On 14 August, hundreds of supporters of the ousted Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, were killed as the army attacked their sit-in. The army coup and subsequent violence has been a betrayal of the delirium and optimism played out before the world’s television cameras in Tahrir Square back in January 2011. But the Egyptian novelist and intellectual Ahdaf Soueif is not ready to give up the fight. Disdainful of both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), she remains a fiercely articulate defender of the revolution, of the goals of bread, freedom and social justice, of humanist ideals, and a new, more inclusive idea of Egypt. It’s an idea, she acknowledges, that includes the MB. In a recent article, she quoted a popular tweet: “Three of my comrades in the revolution have brothers in the MB sit-in. What am I supposed to feel?”
This is the predicament progressive Egypt finds itself in, an internecine battle in which either alternative, the army or the MB, is unpalatable. The coup, Soueif believes, deprived the country of the opportunity to defeat Morsi at the ballot box. She stood shoulder to shoulder with her compatriots in Tahrir Square in 2011; she believes in the democratic project that should have been the revolution’s legacy. Her galvanising writing emerges from that close engagement, from her faith, she tells Shougat Dasgupta, in the revolution’s progressive promise.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Is there any justification for the overthrow of Morsi’s elected government?
‘Justification’ is a loaded term. There are ‘reasons’ for the country deciding he had to go. Morsi started his fall when he issued a constitutional declaration in November 2012, giving himself absolute powers. He retracted it a few days later but by then he had pushed through his founding committee for the Constitution and appointed his public prosecutor. From there it was downhill all the way.
It’s really important to remember that Morsi came to power on the back of a revolution with very clearly defined goals: bread and freedom and social justice. But he seemed to have no economic policy apart from soliciting loans from international lenders and donations from the Gulf; certainly nothing that might start moving the country towards social justice and a more sustainable economy. His security establishment continued to kidnap, torture and kill citizens – so there went the other great aim: freedom.
Morsi promised to be a president for all Egyptians. But when he came to power, he did not honour a single one of his promises. He was interested only in empowering the MB. During the one year of his presidency we had more than 7,000 protests. The government paid no attention, it was too busy cosying up to the disgraced tycoons of the Mubarak regime and courting the unreformed, unrepentant security and military establishments that had proved themselves the enemies of the revolution.
The people saw the president steering the country to disaster. When he appointed a round of county governors — all connected to the MB — protestors prevented them from entering their offices. Armed MB men confronted protests and people were killed in clashes on the street. At a mass rally, Morsi sat unmoved through hate-speeches against Shia Muslims. Days later, citizens murdered four Shia men in a village not 40 minutes from downtown Cairo. The president officially encouraged young men to go to “holy war” in Syria.
Morsi’s advisers – some would say his masters – were Muhammad Badie, the Supreme Guide (the “Morshed”) of the MB, and Khairat el-Shater, their main money-man — both unelected and unaccountable. The country was very much against this rule from the shadows; a dominant chant was “Down, down with the rule of the Morshed!” The country decided that since he would not shift an inch to meet the demands of a huge number of citizens he would have to shift out completely.
On the one hand, the military’s thuggishness is unsupportable, on the other the MB’s sectarian rhetoric and violent actions while in power were unsupportable. What is the feeling now among liberal, progressive revolutionaries?
The progressive revolutionary voices are very loud and clear. But at the moment we seem to be a tiny minority. The following passages are from the draft manifesto of ‘Masmou3’ [grassroots activists in Cairo who express their disapproval of both the MB and the military by banging on pots]:
“The army and the brotherhood are wrong. We have to say it as loud as we can so that we can build a future for our country. Neither of them has been capable of understanding the vision we had on the 25th January for the future of our country because they are both old dogmatics, who do not understand the basic principles of our revolution. Bread, freedom, social justice, a free press, an independent judiciary, the right of assembly, the right to create parties and independent unions, the right to speak freely and be protected while speaking. But though their vision for the future of this country is wrong, we have to understand that they must also be a part of that future. We should not silence them as they have silenced us. We have to understand their fears though they have not understood ours. We have to respect their dead even though they have not respected ours.
Let’s pause for a moment, ignore the state, ignore the brotherhood, and think instead about the country, think about the future, think about the poor, think about our principles and the complexity of what we truly believe. Because if we don’t, the price will be blood, and more blood – everyone’s blood.”
Do you believe Morsi would have been defeated at the ballot box?
Yes, I do. If we had managed to have elections, the MB would have been voted out.
With so much blood having been shed, can the Muslim Brotherhood be reintegrated into any future system?
This is the big question. On the one hand, they have to be; they are too big to be left out and so we need them to participate in the political process. But there are several difficulties: their blood that’s been shed since 14 August; the revolutionaries whom the MB tortured and murdered over the last year at least; the visceral hatred that an important and influential sector of liberal society has for the MB. But the biggest problem of all is that the MB’s philosophy/ideology does not permit them to really be one among many political parties exchanging and jostling for power. Their ideology, written and attested, is to pretend to be this, and then, once in power, to fix matters so that they cannot be removed. This was Morsi’s main concern as president. So how do you, as a progressive, advocate the inclusion of a party whose aim is to cancel out all others? This is the position we now find ourselves in.
Though, admittedly, the Brotherhood has shown no such inclination, can you see the possibility of a ‘moderate’ Islamic party leading Egypt? Something along the lines of Erdoğan’s Turkey?
These are very fudgy terms and I don’t trust or use them. When you say ‘moderate’ – moderate on what scale? Mostly, when this term is used, it seems to mean moderate in their adherence to Islam, which is nonsense, because ‘Islam’ is interpreted (as you very much know in India) in a thousand different ways. And there is no way that sticking faithfully to the only absolute core there is — the five pillars: reciting the creed, prayer, fasting, paying zakah and going on the pilgrimage to Makkah — makes you an “extremist” in the sense that the people who use the term “moderate Islam” mean.
A thing to note carefully as well is that the MB did not try to put in ‘Islamic’ policies. They did not seem to have an ‘Islamic’ agenda — just an agenda to inherit the policies, apparatus, brutality and wealth of the Mubarak regime — and to use Egypt as a cog in some kind of global MB movement.
Anyway, Erdoğan is having his own problems now and the system there is imploding because of authoritarianism, lack of consultation and so on.
Do you still have hope that the spirit of January 2011 will prevail?
Yes. Despair is betrayal.
Is Nabil Fahmy, the interim foreign minister, being self-serving when he describes the situation as an internal affair? Did the world’s yearning for change find its expression in Tahrir Square and is that why people outside Egypt still feel like they have a stake in what happens inside Egypt?
He’s the foreign minister, what else will he say? We know that elements in the interim government who wanted to prevent the bloodshed asked the European Union in early August to help negotiate an end to the impasse of the Rabaa sit-in. No country stands alone.
An important aspect of the 25 January revolution was its willingness to embrace the whole world. And the world embraced it right back. The xenophobia that’s being whipped up now by the security state as it tries to make a comeback is completely in character. You do not expect a police state to be open and welcoming – not even to its own citizens.
The 25 January revolution knows that the common struggle of young people everywhere is against the elites enforcing a corrupt system that’s sending the world to hell. That is why everyone who wants a better, fairer world is right to feel that they have a stake in Egypt now.