surprised by Rida Edward saying: “Muhammad ElBaradei wrote an article about the armed forces on the anniversary of the 6 October war;” and then what happened to Talaat al-Sadat (member of the Egyptian parliament) came to mind. He defamed the Egyptian Armed Forces and was sentenced. I telephoned Isa and asked what does ElBaradi have to do with the October war? It is better for someone who participated in the October war, such as myself, to write about it. I read the article and found it very normal.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the name of the journalist Ibrahim Sa’dah, who w as put forward to take over the chairmanship of Al-Dustur’s board of directors?
[Shahatah] When I submitted my resignation, I advised Rida Edward to bring in a chairman of the board of directors who has experience in managing newspapers; he suggested the name Ibrahim Sa’dah. I also asked him to preserve Isa’s daily article together with the same material, literary, and moral characteristics, otherwise there would be no such thing as Al-Dustur newspaper.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And what now after the Al-Dustur crisis is over and you are no longer in control of it. Do you regret buying it?
[Shahatah] This is the first time I do something in my life without thinking. Buying Al-Dustur newspaper was one of the wrong decisions where I allowed my emotions to rule rather than my head. I was impressed with the newspaper and the opposition trend it adopted. I also have an old relationship with Isa. This is why I made the decision to buy the newspaper in 15 minutes. Had I used my head I would have gone to the newspaper and found out how it was managed before buying it. However, I went ahead and bought it without even knowing where the headquarters were located.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why was Al-Wafd Party pushed into the Al-Dustur crisis?
[Shahatah] I was surprised that the National Association for Change and some protest movements had politicized the newspaper issue. I was surprised that they were using Al-Dustur journalists as a spearhead for the sake of showing themselves and as a “media show” in order to influence the Al-Wafd Party. Instead of them opposing the ruling National Party, they changed to oppose the Al-Wafd Party. This is due to jealousy of the political movement that was brought about by the Al-Wafd Party recently. The Egyptian people’s trust in the party also doubled. This does not come from nothing. The Al-Wafd Party is not a protest movement or a phenomenon that comes and goes, such as those movements that appeared and disappeared following the 2005 presidential elections. The Al-Wafd Party is a national heritage, and neither the ruling party nor random movements can affect it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did you seek to become a candidate for Al-Wafd Party leader?
[Shahatah] I am the oldest member in the Al-Wafd Party’s supreme authority since it returned to political life in 1984. I was a member of the party’s Executive Office from 1994-2000. I was also the party’s secretary general from 2000-2006. I have never worked in politics except in the Al-Wafd Party. It was my duty to nominate myself as leader of the Al-Wafd Party in order to protect it. All my political ambitions are to bring the Al-Wafd Party back to the forefront of the political scene, from where it has been absent for the past 10 years. I maintain my promise that if I cannot succeed in bringing the Al-Wafd Party to the forefront of the political scene within 18 months then I will call for new party leadership elections and I will submit my resignation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the Al-Wafd Party now at the forefront of the political scene?
[Shahatah] Four months after the Al-Wafd Party leadership elections, it has indeed become at the forefront of the political life. There has been political movement inside the party that had not been there before. The party has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of members that had not been seen in the past.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have there been any internal reforms within the party to help it reach its goals?
[Shahatah] The party has been rebuilt as a strong political institution. The party list has been amended with the approval of 85 percent of the general assembly members. The Political Studies Institute has been brought back as it was in the past; an Administrative Science and Human Development institute has been established, and so has an election monitoring and public survey unit. The party’s Executive Council has been restructured, a Women’s Committee for the party has been established, a Youth and Labor Union for the Al-Wafd Party has also been created in an effort to create institutional work and to increase contact with party committees in Egyptian governorates.
The party headquarters has been linked by video conference, and free medical convoys to rural areas around Egypt have been brought back. Work on creating 15 drinking water plants has been started in the governorates. Within two weeks the party’s electronic website will be launched to coincide with the opening of the parliamentary nomination door. The website will include 29 electronic newspapers for the governorates that are updated every hour. In addition, 29 local newspapers in the governorates will be published and they will be financed by the party treasury. Abbas al-Tarabily, Al-Wafd’s former editor-in-chief will be general supervisor of the regional newspapers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the objective of your policy to bring famous people into the party and announcing this to the public opinion?
