In 2012, Egypt, a pivotal state in the Middle East, had its first-democratically elected President, Mohammed Morsi, who was a member of the country’s well organised opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
But after a year, Morsi was ousted by a military coup led by General Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who suppressed all kinds of opposition, jailing Morsi, other high-profile politicians and scholars alongside with thousands of MB members.
Recently, Egypt has witnessed protests as the country dips into economic recession and political instability, showing signs that many people are fed up of the Sisi regime and are growing increasingly fearless in showing dissent.
TRT World talked to Maha Azzam, the head of Egyptian Revolutionary Council, who has been fighting for democracy in Egypt for decades.
First of all, can you explain your own organisation? What kind of revolution you pursued, and your organisation pursued? And at what level you are now?
Maha Azzam: The Egyptian Revolutionary Council was established in 2014. It is an organisation that is dedicated to opposing the military regime in Egypt. It is opposed to the military coup of 2013 against Egypt's first democratically elected president, the late President Mohamed Morsi. We are also opposed to any kind of military regime.
The Egyptian Revolutionary Council (ERC) believes in the establishment of a civil democratic state in Egypt and it believes that the overthrow of the first elected, democratically elected president of Egypt, Dr Mohammad Morsi was a crime committed against the Egyptian people's hard-won first democratic experiment.
Our work is related to both outside Egypt and inside Egypt. We remain, till now, the voice of the voiceless. We echo much of what we believe are the demands of the Egyptian people that can’t speak out whether it is to do with social justice, freedoms, the rule of law. We say that we outside are obliged to ensure that the voice of the voiceless is heard among policymakers among civil society, among even Egyptians abroad.
We also ensure as much as possible to tell our brothers and sisters inside that we are behind them, that they mustn’t give up that this military regime will end. But there are certain steps that need to be taken. They need to be taken by those inside when they see the time is right, and when they have organised themselves sufficiently.
We have called out to different sectors of Egyptian society to take steps to organise, not for tomorrow, but for when they decide is the right time for a general strike.
The Egyptian military regime is a brutal regime, but the Egyptian people must maintain their peacefulness in opposing it. Their strongest weapon is that they remain peaceful in their difficult struggle against this regime.
So our role outside as the Egyptian Revolutionary Council is twofold: to continue to manoeuvre outside, to lobby for our cause, to ensure that everyone as much as possible hears about what’s happening in Egypt; but also to ensure that we send whatever assistance we can, political and in terms of ideas, to the inside. It is up to the inside to decide when and how they will use it.
We have witnessed protests in Egypt recently. This shows the fragility of the Egyptian regime, Sisi’s government. What are your thoughts on that?
MA: I think it was a reflection that the barrier of fear has begun to break. The republic of fear that Sisi has installed is still very very strong. So a number of people came out, but it was enough in some ways to show that people are deeply opposed to this regime. The regime very quickly reacted by rounding up thousands. It continues to be a tyrannical and oppressive regime and that’s not going to go away because it’s a very insecure regime.
And because it is so insecure it has made sure that it cannot lift the hand of tyranny from the people. It has to keep the tanks on the streets, keep the oppression, keep the fear instilled. Because if not, it will disappear in one day.
We still have a long-term struggle. Because our struggle –– and this is where the Egyptian Revolutionary Council is very clear –– is not just about General Sisi. The struggle is about ending the type of regime and structure that has exploited people through corruption and through oppression for many decades.
The reality of the Egyptian predicament is that one dictator after the other has been removed or assassinated. So we’ve had the fall of Mobarak, we’ve had the assassination of Sadat, we’ve had the death of Nasser. But the plight of the Egyptian people remains the same.
So the issue is not just the removal of Sisi. We have to learn from the past. And we have to know that we have to change the structures that have ensured the continuation of an exploitative and corrupt regime and an elite that steals from the people. I use the word “steals” from the people because over 60 percent of Egyptian people live under the poverty line –– that is a huge number of people. They do not have healthcare, and what little healthcare there is, is not even fit for animals.
The educational system is extremely poor and decrepit and has failed to provide young Egyptians with the skills needed for the 21st century. In addition to the fact that there are no political freedoms or civil society to speak of.
Egypt is in a very dangerous position because it's national security interests are compromised. The military leader of Egypt’s alliance with Israel and Israeli intelligence is at an unprecedented level, as never before.
Egypt faces a threat to its water supply because of the deal that was made with Ethiopia. Decisions that have been made in Egypt have been made without any accountability.
There is no independent parliament, there is no independent judiciary and therefore decisions are made by one man and are detrimental not only to the interests of this generation but to the interests of future generations.
How could things be corrected?
MA: The only guarantee is a democratic system that allows full participation and accountability; where there is an independent judiciary; where decisions are made according to the best interests of the people and where there is a clear economic programme for development and to fight corruption.
