International analysis and commentary

Working for a democratic future: A conversation with Amr Darrag

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He didn’t study Law, or Political Science. He is an engineer. And yet Amr Darrag, 60 years old, a leading figure of the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood supported party, is one of the most influential analysts not only of Egypt, his home country, but of all the Middle East. When Sisi took power, he moved to Istanbul and established a think tank, The Egyptian Institute for Studies (EIS). And the last time I’ve been here, in his office, he had to renew some ID papers at the embassy of Egypt. But he told me: “I’ll never go. I would disappear.” I am back when another embassy is in the news, Saudi Arabia’s. For Jamal Khashoggi.

Amr Darrag is renowned for his intuition. And he is the most sought-after by Western journalists. “It’s just because I speak English,” he says with his typical understatement. Even if now he is used to add: “Or perhaps, because I’m the only one still free.”

He is actually much more than a leading figure of the Muslim Brotherhood. And that’s why he could be a target. Secretary-General of the Constituent Assembly under Morsi, and later on, for a short time, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, today he belongs to that community of exiled dissidents that has been gathering in Istanbul over the last years, following the setback of the Arab Awakening. They come from Syria, from Libya. From the Gulf countries. But also from Europe, back from previous persecutions. And they are working for a Middle East of freedom and democracy. Liberals and Islamists. All together. Debunking the mainstream narrative: that is, that only Sisi, only Assad and the like can provide stability.

That everything else, here, is just al-Qaeda.

Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi went missing on the eve of the launch of Democracy for the Arab World Now, the new think tank they’ve just founded. Dawn. “He wasn’t killed only because of his critical thinking,” he says. “But because he had plans and proposals.”

 

We get news on Egypt from Amnesty International, now, rather than the media. And they are news of roundups, tortures. Death sentences. And above all, forced disappeareances. About one every four days.

And the result is that there are no news anymore. Because when you have only one, two cases, you have all the lights on, you have outrage, mobilisation: and you can act. You can try to get justice. But when the detainees, the convicts, the dead, start to be in the thousands, it all becomes normal. Just another Amnesty International report. It’s a tough lesson to learn: but for a regime, it’s easier to carry out a hundred murders than one murder only.

 

According to Sisi, they are all Muslim Brotherhood members.

And so you can execute them all?

 

I mean. Subversives. Who plot against the government.

The main subversive, honestly, is Sisi. Who rose to power by toppling a president elected through free and fair elections. But then… What’s the point? Take a man like Bassem Ouda. Who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, yes, but for Egyptians is first and foremost the Minister of the Poor. Loved like no one else. Because he cut the price of bread, the price of gas. He struggled against incompetence and corruption. And now he’s been sentenced to life for obstructing a road during protests. Or for instance, a man like Masoum Marzouk. What can I say? He is from the left. And he even supported the 2013 coup. But later on, he called for a referendum to confirm Sisi as president: and he ended up in jail. Like general Sami Anan. Chief of Staff under Mubarak. Guilty of running for president. And arrested because he hadn’t the Army permit. What he didn’t have, actually, was Sisi permit.

 

Last March, Sisi was reelected with 97 percent of votes.

Against one challenger only, yes. Who said he would have casted his vote for Sisi.

 

And yet, it’s all business as usual, seemingly. With a parliament. Parties.

You are right. “Seemingly”. But first, the “anounced” elections turnout was just 32 percent. And most of all, independent MPs increased from 5 percent in 2012 to 57 percent: a number that tells it all about current parties, and their weakness. They exist, yes. But a bit like under Mubarak, there is a government coalition, and a friendly opposition. The real opposition has been all banned. The difference with Mubarak, is that under Mubarak civil society had some freedom. It was his way to drive down tension, of course. Drive down pressure for change. Sisi, on the contrary, with these new laws that restrict NGOs, monitor the media, and with all these attacks against activists and journalists, has a total grip on power. That 57 percent of independent MPs isn’t a sign of a strong civil society: but of citizens degraded to subjects. A society ruled by a few cronies. Each of them with his own little turf. And all of them at Sisi’s service.

 

Sisi controls security forces, too. In the end, he comes from the Army. And he’s been for long time the head of the Military Intelligence.

Yes. Of course. But besides this kind of repression, which is quite a traditional repression, so to say, based on security forces, on violence, and which is always the most visible one, there is also another kind of repression: economic repression. Which isn’t less effective. Because in Egypt, as is now generally known, the Army controls about two thirds of the economy. And so Sisi, through the Army, has a total grip not only on our freedom, but on our life as well: he pulls the strings of the production, and distribution, of sugar. Wheat. Baby milk. Medicine. 85 percent of Egyptians are under the poverty line. And when you are hungry, your priority it not democracy, but food.

Al-Sisi stands among Egypt army’s officers

 

What’s impressive now in Cairo, yet, is inequality, more than poverty. There are beggars everywhere, yes. But also a new mall where you can even ski.

But that’s how you subdue a country, today: by erasing its middle class. Which has always been the main agent of change. Because it has the material, but also the intellectual means, to demand it. And in Egypt, it disappeared. Exactly because it’s been at the forefront of the Arab Awakening. Through benefits and favours, you assure yourself a small group of loyalists. Those who ski at the Mall of Egypt. And you drive into exile everybody else. And you jail those who refuse to leave. And you torture and kill those who refuse to keep quiet.

 

Poverty and fear. But if no one has anything to lose amymore, why there isn’t a new revolution? Why is Sisi still in power?

This is a question you should ask to yourself. Because Sisi is your, more than our, president. Since he has no popular legitimacy, he’s basically replaced it with a sort of international legitimacy. With international support. He sells the only true resource of Egypt, which is not gas: it’s foreign policy. His cooperation with Israel, for instance, is unprecedented. Look at Gaza. Look at Rafah border: closed off even more than Eretz border. But above all, his asset is Libya. His relationship with general Haftar. And so, borders. If Sisi is still in power, it’s because he promised to stop jihadists. And migrants.

 

And can he really stop them?

When you rule through poverty and fear, you actually produce them.

 

Libya… How does Italy’s role look like, seen from an Arab standpoint?

Like the wrong role. Because you still view Libya as your own courtyard. You speak of Libya, and you speak only of militias and tribes. As if there were no engineers, no physicians, no lawyers. No businessmen. No ordinary people. You don’t see a country: you see a battlefield. Or maybe, an oil field. You back those with guns: that is, exactly those we’d like to get rid of. Then you come, now and then, and you ask: How can we help you? By doing nothing.

 

For how long will Sisi stay in power? How sound his regime is?

He’s got absolute control. But also short-lived. First of all, because the history of the Middle East is a history of strongmen that the West has used and then dismissed as soon as they were of no use anymore. There’s nothing less sound than power based on external support. On external interests. But honestly, I wouldn’t even be so sure about internal support. About the Army support. Because Sisi is harming its reputation. As I wouldn’t be so sure that Egyptians, at some point, won’t react. By taking the streets again even without a leadership. Without any coordination. Any plan. And in that event, we would have only blood and dead.

 

And that’s why you founded the Egyptian Institute for Studies.

To prepare the transition to democracy. Yes. To outline a new institutional frame. But also a new economy. A new judicial system. Egypt is a country to rebuild from scratch. We’ve talked a lot of the mistakes of Tahrir Square. Of the confrontation between the secular and the Islamist camp. Between generations. But the first mistake, honestly, it’s that we weren’t ready.

 

But so Sisi is right. You are subversives.

We are working to ensure exactly that kind of stability that Sisi and his pairs undermine.

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