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Gauntlet Q & A: Dr. Walid Kazziha

A discussion about the Egyptian revolution and its future

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Dr. Walid Kazziha, a sessional political science professor at the University of Calgary, was in Egypt for much of the revolution and witnessed the demonstrations that compelled the army to oust President Mohammad Morsi just over a year after his election to power. Dr. Kazziha, a native of Egypt, has written many books on Middle East politics. His most recent, entitled Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution, chronicles the 18-day-long demonstrations that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. As a respected scholar and lecturer, Dr. Kazziha’s insight into the Arab Spring both answers and raises questions about Western involvement in Middle East politics, real and fictional threats the region faces and the future of revolutionary Egypt.


The Gauntlet: How has 
America’s diplomatic influence swayed the outcomes of Egypt’s revolution?


Walid Kazziha: The Americans have declined a lot in their ability to influence. They can influence the army, since they give them $1.3 billion a year. They have a good relationship with them. But since January 25, 2011, I think America’s ability to project it’s power outside certain areas, especially in the Third World, has declined. In the old days, a phone call from the American ambassador would shake the whole cabinet under Mubarak. But now, he can call all day and all night and no one would listen. As a matter of fact, the American embassy is besieged.


G: Why do you think American influence is in decline?


WK: I think the decline of global American power is a function of the American economy. Under Obama, the administration has turned inward. As a result of this, they have withdrawn from Afghanistan, from Iraq and they are very reluctant to commit in Syria. I think for the time being, the United States’s global influence has become rather limited in some areas and one of them is the Middle East.


I think the whole area will eventually go nuclear. That will be an advantage to the region as a whole because it will provide more stability rather than instability. The Israelis will know that there are limits to what they can do because right now, they can do anything.


G: Do you see American rhetoric, which has largely been toeing the pro-democracy line, as a contradiction to their support of authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the region? 


WK: Unfortunately, in the West, “democracy” is used for political purposes. Democracy is sometimes used as a stick to bring people to order. (Former American Secretary of State) Condeleeza Rice had stated while in office that America had been supporting authoritarian regimes for 60 years and that it was time to promote democratic ideals. But this was only a statement, not an act of policy.


One of the things that infuriated us during the revolution was that young men in Tahrir were dying and (former American Secretary of State) Hilary Clinton was making statements saying that the Mubarak regime was stable. Later on, of course, the Americans began to change their tune and said Mubarak has to go, yet they kept supporting everything he was doing.


The revolution has unleashed an enormous amount of power or empowerment of the people. If you were in Cairo three years ago and said “let’s get rid of Mubarak,” [people would respond with] “tell us another joke.” But now, if you say today, “I want to get rid of this president,” people will take you seriously.


G: Do you see the ousting of Morsi as a continuation of the revolution?


WK: Definitely a continuation of the revolution. It is a consequence of the empowerment of the people. Nothing has settled in a crystal form where you have a major political party with a charismatic leader — that hasn’t happened yet. But there is an empowerment in the air that has taken hold inside the hearts of people. You feel it. It’s not going to tolerate a military leader. 


If you look at it analytically, the army represents an economic interest that controls between 15 and 25 per cent of the economy. Plus, it represents a focus of attention for the big powers, especially the United States. So the army has a certain status. But it didn’t — it couldn’t get rid of Morsi had it not been that the empowered people wished it.


G: Were there any alternative routes the army could have taken without directly removing him from power?


WK: I don’t think the army could have stood with Morsi on this. If they had, they would have to confront [protestors]. In the first revolution, I watched the confrontation with the central police force, which is an army, really, and how it disintegrated. Here [with the protestors] you have a fountain which was overflowing and there you have a police force which was being depleted. For the army, the commander said to himself “these people are going to do it again, so I’m not going to confront them.” 


G: Do you feel that the army is justified in their response to the demonstrations held by Morsi supporters following his ousting?


WK: Morsi’s demonstrators are being handled by the people themselves. Housewives open their windows and throw hot water on them. They are also in limited areas. It’s not like Tahrir. The Tahrir demonstrators refer to them [in reference to where they are stationed in Nasr City] “as if they are stopped at a traffic light.” But they are well organized and committed and ultimately I think they will have to be included and integrated. But the army has said that [Morsi supporters] cannot come and attack their positions. They have orders to fire and their fire has killed 42 people. This is because they were attacking a position of the Republican Guard and the army cannot allow this.


[In speaking to an army officer in Tahrir asking about the army’s murdering of Coptic protestors] he told me, “we do not know how to deal with demonstrators. We have weapons that are meant to kill, and if anyone approaches, we kill him.” People ask why they don’t shoot at their feet. Well, they are trained to shoot at the head. So of course the army, with the confrontations we’ve seen, were quite decisive. I think the commander of the army felt that this whole empire they have would really be destabilized if he stood by this president.


G: There have been plenty of discussions, both in Western media and Middle Eastern outlets, debating whether or not the army’s actions amount to a military coup. The Muslim Brotherhood have also expressed a desire to bring the case of Morsi’s ousting to the International Criminal Court, along with calling for civil revolt. Can you respond?


WK: I think it is immaterial. A coup, if you define it, is when the army takes over, they have a general as president and put the whole country under emergency law. This one got the head of the constitutional court to act as president. They have got a cabinet with liberal elements. The best description of what took place is that an empowered population took to the streets and threatened to destabilize society, the army and the state. The army felt that the best way to maintain some semblance of order is to respond to the major demand of the demonstrators.


At the moment, [the Muslim Brotherhood] were in centre stage and now you’ve got them out. It’s like their dream has come true and then they are deprived of it. It is very logical and natural that they are taking an attitude [of seclusion]. The constitutional precedent that brought them to power was one that they made. They made the committees and the committees made the constitutional amendments. The whole process had been hijacked or monopolized by them.


When the dust settles, the Muslim Brothers will go back to their old ways and then the question of political power becomes a logical consequence. You don’t go for political power first and then raise the question of an Islamized society. You Islamize society and then the fruit, the state, will fall into your hands.


G: A tactic that obviously worked for them in the past considering that they were voted into power.


WK: It worked for them, they were in power, but they mismanaged. 


G: Do you see a frontrunner emerging who has a strong case to win the presidency in the next election?


WK: I would like to see [Mohamed] El Baradei. He has no charisma, but Baradei has managerial experience on a global scale. He’s not a small cookie. He has managed a machine [the International Atomic Energy Agency] that has spied on so many countries in the world and I think Egypt needs a manager. The economy is down, people are not abiding by the law, moral values are straining. We have some serious problems. If that manager were charismatic, it would be fine provided that he doesn’t become authoritarian. With the configuration of forces that you have in Egypt, I am hoping that this period of instability will take Egypt into a more settled situation.


G: Are you optimistic about the future?


WK: I do think the country will go through some worse times before it gets better. But it will get better for one reason: when you go to Tahrir you get invigorated. People are alive. You look at the slogans, look at the artists — you find poetry. It’s spontaneous. This is empowerment.


G: What do you think it will take to channel the enthusiasm and optimism of Tahrir through positions of power?


WK: This is going to be a permanent situation — a permanent revolution. These people are going to fail, this cabinet is going to fail. So, slowly, what the young people are doing is getting their target closer and closer. I think one thing that is sinking into the minds of people is that the revolution does not have to be “my way or the highway.” We have to include others. What I feel will happen, what will emerge, is that even people from Mubarak’s time will be included at some point. At every stage, you will be regathering society, but at every stage you will be eliminating elements of authoritarianism.

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