Tariq Ramadan: Egypt’s Only Solution, A National Civic Alliance

Grandson of the assassinated founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tariq Ramadan is a prominent Swiss academic and intellectual, particularly concerned with the role of Muslims in the West. In the following interview, he contemplates the fate of the movement his grandfather founded now that the Egyptian military has opted for violent repression following last month’s coup.
Ramadan’s call for a civic alliance against military dictatorship can be read here.

Le Parisien: Are you surprised what has been happening in Egypt?

Since the beginning of the uprisings in the Arab world, I was always a very cautious optimist. It was clear to me that we were headed much more toward instability in the region than toward a process of democratization. I was a critic of the Islamist movements, and I highlighted the flaws in their programs. Unfortunately, given what has happened in Egypt, it turns out that my caution was well advised. I am absolutely not surprised by the destabilization and polarization that we have seen, a situation which I described in my last book (Islam and the Arab Awakening). What did surprise me, however, was the intensity of the violence. It is worse than I could possibly have imagined.

Do you feel personally affected by it?

Yes, this has saddened me very deeply. I am European culturally, but part of me is also Egyptian. There is my family history, our exile, which makes me very attached to the country.

You condemn the army crackdown…

What we are seeing is a military regime that never actually left the political scene, and that now presents itself as having popular legitimacy. But this popular legitimacy certainly did not give the regime a blank check to kill all of these civilians. In one mosque, soldiers surrounded a group of people who were mourning their dead. They told them: you cannot bury them until you sign a piece of paper saying they committed suicide.

The Muslim Brothers are accused of retaliating against the Copts, Egypt’s Christians, who have supported the military…

These are old propaganda techniques used by the army, and which go over very well in the West: burn Coptic churches and then blame the Islamists, without bothering to provide any evidence. To justify massive repression to the West, just say that the Copts are in danger. Sadat did it, Mubarak did it. It gives another blank check to the army.

What do you think of the reaction of the western countries?

Unfortunately, in the West, our governments, starting with the US, have been timid in their condemnations. They defend democracy when it is in their interest, but in the end they keep quiet in the face of a coup d’etat, in the face of a military regime that fires on its citizens when they are nonviolently demonstrating. [Western governments] need to be consistent: if you are a democrat, you cannot support the horrors committed by the army. I criticize the role of the USA in this, and in particular Barack Obama’s statement, when he interrupted his holidays to announce that he would be suspending joint military exercises with Egypt, that this would be the only punishment for the army. The $1.3 billion in [military]aid will still be sent. This amounts to explicit support for the army.

How can Egypt get out of this mess?

The Muslim Brothers must avoid scorched earth politics. The only thing that might save them today is to organize massive nonviolent demonstrations. I am not sure they have the means to do that. But for them, accepting the status quo will mean imprisonment, torture, summary executions. In the end, I think they are going to have to stop the demonstrations, stop the politics of escalation, even if it was in a nonviolent framework. They are not really going to have a choice anyway. The military is succeeding in isolating them from the people. The Brothers are heading down a dead-end street. I have always said that the Islamists should never have entered the electoral process. It was a trap for them, and it is what put them in their present situation.

But we should be careful to avoid imagining that the Muslim Brothers are the only opposition: that would mean falling into the trap of the army’s propaganda, which presents itself as the sole guarantor of democracy. Prior to the repression of the last few days, there were five weeks of demonstrations by secularists, Copts, people taking a public position against the army, under the banner “Against the Coup.” Some wanted Morsi back for reasons of legitimacy. Others, even without wanting Morsi back, wanted above all for the army to go.

You are calling for the army to get out of politics.

Yes, if we want democracy, the military have to go back to their barracks. There can be no democracy, no transparency, for as long as the military is in power. The only solution now is for the secularists, the Islamists, and the [political]independents to begin a real dialogue, a real collaboration, and overcome their differences. There must be a national civic alliance.

What were president Mohamed Morsi’s mistakes when he was in power?

There were serious flaws in terms of political vision. Mohamed Morsi should have had an inclusive policy toward the secularist sand the Copts, much more proactive. In terms of decision-making, it was never clear whether it was Morsi or the Muslim Brothers organization in charge. Governing a country does not merely consist of saying you are the guardians of the Muslim tradition. Governing a country means having a political, social and economic program. His was entirely superficial. There was a kind of political naivete in him; he believed in the days before the coup that the Americans were going to side with him.

But then, the army had not made things easy for him. We know now that certain things were prepared in advance by the army, before the coup, to put the government in a difficult position. Among other things, intentional gas and electricity shortages. The shortages ended after June 30, as soon as the army took power.

Were individual liberties restricted under Mohamed Morsi?

No, there was no real attack on freedoms. The Islamists were extremely cautious with all of the symbolic issues: women’s rights, the Copts. They rarely got involved in these areas. Their flaws were elsewhere, and were much more serious than mishandling of symbolic issues. They were wrong to think that by simply being careful around these symbolic issues: liberties, women’s rights, the sharia, [Western governments] would treat them as legitimate political actors.

Are the Muslim Brothers capable of functioning within a secular state?

There are four or five distinct currents of thought within the Brothers. Some of them are not ready for that yet. But there is hope that others will open up more, particularly among the youth. Among these, there is certainly a desire to make new national political alliances.

I have always kept my distance from the Muslim Brothers; I have always been very critical of them. But I do not agree with those who would demonize them; that is the propaganda of soldiers and dictators who present them as violent and extremist. They must be confronted with ideas, not with repression.

- Vincent Mongaillard