BEIRUT, Lebanon — In an interview with Al-Monitor, Ayman Nour, a pioneer oppositionist since the Hosni Mubarak days, said he feels that Egyptians are sacrificing both Egypt and the revolution. Nour, who now resides in Lebanon — a country he described as having a neutral agenda toward Egypt's political arena — said that the current regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is its own biggest threat.
Nour believes that the demands of those who protested on June 30, 2013, stemmed from both true and exaggerated reasons, but that July 3 led to a coup — not against Mohammed Morsi but the values of democracy. He said, “It is a coup against a path that came through elections and should not have left without elections, even if it was a referendum to know what the majority thinks.”
Sisi, from Nour's point of view, does not share Egypt with Egyptians. Rather, Sisi views Egypt as belonging to anyone who is against the Muslim Brotherhood. Nour believes that Sisi's popularity is not authentic, but instead stems from the fact that he was an alternative to the Brotherhood. “If he does not achieve progress, his popularity will be gone with the wind,” said Nour.
Nour blasted the interference of Gulf countries in Egypt's political affairs, blaming the Gulf for influencing the media in the lead-up to the coup. Unless the Gulf countries get their hands off of Egypt, he said, the country will further deteriorate. Meanwhile, the United States has been indecisive in its policies toward Egypt, said Nour. While the Pentagon supports military rule, the State Department and White House are of a different point of view. Nour believes that Egypt will be unable to retrieve its political role in the region unless it can revive its ability to take independent stances.
Nour stressed the need to change the current protest law and create a proper transitional justice law to help the country reconcile. The term “terrorism,” he added, is unclear in the Egyptian context, and there needs to be a unified definition of the term. While terrorism comes in different forms, Nour said that we can look at the dispersal of protests in Rabia al-Adawiya as terrorism practiced by the Egyptian state.
On the international coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS), Nour questioned whether fighting this group is a priority for Egypt. He said that Egypt's interest in this fight lies in highlighting the significance of fighting other Islamists as part of the campaign.
Nour considers Egypt's political arena toxic, and would not want to be a part of it unless he were helping create a national reconciliation plan. Under Mubarak, Nour was sent to prison on multiple occasions, the most well-known arrest taking place after he ran against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential race. Nour describes his experience in prison as a teaching period: “Prison is like a school, you learn based on how you decide to study.” He said this dire experience prompted him to ask Morsi to pardon Mubarak from prison and place him under house arrest. However, Morsi refused.
Nour rejected accusations that he is financed by foreign powers; his family wealth and law firm are the primary sources of his income. “I have a law firm in Egypt. This office was founded in 1951 before I was even born. It belongs to my father and my grandfather. I am also an heir of both my father and mother. Whenever I need money I sell a house, villa, car, etc. I registered the sold items here in the embassy. I have a restaurant here in Lebanon. I live in a villa, not a castle. I am just living,” said Nour from Hazmiya in Beirut.
The text of the interview follows:
The policies of the current regime
Al-Monitor: As we speak about ideas, what do you think about how the current regime is handling terrorism in Egypt?
Nour: First of all, we have a problem identifying the word “terrorist.” Until now, I don't know who is a terrorist and who is not. What are the criteria that would … make someone a terrorist? Is it belonging to an idea? Or is it taking a certain action? Despite that, I deeply believe that we have to condemn terrorism in all its forms. One form of terrorism is the terrorism of the state. For instance, the state killed thousands of people in Rabia and Nahda while dispersing the protests in 2013. Neither I nor my party was in either place, but in the end, this is a massacre. The human conscience is in pain over remembering this. Terrorism in all its forms is rejected.
Terrorism could be confronted. However, the idea of confrontation is not sufficient to lead to results against terrorism. There must be a “legal” framework … also an intellectual framework and a political one. Closing the doors of political and intellectual participation opens the doors of extremism and terrorism. Extremism comes first and then terrorism, because they are two different constructs. In Egypt, we have the previous experience — the most aggressive violent extremists came out of [Gamal Abdel] Nasser's prisons. The ideas of takfiris were the foundation for the ideas of extremists … [whose ideas] were a result of the prisons and detentions of oppressive regimes. Therefore, when we talk about confronting terrorism, we confront terrorism with democracy. First, through the fair law and then democracy. Therefore, I would treat people equally. I am with the idea of justice, but in its real sense, not in the current distorted version.
Al-Monitor: Speaking of law, do you think the state will change the protest law?
Nour: Yes, otherwise Sisi would be committing political suicide if he continues dealing with Egypt using the same [politics] of the revolutionary moment at a time that is supposed to be ruled by the constitution and democracy. Whatever you were once allowed to do with the people's authorization … you cannot do that after you have a constitution. The constitution says that people have the right to protest. You cannot then restrain this right with obstacles.
