Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Described as Egypt’s “liberal star”, Dr. Amr Hamzawy is a leading Egyptian liberal who withstood an Islamist landslide in the first phase of Egypt’s elections to emerge as a leading light for the country’s civil and liberal proponents. The 44-year-old academic won the parliamentary seat for the wealthy Cairo district of Heliopolis, trouncing his main rival, a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom party with 53.7 percent of the vote. This victory had a symbolic value for the foreign-educated professor at the University of Cairo; particularly as Islamist parties picked up 113 of 168 seats up for grabs in the first round of voting for the new parliament. However, one of the 55 seats not to go to the Islamists is reserved for the Egyptian liberal, Dr. Amr Hamzawy.
Hamzawy was a research director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and was the spokesman for the “Board of Wise Men” set up during the Egyptian revolution to offer negotiations and potential solutions to the protesters and government. He is a founding member of the Freedom Egypt Party.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Dr. Hamzawy spoke about his election campaign, his hopes for the second and third phases of the Egyptian parliamentary elections, as well as his larger hopes for the future of the country.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How were you able to win a parliamentary seat for the Cairo district of Heliopolis with three times as many votes as the [Muslim Brotherhood affiliated] Freedom and Justice Party candidate, particularly when considering the strong performance of Islamist political parties in these parliamentary elections?
[Hamzawy] I think that people voted for me with such a high percentage [of the vote] because I was defending a political project in a clear manner, and that is the project for a civil state…a state of citizenship, equal civil rights, and the transfer of power. This is in addition to my stances in the political arena in the past, which have convinced a wide segment of people that I hold firm and specific positions. People are looking for competent MPs who can perform their duties well within parliament, and not reduce their duties to merely providing special services for some. Furthermore, some voted in favor of the civil project I announced in protest against the invasion of religious projects and the tide of political Islam.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A number of smear campaigns were launched against you during the election period, yet you remained silent about this. Why?
[Hamzawy] Indeed I was subjected to dishonest and unethical campaigns, and throughout my electoral experience I declined to enter into the realm of these campaigns, expose myself to this senseless war, or comment upon them. I preferred to focus on the election campaign in a positive manner, and I refused to get involved in talking about others in any way. I did not utter a single word about any other candidate, because elections are never won through spreading negative publicity about rival candidates, but rather through communicating with the people on the ground.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] One of these campaigns attempted to use details of your personal life. What’s your opinion about this?
[Hamzawy] Yes, unfortunately [this happened], and was a major source of concern for me. This was after I was the victim of a crime [an attempted car-jacking of a vehicle on the motorway to 6th October City] along with Egyptian singer Basma. Some then tried to use this incident against me, but I told the public the facts at the time in all honesty, and they accepted this. If I cannot defend my personal rights, then I cannot defend the people’s rights.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who were behind these smear campaigns against you?
[Hamzawy] One source is the hardline religious currents that claim the monopoly with regards to talking in the name of religion in the political arena, and they classify anyone outside of their own political project as being contrary to religion. This war has been raging against me since 12 February, using the religious satellite television channels affiliated to these religious channels. These channels even had sheikhs appear to tell the public to declare others as unbelievers and betray anybody who is not with them [their religious current], explicitly calling on voters not to vote for anyone else. This represents a blatant interference in the will of the people, and unethical calls used against me. Likewise, my professional background was also the subject of scrutiny as I had worked in the United States and Germany for a period of time, and this was presented to the public as evidence that I was not suitable and not religious.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There has been much debate about the definition of a civil state. How would you define it?
[Hamzawy] A civil state is the state of citizenship, a state of equal rights, a state of laws, a state that does not distinguish between Egyptian Muslims and Egyptian Christians, and where both are guaranteed the same rights. This is a non-military state where everyone, including the military and the security services, are subject to civil supervision, and the relationship between politics and religion is regulated.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However your recent statements about civil [non-religious] marriages have resulted in some of the Egyptian public misunderstanding your view of civil society. Do you regret these comments?
[Hamzawy] I admit that I did not explain myself well when talking about civil marriage on a television program. I said that I wanted civil marriages to be permissible under Islamic Sharia law, but I never meant to infringe upon the borders of Islam or Islamic Sharia law. However, this was used against me to an alarming degree, in an attempt to promote the idea that my beliefs were somehow shocking to the Egyptians, and their culture and traditions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you consider responding to these claims following your election victory?
[Hamzawy] I refuse to trade on religion, and mix religions with politics…but I am a religious person. Some of my friends asked me to display my commitment to religion [during the election campaign] by revealing the fact that I had performed the Hajj last year for example, or the fact that my mother and sister both wear the hijab, but I completely refused this…because the people must evaluate me in accordance with my political project, and not through my commitment to religion, because this commitment is something that only affects myself and those closest to me.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Following the sweeping victory achieved by the Islamist parties during the first phase of the elections, how will the liberal and left-wing trends coordinate to combat this during the second and third electoral phases?