Therefore, the countries that I can point out to that have independence in the region are countries like Turkey because they can direct their political decisions on the basis of what they see are in the best interests of their people. If they make mistakes, the government is held accountable because there is a process, there is a political process of free and fair elections. When you have dictatorship, as in the case of Egypt, you have tyranny and no one is held accountable for major strategic mistakes that future generations have to pay to pay a high price for.
We need a clear and independent political and economic agenda that is for the benefit of the whole nation and not just a minority. In the case of Egypt, as is the case of many Arab countries, the interest that comes first or maybe the only interest is the interest of the one-man show and those who support him.
We see recently in the protests in different parts of the Arab world, even in Lebanon where there is a more open political system, ordinary citizens are saying, “Look, the elite are corrupt, the level of wealth that exists among the Lebanese political elite is based on corruption that is not acceptable.”
Therefore, people have come out, they’ve come out to protest and they’re dismayed at the political elite that has not delivered and has nurtured sectarianism for it's interests.
One of the most important signals of change that brings hope to all of us are the elections in Tunisia lately and that the democratic process is underway. People have made their choice. They have made a choice for someone outside the usual political elite and someone who is known to be non-corrupt.
Unfortunately, in the case of Egypt we had that chance. In 2012, the Egyptians elected a man who was not corrupt, who was a civilian, who was outside the military establishment and whose hands were clean and who wanted reform and who wanted the rich to pay their taxes and who had a clear vision as to Egypt’s national interests.
The military intervened and it intervened with the support of regional powers and international powers.
Until we can have leaders that are truly independent and whose people can remove them and install them through free and fair elections and so long as we have the interference of regional powers and international powers in the decisions of our governments we’re not independent.
What do you think about the Muslim Brotherhood? Do you think they are still relevant or have they become irrelevant? What is your take on them?
MA: I think the Muslim Brotherhood are an integral part of society. I think the Muslim Brotherhood first and foremost represent an idea. And that idea cannot be destroyed through repression.
I think the very fact that Arab regimes consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be an enemy is because they know very clearly that the Muslim Brotherhood promote an idea that is based on Islam but at the same time as we saw in Egypt and as we’ve seen in other countries they’re willing to play by the rules of the democratic game - and that frightens dictatorial Arab regimes. Because these regimes want to maintain the status quo and do not want any accountability of their regimes they therefore view the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat.
Although of course now we see that they attack everyone who dares oppose them whether Muslim Brotherhood or liberal or secular as is the case in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood will remain a key and leading component of our societies they cannot be ignored. They express the hopes of millions. I think the idea that the Brotherhood is not significant is not true. I think even the West is very much aware of that. Any real democratic political process has to include the largest organised political and social movement in the country.
What do you think about the current political state across the Middle East?
MA: I believe our people across the Middle East suffer from a grave injustice both political and economic. We do not have independence we believe that we are independent states but we’re not. Across the whole Arab region outside powers play with our people's interests and future through regimes that do not represent their people.
We do not have the freedom to make really independent political choices that benefit our people. And the regimes that exist in our part of the world are proxies for outside powers and regional powers that serve the interests of those that are inimical to the interests of the vast majority of our people.
You talk about how Middle Eastern states are dependent on Western powers or they’re kind of proxies for Western powers. When do you think this system, this political framework started?
MA: I think it’s a historical one and It is a product of colonialism in our region and the break up of the Ottoman Empire. And I think it is a reflection of the fact that these outside powers have always wanted to exploit our resources in one way or another whether they in the past wanted trade routes or later they wanted to have the best deal on our oil and gas or whether for their own perception of security interests. While, in fact real security and stability between nations is built on mutual respect and one that serves the interests of its people.
But I also think the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was a continuation of colonialism by other means. It is a bastion of colonialism in our region. Today, it supports and directs some of the most harmful regimes to the interests of our people.
Some say that we are seeing a shift with the withdrawal of the United States from the region. No, the United States is ensuring that others do its work for it. Furthermore, they have sided with Israel and believe it can protect them against the growing anger of their own people.
We’re in a very very dangerous situation in our region. But at the same time I believe the weaker parties in the medium to long-term are the regimes. They are looking left and right finding allies among enemies of the people, but ultimately it’s not going to work because ultimately we are the majority. Ultimately this is our land and our resources and we will reclaim it. We will reclaim not in order to go to war with anyone, not to create disorder, but on the contrary, in order to establish stability and security in our region and a fair system in which we have better relations with the rest of the world based on mutual respect where our partners are ones that respect us and who we respect.
But that won’t happen with us being powerless. We have to empower ourselves, we have to take the reins of power, and we’ll have to establish governments that represent us and represent our interests. That’s the first step.
The second step is that we have to cooperate with each other and break down the barriers in the region, so we can better serve the interests of all people across the region through economic cooperation and development.
We need to work to build societies that protect the rights of their citizens and are free of outside interference and exploitation. We need to achieve the second phase of our independence and that is the end of dictatorship and authoritarianism in our region.