"People Have Finally Found Their Voice": Democracy Now!'s Sharif Abdel Kouddous on Egypt After Mubarak
Wednesday 23 February 2011
Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous is back from Egypt after several weeks reporting on the uprising against the U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak. “I find it amazing that the whole world watched Egypt do this," Kouddous says. “Egypt is exporting democracy to the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: From Libya, we turn to Egypt, where the country’s top prosecutor has requested a freeze on Hosni Mubarak’s foreign assets. The freeze will apply to Mubarak, his family, a handful of top associates. The former Egyptian president is widely thought to have amassed a fortune during his nearly 30-year stay in power.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the military council in charge of Egypt announced a cabinet reshuffle in an apparent concession to pro-democracy activists. The changes in the cabinet are designed to reduce the power of Mubarak supporters, but the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s biggest opposition group, says the new cabinet shows that Mubarak’s loyalists still control the country’s politics. The reshuffle brought into the cabinet a few opposition figures, but key positions, including ministers of interior and defense, remain unchanged.
To bring us the update on developments in Egypt, we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, senior producer here at Democracy Now! Sharif left New York in January. Yesterday he returned after a month reporting on the uprising in Egypt.
Sharif, it’s great to have you back in studio.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: It’s great to be here, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: I can now breathe a sigh of relief. The latest news we have out of Egypt right now is the Interior Ministry is on fire.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s right. The reports are coming out that parts of the Interior Ministry are on fire. There was police protesting in front of the Interior Ministry. They’ve been doing this for the last few days. They are asking for better wages. They’re asking for work. What you’ve got to understand, the police is still not in Cairo. There’s no police force. And so, it’s unclear who set the fire. Some eyewitnesses have been reported as saying the police themselves set the fire. There’s a lot of records in the Interior Ministry, which are very important, which may be ablaze. So it’s unclear what’s happening.
Let’s remember, this is the same police force, part of the Egypt state security apparatus, the central security apparatus, that was numbering up to 300,000 or 400,000 people. It’s basically almost an army. And it was a lawless militia operating in Egypt to repress the population. And what we saw in this popular uprising was that this force became delegitimized. They were—people took on the state on the streets, and they won. They took the streets and they took Tahrir, and we saw very dramatic images from the 25th through the 28th. And it remains to be seen what’s going ahead. But the fact that Cairo and Egypt hasn’t descended into complete lawlessness, I think, is a testament to the Egyptian people. Can you imagine if, here in New York, if you removed the police force, what would happen? So, that’s the latest news.
In terms of the cabinet reshuffle, as you mentioned, they did put in some new ministers. Four of the key posts are still there, and that is the Interior, Defense, Justice and Foreign. So these are kind of the key posts. These are people that Mubarak put in in the first days. And, of course, the Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, is still the prime minister. And Ahmed Shafiq is the former head of Civil Aviation, the former minister of Civil Aviation, former commander in the Egyptian air force. Hosni Mubarak himself was the head of the Egyptian air force. Very close ties to Mubarak. So, a main call right now by the democracy movement is for Ahmed Shafiq to be replaced. And they see that a lot of this cabinet reshuffling has not changed much. Hosni Mubarak is in Sharm el-Sheikh. The people ruling the country right now is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Mohamed Tantawi. Tantawi is Mubarak’s guy. He—
AMY GOODMAN: Who they called "Mubarak’s poodle."
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: "Mubarak’s poodle" in the WikiLeaks cable. He has propped up and helped support the Mubarak government ever since it’s been in power. And so, we have to realize who these people are, who we’re being ruled by right now.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to Omar Suleiman?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I’m not sure. I don’t know where he is. But, I mean, the man was former head—the intelligence chief, very powerful. And we should—people are wondering what is going to happen next, and I think what everyone is focused on is that there was this huge and massive and amazing battle that was won, and that forced Mubarak to step down. Reform is and real democracy is still a long way off. The road is still long.