I imagine there are three steps that the current regime must take. First of all, they must change the protest law. Second, they must change the temporary detention law, which was legalized by Adly Mansour. This law was an achievement before Jan. 25, during Mubarak's time. We spent years trying to gain this right, but Mansour erased our struggle. Third, they must issue a real law for transitional justice that would allow an objective national reconciliation plan, rather than a personalized one. Without these three laws, I say Sisi's regime will be committing suicide.
Al-Monitor: Every time I visit Egypt, I hear people praising Sisi. Do you think Egyptians are disillusioned with the current president?
Nour: Look, I was against the idea of judging Morsi after 100 days. I am against the idea of judging Sisi, too. A president cannot achieve anything within 100 days. However, it is vital that Sisi view himself as a president. He should understand that the Sisi who led July 3 is not Sisi the president. He still works using the same thoughts of July 3. But no, he is a president to all Egypt. He is not a party. He should not be part of a conflict. He is above the conflict. This feeling has not reached Sisi yet. And this can lead to the suicide Sisi. Again I am using the term “suicide.” By suicide, I mean Sisi's suicide as an idea and as a president. Morsi was viewed as a person who took sides with a certain group. I think in the case of Sisi, it is very clear that he is a one-sided president. Sisi takes sides with anyone who is against the Brotherhood. No one should build his political existence on hating a group.
Al-Monitor: What do you think about the Suez Canal project? People in Egypt are very enthusiastic about it. Can we say that Sisi is trying to create a national project driven by a vision like Abdel Nasser?
Nour: First of all, Sisi is not following the path of Abdel Nasser, [Anwar] Sadat or even Mubarak. He is trying to play roles that give an impression — in some instances — that he is similar to Nasser. He is not like any of the previous presidents. Sisi works for a small project called Sisi. Abdel Nasser had a vision. Whether we agree or disagree with the vision, we cannot deny that he had a vision. Sisi does not.
The canal is a great step, but it is neither his own idea nor an invention. It was proposed before. It is also not a project that we can describe as a national project. It is an important project. People think that we are talking about a new Suez Canal — instead of one, we will have two. Not at all. It is the expansion of the same canal. Media are creating illusions, which is a crime because it kills the hopes and motivations of the people. After people discover that their lives haven't changed, the shock will be doubled.
I think Sisi is in a very tough situation because people are not patient enough like they were with Mubarak. At the same time, his chances for success during a time of political instability, and entering conflicts with IS, etc., will only lead to one result. People want bread, better living standards, freedom and democracy. Now we say, yes, we are sacrificing democracy and freedom in exchange for confronting terrorism, but after six months, a year, people will find that they neither have freedom nor did they end terrorism or have improved living conditions. What are they going to do?
Al-Monitor: What do you think of Egypt's capabilities in participating in a military mission against IS? Do you think we have the ability to stand against terrorism?
Nour: Is the war on IS a priority for us in Egypt? Do we need Egypt in this battle or not? And what will happen to Egypt in terms of this war? Sisi said he won't send forces, despite the fact that he is the one behind the theory. … He said that if any of the Arabs are threatened, we will come in a heartbeat. Gaza was attacked, where were we? What have we done? Because it is not realistic to say so. The role Egypt is trying to acquire is not only to intervene in this type of coalition. I think other parties can end the war on IS. Egypt is joining to tell them: Take care of IS and her affiliates; don't forget her affiliates; how can you fight IS and yet agree to leave cells from a certain group? It is a political game, but it is not well studied.
Al-Monitor: In international relations, the diversionary theory of war explains that countries go to war to divert their citizens' attention from local events. Do you think Egyptian politicians are trying to do this?
Nour: Part of it. But the most dangerous part is that it is part of a dishonest system. You can work in this way while you are leading a coup, but not while you are leading a country. We should have some honesty. Amr Moussa made an extremely important point on Sept. 23, 2014, in an interview with Emad Hussein in Shorouk paper. He said that in the world of politics, rumors, if believed by people, become reality, and we have to deal with it as if these rumors are facts. So, if people think that the Brotherhood is conducting acts of terrorism, then they are. And if people think that the Brotherhood is guilty of terrorism, then it’s the truth, even if it is not. What does he mean? This is illogical. But this is how Egypt is ruled — spread a rumor.
Al-Monitor: What is the role that you and your party should be playing at the moment?
Nour: Look, we as a party have our vision and our stances, but the problem is too complicated for us to prescribe a solution. The problem is: the corruption; how society is divided; the current state of aggression in Egypt; and how society refuses anything. Sisi will leave, he won't stay that long. The coup will end. The Brotherhood will also leave. Myself and others will also leave. What is left for Egypt is society. Society has become aggressive. Society has become mean to itself, its figures and its leaders. Those who led the coup were media figures — they think they achieved a goal. No! They disrupted a whole nation. They distorted the reputations of people so that Sisi's reputation would be left untouched compared to others.
