Essam Heggy, an Egyptian space scientist and scientific adviser to a former president, said the current regime is more occupied with its world image than it is with its people, and that the 2018 presidential elections are an opportunity for a course correction. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Heggy said the governing regime has driven Egypt to its worst moment in history, as the top priority in Egypt is not education but arms deals. Heggy expressed his view that the government has not learned from the experiences of Syria, Iraq or Sudan.
He said that unless education reform and other reforms take place, "There will be no democracy in Egypt. The people are trapped between two choices: the caliphate state of the Islamic State [IS] and the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and the state of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser on the other,” Heggy said. He said that the revolution Egypt truly needs is one in education, as democracy without education is a path toward illusion.
Heggy has advocated the idea of a "presidential team” as an alternate to the current system.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: Can you tell us about the "presidential team" initiative?
Heggy: It is an Egyptian peaceful initiative that aims at ending the philosophy of a one-man rule, which has destroyed Egypt. The initiative brings together many experts on running the country, and it is designed as follows: a president, two vice presidents — one Coptic and the other Muslim — and a prime minister. A successful female Egyptian figure will be nominated for this post, as well as a number of advisers for the president where we will share responsibilities. The names will be announced in March 2017.
Al-Monitor: There are surveys that indicate that only 7% of Egyptians have heard of the presidential team initiative. How will you be able to convince Egyptians to vote for your presidential project?
Heggy: The Baseera Center survey came out only one month after the campaign was launched. Moreover, the campaign is banned in Egyptian media and is being demonized in national newspapers. If these numbers are correct, it is highly positive, as we still have about a year before the first phase of the presidential elections, where we can reach a far more satisfying result.
It is unthinkable that the only two options the Egyptian people have are to either return to the caliphate [Muslim] Brotherhood or the rigid one-man state. We will bring Egypt’s ship a step forward toward a civil state rich in expertise that listens to its people and believes in nothing but the opinion of the people rather than that of the military or the Brotherhood. A civil state respects its people and its sole belonging is to the dignity and happiness of the Egyptian citizen, not to fake or resonant rhetoric or illusionary wars.
Al-Monitor: Why do you believe in your presidential project, and what makes you not fear Hamdeen Sabahi’s fate in the 2014 elections?
Heggy: Our experience is not the same as Hamdeen Sabahi’s. It is probable that the coming elections be rigged, but a people’s will cannot be. If clear plans are drawn up and a state is built on education, justice and science, the people’s will can never be rigged. However, if a state follows a confused political rhetoric that tickles the opposition and the state, it is merely an extension of the current system of government. This is why we are here to say that after 2018, Egypt will not be built through words said before cameras, but rather by a real platform that would prosper through better education and health, which are the pillars of the Egyptian people.
Al-Monitor: Do you believe the upcoming 2018 elections will be fair?
Heggy: Only Egyptians can judge that when they participate. Therefore, I call upon citizens to participate in the coming elections instead of participating in absurd demonstrations that have no clear demand or making the same mistake of the past not to participate in elections. Pessimism is a man’s worst choice. They should take part in elections even if hope is like a drop of fresh water in a sea of saltwater.
My one concern is that Egyptians will be trapped into one of two choices: a caliphate state or Nasser’s state. This is why an awareness campaign and initiatives should be organized against such choices. We don’t need initiatives telling us to love Egypt [making reference to the name of Sisi’s campaign] or that Islam is the solution [referring to the Muslim Brotherhood slogan], as Egypt’s love is not the problem and religion does not constitute a crisis. Therefore, citizens should be told that their choice determines their destiny and that if they surrender to despair, we will all pay the price for that. History does not remember those who are desperate, passive or lack confidence, but it remembers those who challenge hardships and change difficult circumstances. Education, justice and health are what is going to change this country, and such a step need not take 20 years to become a reality. Had we started a real platform since the January 2011 revolution, we would have reached an astonishing result now. A plethora of countries could change in two or three years.
What is really silly is that there are people out there who see that Egypt cannot be changed through education. The first word God told Muhammad — PBUH [peace be upon him] — was “read.” It was not “wage war,” “cure” or “discuss politics.” Without reading or education, there is no civilization.
Al-Monitor: You talk about area development projects and the presidency is a political position. How would you run a state?
Heggy: Right now, the state has only one perspective, which is its image in the eye of the world more than it cares about its image in the eyes of its people. Egypt’s economy has collapsed because of arms deals and illusionary projects that have no result whatsoever while billions have been spent. The New Suez Canal Project was only established to impress the world, as the government is only occupied with its image before the world rather than before its people.
