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Op Eds

An Interview with Ayman Nour

By Eric T. Justin

After 16 months and a series of dramatic hurdles, election day for Egypt finally arrives. Today and tomorrow mark the first round of Egypt’s presidential election with the expected runoff between the two largest recipients of votes slated for June 16, 2012. Originally considered a two-horse race between Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League, and Abdel Moneim Abul-Foutouh, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader, the race has opened dramatically over the last month. Now, at least five candidates seem capable of making the runoff with the three additions of the Nasserite, Hamdeen Sabahi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official candidate, Mohamed Mursi, and a former minister of former President Hosni Mubarak’s executive cabinet, Ahmed Shafiq.

Under international pressure, President Mubarak held Egypt’s first ever-contested presidential election in 2005. Dr. Ayman Nour, founder of the independent Ghad Party and an activist with a reputation for causing trouble, challenged Mubarak, earning nine percent of the vote in an election plagued by widespread fraud. Predictably, the government locked Dr. Nour into prison on false charges until his eventual release for medical reasons in 2009.

At the start of the Egyptian revolution last January, over 20 percent of Egyptians said they would vote for Ayman Nour, according to one poll. Unfortunately, in April of this year, the Election Committee prohibited Dr. Nour, along with nine other candidates, from entering the election. In Dr. Nour’s case, his “crimes”— agitating the previous regime— prevented his candidacy. Regardless, Dr. Nour remains one of the most influential liberal and secular voices in the Egyptian political scene.

Last week, I interviewed Dr. Nour in his Cairo apartment. Below are pieces of our conversation:

Egypt is one week from its first-ever legitimate presidential election. As someone imprisoned for participating in its first-ever contested presidential elections in 2005, did you ever expect that Egypt would reach this day?

Honestly, I was expecting a better day than today and a better situation than this one. This election that is being completed now is really just a half-election. The first half of the election occurred far from the ballot box at the hands of the election committee, which removed 10 strong candidates, including me, from the election. None of us were allowed to return, except Ahmed Shafiq [who was a prominent minister in Mubarak’s executive cabinet].

With the day-to-day coverage, we seem to forget how far Egypt has come in 16 months. How does Egypt of today differ from the Egypt of 2010?

If you entered a place that I had recently painted, then, sure, you would at first feel that something has changed. But we wanted to rebuild the country. We did not want to repaint it from the outside. We never reached deep enough to change the structures of the country. We were painting Egypt’s exterior, but we wanted to reform the inside. We want the usual or normal Egyptian citizen to feel like his life was improved by the revolution and he regained his dignity. The demands of the revolution have not been met.

How do you think the failure to write a new constitution before the presidential elections will affect the position of the Presidency after the elections?

Yes, it may affect the transition process, but we don’t want to write a constitution that we will be forced to rewrite a year or two later. We should take a year or the appropriate time to write a constitution that could last a century.

You have discussed the role of liberals in the revolution on many occasions. What should be the political role of liberals if a non-liberal wins the Presidential Election? And how can liberals become influential again in the political scene?

If a non-liberal wins the election, we will accept the election’s outcome no matter the result because we are democratic people. But we will go back to work in the opposition, since there is still a system we have political differences with. We will go back to resisting all political monopolies like we have for the last 55 years. We were resisting a military dictatorship and we would resist an Islamist version of it for the principle of fighting authoritarianism. We are Muslims and [the Ghad party] has Islamic understandings and we have a good, strong relationship with Al-Azhar and we respect Al-Azhar’s main figures. We do not have a problem with religion. We have a problem with the people who govern in the name of religion. I am not with any monopoly. If the liberals were monopolizing power, then I would be against it. We are forced to go back to being an opposition. It is written in our fate to be in the opposition.

The election campaign in Egypt has been short compared to most election campaigns in the World. Do you think that the campaigns have not been able to fully express in their programs? Are there any issues that the candidates have not discussed adequately?

There are many issues.

For instance?