[Hamzawy] We have been able to reach a state of complete coordination regarding individual seats for the civil camp, and party lists for the Kutla al-Masriya [the Egypt bloc], the Al-Thawra Mostmara Alliance [the Revolution Continues Alliance], the Justice Party, the Awareness Party, and the Reform and Development Party. They will have one candidate for the individual seat, and another for the worker [or farmer] seat. [In Egyptian parliamentary elections, every district contains two seats and voters are given two votes; at least one seat in each district is reserved for a “worker” or “farmer”]. This is our attempt to internally restructure, and I hope that the Wafd party chooses to join us, because up until now they have not taken part in such coordination, but they have a major opportunity to achieve good results [if they coordinate with us].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However all signs say that Egypt’s liberal and left-wing parties are facing a difficult task to overhaul the Islamists?
[Hamzawy] I admit that the task is difficult for the civil trend, but we must respect the results of the ballot box no matter what. The more important question here is “Is the political Islam bloc a coherent one?” I do not think so, I believe there is a margin of difference between them, and this margin should be exploited positively in favor of the civil trend. I hope the civil camp is able to achieve a share of one third plus one (the percentage of parliamentary seats required to have a deciding vote), and we will strive to obtain this in the coming two election phases.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it possible, in politics, to easily transform a popular base into an electoral one?
[Hamzawy] No, this is indeed rare in the political world. It is interesting actually that they [the Islamists] were able to convert their social base into an electoral base for the elections. The analytical perspective would suggest there are two fundamental factors here. Firstly, the religious television channels which unfortunately promotes them in a forceful and powerful manner, by specifically referring to voting in favor of such and such [candidate], and not voting for such and such [candidate]. Secondly, the Islamists targeted a large section of voters in Egypt…those who are trapped economically and socially, who strongly responded to their clear and sharp religious rhetoric, believing that [these candidates] have the support of God.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) forming an advisory council, made up of 30 individuals – comprising party leaders and public figures – is nothing more than an attempt to appease the civil masses after numerous failures? Or do you believe they are sincere in this?
[Hamzawy] I do not know the function of the advisory council formed by SCAF recently, and its relationship to the constitution. According to the current constitutional declaration, this council does not have any constitutional legitimacy with regards to drafting the new constitution, and if it were to receive some parallel powers this would be completely undemocratic. I completely oppose this advisory council, I think it is an unjustifiable institution, and we have wasted a lot of time in forming it. I hope that its powers relate only to SCAF, in the management of executive affairs for the remainder of SCAF’s time in charge of the country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people have accused you of working in accordance with an American agenda, especially in light of your work at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace institution. What is your view of such accusations?
[Hamzawy] The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is an independent institution funded from within [the institution itself], with no external financing, clearly meaning that it is not funded by external political parties such as the U.S. Congress. It has a commendable international reputation and is not linked to US administration or any American pressure groups of any kind. The accusation that I am adopting an American agenda, and that I will work to implement this if I enter parliament, is nothing more than a cheap rumor, and is like many of the other cheap rumor that have circulated during the past period.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there any truth to the claims that you withdrew from the Kutla al-Masriya due to the presence of the Free Egyptians Party, headed by Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris?
[Hamzawy] My withdrawal from the Kutla al-Masriya had nothing to do with the presence of the Free Egyptians Party, headed by Naguib Sawiris, although there were reports of differences between us. My withdrawal stems from the fact that the Kutla al-Masriya, when it was first established, consisted of 23 parties, then one withdrew after another until only 3 remained, because there were some differences over the management of its electoral campaign.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you expect the electoral mood in Egypt to change following the announcement of the new electoral blocs?
[Hamzawy] The Egyptian electoral mood will not change easily, and my belief is that we must study matters academically. We must analyze the Egyptians’ voting behavior in various districts and how this relates to the results. This is a task that rests with academic researchers over the coming period so that we can produce an electoral map, through which we can know the [popularity of] electoral blocs and voter preferences. I blame the media for promoting the “landslide victory” of the Islamist current, based on the results of the first electoral phase, as this is a big mistake, because we must wait for the election results of the second and third phases.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the powers granted to the government of Dr. Kamal el-Ganzouri could save Egypt in the coming phase?
[Hamzawy] We want a real government, not a secretariat for SCAF, and these powers must be translated into action on the ground, through immediate steps to salvage the situation in all social and economic aspects, and not only the political side.