Did Virus-C patients or illiterates need for the first [big] project to be the Suez Canal, which cost about $8 billion, about 100 billion Egyptian pounds, which represents 15% of the general budget? The public debt doubled in just two years without any improvement in the Egyptian social scene. On the contrary, prices increased sharply.
Such deals that have exhausted state treasuries of hard currency, not to mention their delusional rhetoric, resulted in unnecessary mazes, as it showed Egypt was not operating rationally. Who would invest in Egypt in light of the prevailing absurd scene, and in a country that brands itself proudly as a one-man state?
The Egyptian presidency never adopted dossiers of education, women, justice or development. All it could prove is that it is in control and that what mainly governs the track in Egypt is purposelessness, ignorance and illness.
Al-Monitor: How would you break down the constraints posed by the military’s pervasive involvement in the economy and politics if you win? Do you expect that the military will allow your existence?
Heggy: I know that whoever those in leadership are, their main concern is the public interest. Everyone knows that the military works through direct orders from the leadership. I think that if they study it and find it beneficial, they will respond. I do not see another exit out of this crisis. There has to be dialogue between civil society and the military, otherwise we will all drown.
It is not right to fight each other or have the state arrest university students who express their opinions. We wish that the situation were better than this. The current regime asked Egyptians to participate in a transitional phase, and it took Egypt to the worst stage in its history. We must interfere to stop this.
Al-Monitor: You are running the campaign from abroad. Are you not afraid of accusations of treason? Aren’t you thinking of coming back to the country like [Mohamed] ElBaradei did back in 2011.
Heggy: The campaign is not being run from abroad. The campaign has many Egyptians inside the country working on it. What is truly run from abroad is Egypt’s decisions, as the World Bank is managing the Egyptian decision now and aids and arms deals are running Egypt from abroad. It’s only me who is speaking from abroad due to my residency permit and the nature of my work. I will be in Egypt after the initiative team is announced.
We did not announce the names of campaign members in Egypt out of fear of demonization campaigns and arrests. The regime deals with any peaceful initiative or reformists aiming at fixing corruption as traitors, agents and spies.
Al-Monitor: What will you do if you lose the elections?
Heggy: If they are fair elections, the citizens’ choice will be respected. However, we will only consider it fair when we are allowed to campaign and run. Does it make any sense that an electoral campaign is not allowed to appear in any Egyptian channel or newspaper even once? Is the government really interested in honest elections?
Fairness means that we can express our voices freely and lead our campaign without persecution by security authorities. When this happens, we can discuss the fairness of the ballot box, as, right now, we are in a preliminary stage and we are not allowed to do anything. We try approaching foreign media, as it is the only space available to us. Therefore, no one has the right to accuse us of being affiliated with anyone. Reformists are being accused of treason when they speak to foreign channels, which only reinforces the ignorance prevalent in the country.
Al-Monitor: Your name was mentioned in the Washington Initiative. What is your relationship to the initiative? Does it adopt initiatives of reconciliation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state?
Heggy: Empty talk, unfounded and wrong. We are in a major crisis. The most important thing to do is that Egyptians wake up, stop believing in one-man rule and understand for sure that this is our country and that we should build it together. Otherwise, are we just going to keep commenting on what Sisi and his supporters have done? I call upon political parties and citizens to soul-search because we all erred. We should know that the 2018 presidential elections are our true opportunity to correct the path. If we cannot wait, we hereby demand snap elections.
Egypt’s problem is that the argument between the Brotherhood and the military has exhausted the energies of the Egyptian citizen. We have a bigger argument, namely illiteracy, illness and education. We have 13 million ill people and 20 million students. Do we count how many of them support the military and how many of them oppose it?
Al-Monitor: How many times did you meet Muslim Brotherhood leaders abroad?
Heggy: I did not meet any partisan leaders. We are not a political party and neither do we belong to any party strategy. Therefore, we do not call upon parties. Our initiative is a social-moral one that believes in civil goals.
However, partisan leaders and institutions tried to communicate with us. We decided not to announce their names out of fear about their safety, as we want to benefit from everyone’s expertise.
Al-Monitor: What do you think of the lackluster response from citizens to calls for protests on Nov. 11?
Heggy: It’s a very positive thing. We need far more than anger to extract Egypt from its crisis. The fact that streets were empty that day was the best way for citizens to peacefully express that they reject the means employed that led the country to where it is today. We do not want anyone to die. Every drop of blood that is shed makes the matter even more complicated. A chaotic world does not build an organized state. Responding to our calls is a success for the initiative.
The revolution that Egypt truly needs is one in education, as there is no democracy without it. Democracy without education is an illusionary path. If Egyptian politicians see otherwise, this is idiocy. If their thoughts were correct, that experience would succeed in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Sudan. Without education, we will never be united.