Hannah Gaber (HG): Could you start us off by maybe telling us where you are right now and what you’re working on at the moment?
Ashraf Kahlil (AK): I am in … which is a southern suburb of Cairo. I’ve spent the day downtown and writing something for Time Magazine, which should be going up in about an hour. It’s basically hinted around the concept that what we’ve now got is essentially two completely separate Egypts that hate each other. This is not going away any time soon. Today’s article, like most of my articles recently, are increasingly hopeless and it’s hard to see any way out of this. So yeah, I’ve just been documenting this country that seems to be eating itself after such a euphoric tide from the Revolution. Covering Egypt has become rather grim practically.
HG: That brings me to my next question. Could you give a bit of historical context as to why the Muslim Brotherhood has been so beloved in Egypt, why they continue to be beloved by so many people, and what is the significance of the Morsi’s ouster?
AK: Well, here’s the thing. The Brotherhood has a very strong group of loyalists, that are loyal to the organization, not necessarily to personalities, and they’ve earned that loyalty. The Brotherhood has or had, maybe in the eyes of some, real credibility or “street cred” in fighting the good fight. All throughout the Mubarak years you had this incredibly insincere government. You had fairly insincere opposition parties whose only job was not to challenge the government but capture six or seven seats (in the Legislature) and be part of this democratic façade. Then you had the Brothers who were sincere. You saw the same thing with Hamas in Gaza and Palestine. They were sincere. They had the priority of their convictions and sincerity goes a long way in places where all the operators are kind of baneful.
So they came in with this sort of street credibility. You had people that believed ideologically in the Brotherhood and want the kind of country that the Brotherhood wants, fine, but that’s not all of the people who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s not even close. They drew a lot of votes after the Revolution from people who just thought they’d be sincere. Or they thought that they would be competent. That’s another thing. One of the myths that have been punctured this past year is the myth of Brotherhood competence. Not only the myth that the Brotherhood would run Egypt in a consensual manner and that they wouldn’t try forcing Sharia down people’s throats, but the myth of Brotherhood competence. It’s sort of a weird sight to see the Brotherhood disintegrating, bouncing out of control making decisions that no one can understand. They always seemed to be relatively moderate, as far as words like moderate go with these kinds of people, and competent. They are doctors, architects, engineers and hard working white-collar folks. So that’s their appeal.
The problem is that the Brotherhood has been playing a very cynical game almost since day one and it kind of caught up with them. I’m not saying that what happened to them is right or fair or democratic, but I can totally understand why so many people turned against them. I can totally understand why so many people were willing to leave their basic morality and base beliefs at the door and sign on to this Coup….why so many people began to see the Brotherhood as a threat to Egypt. So it was very cynical since day one. I think what the Brotherhood did is that they always acted like they were the smartest people in the room. They always had an angle like they were pulling something over on you. They would lie outrageously. They’d make promises and not even pretend to keep those promises. They would say one thing in English and then say a completely different thing in Arabic. This continued after we’d all caught on to it, like it’s not that hard to catch someone doing this, but they just kept doing it.
When the Revolution came they had a press conference, two days before Mubarak stepped down and the writing was on the wall for Mubarak, to announce that ‘we are not going to run anyone for president’ ‘We’re going to contest in parliamentary elections on a limited basis, but not run anyone for president because we don’t want to scare people. We know people are nervous about us and we don’t want to scare them.’ I was going through some of my old notebooks like a month ago because I’ve had to do a couple extra chapters for the book and I came across a quote from Muhammad Morsi himself saying, ‘We don’t want to dominate Egypt and even if we wanted to dominate, we couldn’t do it.’
You just wonder what happened to these guys in the last two years? I don’t believe in the conventional explanation that they wanted to take over everything and that it was all some nefarious plan. What I think actually happened to the Brothers is more like frustration and panic moves; simple things that alienated people to the extent that when time came for them to be defended from the Army, everyone that could have protected them from the Army had already gone over to the Army’s side. So it was this successive series of events. In terms of their popularity right now, I think they’ve lost all those people that were on the fence from before, the people who tolerated them because they figured that they were people who know God, ‘so they’ll rule morally or rule competently.’ Those people are gone.
They’re down to their base, but their base is still 15 to 20 percent of Egypt, that’s at least ten million people. So they’re not going away. The most disturbing thing that is happening in modern day Egypt is actually seeing the anti-Brotherhood people, the people who just hate the Brothers saying, “We’re done with them. We’re just going to round them up.” And I asked this today! ‘Round them up and do what with them and where? Logistically what are you talking about? There are ten million of these people and they’re not going away.’
So they’ve lost all of their extra support, their tent has shrunk and they are down to just their hardcore base, but that hardcore base isn’t going anywhere. And probably that’s the worst thing about the Coup, is that it assured that the Brotherhood were never going to learn anything from this. I’m part of a very small and lonely minority that had lost faith with Morsi, by the time June 30 came around I too was saying that ‘this guy has to go for the sake of the country,’ but it could have happened peacefully.
The numbers that came out on June 30 were actually bigger than those of the Revolution. I can say that having attended all of the Revolution’s events and having been there on June 30. I know that’s a huge statement to make, but it was bigger.
The biggest “What If” in Egypt now is, what if those people that came out on June 30 against Morsi, had also come out against the Army saying, “do not get involved. Your job as the Army is to keep us from killing each other…stand in between us, fine, fire tear gas if it looks things are getting violent, but do not get into this fight.” That was the only chance we had, that the Brothers might have gone, “Oh shit, we’ve lost the country. Maybe it’s unfair, but we’ve lost the country. We need to find some acceptable solution.” And then, they could have packaged it as Morsi calling for new elections in the name of democracy. They could have sold that to themselves and to the country. Once July 3 comes around, it’s a coup and that’s it, no negotiation, no reconciliation, it’s just a coup. If you’re a Brother, what will you learn from this?
Something very revealing happened just two weeks ago. A major Brotherhood member named Salah Sultan, who lived in Ohio for many years and whose son is an American citizen, wrote an open letter in Arabic on his website apologizing to the country. Saying that they (the MB) had screwed up, should have done things differently and that is why people are angry and that everyone should try to move on. This could have become a rallying cry for reconciliation, but instead Salah Sultan becomes a man without a country. The Brotherhood disavows him and in three days the military arrested him. So put simply, nobody is learning anything and there is very little hope for reconciliation because neither side wants it…Yes, this is depressing. I’m sorry.
Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based correspondent for Time Magazine, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy and others. He is the author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @ashrafkhalil
Hannah Gaber is news assistant at the Arizona Daily Star and a dual M.A. candidate for journalism and Middle East & North Africa studies at the University of Arizona. You can follow her on Twitter @HannahSGS