Brotherhood and the liberals
Al-Monitor: Liberalism in Egypt is different than in America when we speak about individual values. What is liberalism in Egypt?
Nour: We have a unique liberal experience, one that is different from liberalism in many countries around the world. We share the same liberal values, but the Egyptian liberal experience is different. The Egyptian liberalism that surfaced a century ago was formed inside the main religious entity, Al-Azhar. Most of the liberal figures and their values came from Al-Azhar. The idea of the clash between religion and liberalism is not present within Egyptian liberal political thought. Intellectuals like Sheikh Hassan Attar, Imam Mohamed Abdo, Rifaa Rafaat al-Tahtawi and Saad Zaghloul all shared both liberal values and came from the body of Al-Azhar. Therefore, when some of my liberal colleagues questioned my liberalism because I did not support July 3, I told them they are faux liberals — a real liberal does not alienate others because of their religious beliefs.
Al-Monitor: As a liberal, what do you think liberals could have avoided that has changed Egypt's path?
Nour: A lot of issues. This is a difficult question. We should have stood by our liberal values. People ask me if there is hope in liberalism, I tell them there is no hope in Egypt but through liberalism. Liberals have betrayed their values and supported the army, the coup and the killing of people. The only solution was that we could have not committed all these mistakes. Now we have to learn and correct our mistakes. We should learn from the past. We should learn from the 1954 March crisis with Abdel Nasser, handing the rule over to the army is a very dangerous game.
Al-Monitor: But again, what are the mistakes you think you as liberals should not have made?
Nour: You might want to ask this question differently. You might want to ask, what is the mistake that we did not commit? We have made all mistakes. We have not left one mistake that we did not commit.
Al-Monitor: Do you think the Brotherhood was not given its chance in ruling Egypt?
Nour: The Brotherhood did not give itself a chance to succeed. This is different than the idea of not getting the chance, and in another stage, when they tried to give themselves the chance to succeed, we did not give them the chance to succeed. You have to divide the period of Morsi in two. The first stage is the one before the December constitutional declaration, which Morsi released without informing us. Before that declaration, the Brotherhood was egocentric. We can describe it as behavior not exclusive to the Brotherhood but also [belonging] to some of the members of the Islamists' coalition. They have 70% of Brotherhood members in the parliament, and a president for the first time ever. This has raised their ego.
After the constitutional crisis in November-December 2012, the Brotherhood began to feel the danger, so it attempted to cooperate with others. At that time, others were not ready. One of these groups was the liberal coalition to which I belong. I was one of those who founded the National Salvation Coalition. I withdrew when I felt that they were not serious. … I am allergic to military rule in general. I do not agree at all that the alternative to anything is military rule.
Al-Monitor: There was a meeting during the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] ruling period. During that meeting, the Brotherhood and the Wafd Party announced that it wouldn't be a coalition in the elections. You were in that meeting. Did you feel at the time that the Brotherhood had bigger motivations than to be part of a political coalition in Egypt?
Nour: Look, at that time, the invitation was to form the national coalition for Egypt. There were 40 participating political parties. Sayyid al-Badawi, the head of the Wafd Party, invited me into this coalition, not the Brotherhood. I expressed fear of this coalition in the very beginning, but Badawi gave me guarantees that we are all together and we won’t accept the Brotherhood taking over. I agreed to join the coalition since all the political parties were included. But all of a sudden, the Wafd Party withdrew. The Brotherhood did not want to eradicate other political parties, but there was also no real desire for a real cooperation from their side. The Brotherhood was undergoing a symbolic cooperation, not a real one. It was a catastrophic mistake that the Brotherhood fell into. But the other parties fell into other mistakes.
Al-Monitor: Do you think the Brotherhood is dead? Or will we see it rise again in a few years?
Nour: An American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, wrote “The End of History and the Last Man.” I read this book twice. Once before Jan. 25  and again after July 3 . Every time I read this book I believe that the ideas adopted by this book have failed — part of which is the possibility of ending an idea or a movement or a political group. This idea is very naive. I can say that I am against the idea of the end of ideologies. It is a firm battle. There is a tide, maybe. Islamists in Egypt are an important party. We cannot imagine political life in Egypt without the liberals, socialists or the Islamists. It is naive to think so. A professional politician — and I am one of them — would not be convinced by that. Maybe you can delay or create obstacles, but in the end, the Brotherhood was oppressed for 80 years. What happened? Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak oppressed them. Abdel Nasser was no less violent than Sisi.
Al-Monitor: Who was ruling Egypt? Was it Khairat el-Shater, Mohammed Badie or Morsi?