And what’s happening now, the next steps are this rewriting of the constitution—not rewriting it, rewriting several articles. So there’s a few issues with both the mandate and the composition of the committee that the Supreme Council appointed to amend the constitution. In terms of the composition of the committee, it’s an eight-member panel. It’s all men, so there’s no women on the committee. That’s a problem. It’s headed by Tariq al-Bishri, who was a critic of Mubarak, but a very conservative-leaning legal scholar. It’s also got a member of the Muslim Brotherhood on the panel. So, some are very concerned that there’s no women on the panel, that it’s conservative, and that there’s no Copts on the panel. Now, hundreds, if not thousands, of Copts have marched—
AMY GOODMAN: You mean C-O-P-T, Coptics.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah, Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population. They are calling on—and this is not in the mandate right now—for Article 2 of the constitution to be removed. And Article 2 enshrines that Islamic law forms the basis of jurisprudence in Egypt, so Sharia law. So, this affects women’s rights, this effects legal rights, in a lot of different ways. So they’re arguing about that.
What the committee is looking at right now is a lot of these—the current constitution we have was formed under Anwar Sadat, the president before Mubarak. It was amended three times since then: 1980, 2005 and 2007. The articles that they’re looking at are these latest changes in 2005 and 2007, which really expanded presidential power, consolidated presidential power, made it almost impossible to form an opposition party. You needed something like two-thirds of the People’s Assembly to approve a new party. People’s Assembly is dominated by Mubarak’s party, so essentially what you’re saying is you need the ruling party to approve the opposition—also presidential term limits, things like this. So, they’re looking at all of this, and it’s supposed to be coming out soon, and there’s going to be a national popular referendum on the changes within two months.
AMY GOODMAN: I wonder how significant this is. An hour ago, AP reported, Sharif, that a Coptic Christian priest has been killed in southern Egypt, triggering street demonstrations by several thousand Christians. The priest was found dead in his home. A fellow clergyman says his body had several stab wounds. He says neighbors reported seeing several masked men leaving the apartment. They were shouting, "God is great! Allahu akbar!" suggesting the killing was motivated by the divide between Egypt’s Muslims and its minority Coptic community. Who knows if that is true, but this is the latest reports.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I mean, that’s an ominous development. This divide between Muslims and Christians was something that the Mubarak government really played upon. We saw some church bombings. It’s unclear who did them. But what the pro-democracy movement in Tahrir was very proud of was that they stuck together. You would see, when—especially after the attack by the baltaguia on Wednesday, anytime there was prayer, a lot of the Copts would protect the perimeter while Muslims prayed. They would always chant, "Muslim, Christian, we’re all Egyptian." You would see people marching with—holding a Quran and one holding a Bible, marching together. And so, they believe and many believe that this divide was something that was caused by the repression of Mubarak’s government, was fomented. They played upon it to divide people and to keep them apart.
And what was really amazing in Tahrir and amazing across Egypt was that it was true democracy playing out in Tahrir. This was what democracy was, right? If you let—if you removed all the lies of the Mubarak government that the Brotherhood will take over, if you removed all these lies that people hated each other. They managed, amazingly, to force Mubarak to step down in the face of so much violence and repression. You know, the government started by throwing the entire central security apparatus at them. That didn’t work. They tried removing the police force completely and trying this chaos. And we saw these neighborhood patrols pop up, which was really amazing. I mean, the first day, I remember walking home from Tahrir. I’m walking home, it’s completely dark, it’s after curfew at 6:00 p.m. And you’d see bunches of kind of young men, teens to early thirties, forties, standing there with pipes, some of them armed, talking to each other on cell phones to the next kind of patrol over, protecting their neighborhood from looters.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your brother.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, my entire family is in Egypt, with the exception of two of my brothers, who are here in the States. But my mother, my other brother, all my cousins, my grandmother, they’re all in Cairo. And so, when this first started, there was a lot of fears of looting and so forth. And I was walking around the district where I live in Zamalek, and I found my father standing underneath his building with a gun, and my younger brother, who’s 16 years old, standing with a shotgun and kind of a walkie-talkie, dressed in black.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re showing his photograph now.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah, his name’s Tarek. And protecting his neighborhood. And, you know, it wasn’t kind of like a crazy situation, very calm, just checking cars that came through. And I think Zamalek and most of Cairo was never safer during this period. So, we’re seeing people like him and this new generation coming up and how this has affected them.
