Maha Azzam is a prominent Middle East expert in the UK and her specific areas of expertise include Islamist groups in the Middle East (in Egypt in particular), Middle East politics and Political Islam.  She is a member of the ‘Anti Coup Egyptian Delegation for Public Diplomacy’ set up on October 23rd in Geneva.


We have seen more violence recently between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military and the country seems to be polarised, at least in the Western media, between these two sides.  Is that an accurate reflection of the country?

I would put it differently.  I would say that that polarisation between the MB and the military certainly exists, but it is being presented as such both by the military, the interim government and the Western media, and it is not really an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. What we are seeing is an increasing polarisation between those who are against the coup, whether they are Muslim Brotherhood or not.  It is not just the Muslim Brotherhood versus the military; it is the military regime and its attempt to make a comeback, which it has through the coup, versus those in society, MB as well as many others, who reject the derailment of the democratic process, and the removal of an elected president.  I think it is important to see it in these broader terms, because by positing it as a Muslim Brotherhood versus military, the aim of those who try to put forward that narrative is to say that it is justified to hit out at the Brotherhood, to persecute them, to imprison their leaders, that ultimately what you are trying to put down is a “threat to society”.  That is what is being presented to the Egyptian people through the media, a media that is a state controlled media, in which there are no independent channels now. Even the private channels are essentially the mouthpiece, or are behaving as if they are the mouthpiece, of the military regime.  Therefore, we are at a very dangerous juncture, where we are seeing an increasing vilification of one group in society, and the accusation against them that they are a terrorist threat, in order to justify that very high level of political and social repression.  And therefore I think on the one hand, even if it was just an Muslim Brotherhood versus military struggle, it does not in any way undermine the Brotherhood’s right to remain a legitimate political party within the political process, to actively participate in politics and have the freedom to protest peacefully.  That is what they are being denied.  However, the movement in Egypt is broader than just the Brotherhood.


How do you see that moving forward? Where do you think it will go? Will one side have to be annihilated or at least weakened?

I think many revolutionary situations in the past you do have a polarisation in society, on one side are those who want to hold on to particular interests, who want to maintain the old order, and particularly in the case of Egypt to maintain the power of the military institution with all its economic and political interests intact, and also political and business elites which back the military, wanting to ensure that the revolution doesn’t succeed, or even that reform doesn’t succeed, unless it is reform that in a way that they can absorb and serves their purposes.  So the polarisation is inevitable then with the group on the other side who is saying “no, we want to have change, we want to reform”, and some will even say we want more than reform, we want a real change of the corruption in the institutions, we want to see a new Egypt, in a sense where there is far greater accountability and far greater participation for all. I think the polarisation is inevitable. What you have is the might of a military state, with all its security apparatus and its military equipment and tanks, trying to suppress those on the streets.  What we are seeing now is violence emanating from groups that have not claimed responsibility that have resorted to targeted violence against military personnel and certain installations. That is partly an outcome of what is happening in Sinai in terms of some of the very severe measures that the military have taken against what they again term “terrorist groups” but that have also affected innocent civilians in Sinai.  As a result of what probably some in Egypt feel is the failure of the democratic process to deliver, there are a few that have said that violence is justified against state violence.  We do have a situation that is becoming increasingly unipolarised, but I think we have to assess the situation carefully and say that the greatest violence is actually being committed by the state.


The government has said that it will hold elections.  General Sisi has not made it clear whether he will run or not, although many people are now calling on him to run.  Do you think he will run?

I think he may well run, but even if he does not, the case remains that a legitimately elected president was removed from power.  Therefore, whether Sisi replaces him, or a civilian president is elected with the approval of the military, the reality for Egypt remains the same.  You have the military institution, and General Sisi whether at the helm as the president, or slightly in the background still very much in control of Egypt’s future road map, amounts to almost the same thing.  So essentially elections are meaningless in a situation where a coup has derailed a democratic process that was underway, which involved the kidnapping of a legitimately elected president.  These fresh elections are going to take place with the leaders of the main opposition political and social grouping in the country in prison.  Even if they were to be released, although there is no sign of that, but even if they were, in the months leading up to parliamentary or presidential elections, given that the coup happened for a particular purpose, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) are not going to be allowed free and fair campaigning. Although they are saying now that the FJP can participate in elections.  But under what conditions?  Who among the FJP can?  Because essentially if they were going to turn the clock back again and allow the FJP to campaign freely and to allow the leaders out of prison and to have a free media, then what was the reason for the coup?  They will probably emerge as the winners again.  Especially given the feeling among many that they were persecuted and unlawfully removed, it was an illegitimate process that removed them from power.


