Taha Al-Esawi of Arabi21 interviews Professor Hassan Nafaa of the University of Cairo
Hassan Nafaa is Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Cairo. In an interview with Taha Al-Esawi of Arabi21, he looked at the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. He believes that the regime will not be able to stand up to the anger now accumulating and waiting on the horizon. While the Egyptian security authorities are strong, he explained, the regime itself is weak.
“No one can guarantee the public’s silence with regards to the practices of the regime,” he said. “As such, the explosion [of public anger] is expected at any time. However, it will not be an organised explosion this time, but it will lead to chaos, especially if the hunger or anger resulting from the regime’s provocations and stupidity reach intolerable levels.”
The subjects covered in the interview include Al-Sisi’s attempt to neutralise potential threats to his position by giving army officers immunity from trial and financial incentives to keep out of his way. Politicians seen as possible rivals are sidelined, he explains, in case they build their own power bases in their respective departments.
Finally, he tackled the views of novelist and former diplomat Ezzedine Choukri Fishere who said that the military would agree on how to withdraw from power in a disciplined manner. “The current mentality in the Egyptian regime is not the type that can have the least degree of awareness about when and how to withdraw from power,” he argued. “This regime will only realise the seriousness of what is happening after the catastrophe occurs.”
Taha Al-Esawi: What do you think about the law providing immunity from prosecution nationally and internationally for army officers?
Hassan Nafaa: This law is no good. I may not be exaggerating if I say it is one of the worst laws to have been issued in the history of modern Egyptian legislation, if not the worst ever. There are several reasons for this, perhaps the most important of which is that the real motives behind the law are ambiguous and at the same time there is no clear public interest justifying it.
When the motives behind the promulgation of any law are unclear, and when it is aimed at other objectives rather than the public interest, it is normal that it will raise doubts, and result in the emergence of converging readings and interpretations that may be far from the truth.
If we add to this the fact that the implementation of this law may raise many problems because of consequential feuds and the deepening of hatred and antipathy among many social groups and within the military itself, it is natural that this law’s disadvantages may exceed its advantages, if ever it had any advantages. The law not only includes immunity for military commanders from possible national and international trials, but is also a precautionary measure that may or may not be necessary, especially since its presence on the statute books will never prevent foreign trials if they meet their own conditions for being held.
For me, the most important issue lies in the provision of great financial and symbolic advantages to military commanders who are neither known particularly well in the public domain nor have an obvious (to the rest of us) reason for benefitting from such rewards. It is more likely that they will be chosen by the President alone without any clear general criteria. If the latter are going to be related to the contribution made towards the success of the “30 June Revolution” [the 2013 military coup which ousted elected President Mohamed Morsi], this success was not confined to a handful of army commanders; many other security and civilian leaders, including youth leaders — some of whom are now in prison — contributed to this success. If the goal was to compensate them for the risks they exposed themselves to or for sacrifices they have already made, there are many others who risked their lives or put themselves at risk because of what happened.
It is, therefore, a law that discriminates clearly between citizens who participated in the same event and contributed to its success, which is contrary to the provisions and essence of the Constitution and the law and may cause massive antagonism and resentment.
TE: Why do you think that Al-Sisi has introduced such a law for the first time in Egypt’s modern history?
HN: I personally do not have a definitive answer to that question, but I think that Al-Sisi’s real objective is likely to be the elimination of the threat from military commanders who participated with him in the events of 30 June because they know the details of what really happened on that day and the context. They have been close to the political scene and some of them might have even have played roles no less important than that of Al-Sisi himself. Hence, the President may be seeking to keep them quiet and defend his power by ensuring that no one from amongst those who think that they are partners in the making of his regime will be able to compete against him now or in the future. Aside from immunity from prosecution, they will be swamped with financial and other benefits that will not come out of any individual’s pocket, but will be borne by all citizens who will pay for them from their own incomes and perhaps blood as well.
TE: Does this reflect Al-Sisi’s concerns, as some have said?
