Correcting the Course of Egypt’s Revolution: A Conversation with Dalia Ziada – by Ignacio Miguel Delgado Culebras

Dalia Ziada, an influential Egyptian human and women’s rights advocate, argues that while the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi by the military may have been a point of regression for Egypt’s democratic development, it was also an opportunity to correct the course of the Egyptian revolution. Ziada believes that the situation in Egypt was ripe for a military intervention because of Morsi’s inability to tackle the problems facing Egypt, and she stresses the need to start fresh with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Dalia Ziada is an award-winning Egyptian liberal human rights activist, socio-political analyst, and Executive Director of the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, one of the oldest nongovernmental organizations advocating human rights and civil freedoms in Egypt and the Arab World since 1980s. In 2011 and 2012 Newsweek named Dalia Ziada as one of the world’s most influential and fearless women, and in 2012 CNN named Dalia as one of Arab World’s eight agents of change.

The interview was conducted by Ignacio Miguel Delgado Culebras and edited by Sukanya Banerjee

The million-dollar question: Was it or was it not a coup d’etat?

It needs a third term. It was not a coup, and it was not a pure revolution. People went to the streets and then they got support from state institutions…But this time it was somehow unique, because the response of the military came after the institution itself was marginalized for a whole year, and after there was a fight between the executive authority and the state authorities, including the military. I think the only authorities that the regime kept on its side was the police forces, but everyone else was actually marginalized (including the judiciary, Al-Azhar, even the [Coptic] church). The coup was neither progress, nor a step forward, it is a step back, but the reason why we are taking a step back is that we got off track under the Muslim Brotherhood for one year. You can argue it is a coup and you can argue it is not, and in both cases you are correct.

A year ago the military was the most poorly regarded institution and a year after that, it has become again the most popular institution in Egypt. What happened?

The military has been popular for so long, because as an institution, it has always been independent and professional. It has its own budget and its existence does not depend on any president. On the contrary, the existence of the president or the regime depends on the military, not the other way around. They always have their say. They are a state within the state… [Young people] have based the relationship with the military on other events (aside from the war with Israel in 1973), such as the earthquake in 1992 and the bread crisis in 2008 when the military stepped in and helped the people.

So that increased the popularity of the army.

Of course. The military steps in when they need to, when they need to do something good for the people.  Why, for example, were we seeing police forces only beating us, hurting us, torturing us, but not really helping? The decision to abandon Mubarak and to side with the people in 2011 was the highest point when this bond of trust was created between the people and the military.

At the same time, a year ago everybody celebrated when Morsi dismissed the former chief of the military.

Actually not everyone, but a very good number of people [who celebrated his dismissal] suffered from the rule of the military forces in the first year. Military men are not politicians, and they made a very big mistake by trying to play a political role. But now, I think they are learning from their mistakes.

For example, after the first wave of the revolution, they were speaking to people as if they were speaking to soldiers… They were giving orders, and we were not used to taking orders. We had a revolution to have democracy and they were giving us something else, so people suffered a lot from them, and that is why they called for an end to military rule. After this, when Morsi made all those mistakes in running state affairs and pursued the Muslim Brotherhood’s interests, people realized that they were probably better under the military. The military was providing us with security, which Morsi could not give us. They were more patriotic and honest.

Could the fact that the military is an independent power and has its own agenda be a problem in bringing the military under civilian control at a later stage of the transition?

I do not think the military wants to be in politics again. They have learned from their mistakes. Now they are more transparent about what they are doing and are trying to have a better relationship with the people.  I do not think they would try to be in power again, because it is in their best interest to remain as they are: independent and professional, so that they can decide whatever they want, avoid external meddling in their decision-making processes, and maintain their popularity.

At the same time, they will not accept a civilian ruler who will undermine their popularity or affect their independence. In other words, they will not, for example, accept their budget to be monitored by a civilian government. [The military] will not accept that decisions of war and peace be placed in the hands of a civilian-led government. And I believe that is acceptable as long as they do not affect our progress towards democracy.

The ouster of President Morsi by the military sends a dangerous message: if you manage to get enough people to take to the streets, you can render election results useless. Does this not pose a threat to democracy?

In March, people called for the return of the military as a way to solve our problems, especially with security and stability. Different political forces called for military intervention and the Ibn Khaldun Center ran a public opinion survey showing that 82 percent wanted the military back. 82 percent!

