A conversation with Amr Hamzawy

Amr Hamzawy is a Senior Fellow in the Middle East & Democracy and Rule of Law programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is also a former member of the Egyptian People’s Assembly, after being elected in the first Parliamentary elections after the revolution in 2011. He is also a former member of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights. Mr. Hamzawy has also served as faculty at the American University in Cairo, Cairo University, and Stanford University. Below is a transcript of our conversation with Mr. Hamzawy, lightly edited for clarity and length.


Tori Keller: After the Arab Spring, the Egyptian Parliament, which you were elected to, was dissolved before Muhammad Morsi was even elected President. How did Egypt’s democratic opening disappear? Did it start disappearing with the dissolution of Parliament or with the military coup against Morsi in 2013?

Amr Hamzawy: I believe the difficulties of moving beyond a brief political opening to a sustained political opening was related, first of all, to how political actors on the ground shaped and articulated their preferences right after the former resignation of President Mubarak. We had the army and the security apparatus and the state bureaucracy, all of which did not have an interest in seeing a sustained political opening and were keen on undermining it using different tools.

For example, if you look at the few months after the removal of Mubarak, you will be surprised to see that the level of human rights abuses and violations was actually higher than before the democratic uprising of January 2011. They did not show any sign of moving from abusing human rights to respect for human rights. In fact, what happened in Egypt in 2011 and 2012 was unmatched, was only to be matched, and even would be transcended in 2013, in terms of human rights abuses and violations.

Second, if you look at the civilian actors, be it Islamists or secularists, [they]were preoccupied by identity politics and were not fashioning public policies that would benefit the majority, the poor, and middle-class Egyptians. This was a huge mistake committed by all of us.

The key is to understand how actors shape their preferences and what they did as well as the strategic and tactical mistakes committed.

I tend to put the army right at the forefront, the security apparatus, the state bureaucracy, and of course economic and media elites, which have always been allied to the state or whoever is in charge of the state. The way the army undermined the political opening was as you said: step one was to do a bit of divide and rule between different actors, turning Islamists against secularist actors, turning secular actors against Islamists, and of course creating the Salafi movement, which got over 100 seats in the Parliament in 2012, and pushed the Muslim Brothers even farther to the right.

Only a few months after Parliament was dissolved, Morsi committed huge mistakes, if you look at issuing the constitution and the declaration of November 2012, which cost him any potential outreach to secular, non-Islamist forces. Then the army and security apparatus forced the state bureaucracy to not cooperate with Morsi, so Morsi did not have an easy time governing Egypt and delivering economically and socially. He was basically fought everywhere. Removing him, you have direct control of the military complex over politics, in the public space, and everywhere.

TK: It’s my understanding that the Muslim Brotherhood was very well organized during the 2011 elections. How well were other parties organized? How do you develop a political culture so quickly after it was constricted for 30 years under Mubarak?

AH: Well they did not have much time to organize. Parties organized very quickly after the removal of former President Mubarak, forming Islamist and secular parties. It was not easy. You had nominal party pluralism prior to 2011 but those parties were not contesting politics. They were assigned specific goals in the system, primarily helping the regime create the image of party pluralism. They were given in return some stakes, primarily parliamentary seats and seats in municipalities. They could license parties for example, and newspapers, which was quite profitable.

Now you come to 2011. Restrictions on founding political parties were removed so you had a variety of groups establishing parties. Of course, the only ones who could organize well were Islamists, so the Brotherhood and Salafis founded their own parties. Leftists, left of center, and right of center founded secular parties. Secular parties had a very hard time operating for two reasons. First, they did not have any organizational apparatus on the ground, unlike Islamists. There were some secular parties that tried to take it seriously. They tried to organize a base and secure some source of stable funding. The first test was the constitutional referendum of March 2011 and of course Islamists won. They wanted voters to vote ‘yes’ and ended up getting close to 80%. Second, the parliamentary elections and the majority was in Islamist hands; close to 50% voted for the Brotherhood and up to 20% or more for the Salafis.

The difficulties were related to lacking any organizational apparatus, lacking any state resources of funding, and of course facing Islamists who were extremely well organized and able to participate in competitive politics right away.

TK: Moving onto Egypt under President Sisi. I think to most people he would look similar to Mubarak. What are the differences between the two, and are there any implications?

AH: I believe the difference between the two of them is related to how the current regime is using the law and judicial processes in a manner which is way more aggressive that what Mubarak did. You have a public space that is completely closed, a political arena that is completely ridiculed. Mubarak never did it that way. He always left some free spaces for the judiciary to grant people safeguards for their personal rights and freedoms or for the public space to operate in a freer manner.

A second difference is the scale of human rights abuses and violations. From the Massacre of Rabaa, all the way to the last three years, the scale of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and imprisonment, is unmatched. This is not what Egyptians were used to between 1981 and 2011, even under authoritarian conditions.

Third, a big difference is that Sisi, unlike Mubarak, does not rule using a ruling party. In a way, Mubarak always tried to balance civilians as opposed to military/security personnel. Right now, Sisi is ruling using the military/security complex and that’s it; he doesn’t have a party. He ridicules civilian politicians and civilian elites. The Parliament basically says “yes” to every single measure which comes from him.

TK: ISIS is a problem in the Sinai and has launched sectarian attacks against Coptic Christians in larger cities such as Cairo. What is the government’s role in this? How is it combatting ISIS?

AH: First, we do not know much about what is happening in Sinai. The military does not let information flow in any credible manner, so what you end up reading or hearing are two forms of information. One: whatever the army intends, which is always, “We killed this many militants yesterday”. Of course, identities are never disclosed. You do not know whether those people were really militants or whether they were victims of indiscriminate killing.

Second, the policies of the current government are not adding up in terms of counterinsurgency or counterterrorism. In fact, militant terrorist groups continue to be sufficiently ahead and surprise the government with unexpected moves. And they are targeting Coptic families and forcing them to be evacuated; most of them left Sinai to places in the mainland. So apparently the counterinsurgency efforts are not paying off.

Third, I believe the major issue here is that the government is combatting ISIS with a high security approach, and is not looking at social, economic, and political issues. So I believe Sinai has become a local environment conducive to violence, and terrorist groups will continue to thrive.

TK: Based on that and Sisi’s more extreme authoritarianism, what is your assessment of Egypt’s stability? Will Sisi’s regime last as long as Mubarak’s regime?

AH: I cannot answer by giving years. No one can answer by giving years. Look at the socioeconomic reality or the public space, which is completely suffocated. Look at the terrorist threats, which, in spite of counterterrorism efforts, continue to operate. Sisi started by signaling to Egyptians that he’s the leader in uniform and people bought into it, wide segments of the population. With human rights abuses and violations, it’s changing. It’s not that you have massive bread riots, but you have ongoing protest activities. I believe this government cannot move beyond its current policies because this is how militaries rule. I do not think it will be open to any political reform or any mitigation of its policies, and therefore I do not think it is sustainable. That does not mean that I see it collapsing tomorrow, but I believe it is not going to be a long-term solution for Egypt.

TK: Right now, the US is struggling with its own democratic institutions, with the role of the media and the judicial system vis a vis the executive branch. Is there anything from your experience with Egyptian politics that could be valuable for America or other democracies?

AH: Yes, there’s a key takeaway from Egypt, which is why the scale of authoritarianism is unmatched. If you do not manage to guarantee and keep intact a media landscape which is vibrant and pluralist in terms of debating, it is an easy ride for authoritarianism. Without that, you will be surprised to see how quickly other institutions collapse. They become submissive, eager to serve the one man playing his own show for his own interests.

Tori Keller, a senior studying international relations, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.