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‘What happened in Egypt was like an earthquake. There are eruptions. I see some more softer aftershocks’

Khaled El Bakly,Ambassador of Egypt to India,speaks about the revolution in his country and the road ahead.

Written by PranabDhalSamanta |
February 26, 2012 2:37:58 am

In this Idea Exchange moderated by Deputy Editor Pranab Dhal Samanta,Khaled El Bakly,Ambassador of Egypt to India,speaks about the revolution in his country and the road ahead

Pranab Dhal Samanta: Give us an assessment of the revolution in Egypt and where you stand now?

Khaled El Bakly: I have been in India since September 2010. Throughout my stay,I have been saying that Egypt is in transition. The immediate question is,when does the transition end? In the last six to seven years,we have seen strikes and demonstrations. These ushered in a new phase. Egypt is a young society,young in age. We could be the youngest,globally. If we are 85 million,65 per cent is below 20 years old. But the leadership was too old to understand them and to communicate with them. There were problems,both political and economic. People saw high levels of corruption. The last parliamentary elections led to a parliament that people revolted against. The country was growing economically,but the wealth was not distributed evenly. Unemployment was a big issue. Political freedom was limited and the judiciary was not fully independent.

We owe much to Mohamed Bouazizi (the Tunisian whose immolation sparked off the revolution in Tunisia). It had a trigger effect. Two months before the revolution,10 Egyptians set themselves on fire. The revolution happened due to the efforts of the youth. But they were not well-organised; they did not have any leadership. So when the elections were held,they were not well-represented. The election results brought the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious groups to Parliament with the al-Wafd party,the old liberal party in Egypt. The youth were not happy and that is why they are still taking to the streets.

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Security collapsed almost completely during the revolution. We are still trying to fix it. We will soon start security sector reforms and rebuilding institutions. Also,the National Democratic Party of the former president was dismantled by a court ruling. This was important since we wanted the judiciary to be the dividing line between the whims of political parties and what people actually want in Egypt. Our national reserves are dwindling because tourism dipped. There were a lot of strikes,people were demanding a rise in salaries. All the problems that were not tackled over the last 30 years have erupted at the same time.

Immediately after the revolution,there was a roadmap which was put to a referendum and agreed to by the people. We will have a new constitution. The notified drafts are ready. The only sticky issue will be the chapter on the political system. We have three options: a presidential system,a parliamentary one or an in-between mix. My own reading is that we might have a mix. We also have a new election law. We have a newly-elected parliament—the first session began on January 23. The second chamber of parliament is into the last lap of elections. Then the two chambers will put up names of the 100 Egyptians from within parliament and Egyptian society will consider the draft of a new constitution. It will be put to a referendum. Presidential elections will see nominations start on March 10. The government that we have is a transitional government. We will have to wait for the referendum to see whether authority will be in the hands of the president,PM or an intermediate.

Shubhajit Roy: What is your interpretation of the rise of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and religious parties? Does this augur well for a democratic society?

Khaled El Bakly: Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928. It was initially established with some recommendations by the colonisers in Egypt. They were trying to fight the nationalist movement here. Since then,it has developed its own ideas. It was a political-religious movement to maintain the identity of the country. They did not limit themselves to Egypt,they spread across the region. They were banned by the old political regimes in Egypt. Each time,they changed their way of working. Part of the group revolted against the principle and resorted to violence and they had to leave Egypt. Currently,the Brotherhood is divided between the older generation and the younger generation. The latter is very well educated,they have MAs and PhDs,they have their own businesses and believe in the private sector. They mainly want to maintain the identity of the country. How it will augur for the system we will have to see in practice. There are some signs since the elections. They say they want an inclusive democracy. They say they want to see all the forces that have been elected to Parliament represented in the new government. For this,we will have to await the formation of the new government.

Egypt has two main elements—Christians and the Muslims. The Brotherhood has said they will not nominate or back an Islamist for president. They want to create jobs,stability and security. How can they do this alone? They want the support of others. But if they fail,their failure will take them out. Egyptians will again take to the streets and say,‘we don’t want you’. The Brotherhood has also said that wearing the veil is as per individual choice. In Egyptian schools,you can’t force religion against the public will: Muslims study Islam and Christians study Christianity.