Nour: Of course not Shater. But I don't know who. Morsi tried to separate between the Brotherhood and the presidency. The idea that the Brotherhood was ruling Egypt is not correct. Shater did not go to the presidential palace since Morsi entered the building and left it.
Al-Monitor: What you just said is a very unpopular view. Why should people believe what you are saying?
Nour: Whoever has other information, please prove it. I am personally saying what I know through my connections and my relations with all entities. If this was the Brotherhood's administration, it would have been much better. The issue is much simpler than trying to know who is leading the scene. Everything was very random.
Al-Monitor: Morsi appointed a handful of ministers to important positions who belonged to the Brotherhood.
Nour: There were 30 ministers, seven of whom were from the Brotherhood. Let me give you an easier example. On April 13, Morsi called me and asked for us to meet. During this exclusive meeting [over two hours] he asked me to form a government instead of former Prime Minister Hisham Qandil. I told him my terms and reservations. One of my terms is that he does not intervene in choosing the ministers. I told him I will appoint this person and that, all of whom were not on good terms with him. He replied, do whatever you want, except one, Sisi. I don't know why.
Al-Monitor: As a journalist, I have always been told that there are “foreign hands” meddling in Egypt. Some see it as Saudi Arabia, others view it as Qatar. As a politician, who do you think is the major foreign force driving Egypt's politics?
Nour: All parties had different roles. There was a party against the Egyptian revolution from the very beginning. These were the conservative countries in our region, the traditional ones that have an authoritarian nature in some instances. They viewed a change in a country the size of Egypt as dangerous because it would lead to the exporting of ideas. They were against the revolution. When the Brotherhood was elected, they were playing against the Brotherhood. The revolution was stronger than the Brotherhood. Therefore, playing against the Brotherhood was very obvious. We can say that most of the Gulf countries, with the exception of Qatar, were in this group.
The second party was both against Mubarak himself and his policies, so they supported the revolution from the beginning. This party was Qatar. I don't know why they were against Mubarak, but for real, there were tense relations. Since the first day of the Egyptian revolution, Qatar supported it. I remember since the SCAF period, Qatar donated $500 million during the first two weeks after Mubarak. They even sent it on the same day with Prince Tamim. This was obvious. Later on, during the Brotherhood's period, it became even more obvious that Qatar was supporting the Brotherhood, and then they sympathized with the Brotherhood after it was overthrown. It all became very obvious after the coup. How do you think the coup was made? By poisoning the environment. The Gulf states used the media for at least six to seven months.
Al-Monitor: People in Egypt blame the United States for any events. Do you think the US administration should have reacted differently?
Nour: America's role was confusing from the beginning until the end, even today. This was very obvious from the time of Mubarak, since the beginning of Jan. 25. It became even more obvious when dealing with the coup. The Pentagon has its own interests, that it supports military rule. There was a very obvious coalition between the Pentagon, Gulf states and Sisi. The State Department and maybe other apparatus had different interests. The White House had a stance between both parties.
This has led to the confusion of the Americans' policies toward Egypt that led all Egyptian parties to think that the US is against them. The Brotherhood thinks the US is against them, and the coup supporters think the US supported the Brotherhood. All parties blame the US because it has a perplexing stance. Americans sometimes stand by their values, and in other instances, they stand by their interests. And sometimes they stand in confusion between their values and interests. Therefore, people with values claim Americans don't have values, and those with interests claim Americans betrayed their interests.
Al-Monitor: Who threatens the current Egyptian regime the most: the people, the extremists or the foreign powers?
Nour: The current regime threatens itself the most. I think that leading the country in the way that the coup was led is in itself creating another coup over the coup. [This behavior] will lead the country to what we reached with the Brotherhood, and even worse. Despite what we think, Sisi's popularity isn't real. Therefore, the chances of success are unfortunately not enormous. Without political compatibility, Egypt won't move forward.
Al-Monitor: What about the role of the Gulf countries you mentioned earlier? Do you think we could see more of their influence in Egypt?
Nour: Sadat once said, “Take your hands off Lebanon.” I want to say, “Take your hands off Egypt.” Give us a break. The Lebanese civil war did not stop until the parties who were financing the war stopped financing the parties involved. It is the same situation with us. If we pursue the current circumstances, then we can conclude that we Egyptians are paying a lot for political desires that are not justified.
Al-Monitor: What do you think is the position of Egypt now among the Arab countries?
Nour: Look at how Sisi meets Arab leaders and you will know what our position is. Mubarak took us many years back, and what Sisi is doing will not push us to the front. Sisi's actions will bring us to the abyss. For Egypt to revive its previous role, it should revive its values and ability to build an independent stance. Following a country or a group is very degrading for us Egyptians.