HN: I do not think that it reflects anxiety as much as a psychological state that tends towards the monopolisation of power and so desires it, and by no means accepts having to share its benefits or being reminded in the future of any favour or sacrifice that has been given by someone. He seems to be a person who insists that what he has achieved he did so entirely through his own effort and so owes nothing to anybody.
TE: Why did this law not cover Interior Ministry commanders?
HN: Why do you ask specifically about Interior Ministry commanders? Those who participated in the events of 30 June were too numerous to be limited to military or Interior Ministry leaders only. They included civilian and youth leaders, some of whom have run away and are being hunted, while others are in prison.
TE: Five years have passed since the statement of 3 July 2013, of which you were a supporter, was issued. How do you view this statement nowadays? What is your position towards it?
HN: We were looking then at what was going on in front of our eyes and in light of the facts and data at our disposal that were quite different from those which have unfolded since. When Al-Sisi was reading the statement — known later as the new road map — the impression of the broad spectrum of Egyptian citizens, in addition to the various political elites of the day, was that the army’s action supported a spontaneous popular uprising that erupted in a clear rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, rather than the pursuit of a monopoly of authority by the army.
They had no objection to overthrowing Morsi, even by force of arms, because of his refusal to hold early presidential elections and the growing recognition by broad sections of elites that the Brotherhood was not yet qualified to rule a country as important as Egypt. I believe that Morsi’s refusal to hold early presidential elections confirmed the prevailing impression at that time, which provided that the Brotherhood would never let go of power after they took hold of it through the ballot box in an exceptional chapter of the country’s history.
Because the Brotherhood is an organisation that does not believe in democracy or in the peaceful transfer of power, Morsi cared only for moving ahead with the process of converting the state apparatus into Brotherhood institutions, so that he could remain in power for life. He considered elections as a one-off event. Most importantly, however, the provisions of the road map, as announced, clearly indicated specific practical steps to follow the democratisation path without the Brotherhood at first and then cooperating with it at a later stage.
As far as I am concerned, one of the most important reasons that prompted me to support the statement on that day was my belief that the road map, with its newly announced provisions, was capable of launching a new process of democratic transition, which was more reassuring than Brotherhood rule. We must not forget that the road map included three key elements which could have guaranteed a safe transition towards democracy, if their timing was respected:
- Parliamentary elections preceding the presidential elections.
- A transitional justice law that could bring before the courts all violators, not only those of the Mubarak era, but also of the subsequent transitional stages.
- The formation of a high commission for community reconciliation to let go past futilities and prepare the country to break through to full democracy.
However, these three elements have been dropped, or have never been implemented appropriately with due diligence.
The presidential elections were meant to be held before the parliamentary elections. It was obvious that after Al-Sisi had expressed his intention to run for president the security services and the deep state institutions would seek to redraw the structure of the political system in the post-3 July era. After he announced his candidacy, no one could speak of a transitional justice law or of community reconciliation, and thus the door was shut again, this time for good, to the prospects of democratic transition. In my opinion, if the 2014 constitution was agreed upon before Al-Sisi decided to run in the election, the constitution would not have been issued in this way. It is a constitution that has not been respected in any case.
TE: If you were to go back in time, would you support the statement of 3 July again?
HN: Of course I would certainly support this statement again, provided that the information available to me was the same as it was at the time, and that my attitude toward the behaviour and actions of the Muslim Brotherhood, after it came to power, was the same. Do not forget that I am one of the people who dealt with the Brotherhood intensively before and after 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013. As a result, I realised how wide the gap was between the time before the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood in power and the period that they formed the government. This revealed the extent to which true feelings were blurred by speech, and how actions were never compatible with words.
The only thing that could have changed my position towards the statement of 3 July was Al-Sisi’s declaration of his intention to run for president. If he had made this clear beforehand, then I would have declared my complete rejection of the statement and realised immediately that we were heading towards absolute military rule and dictatorship. I would have supported the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite all of the violations that it entailed, in the hope that we could redeem the movement’s mistakes later on.