Dilip Bobb: The new parliament is still subservient to the military council. What role do you see the military playing in the future?

Khaled El Bakly: The military was always for a republic,not a monarchy. Secondly,they did not seek power; power was handed over to them. I wish to differentiate between the Islamist army and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). During the revolution,when the army was ordered onto the streets,they openly said they were not going to take sides. Not taking sides in the absence of the police means they were with the people. Since the unification of Egypt,the army has never been used against the country or the people. Now there is a lot of pressure on the military to hand over power to civilians. There is a referendum on the roadmap: at the end of June,there will be an elected president and before that,there will be parliamentary elections. So the roadmap is going quite well. There should be an authority that is holding and releasing authority,step by step,smoothly. There are lot of threats,challenges and instability in the region. We need a strong army which is not overstretched,tired. Besides,they have given guarantees on handing over power. The people must be patient,revolution is not easy. If things go as planned,in a year and a half,we will see substantial change.

Coomi Kapoor: Normally,when there is a change of government after a revolution,there is a purge in government service. How is it that you were there before and are still there now?

Khaled El Bakly: In Egypt,four ministries,defence,justice,finance and foreign affairs,are sovereign ministries. These ministries belong to the state,so they have professional bureaucrats. They follow the instructions that come to them and use their experience to apply to what comes to them as instructions. But since the revolution,we have not been getting any instructions as ambassadors. You will see some changes after the revolution,young people’s participation. You will see many new faces in the ministries as cabinet ministers.

Pranab Dhal Samanta: Could you describe how you lived through the days of revolution?

Khaled El Bakly: During the early days of the revolution,I was simply trying to maintain India as a friend of Egypt. Those days,you could not say how things would evolve in Egypt. Egyptians don’t move easily,they don’t move towards removing a regime easily. Throughout history,it has taken Egyptians ages to make a move. But when they do,they don’t stop.

Rakesh Sinha: What do you make of how events unfolded in Libya? There is still so much turmoil there. It is very different from what happened in Egypt.

Khaled El Bakly: Egypt is a country of institutions. The problem of Libya is that the old regime did not build institutions. There are so many tribes,how do you bring them together? A good political system and a unified army can bring them together. But they did not have both. Immediately after events in Libya,I was asked what should be done and I said an army should be formed. I believe they are on their way; it will take them some time.

Manu Pubby: The protests in Egypt began last February. Since then,there have been continuous protests. How much is this affecting the Egyptian economy?

Khaled El Bakly: There are two main challenges before us: the economy and security. If you don’t have security,the economy will not work. Investment,labour,and tourism,everything becomes stagnant. We have started security sector reforms. For the first time in our modern history,Egyptians took to the streets during a revolution. But there are people from the old regime who are afraid about their future but they don’t want to give up easily. This has to be handled at the political level,not at the security level. In 2010,Egypt received 15 million tourists and earned $15 billion. In 2011,we still managed to attract 65 per cent of the tourism we got in 2010. Investments have been a problem. Nevertheless,we had a courageous investor from India. He set up a $15-million petro-chemical factory. The indications are that after the presidential elections,the country will see much better investments than before. When Egypt is stable,business is stable.

Muzamil Jaleel: The Muslim Brotherhood or Ikhwan has been seen as an ideology that was against Egypt,that was not the future for Egypt. Now things have changed. You were the ambassador of the old Egypt,and now you’re the ambassador of the new Egypt where Ikhwan will have a formidable political role. How do you negotiate that?

Khaled El Bakly: I am the ambassador of Egypt,old or new. Ideology is something that takes time to implement. What we look at is politics. National interest will never change. Ideology will come and it will not be limited to Egypt alone—Morocco,Tunisia,Egypt,Syria,etc. There is a lot in the offing. How will they marry Islam with what has been going on? The Brotherhood said they don’t want to bring in change across the board. Maybe alcohol in public places will be banned—it has been banned since the previous regime. As for casinos,we have only one in Taba on the border with Israel.

Muzamil Jaleel: Will the Brotherhood’s rise affect Egypt’s relationship with Israel,with USA?

