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Egypt PM: ‘We Have Taken … Bold Steps’
Egypt PM: ‘We Have Taken … Bold Steps’
Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif urges the world to respect the results of the Palestinian election, and he defends his government’s handling of the Ayman Nour case.
Sunday, January 29,2006 00:00
Newsweek International

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif urges the world to respect the results of the Palestinian election, and he defends his government’s handling of the Ayman Nour case.

The victory of Hamas in Wednesday’s Palestinian legislative elections sent a shock through the region, and not only because of its implications for the peace process with Israel. Hamas, branded a terrorist organization by the United States, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This militant Islamist organization has been struggling to gain power in many Arab states—including Egypt, where it was founded—since the early part of the 20th century. In an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK’s Christopher Dickey at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif talked about the implications of the Hamas victory and the parallels with recent elections in Egypt. Acknowledging the lack of effective secular opposition forces in the Arab world after so many generations of dictatorship, Nazif also addressed the case of Egyptian presidential challenger Ayman Nour, now serving a five-year prison term for allegedly forging signatures on the petitions to legalize his Ghad Party. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Egypt has worked hard to bring peace and continue the dialogue [between Palestinians and Israelis.] Can you work with Hamas? Can Hamas work with Israel? Where do you see the situation going?
Ahmed Nazif: Well, we’ve been working with Hamas and all other Palestinian factions over the last few years, and I think that it’s important to respect the will of the Palestinian people and to give the new government that comes into office a chance to show its nature, to show its intentions, but also to open up some space and some channels for them to come through. The important thing is that we have a political process in place, and that political process must be given a chance to try to fulfill the needs of the Palestinian people. They want peace. They want a state of their own. They want to grow and prosper and have jobs. And I think that it’s important for the government to respect that, because they came at the will of the Palestinian people.

Which government should respect that?
Well, the new government that will come in, the Hamas government. And I think that there is a framework in place. The first thing is to make sure that they will work within that framework: the Oslo agreements, the Roadmap, the idea of two states living in peace. Egypt can play an important role, because probably Egypt is one of the few countries in the world today who can talk to the Israelis and talk to the Palestinians in that format.

Is Hamas going to accept the framework? They certainly don’t accept the Roadmap as such.
Well, it’s too early to tell. But you have to remember this is probably a surprise even to Hamas themselves, and we should give them some time to regroup and rethink their positions, and then judge them.

Do you have any idea who the prime minister is going to be?
Not really. That’s the point. I don’t think that they were even preparing themselves for what’s to come: prime minister, negotiators, people who can play the role of a foreign minister and so on. Maybe they have a lot of roots on the ground, with locals and the municipalities, but not at that [ministerial] level. Just before the elections we were thinking more of a coalition where you would get also some of the other people involved who are experienced. It remains to be seen.

In Egypt itself there were big political events this year. The accomplishments you cite with pride during the first year and a half of your technocratic government are mainly economic: cutting the corporate income tax in half, increasing growth from 3.3 percent to 5 percent, boosting foreign-exchange reserves and foreign direct investment. Did the showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliamentary elections inject a level of uncertainty into the political realm that’s likely to affect your economic achievements?
If you take it theoretically, it would have a negative impact. In fact this didn’t happen. The economy was just waiting to grow, and nothing stopped that. Remember we had three terrorist incidents in Egypt—we had the Taba incident, the Sharm al-Sheikh incident, and we had the Al-Azhar downtown Cairo incident, all in one year—and even that didn’t deter it.

Now, having said that, does this mean that I believe that there is no relation? That the political side will not affect [the economy]? Of course it will. With time it will. But we had to start moving on the political side as well. Whether we did it all in the best possible way? Probably not. But I think there are many gains as well as lessons learned. First, we’ve seen a more open environment. When we had the presidential elections, for the first time Egyptians saw 10 candidates campaigning freely, completely freely. Now, yes, there’s not a change. President [Hosni] Mubarak came back with a big majority. But that was also expected. At the end you had 10 political parties with their candidates having very good time in the media to explain who they are and what they are.

