x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Process the real winner, says Saad Eddin Ibrahim

As the head of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, Saad Eddin Ibrahim oversaw 5,000 election observers during the parliamentary elections that began on November 28 and ended on January 4.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, 73, is a leading human rights and democracy advocate in Egypt who was imprisoned by the Mubarak regime on politically motivated charges for two years. He was eventually cleared of all charges.

As the head of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, he oversaw 5,000 election observers during the parliamentary elections that began on November 28 and ended on January 4.

What is your appraisal of the elections for the lower house of parliament that ended yesterday?

My judgement is that it was the best elections since the first one we ever had in 1923, in the sense of fairness, in the sense of competitiveness, in the sense of popular participation.

Most of disputes or quarrels were basically among candidates, not between candidates or political parties and the authorities, which used to be the case. This is probably a preview of the Shura council and the presidential elections.

There have been complaints of campaign violations by some groups. What have the more than 5,000 election monitors overseen by the Ibn Khaldun Centre reported back to you?

When we say fair and free, it doesn't mean perfect. They have been as fair and free as any election in the Third World, as fair as you would find in a more established democracy like India or Turkey.

The standard complaint was not observing the law in not campaigning at least 48 hours before and use of money beyond what the law allows and nobody seemed to pay any attention to that law, including the government.

In the third phase, we have seen some violations for instance in the Sinai and Gharbeya governorates by the Muslim Brotherhood of campaigning until the last minute and campaigning within the 500-metre area of the voting stations. They have broken both prohibitions.

It gives reasons to challenge the results later on and I'm sure some of the non-Islamist candidates will do that.

What is your appraisal of the results of the election?

Most of my disappointment really was in the results, not the process, especially the fact that no Copt won a seat. That probably would have been rectified if we had proportional representation, and I'm going to argue for that for the next election. There is a portion of the population with no representation.

The Al Nour party, or the Salafis as a political force, was probably the surprise of 2011.

Even though we knew they existed, they had disclaimed any interest in politics. They considered politics as dirty. They considered any opposition to the ruler as undesirable or as a taboo. There is a saying in Arabic, "better an arbitrary and despotic government, than a sedition." So the idea is that we will put up with a bad ruler, an autocratic ruler, for fear of a sedition that may last and divide and weaken the community of believers. This is what they espoused and they refused to participate in the revolution.

If anything, they were lobbying against the revolutionaries until the day that [Hosni] Mubarak stepped down on 11th of February. On the 12th, they were up in arms as if they were the ones that started the revolution and they began to lobby politically in the public space. That is a surprise.

How did these ultraconservative Islamists arise in Egypt?

It turned out that between 1973, the first oil boom, and 2011, some 25 million Egyptians had been to Saudi Arabia to work in the oilfields, and as teachers and as professionals. They eventually came back to this country, many with new ideas about Islam. It is these people who have been a surprise and they got 20 per cent.

But for me, as a democracy activist, I know that once you mobilise people, you can never really predict their behaviour. They are thinking for themselves, debating, activating, so on.

Some of the original groups that initiated the protests in Tahrir Square and fought with the security forces for 18 days say the revolution has been "stolen"?

I had warned in the weeks just after Feb 11 that the revolution would be hijacked and I named the potential groups that would do it: The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Islamists and former members of the National Democratic Party. So far, the Islamists have measured up to the prediction.

We have seen groups in Tahrir Square in the last several months demand changes from the government that would affect the future of the country, such as modifying the constitution and changing the timetable of the elections, without letting these decisions be made by a newly elected government. What are your thoughts on this?

That is naive, idealistic and, in my opinion, foolish.

I can understand the frustration of these youngsters. They started the revolution and they ended up losing it to others. But as I said, I wrote from the second week after the revolution warning that this would happen.

It's not that I have any powers to predict the future, but I know that is what happened in the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Russian nationalists lost to the Bolsheviks. The same thing happened in Iran some sixty years later in 1979. The young revolutionaries suffered at the hands of the shah, stood against him, tens were executed and thousands were exiled. Yet when the revolution was staged, Ayatollah Khomeini flew back from Paris where he was in exile for a number of years, and with his fellow mullahs, were able to capture the revolution.

The warning in Egypt became real when Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is the equivalent of Khomeini, came from Qatar where had been living for 30 years and spoke to the millions in Tahrir Square.

What comes next in Egypt?

The Muslim Brotherhood will be in power for next four or five years until the next elections. If they do well, they will return to office with the same majority or slightly less or slightly more. If they don't do well, then they will be out of office and other groups will take power. This is democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood have two examples, the Algerian bad example, where the Islamists, even before they took power after they won the election, began to talk of "one man, one vote, one time" - the end of democracy. Whether they actually meant that or just said it, it rang a lot of warning bells. That is the negative example.

The positive example is the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, which seems to be a role model for some in the Muslim Brotherhood here. I think the younger and more enlightened elements of the Muslim Brotherhood would like to follow their lead. But some members seem to not want to take clues from anybody else, out of national pride. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan [the prime minister of Turkey] came, they received him as a hero, but bid farewell to him as a kind of undesirable person after he talked about the need for a secular state.

Egypt seems very tense, especially after the clashes that have left scores dead and hundreds injured, the concrete walls around Tahrir Square and the raids on non-government organisations. How do you see this?

You know it is really basically a fight between the young and the military council. Because the young aren't picking a fight with Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis, nor does the Muslim Brotherhood pick a fight with the military council or the young.

The approach seems to be to let them fight it out and they will leave each other. The new powers are waiting for it to thin out. But there it looks like there is a reshuffling of the deck. A year ago, the young in Tahrir Square treated the military as heroes, but that reputation has eroded.

As for the raids, the military and the government already seem to be retreating. It is a very sore issue. The cause, I believe, is that some of the groups had been critical of Scaf, had documented and publicised their human rights violations. They certainly didn't endear themselves. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces lashed back.

Do you see the youth and liberal groups as not having organised enough in these elections to win a greater number of seats?

They refused to be organised. They disdained the word partnership. As a result, they spent six or seven months doing nothing. Again, it's like what happened in Russian and Iran. The signs were there that the revolution was going to be hijacked and it was.