Khaled El Bakly: USA is the superpower and everybody deals with the USA so this is something that any realpolitik should deal with. With Israel,they have already announced that they respect our agreements and our treaties. The announced position of the Brotherhood is that they will not change direction.

Pranab Dhal Samanta: What is your assessment of the Iran question and its implications for Egypt?

Khaled El Bakly: Increased tension is not good for anybody. A war in the Gulf is totally rejected. This is our announced policy. Secondly,if there is a war and retaliation in the Gulf,how are you going to get your energy,etc? Thirdly,about Iran having or building its nuclear military capabilities,in order to satisfy international concerns,they should cooperate with the IAEA. But no one should say that they will do what they have done with Iraq before. When Israel has the military nuclear capabilities,why say all this about Iran? It is the responsibility of all of us to bring down tensions. It is not just Europe or US,it is also Russia,China,India. We all have a stake in the stability of the region.

Coomi Kapoor: What is Egypt’s stand on American sanctions on Iran?

Khaled El Bakly: Egypt believes that sanctions should be applied by UN and that dialogue is the only way of solving differences between people.

Manu Pubby: There is fear that Egypt may face a time when the government which comes in is not strong enough and the military has to intervene again.

Khaled El Bakly: Egyptians have been pitching since the revolution for a civilian state and I don’t believe they will give up asking for this. I believe that the time of military rule has ended,globally. Thirdly,a coalition government is what we hear is coming in Egypt. So I believe if the majority of society is represented in such a government,there are hopes that such a government will succeed.

Muzamil Jaleel: The Iran question is linked to the larger competition for influence in the Muslim world between Saudi Arabia and Iran. What is its impact on Egypt? Would the shift in Egypt have any change in its dealing with the Palestinian groups?

Khaled El Bakly: On Palestine,Egypt will never change its stand—full support for the Palestinians to get an independent state. Secondly,we are hosting the reconciliation of the Palestinian factions,they are becoming unified and we will try our best to push for the resumption of peace talks between Palestinians and Israel. As for competition in the Middle-East,there are some interested parties who speak of Sunnis and Shias in the Islamic world. I don’t believe that this is in the interest of Muslims and it is not in the interest of the stability of the Middle East.

Tuhina Singh (student,Tagore International School,Vasant Vihar,Delhi): How has the current political status of Egypt affected the country’s relations with other countries,especially India?

Khaled El Bakly: Trade between India and Egypt is almost $3.2 billion. We are looking for investments. This is something that I have been trying to do for some time now. Thirdly,we need to attract Indian tourists to Egypt.

Neha Dohare (student,Tagore International School): How has Egypt changed with the revolution?

Khaled El Bakly: There are two revolutions in history. A revolution that goes and outs all institutions and starts building again. This is very violent and you can see that even now in some countries. The other is the one taking place in Tunisia,Egypt. When you do it this way,change will be gradual. But the change I see is the divide between the young generation and the older generations. I see it at home. My children sit with their mobiles,laptops all the time. There is a gap that has grown between us.

Chinmay Brahme (student,Exims): How does the Egyptian public react to events in Syria?

Khaled El Bakly: There are demonstrations every day. Our parliament has already cut off ties with the Parliament in Syria,we have pulled out our ambassador and we have started to implement sanctions. We took part in the observer team and we tabled the resolution at the UN General Assembly. We are doing all this but we want to preserve the state. The division of a country will spill over to the neighbourhood and it will be very difficult.

Dilip Bobb: The soccer riots that occurred earlier this month suggest there is frustration among the youth about how things are moving.

Khaled El Bakly: The football league in Egypt is a very successful one. But what happened in Egypt was like an earthquake,a sudden one. You go to sleep and there is an earthquake. The earth moves and in order to stabilise,it has to move in another big swing to the other side. When it has to settle,it comes to the middle. We are now in this phase. There are eruptions. I see some more softer aftershocks. Society has been like this for more than 30 years. Lots of changes and lots of problems exist in the whole developing world. So you try to solve. I am optimistic.

Transcribed by Nandini Thilak & Priyanka Sharma

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