Then we went to the parliamentary elections with the same attitude. We wanted free campaigning, we wanted a transparent system. We even brought in transparent ballot boxes for the first time in Egypt. So there was the intention to improve. It turned out in a different way, because, basically, when you go to parliamentary elections in Egypt, it’s more tribal in nature. You go into villages, you have families working against each other, and of course you have something like the Muslim Brotherhood, a very organized minority—a very strong organized minority—that is out to hijack the whole process. So that was a factor.

First lesson learned: we don’t have strong secular opposition in Egypt. There was the government and then there was the “not-government.” I’ve spoken to many people who elected representatives of the Islamists: “Are you selecting them because they are Islamists?” They say, “I’m selecting them because they are not the government.”

Like Hamas?
I would venture to say this is true. You’ll always have that dissent vote, that frustration vote in place. In Palestine it turned out the frustration vote was 70 percent. In Egypt it turned out to be 30 percent.

People say that if there hadn’t been [Egyptian government] interference at the polls in the latter part of the voting it would have been even higher.
It could have gone up to 40 [percent], maybe, but not to a majority. The total number of Muslim Brothers who were fielded were less than half the parliamentary seats anyway. Maybe if they’d known—they were surprised by the results—maybe they would have won more. But I don’t think so. Many believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is overrated, that it’s not that strong. [It has] been working on getting down to the people, running clinics where you pay very low fees to get medical attention in very poor areas, tutoring for poor children, things like that. They actually went down to the roots in certain places. And they were successful there, but they couldn’t do it countrywide. So I don’t think they can have gained much more than that. In fact I think they gained more than they deserved because of dissent.

The most successful opponent of President Mubarak in the presidential elections was Ayman Nour, a secular politician who got about 7 percent of the vote. I know Ayman, and his wife worked for NEWSWEEK for decades. You know Ayman.
I know him well.

He got a pretty severe penalty from the courts. Do you think there’s any chance that he would be pardoned or released early? Could you do that?
Nobody has that power except the president, and that is the pardon power. But the president hasn’t used that authority as far as I know since he came to office. That tells you a little bit about it. The president says, “I’m not going to interfere with the judgment by a criminal court." This is not a political court. It’s not a state security court. This is an ordinary Egyptian criminal court.

The problem with Ayman Nour’s case, and here I have my own frustrations with the media, is that nobody looked at the case on its own merits. Nobody’s discussing the case. All you hear about when you read [is that] these are bogus charges. Not true. I don’t think what Ayman Nour did in Egypt, if done in the U.S., would have gone unpunished….

Because I know Ayman, I know he forged those papers. What he did was he said, "I want to collect 2 million signatures, to get this Ghad Party on track." He went in, he probably collected 1,000. So he went in and he duplicated those 1,000 with another 1,000 to make them 2,000.

But he only needed 50.
He needed 50 to create the party. But he needed 2 million because he said he was going to do that. He wanted to show the popularity of the party.

He’s been sentenced to five years in prison. As a political matter, let’s say, wouldn’t it make sense to let him out?
Totally politically? I wish this had not happened at all. Because Ayman was not, before that case, a heavyweight. In fact I would attribute most of the votes he got in the presidential election to that.…

So it would be a good idea to release him.
It would be a good idea if his case didn’t exist. But at the end of the day it happened. He was prosecuted and the case took its course. It’s difficult to come in and interfere with a court case once it’s there. He has the right to appeal, and he will. And—what can I tell you? Let the courts decide.

If it had been your decision would you have put him in jail?
It’s not my decision because it’s a court case … [But] the damage that came out of it from a political point of view overcomes the whole case. OK, forgery. He did it, he deserves to be punished. I have to believe the courts in that. But what was the damage out of that compared to the damage to the image of political reform in Egypt, which should have been a good one? We have taken, and the president specifically has taken, bold steps in the last year with the multicandidate presidential elections, with the kind of openness that took place in many of the procedures leading to the elections. And that all has been sort of overshadowed by a single case like this. It undermined a process that was starting, and I think a good process.


tags: Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif / Palestinian election / The victory of Hamas / Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif / Hamas
Posted in Interviews  
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