And while I keep saying the road is long to democracy in Egypt, I think—I have a lot of hope, because people have changed. There’s something that has changed in Egypt. You know, I grew up there. I left there when I was 18, and I go back frequently. You never see street protests. They’re very small. They’re outnumbered by many, many more police. People don’t discuss politics too much. And when I came back, something had changed. And I grew up, my whole life, it was Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. And when I came back, even before he stepped down, it wasn’t his anymore. People were fearless. They were determined. And what was very encouraging was seeing even the most depoliticized members of my family, friends, talking full-on in full-on political debate, discussing solutions. And this is what is needed for it to go forward. So—
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, you come from a prominent Egyptian family. Your grandfather, the most famous writer in Egypt. Your great-grandmother, an Egyptian feminist, founded a newspaper, Rosa al Youssef. Your uncle, extremely prominent. Talk about him and what this has meant.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, my uncle is a—has been a writer and a journalist for many years. He’s the head of the Freedom Committee at the Press Syndicate. He’s also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has been protesting alone for many years—well, not alone, but in a group of 10 to 15 people. We would always see him leave his building wearing his standard attire: in a suit holding his Egyptian flag and a megaphone. He was frequently arrested, sometimes beaten.
AMY GOODMAN: The famous pictures we would see here, Reuters, of him being dragged out of wherever.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right, we’d see him on the news feed here, and he was arrested on the 25th, the first Day of Rage. And that photo of him being dragged away by five plainclothes police officers was shown around the world. Al Jazeera showed it many times. His strategy, he’s a very—I never realized this, but a very skilled practitioner of nonviolence. But he would just kind of go limp when they came to grab him. And in Tahrir, I would call him—when I saw him, all the people realized—they paid gratitude to him, because they realized that he was alone for so long, calling for this so long. People said, "You’re crazy to do this." But now everyone joined him. And if you walked in Tahrir—I used to joke. I called him Michael Jackson in Tahrir, because if you walked with him, people—he couldn’t go two meters without people coming up, shaking his hand, wanting to take pictures with him. And so, they appreciated his years of struggle. But now all of Egypt has joined.
And it was a movement that was sparked by the youth. They were the spark that kind of lit this fire. But it’s been smoldering for so long in Egypt. And really, the backbone of it was the labor movement. They are the most radical and have been the most fierce resisters to the Mubarak government for many years. And we’re seeing strikes across Egypt, across Cairo today. If you drive around Cairo, you’ll see—drive, like, even across a fancy hotel, you’ll see the hotel workers on strike. You drive past a bank, the bank workers are on strike. You drive past a sporting club, the people who work at the club are on strike. So, they’re demanding better wages. They’re demanding the removal of corrupt leaders. And the military has ominously warned against these strikes; however, they haven’t really done anything actively to suppress them. So, we’ll have to see what’s going to happen going forward, but I think there’s plenty that we can hope for.
AMY GOODMAN: What was it like for you to go with your uncle to the closed-down offices of the Muslim Brotherhood?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, their headquarters were closed in 1995, and by a military tribunal. And many of them were arrested. Hundreds of them were arrested.
AMY GOODMAN: They were banned in, what, 1952?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: They were banned by Nasser in 1954. Nasser was very, very repressive against them. Many were killed. And so have successive governments been against the Muslim Brotherhood. This is—you know, many people believed this line, they bought into this line, as did the United States, as did many governments around the world: Mubarak is the stalwart against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt. We know this is a lie. This is—if you looked at what this uprising was—I was in Tahrir most of the time. I didn’t travel across Egypt. I was in Tahrir. I would say the Brotherhood was about 20 percent of Tahrir, and I think that’s what they are in the country, in terms of the support they have. They need a seat at the table. They need to be included, and they’re a part of Egypt. And so, to try and suppress them and stifle them will not help the situation at all.