[Shahatah] The Egyptian people still have the culture of not participating in political life. This culture was implanted within them as a result of the comprehensive system following the 1952 Revolution which regarded any practice of political work as a crime. There continues to be a military man within every Egyptian in order to frighten him. This is why I publish the names of famous people; it is a message to “reassure” Egyptians and attract them to the reform square and the political participation square. It is in order to remove them from the state of frustration that has taken control of them, and to ask them to join the Al-Wafd and not to be afraid, especially since 95 percent of Egyptians stand as spectators to national issues. The size of the membership of all Egyptian parties, the ruling party, and the Muslim Brotherhood, does not go beyond five percent of the people of Egypt.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did the Al-Wafd Party not respond to calls by the National Assembly for Change regarding boycotting the elections?
[Shahatah] The Al-Wafd Party’s supreme authority is the one that decided to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections and it commissioned the party’s executive bureau to approve the list of nominees, especially after the grave mistake committed by the National Assembly for Change and its demands to boycott the parliamentary elections and considering those who take part in them as traitors. Therefore, the party referred to the highest authority in the party in order to determine the issue of whether or not to participate in the elections. This is the same path that was adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood and both the Unionist and Nasirite groupings.
Despite the fact that the National Assembly for Change is not a political party in order for it to participate or boycott in the elections, it is a group of personalities that have united on a certain goal and they have nothing to do with the elections. We had experience in boycotting the parliamentary elections in 1990 and we have paid the price until this day. After the Al-Wafd Party had 60 deputies in parliament in 1984, we became 39 deputies in 1987, and then became five deputies in 1995 as a result of the boycott.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Tell us your view of the upcoming parliamentary elections?
[Shahatah] What happened in the Egyptian Advisory Council mid term elections that took place in June 2009 was that the rigging that took place lacked intelligence, it was very stupid. We were surprised that two nominees received 30,000 votes in a “comic” way. In my opinion, the rigging will not be repeated in the upcoming parliamentary elections because the number of candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections may exceed 6,000. This means that there are 30 candidates for each constituency, including their supporters and thugs who will protect t he ballot boxes.
In my opinion, the Egyptian regime will not rig the elections because in the event that rigging does take place then there will be bloody clashes that could threaten the security of Egypt.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have the elections become a financial rather than a political game?
[Shahatah] Unfortunately, money has ruined elections in Egypt despite the fact that the commencement of Political Rights Law has placed a ceiling for financial expenditure. However, there is no monitoring mechanism and we see millions of suspect pounds spent in order to buy votes. This is a result of the fact that the voting percentage in the elections does not exceed 20 percent. Therefore, the Al-Wafd Party has asked that elections use the list system to overcome the suspect expenditure.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the percentage of success expected for the Al-Wafd Party and what are the obstacles that stand before its candidates?
[Shahatah] We will enter the parliamentary elections with strength. However, the results are determined by the nature of the upcoming elections, which we do not know whether or not they will be fair. If they are fair, then we will win a great number of seats. But if they are rigged, then what applies to other political forces will also apply to us. We are not concerned about the number of deputies in the parliament, what we are concerned about is communication with the Egyptian street, and exposing the rigging if it takes place. Therefore, a new technology will be implemented through observers who are trained at the highest level in the party to report any rigging incident as soon as it happens inside the election committees and it will be reported throughout the world within seconds through electronic media sites.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What would happen if the ruling National Party does not allow those observers to enter the election headquarters?
[Shahatah] We will bring in all committees because it is everyone’s right. Nobody can prevent us from photographing any rigging [incident].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think of the reports of a deal with the ruling National Party that say the Al-Wafd Party will replace the Muslim Brotherhood in parliament?
[Shahatah] In the 1995 parliamentary elections, it was said that the Al-Wafd Party had had a deal with the ruling party, but only five candidates succeeded. In the 2005 elections, the same was said again and only five candidates succeeded. Therefore, the issue of a deal with the ruling party is very strange. I believe I have enough intelligence to prevent me from committing such political suicide because any deal with the ruling party is political suicide for me personally and for the Al-Wafd Party.
My mission inside Al-Wafd Party is to build not destroy it. When the party has one deputy in the parliament is like having 100 deputies as long as there is no majority. If the Al-Wafd Party were to seek a majority then it would hold legitimate deals and alliances. What concerns me is the how not the number. For example, in 1939 there was one deputy in the Senate called Yusuf al-Jundi who alone managed to achieve independence for the Republic of Zefti in the face of the British colonialism.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Al-Wafd Party presented a new model in the party elections in May 2009. We saw the old leader hand over to the new leader. This is something that is not normal. How did that happen?