The conversation between the military and the civil sphere about the future and the present is a very important issue that should have been clearly discussed in the presidential debates or candidate platforms. We all put our heads in the sand like ostriches. When the military comes up, we all respect the “big, great, and important military institution” or whatever. Those words are just rhetoric. Those words must be translated through a clear vision on our position on the military budget. What’s our position on the transparency on the budget? What’s our position dealing with the laws regarding the military? Will this issue be discussed with them or be agreed upon somehow? Is the military looking for a ruling role or not? What’s our position if the military is looking for that? My opinion is that this subject was never discussed in an honest way. Every talk regarding these questions is just lip service to satisfy the military or compliment it. There are no specific statements. This is a very important point in time because this is the point when the military will either hand over power to a civil elected power or not hand it over. This would return us to the scenario of 1954 in Egypt and other times. I think these are important issues and they require discussion.

Do you think there is a possibility for a second revolution or do you think that, at this point, people are tired and prefer stability?

The people want stability, but the people also wont accept the revolution’s defeat. I do not want to predict what will happen if Ahmed Shafiq wins the elections. I don’t want to say that because I’m someone who believes in democracy and the results of elections. But I’m sure that if a person like Ahmed Shafiq succeeds, there are others who believe less in democracy and they will not accept the election’s results. People will go to Tahrir Square immediately to demand the fall of a president who is the same flesh and blood of [President Mubarak]. Anyway, we have fears for the date of Mubarak’s trial, June 2. And we have fears for what could occur after that. And we have fears that the election results will come out in a way that will provoke the passions and emotions of many Egyptians.

Presidents Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak all pursued very different economic policies and each left his own mark in Egypt’s economic sphere. What do you expect from the next President and how will it serve Egypt?

Truly, the next President will face a huge economic problem and his presidency will begin with this crisis at hand. He must aim to face a great number a crises like the water from the Nile, which is an explosive problem. Also, he will have problems with the rates of development. And he will face a problem with the amount of internal and external public debt, which is increasing, and already eating a third of Egypt’s yearly budget. And he will have unbalanced trade and unbalanced spending and he will face a crisis in all sectors of the economy. So there should be a comprehensive agenda to face the economic crisis in Egypt.

Two weeks ago, your political party, the Ghad party, announced that it would not support Abul-Fotouh or Mursi. What do you fear from a President with an Islamist background?

No, we have no fears from anyone for their Islamist background, but we are afraid of having a single authority with legislative power and executive power and this would be a kind of monopolization of political power. But we don’t have a problem with the Islamist movement. We are cooperating with Islamists and there is permanent contact and permanent coordination between us. But we are not with a President who represents the Islamist orientation in light of the presence of Islamists in the People’s Assembly, the Shura Council, and the Cabinet.

In the last couple weeks, many public figures, including many liberals and revolutionary youth groups, have announced their support for Hamdeen Sabahi, what do you think about that trend?

Sabahi is a colleague and a friend and I love Hamdeen so much. Friendships like this sometimes lead public figures to support their friends politically. So, in other words, if I did not have a political party or a political movement that I were responsible for, and I could chose with my heart, then I would choose Hamdeen. But this maybe does not translate to real opportunities in the street.

In the last couple weeks, Ahmed Shafiq has finished first or second in some national polls. Since Shafiq worked in the former regime, do you, as someone who was imprisoned by the former regime, think his victory would mean the revolution was stolen or in vain?

[long pause]… For 35 years I kept a packed handbag in my house at all times in case I was detained. I have been detained many times since I was 15 years old. Shortly after the revolution, I got rid of the handbag. Before then, there was always a place for it in my house so I could take it at anytime. I expect that if Ahmed Shafiq becomes President, then I must prepare the handbag once again and put it back in its place.

The tone of candidates’ statements on Israel is heating up as the election date nears. What do you expect will happen to the relationship between Egypt and Israel?

The relationship is ruled by a lot of considerations. [The relationship] will never get as bad as the people imagine, but it will not continue in Mubarak’s way because his way was a humiliating way. Egypt is new. Egypt is different. There is a new variable in the political equation called public opinion and this needs to be respected. Israel and its friends should take into consideration the new Egypt’s influential public opinion and not provoke or pressure it either. In the end, the decision of the president will be a decision with a big relationship to public opinion. This does not mean that is necessary for the new President to be reckless with this public opinion and I do not think that any President will be ready for a new war in this region. But the relationship between the two countries will freeze and reach a very bad level if Israel does not take into consideration the new influence of Egyptian public opinion, which could pressure the new President.