Also do not forget that the military has its own interests. It was similar to what happened in 2011. At that time, the military was offended by the fact that Gamal Mubarak might come in power, so they started to make the people move. Military intelligence conducted research in April 2010 and found that huge protests were expected to happen in Egypt in the next few months. They decided to side with the people and abandon Mubarak, if the protests were big enough.

The same thing happened now. The situation was ripe for them to take revenge on Morsi, who had facilitated the killing of eight soldiers in Rafah during Ramadan in 2012 and refused to take action after the attack. Instead of actually giving consolation to the military men, Morsi removed Field Marshall Tantawi [then defense minister], who was by the way very popular inside the military. Then Al-Sissi came and he was very conservative about where the military should or should not be involved, but when the right time came, he just stepped in, not only to help the people, but also to take revenge on behalf of the leaders who had been removed and the people who had been killed.

We are now witnessing a struggle: the legitimacy bestowed upon a democratically elected president at the ballot box versus the legitimacy bestowed upon people who demonstrate against a ruler who refuses to take heed of the people’s demands. Do you see a way out of this dilemma?

Yes. I think it is important for the Muslim Brotherhood to realize that the legitimacy of the people is now greater than the legitimacy of elections, because democracy is not only about elections.  In October 2012, Morsi started to be very anti-democratic, to make promises and never live up to those promises, to say that he will be supportive of Copts and women when in reality he marginalized them, which hurt our relations with the rest of the world.

What are in your opinion the main reasons behind the ouster of Morsi?

The list can go forever. Let me focus on the part that concerns me the most, which is the rights of women and religious minorities. He marginalized both groups very heavily, and so he lost his popularity not only in the eyes of the Egyptian people, but also in the eyes of the world. Additionally, there are endless economic problems, which is reflected in high unemployment and a lack of investment and tourism in the country.

Morsi was not interested in Egypt at all. He was always speaking about Syria, Hamas in Palestine, Islamists in Mali… You cannot fix the neighbors’ house before you have your house fixed. All this was very offensive to the Egyptian people and that is why they decided to take him out before it was too late.

Do you think that it was a mistake to hold presidential elections before a proper constitution was passed?

I do. I have been saying this even before the presidential elections. If you want to establish a democracy, there is a difference between a democracy that is elections-based and a democracy that is liberal democracy (and by liberal I mean a free democracy that attaches the utmost importance to civil and political and human rights). What gives you those rights is a state that has a constitution, institutions, and then a president. If we had had a proper constitution, we would have held him accountable for everything he was doing; if we had had proper institutions, he would not have abused his power the same way he did. It was a big mistake to rush into elections before making a Constitution first.

After the intervention of the military, Egypt has become polarized. On the one hand, interim President Mansour is taking steps toward the formation of a national unity government. On the other hand, the Islamists continue to demand that Morsi be reinstated. Is there any room for compromise right now?

I think there should be, but not with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. I think what we should focus on is young people. By the way, the Brotherhood is a very strict group, but there has been over the past year, conflict between the leaders and younger generations, and a lot of young people have left the group. So why don’t we just start approaching those who are rejecting the violence of the group or the use of violence to protect the group? We should try to open a dialogue with them, not only to reconcile or compromise, but also just to start on a new, clean page where they will be acting as a political faction in the country that is given respect and rights, but if they insist on acting in the same way as the older generation, they will lose.

What role do you think the Muslim Brotherhood could play in the transition?

None. Just stay quiet a bit, that is all we need from them. If they have qualified people to nominate for ministers or any positions they are welcome to do so. Just stop using violence and end your strike because it is useless now.

Recent events in Egypt have partially overshadowed the success of the Tamarod grassroots campaign, which collected 22 million signatures against Morsi. What role has civil society played in recent protests and is playing in the current transition process?

Civil society in Egypt is very vibrant and very strong, and we have been there since 1980s, even before people started to speak about or be interested in politics, so civil society played a very important role in all the events we have been seeing in the past three years or so. As for the Tamarod movement, civil society organizations gave them a platform to speak, helped them communicate with grassroots citizens in different cities, and helped them get international attention.

I think the first thing civil society in Egypt should be doing is to work on redefining its role, because there are a lot of rapid changes happening. We should work on ourselves first as civil society, so that we will remain strong and unified, and then try to continue our role as a liaison between the new government that will be formed and the grassroots movements, and between the government and the West.

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