[Shahatah] We gave an example of rotating power. The leader, who was Dr Mahmud Abazah, held elections and he failed and presented a new leader. This is a model of true democratic and liberal practice for which we hope. We presented this as an example to all Egyptian political parties and to the ruling party itself. True democracy will not happen unless there is a rotation of power and that there is a former and current leader.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the previous presidential elections, party leader Dr Numan Jumah was nominated and took third place. Will you nominate yourself in the next presidential elections or will you nominate someone to represent the party?
[Shahatah] It was the party nominee not the Al-Wafd Party itself that failed in the previous presidential elections because the party candidate was not up to standard to represent the party, neither in terms of performance nor political discourse. He made many mistakes in the election battle. I will not nominate myself in the next presidential elections and I will not nominate myself in the parliamentary elections. The party list was amended last month so that it is not necessary for the party leader to be suitable to be a presidential candidate. I called for a presidential candidate to be voted for from within a number of nominees in the party’s supreme authority.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do we understand that the Al-Wafd Party will not participate in the next presidential elections?
[Shahatah] Al-Wafd Party will participate in the next presidential elections. However, the party leader will not be among the possible nominees.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Honestly, what is your position vis-à-vis Dr. Numan Jumah, the previous Al-Wafd Party leader, who stood for the presidential elections, especially after he announced his solidarity with the Al-Dustur journalists?
[Shahatah] My links with Numan Jumah were severed after he was expelled from the Al-Wafd Party following the unanimous agreement of the party’s general assembly. Ninety-two percent of the general assembly members agreed that he be expelled, which was the first time such an issue occurs in the political party history in Egypt.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Recently, there have been some campaigns that have appeared in support of Jamal Mubarak, ElBaradei, and the president himself. What is your position vis-à-vis these campaigns?
[Shahatah] All these campaigns fall within the framework of random political mobility currently witnessed in Egypt. They are all movements that have yet to reach the level of influencing the Egyptian voter, and the street does not feel these campaigns. The truth of the matter is that the campaign by the National Assembly for Change, had it not been for the website of the Muslim Brotherhood through which it gained 750,000 signatures, it would not have received any vote as the assembly’s website only has 110,000 signatures out of a total of 80 million Egyptian people.
Egypt has a special nature, and it is not easy for one to say that I will nominate myself as president. I also believe that the issue of succession is unlikely in Egypt. I am also certain that the next president will be Hosni Mubarak and that the next candidate of the ruling National Party will be President Hosni Mubarak. As for the succession issue, it is a story that has been fabricated and has become bigger over time so the Egyptians believe it; like “windmills.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion on the issue of national unity and the sectarian sedition that takes place in Egypt from time to time?
[Shahatah] National unity is the most dangerous issue that threatens the security of Egypt and the stability of the country. The Egyptian people are one and they existed before religion and they were called the Egyptian people. After religions came, the people of Egypt adopted the Christian and Muslim faiths. In the past, Lord Cromer, who was the one who came up with the slogan “divide and rule,” was asked after living in Egypt for 25 years, how do you know a Muslim from a Christian? He said: “the difference between the Muslim and Christian is that the first goes to a mosque and the second goes to a church.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think of the calls for amending Articles 76, 77 and 78 of the Egyptian Constitution?
[Shahatah] The National Assembly for Change and the national movements have taken a small part of the Al-Wafd Party project regarding the constitutional amendments proposed in 1978 and developed in 1984, and it continues to be valid until today. There is a need to amend Article 76 in a way that allows for more than one serious candidate for the presidency of Egypt and that nomination is not limited to paper parties. There is a need to review Article 77 which allows for a rotation of power and that the presidency is limited to two terms only. There is also a need to review Article 88 related to judicial supervision of the elections, because the judges are the only group that has the respect and trust of the Egyptian people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Al-Wafd Party received the Saudi, Russian, American, and Dutch ambassadors. What is the reason behind these visits?
[Shahatah] Al-Wafd is the focus of attention for the entire world and it is now focused through these meetings with ambassadors on how to reach the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. The party prepared an initiative to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and it was prepared by Ambassador Wahid Fawzi, the assistant to the party’s leader for foreign affairs. It is being discussed by the Arab Affairs Committee to be put forward before the Arab and world public opinion soon.