A spokesperson from the U.S. State Department described these statements as simply campaign rhetoric to rally support. Do you agree?

[Silently nods and smiles]

According to Egypt’s state news agency, the Egyptian intelligence apparatus mediated the resolution of the recent Palestinian hunger strike. In general, do you think the role of Egypt internationally, and specifically on Palestinian issues, will grow following the elections?

I think the new Egypt will have a wide role and it will not be just a small broker anymore in Israel and America’s political equations. We must understand this very well. The next Egypt will be much stronger than before, more aware of its international role. Turkey, Iran, and Egypt are the regional focal points. Egypt will play this role efficiently with the new elected President.

You described the focal points of the Middle East as Turkey, Iran, and Egypt. Arguably, in the last few decades, Saudi Arabia replaced Egypt in that triangle. How can Egypt return to its old position while maintaining a stable relationship with Saudi Arabia?

Look, since the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia there was a field of competition between [Egypt and Saudi Arabia]. Let me give you an old example. Why is America now changing their traditional coalition from Pakistan to India? We are India. Egypt is India. Egypt has the larger population. [America] went to India because of its large population to place India against China. Egypt represents the same population weight of India so Egypt must be the most important factor in the Middle East equation even if it is a monetarily poor factor. Yet, Saudi Arabia is the traditional ally of America. In my opinion, Egypt is the most important and the most complicated factor in the region’s political equation. The population and geographical weights play a large role. Egypt became politically smaller because the political regime was crippled and weak and constrained by personal problems. [Mubarak] was not prepared to defend Egypt. He was defending his personal presence instead. When Americans were telling him, “Solve the problems of Ayman Nour.” So he was accepting anything they imposed upon him because he wanted to close these files. Today the new Egypt is a stronger Egypt than the previous regime. It will not be better than Mubarak’s regime on the economic level, but it will be better politically because it will have general support and the public opinion, which the government will base its decisions on. I expect Egypt to return to its former political position by virtue of its weight, like India, and also we are seeing that a lot of important factors in the Middle East equation are changing on the other side of the equation. I think the political situations in the Gulf area… I don’t want to say they will change, but they will develop. Actually, they will be changed. Egypt, Turkey, and Iran will be the strongest powers in the next era.

In 2008, you penned a famous letter to then-presidential candidate, Barack Obama. If you were to write a letter to President Obama today, what would be your message?

First of all, it was not a letter, but an article titled “Letter to Obama.” At that time there was a debate between [Hillary] Clinton and [Barack] Obama about what would happen if the President received a call at three in the morning about a crisis that threatened American interests in the Middle East and who would be prepared to answer that phone call. If I write Obama a message now, what I would tell him is, “All the phone calls you received at three a.m., four a.m., and five a.m. were never answered.” While Obama and Clinton are in the same administration, and they were originally asking who would take the phone call between them, but in fact the telephones are broken and they never answered any phone calls. From my viewpoint, the threat to the interests of the United States is the threat to the principles of the United States, which happens when freedoms are violated in this region. America made no moves. As a state that respects freedoms and human rights, the threat happened in many regions and is still happening in many regions. And we are still asking why don’t they ask the phone calls that ring at 3 a.m. in an administration with both Obama and Clinton. Obama disappointed us in some issues but Clinton has disappointed us in everything. The State Department always takes a worse position than the White House.

How do you grade Obama’s Administration over the last four years? Are you supporting his reelection?

Look, Obama reminds me of a 95-year old story about the American President, Woodrow Wilson, and this man [points to painting behind him], Saad Zaghloul, an Egyptian leader during Egypt’s 1919 revolution. In 1919, the Egyptian people chanted the names of Woodrow Wilson and Saad Zaghloul together. This was because Wilson wrote the “Fourteen Principles” [for the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War]. But, after a period of time, Wilson accepted the continued British occupation of Egypt. The people that previously chanted for Wilson then entered the streets calling for his downfall because he disappointed the people. This is my answer to that question.

Dr. Ayman Nour is an Egyptian politician and chairman of the Ghad El-Thwara Party. Eric T. Justin ’13, a Crimson former editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. He is taking the semester abroad to live and work in Egypt.

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Op EdsCommencement 2012