Anyway, this is a hypothetical question that I find impossible to answer objectively. It is futile to try to replace feelings and data retrospectively because we clearly see today what was impossible to track five years ago. Do not believe anyone if he tells you that he could have seen the future with an eagle eye at that time.
TE: Al-Sisi said that he would be president of all Egyptians and would turn over a new leaf to develop the Egyptian man… Do you think he will stick to this promise?
HN: He did not keep this promise in his first term and there is no indication that he will do so in his second term, despite his frequent talk about developing the Egyptian citizen and his willingness to work with all political currents except those who bear arms against the state and society and those who incite sectarian strife. In general, I sincerely hope that the President will stick to his word this time and I will be the first to declare my support if he decides to start his second term with signs that confirm the sincerity of his intentions, including the release of all those unjustly imprisoned, the definitive declaration of his refusal to amend the Constitution, and the adoption of a new vision for a new democratic change that shall include firm guarantees to hold free, fair and transparent elections in 2022.
TE: To what extent has Al-Sisi’s regime managed to become strong and cohesive and establish total control over the situation in Egypt?
HN: The power and degree of cohesion of any system cannot be measured by the extent to which the security forces are in control of the situation. This is the conclusion which has been derived from reading the political history of most regions of the world. The grip of the Shah of Iran’s security apparatuses was neither loose nor weak on the eve of the Iranian revolution, and no one could ever have expected the easy collapse of the Shah’s regime given the presence of the SAVAK secret police. Mubarak’s security apparatus was not weak under Habib El-Adly’s leadership. However, it could not withstand the massive demonstrations that swept through Egypt on 25 January and it collapsed just a few days, if not hours, after the demonstrations that forced Mubarak to step down.
Through my observations and follow-up of the current political situation in Egypt, I can say confidently that the security services are strong but the regime itself is weak, so it will not be able to stand up to the overwhelming anger that, for me, seems to be building up on the horizon.
TE: Al-Sisi has recently approved the budget for the new fiscal year. How do you evaluate the economic situation? Where is it heading?
HN: I am not an economic expert, but I am deeply aware of the difficulty of separating politics from the economy. Economic development can only be initiated with a high degree of political stability, which in turn cannot be achieved in the ever worsening atmosphere of political discord and polarisation that Egypt has been experiencing for years. In order to improve the economic conditions, we must begin by removing the existing political tension and ensuring the participation of civil society in all sectors in the formulation of the economic reform policies required, so that we can ensure the fair distribution of the burdens resulting from such reforms based upon the ability of the different social groups to bear them.
TE: Is public silence over high prices and poor economic conditions considered to be a laissez-passer for the regime and proof of de facto acceptance?
HN: The popular silence over high prices and poor economic conditions has many reasons, not least concerns about the methods used by the Egyptian security system as well as the reluctance of the silent majority. The fear is that street protests will aggravate the situation and perhaps spread chaos in a way that may be difficult to control, or even lead to a civil war, with Egypt joining other failing Arab states like Libya, Iraq and Yemen.
However, the silence of the Egyptians is not a sign of complacency, and cannot be considered as a laissez-passer for anyone. No one can guarantee the public’s silence with regards to the practices of the regime. As such, the explosion [of public anger] is expected at any time. However, it will not be an organised explosion this time, but it will lead to chaos, especially if the hunger or anger resulting from the regime’s provocations and stupidity reach intolerable levels.
TE: Is Al-Sisi’s regime similar in your estimation to that of Gamal Abdel Nasser in terms of despotism and military domination over every aspect of life in Egypt?
HN: There is no similarity between Abdel Nasser’s regime and the current regime. Nasser’s personality was the complete opposite of Al-Sisi’s. It is well known that Nasser was into politics at an early age and took part in demonstrations when he was a high school student, raising his voice against the British and demanding their departure. He was involved for some time with several political parties to learn about their programmes and positions vis-à-vis the issues of patriotism and the nation. He did all of this before going to military college.