You mentioned “turning back the clock”:  if they do not want to or they will not have elections allowing the FJP to participate, an alternative would be to re-install Morsi, which would surely also undermine the democratic process? So what is the best of all the bad choices?

No but there is a difference between going back to a state that was legitimate , that was the outcome of free and fair elections and changing tgrough democratic mechanisms and the current situation with the miltary dictating the political process and dominating it.


So you think that would be the better option?

I think the better option would be to return to the democratic process that was underway and then to make the changes from that point whatever they may be.  Moreover, the most important one, and the one that Egypt was moving towards, despite all the difficulties, is parliamentary elections, which were going to be held under President Morsi.  To assume now that you can have parliamentary elections in 2014 with a president in prison, those who were with him in prison, and all political activists that have spoken out against the military under threat of imprisonment if they protest, a political party that cannot function openly or freely, with all media outlets belonging to the opposition closed, that is not a viable atmosphere in which to hold free and fair elections.

The option ahead is a very difficult one. It depends whether the option is to move towards a road map that is dominated by the military’s interests and the interests of those that belong to the Mubarak regime and to allow the military establishment greater power again, or to move towards a democratic process that tries to revert to where we left off and to move forward from there. I do not think there is another option. What the military institution has done by re-entering politics is that it has sowed the seeds of civil strife.  I will not say civil war, but of civil strife.  By controlling the media, by having the judiciary echo its same policies, it is creating a situation in Egypt in which there is no rule of law, there is no respect for human rights, and ultimately it is saying we will set the agenda in terms of where Egypt is going to go in terms of this year and the future.  Their interests and the centrality of the military institution in terms of its structure in Egyptian society is going to be central.  So it is central in terms of decision-making.  That scuppers the whole idea of accountability, of freedom, of social justice, all the aims of the revolution.


The US is giving billions to Egypt in military assistance, yet millions in development aid. There has been a discussion about whether the US should halt this assistance to Egypt after the violence and atrocities committed by the military. What do you think the policy of the US and other countries should be vis-a-vis Egypt?

Well the argument of the United States is that it could not have called what happened a coup, because then it would have had to stop sending military assistance.  Part of the military assistance package from the Obama administration is on hold, and he is saying he still has not made a final decision as to whether the full support should go ahead.  However, the issue is this: the Gulf States have said they would fill in any gap in terms of any needed aid to support the military.  That still does not remove the sense of responsibility and the importance of the United States and the UK and the EU in general, to take a stance on that.  Because it is not only about calling what happened a coup or not, it is about the fact that they eventually supported the Arab Spring and the call for democracy in the region.  By deciding not to refer to what happened as a coup is that they let the military get away with it.  And they are hoping that the reality on the ground is going to mean that they will just deal with the interim government that is there, and eventually an elected government, even though it may come to power through fraudulent elections.  They do call for inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood and a role for the FJP, but that is not enough.  We know that the United States and the UK, by taking this ambivalent position, which they think is a neutral position vis-à-vis the military, they are actually supporting the military.  They are letting them get away with it, and in reality, there has to be a rollback in terms of their position.  What is needed is for them to look at what is happening in Egypt on the ground and to recognise it for what it is: a military regime trying to impose an authoritarian system of sorts with great cost in terms of human rights.  When it says it is moving towards presidential and parliamentary elections, it is doing that within very serious constraints in terms of rights and the space allowed in the political arena to engage in politics.  What they are backing is a return to a dictatorship that is not dissimilar to that under Mubarak.


So the revolution has come full circle?

Yes.  And one in which in this phase the human rights situation is worse.