I went with my uncle to—he reopened, for the first time, the headquarters since 1995. It was, for him, a very emotional moment. He said, "I was reborn here." It’s where a lot of teachings he has come to form part of his political and religious beliefs were made. But it was really surreal. I mean, it was just mountains of dust everywhere. The calendar said, you know, November 22nd, 1995. There was even, you know, like coffee cups with cigarettes stubbed out in them, as if they really—it was just a time capsule. But again, the Brotherhood is a part of Egypt. As someone who supports women’s rights and social rights and social justice, I don’t support the Brotherhood, but they need to be included in any political debate in Egypt, and they’re forming a political party.
AMY GOODMAN: And what they represent?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, they represent—they were founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1922. They’re a political, religious party. You know, they want Article 2 to remain in the constitution. They would never field a woman or a Coptic candidate. I spoke with the number two of the Brotherhood, Rashad al-Bayoumi, asking him about that. They said they wouldn’t oppose one if one were elected in Egypt. So—and, you know, there’s a real split within the Brotherhood, too. There’s kind of the old hardliner conservatives, and there’s the shabab of the Brotherhood, who are younger, who really joined this uprising from the beginning. There was a lot of wavering by the older crowd when this first started, and they didn’t join. So I think we’re going to see splits.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, what did your uncle say about Tahrir and the protests? I mean, he had been there for so long by himself. But when January 25th happened?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, when I met him in Tahrir, he said, "It’s like a dream. Everyone—I used to stand alone on those steps of the Press Syndicate. And now look. Everyone here has joined me." So the Brotherhood is an important part of all of this.
But I think it’s important to realize that there’s many important steps coming up. There’s this referendum on the constitution that’ll come up. Then there’s elections in six months. I spoke with Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, and we’ll be playing it on Democracy Now! in a few days. He is one of the leading presidential candidates. You know, he wavered when I asked him, "Are you going to run?" He said, "Depends on how the constitution is altered." I am sure he will. Many think that six months is not enough, including Mohamed ElBaradei and other reform—
AMY GOODMAN: To prepare for the elections?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, after two months of referendum, they’re going to vote on the constitution. After that, you can form a political party. So that leaves you just four months for new parties to form, organize, campaign, fund.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to Wael Ghonim?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Wael Ghonim, he was of course the anonymous runner of this Facebook group.
AMY GOODMAN: Google executive.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah, Google executive. And he was jailed for 12 days, released. He did an interview on Egyptian TV, which was—really reignited the movement again and was very emotional. He’s become a big figure now. But he—there are rumors that he’s now forming a new political party with Hossam Badrawi, who was Mubarak’s guy that he put in to head the NDP in the last days. Badrawi did step down after Mubarak refused to step down on Thursday. He’s seen as a reformer within the NDP. But that’s not confirmed.
AMY GOODMAN: And he freed Wael from prison?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: He helped free Wael Ghonim from prison. He drove him from the jail to his house.
AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Sharif, can you tell us what your T-shirt says?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Oh, well, there’s lots of T-shirts being sold in the revolution. There’s a lot of things. This says, "Masr El Horreya." So it just says, "Egypt freedom." I certainly don’t think we’re there yet, but for the first time in my life, and I think in the lives of tens of millions of Egyptians, there’s hope. When my grandmother says that "I’m going to vote," and she’s 80 years old and she’s never voted in her life, that tells you something. So, I think people have found their voice finally in Egypt. And if someone tries to take power like they did again, they know what they can do now. They know that they can take the streets. And I find it amazing that the whole world watched Egypt do this and that, you know, we’re seeing examples in Wisconsin. I find it amazing that we can—Egypt was exporting democracy to the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, Sharif, thank you so much. We’re headed to Madison, Wisconsin, tomorrow, and we’ll both be speaking at the Orpheum Theatre on Thursday night about uprisings, from the Middle East to the Midwest. That will be a big fundraiser for WORT, the community radio station that’s celebrating 35 years in Madison, Wisconsin. We look forward to broadcasting from Madison on Friday morning. You can check our website at democracynow.org. Sharif, thank you so much for your remarkable reporting. Of course, you’re going to continue to bring us these reports, being here now, with the interviews that you’ve done. You truly were the eyes and the ears for millions of people who watch and listen to and read Democracy Now! for this remarkable 18 days that shook the world. Thank you so much.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you. Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! senior producer, just back from Cairo, Egypt, from Tahrir, the Arabic word for "Liberation."
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