Nasser was thus a political activist when he joined the military and had a near-complete vision of the political situation in Egypt. He also participated in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War after graduating, during which he was able to recognise the seriousness of the Zionist project and its threat not only to the national security of Egypt, but also to Arab national security in general.
As for Al-Sisi, he never knew politics or participated at any stage, either as a young man or later, until the revolution of January 2011. He did not actually serve in any of the wars that Egypt fought with Israel, which prevented him from understanding all of the dimensions of the theory of Egyptian national security and its relation to Arab national security. He grew up serving in an army that was completely different to the army that we got used to in the past during confrontations with Israel.
It is true that the political system led by Al-Sisi is very similar to that which existed before the January Revolution, whose first pillars were established in Nasser’s time, but this does not mean that there is any similarity between Nasser and Al-Sisi in terms of domestic and foreign policies. Even the quality of the men that Nasser chose to help him carry the burden of governing Egypt was quite different to those around Al-Sisi. Nasser relied on men like Kamal Refaat, Tharwat Okasha, Sedqi Suleiman and Aziz Sedky. Even the security officials who took control of his government were of a different quality and more professional.
This is not to say that I am nostalgic for Nasser’s regime or that I wish such a system to be reincarnated. I was among the first to criticise many aspects of Nasser’s political experience. I wrote in academic studies that his regime was essentially based on the police in the first place, which contributed to the failure of his national project. Nasser became both the murderer and the victim at the same time.
TE: How do you view Al-Sisi’s dismissal of Sedki Sobhy and Magdi Abdel Ghaffar?
HN: I do not have enough information to forward an opinion explaining what happened or the reasons and motives behind the dismissal of Sedki Sobhy and Magdi Abdel Ghaffar in such an unexpected way. However, it seems to me that Al-Sisi prefers not to place his officials in sensitive positions for too long, in case they become centres of power. I would not exclude the possibility of emerging differences of opinion within the sovereign bodies, or that these disputes were among the factors that prompted the President to dismiss both ministers.
TE: Dr Ezzedin Choukri Fishere wrote an article entitled “Why will the military abandon its rule in Egypt?” wherein he stressed that the army will agree to organise its withdrawal from power if it loses popularity during the coming period. Do you agree with this opinion?
HN: I truly appreciate Dr Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, who is a talented diplomat, writer and politician. I personally cherish the fact that he was one of my students who graduated from the Political Science Department, which I have long been honoured to chair. I disagree with him, though, in some aspects of the analysis mentioned in his article, which I read carefully.
In my opinion, the mentality that governs Egypt now is not the kind that can realise when and how to withdraw from government. I do not think that the regime in Egypt can understand or have the right mechanisms that will help it to see that its eligibility to rule is shrinking and coming to an end, or that there is an urgent need to change its “operating system”, as Ezzedine Choukri stated in his interesting article. The current regime will not be able to recognise the seriousness of what is happening until the great catastrophe happens, and I think that what really drives it is the “myself and to hell with the world” mentality that seems to blow wind into its sails.
The change in the system that Fishere spoke of needs to be planned thoughtfully; I do not think that the regime with its current structure has the right tools to do this. It is an issue beyond its capabilities which calls in itself for a new revolution.
TE: When is the moment for the army to give up its rule in Egypt? Do you expect the people to withdraw legitimacy from Al-Sisi and his regime in the coming period?
HN: In my opinion, the majority wants to get rid of Al-Sisi and his regime as soon as possible, but, for the time being, the masses will not go out onto the street to demand this for many reasons, including the fear of oppression by the security forces and the absence of a credible alternative ready to take power. The crisis of confidence between the Egyptian elites and the other classes, especially the Islamic and secular currents, is still in place and looks like being exacerbated further rather than joining together in the search for a solution.
In the event of a rush to the street, it will take the form of a spontaneous mass explosion driven by hunger and anger at the provocations of the regime and its stupidity. However, going onto the street at this time will aggravate the crisis rather than solve it. Hence, it is better for change to take another form, even if it is the kind predicted by Ezzedine Fishere, despite the fact that I consider it inconceivable because it follows no logic.