I was going to ask you about women rights actually.  Throughout 2011 there was a lot of surprise about women being so involved in the Arab revolutions, and many positive comments were made about the role of women in the Egyptian revolution.  How has the situation of women changed, firstly throughout Morsi’s time in power, but also since the ‘coup’?

At present we have a situation in which women are again in the political arena engaged in resistance to the military coup and you see them in demonstrations and protests, and so on.  Their role has been extremely important, it was so in the sit-ins in Rabaa, and they have been extremely vocal.

You have women, especially official women’s groups that are backed by the government, and voices of women who are important in the media as presenters and so on, playing to the tune of the military, and that is very dangerous.  So the role of women, and maybe this is not elaborated on enough in the media, can be both revolutionary and very detrimental, as in this particular instance, in supporting a fascist discourse and narrative.

Women, particularly in the state media and some of the private channels, some of them icons for a lot of people and are very recognisable figures, are backing the clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, not just in general terms, but actually justifying the shootings, as well as what happened in Rabaa.  There is a growing political  polarisation that is being exploited and encouraged by thr military regime. A particular card is also being used, an extremely dangerous one in terms of the place of women in society.  There is a degradation of her position whether she is against the coup or not. Women are shown to support Sisi , seeing him as attractive, worshipping him as if he is some kind of star, and so on. Actresses and singers are rallying to his support despite the violence carried out by the regime.

In terms of broader rights, that struggle has not been tackled.  What we saw after the revolution, in terms of the harassment of women,  is something that has reached an unprecedented scale because they chose to engage in public spaces.  There is a picture emerging that while the thugs did the work that those opposed to President Morsi wanted them to do to cause havoc on the streets, they were also allowed free reign to do what the wanted in terms of the women on the streets and the women protesting.  That was part of the payback.  The breakdown in security was not because there was just a breakdown.  It was an organised and planned breakdown by the security apparatus during the time of Morsi.  It was a kind of mutiny.  They said we are going to do as we please, we are going to use the thugs to help us, and there were politicians who were paying these agents provocateurs and thugs to do the work for them.  All that needs to be. at some stage researched well and documented, because it is part of a year in which an elected president faced a concerted attempt to undermine his government from the judiciary, the media, the bureaucracy and the security services.  Nevertheless, the price for that was not just the undermining of the presidency.  In terms of law, order, and the safety of citizens, and particularly the safety and the right to protest for women was the very high price to pay.


I want to ask you about religion.  I know the role of religion is a huge part of Egyptian people’s identity.  After the FJP were ousted from power, the military and the Tamarod movement in particular presented themselves as being quite secular.  Is that true?  What role do you think Islam, or religion in general, will play in the future of Egyptian politics?

I think religion is central to Egyptian society, in so far that it is central in the lives of Egyptian Muslims and in the lives of Egyptian Copts.  The reference to political parties, If you look at the platform of the FJP, it is a socially conservative party.

Its political and economic agenda, however, is one of any political party that tries to address problems in society. If we were to have free and fair elections, we would see the emergence of parties with platforms that would not be religiously focused.  That was the case previously as well.  Yes, the Salafis had a strong religious component, but in reality, they also had to address other issues.  To divide the political map of Egypt in terms of the religious and secular, and to ask which would be elected and eventually run the country does not tell us very much.  What we saw in the last elections was that all parties had to go well beyond anything that was religious.  That was only one component and I think that would always remain the case because the electorate wants a party to come to power that will solve its economic problems, its education problems, and its health service and so on.  I think in some ways, in terms of the political discourse, too much is made of the place of religion.  The place of religion in society and among people will remain very strong, and of course, people will try to vote in a party that will respect those values and traditions.  That will not change.  There is also an added element; the so-called secular and liberal parties in Egypt have played the role of spoilers in the Morsi year insofar as they wanted to ensure the failure of the elected presidency.  By doing so, they were prepared to undermine the democratic process and support military intervention.  Eventually the majority of them backed the takeover.  We cannot really discuss Egypt during this period without discussing Mohammed El Baradei.  The day after the coup he was standing there side-by-side with General Sisi.  El Baradei, the man who supposedly represented liberal values, was willing to see a military takeover.


Even all the so-called ‘secular’ parties support Article 2 of the Constitution, which states that Islam should be the ‘main source of law’.  In that sense, Islam will definitely remain part of politics in the future, constitutionally at least.

Yes.  It is very difficult for the majority of the political parties to get anywhere if they were to oppose that.  They would lose votes.


The last thing I wanted to discuss is the impact of what is happening in Egypt on the rest of the Middle Eastern region.  How do you think Egypt is seen by other countries?  Is it a failed Arab Spring state? 

Of course, the impact of Egypt on the region and the Arab Spring is enormous.  It is a sign of whether the military were able to reverse the military process. It is similar to Syria.  It is whether a dictator, who has been in power for a long time, can eventually put down the call for democratic change or for his removal.  In Egypt, the struggle in some ways continues.  We do not know the outcome.  To say that this is the end of the story would be a mistake; in some ways, it could be the beginning of what could become a much more deep-seated change in Egypt in the future.  The question is how long it will take.  This is why I would like to come back to the West.  In a sense there is a great deal that the West can do, even though policy makers and leaders say it is up to the people of the region. Of course it is.  However, if the West stands by, does not condemn the military’s actions, and does not isolate it both diplomatically and economically, then it is helping to empower them.  The military is getting a lot of aid from Saudi Arabia and UAE.  That aid is sustaining it and is helping it in its repressive measures against the resistance to it.  Egypt’s resistance now to the military coup is symbolic of the attempts across the region to continue to resist the old order.  Of course, the Arab Spring has had a huge setback.  Maybe we were naïve to think that we could move forward towards democracy with the removal of dictatorship without a lot of turmoil, sacrifices, and a degree of violence.  That could have happened had the military not intervened in Egypt.  Now they have, the situation on the ground is far more unstable, and a lot more costly.  The story is not over.  All that the military have done in Egypt is prolong the struggle of those who came out in Tunisia and elsewhere saying we reject this order, we reject dictatorship.  I think they will continue to reject it, but under much harsher circumstances, and at a much higher cost in terms of stability within their own countries domestically. Likewise, the fallout regionally obviously becomes more acute and I think internationally as well, because of the potentially greater prospect of radicalization and security and combating terrorism, an area that the West is very concerned with.  Not because those on the ground in Egypt want to resort to violence, they are committed to non-violent resistance.  There may be those at the fringes, in the Middle East or beyond, who will feel that they have, yet again, been denied the fruits of the democratic process and that the ballot box does not deliver.


Do you think therefore those groups will hold Egypt up as an example of proof that democracy does not work and that we should not go down this route?

Yes, possibly.  Possibly.  That is not something that the majority want.  That is part of the fallout, of what is happening in Egypt and in Syria.  And that sort of violence may then be felt in the region as a whole, because those that say the ballot box and civil disobedience is not working. We are back full-circle again to a degree of radicalisation and terrorism that is going to affect the region and possibly beyond.


You mentioned Egypt and Syria are similar cases.  How do you think the ousting of the FJP and Morsi will affect the Islamist rebels in Syria? Is there a connection in the sense that both are labelled as Islamists?

No, I think they are similar in the sense that in both cases you have the old order hitting back through force.  Syria is far worse, in the sense that you have a situation where over 120,000 people have died.  The situation is catastrophic , with brutality and chemical weapons being used.  You are much further down the road in terms of violence.  But in Egypt, you also have a very high level of violence given that the coup happened three months ago.  Human Rights Watch has referred to what happened in Rabaa as the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history.  You have already had about four massacres in Egypt besides the shootings killings that happens on a daily basis, and God knows what is happening in the prisons in terms of torture.  You are going down a road in which the similarity is that Arab regimes are saying, ‘we can fight back, we do not have to accept the Arab Spring’.  ‘We can fight back through brute force, using the iron fist we can put down these peaceful protesters’.  The tragedy of all this is that the West, while on the one hand they put out statements urging all sides to refrain from violence, or condemn acts of violence and lack of respect for human rights, on the other hand, by engaging with these governments and recognising them, they are actually allowing this level of violence to continue.