Pinning down Amr Hamzawy for an interview in Egypt’s post-revolution era is quite a task. Not only is he one of the most prominent Egyptian political analysts, with TV stations and print media competing for his time; he’s also now a major political player himself who spends much of his time politicking, strategising, explaining and fundraising for his new liberal party Masr El Horreya. eniGma’s Samia Farid Shihata finally catches up with Hamzawy and uncovers how he is navigating the political ups and downs of Egyptian politics and much more…
Indeed these are heady times for this bright politician who, thankfully, is a far cry from the Egyptian politicians of the past 60 years. He represents, in looks and deeds, a new breed of post-revolution political players. Most importantly, he’s passionate about democracy, equality, the rule of law, and the right of each person to lead the life he chooses. And he won’t settle for anything less.
When we arrive at his office, we’re told he’s running late because he had to squeeze in another meeting before ours. We’re happy to wait, since we had earlier been told he was going to be traveling and there was no way he could find time for an interview. So this was a last minute rendezvous he graciously fit in when his travel plans suddenly changed.
In person, he exudes both charm and an air of modesty and it’s difficult to imagine him in ‘political campaign’ mode. Yet once we start the interview, it becomes obvious this is a man of strong convictions, who knows how to get his message across.
We start with a run down of his career. Hamzawy graduated in 1989 from the Political Science Department in Cairo University and promptly joined its teaching faculty as a teaching assistant; a post reserved for only the very top graduates. He then traveled to Amsterdam a couple of years later where he earned his Masters degree in developmental studies and political philosophy. After returning home and teaching again for a year, he packed his bags again and flew to Berlin for his PhD. He ended up staying in Berlin for nine years, earning his doctoral degree from the Free University of Berlin and teaching Middle East politics for four of those years.
No sooner had he returned to Cairo in 2004, he received an offer to join the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (an independent research institution with a reputation for solid research) in Washington D.C to head their Middle East research unit. Having lived in D.C myself for 20 years, I can imagine how excited Hamzawy must have been to receive the offer. After all, to be recruited by Carnegie is no mean feat. And when Carnegie initiated a regional research centre in Beirut and Cairo, Hamzawy moved back to the region and began to commute between the two cities in 2009. By October 2010, Hamzawy was back in Cairo and participated in the revolution from the start. He resigned from Carnegie in February 2011, and rejoined his home department in Cairo University where he will be teaching again starting September 2011.
As I proceed to uncover what Hamzawy is up to today, my mind is brimming with questions. Hamzawy answers each and every one with such clarity and confidence; it’s easy to see why he’s such a successful professor. Let the class begin….
What made you decide to enter the field of politics?
It’s a tough question. I didn’t make a conscious decision to go into politics; it was just part of the dynamic changes we’ve been going through since January 25th in different ways. That dynamism has been carrying us all into different spaces and fields we’ve never been before.
I was in Tahrir Square everyday of the revolution and continue to live its spirit. So getting into politics was a process that continues to unfold. I’m trying to establish a political party with colleagues, friends and people from different backgrounds and walks of life. I’m focusing on the key debates in Egypt, like the debate on the principles of the constitution. And I’m also trying to use my writings and appearances to push and highlight these principles. And finally, I’m trying to play a role in coordinating the different liberal parties to build a bloc. Last week we announced the formation of the Egyptian Bloc El Kotla El Masreya to streamline the coordination process and have a unified candidates list, a unified campaign and unified funds so that we are able to compete. But I’m also looking forward to going back to teaching and writing longer pieces, besides the short articles I write daily for Al Shorouk newspaper.
So do you plan to run for Parliament yourself?
I’m considering it, yes. I can run in Dokki where I live or I can run in Upper Egypt, in Menya, where my family comes from. I’m hoping to come to a decision very soon. Some people are advising me not to run and to continue to influence things from the outside, so I’m still trying to judge what is best for me.
What made you establish your own party instead of joining one of the other liberal parties?
There are differences between the parties; organisational differences, differences in identity and in issues. Such as funding, for example; I didn’t want to be part of a party which does not specify an upper ceiling for individual donations. I didn’t want to be in a party which does not have a clear commitment to internal democracy and decentralisation. So it was really not about politics or where different liberal groups stand with regard to their economic and political platforms. It was much more about the internal organisation of the party. This was not only my choice; it was the choice of a large group of people who continue to work in Masr El Hureyya and have been commited from day one to internal democracy and decentralisation and to framing the issue of funding the right way. This does not mean we don’t have affinities and similarities with other liberal parties politically, socially and economically; these are the reasons why we’ve all come together to build the Egyptian bloc, El Kotla El Masreya.
At one point you had merged your party with Al Masry Al Democraty Al Egtemai (Egyptian Democratic Social Party), what happened?
Yes, that’s true. It was basically the issue of decentralisation and internal democracy. Al Masry Al Democraty Al Egtemai was established initially to merge nine different groups and some of the groups, such as ours, had a problem with the lack of internal democracy and decentralisation. They are sorting it out now, but we pulled away before that.
So how is your party structured? Did you have elections?
No, not yet. Just like everyone else we are hard pressed for time, due to the upcoming parliamentary elections. We have to invest our energy and resources in preparing for the elections. We have, however, a clearly decentralised structure. We are represented in 14 governorates across Egypt. Our party has a decentralised structure at the governorate level as well as the national level. So we have democratic decision making processes, a commitment to information sharing and a commitment to equal voting rights for each governorate and are operating on that basis. We have sector-based committees as well which are in charge of different key areas, like the political platform, media, PR, campaigning and funding. And so far I feel we have been successful.
How are you funding the party?
Funding comes from small donations primarily. We have a ceiling of L.E. 200,000 per year. According to Egyptian party law you cannot receive donations from companies, only from individuals. So we have set our ceiling, but we are basically getting small donations from citizens that start from 10 L.E and go up to1,000 L.E.
The liberal political platform of your party is clear. In terms of the economy, do you believe in the “free market economy with social justice” which all parties keep saying they stand for now?
We add to that a set of specific measures in the area of taxation and incentives for small and medium sized businesses and corporations, as well as incentives for micro-financing. We also have national projects that we feel need to be pursued in the next few years to alleviate poverty and end the existence of slums. But yes our main stand is for a free market economy with a commitment to social justice.
You referred to the constitutional principles, how do you see Egypt moving forward now?
It’s not settled yet. We have broad agreements amongst different political groups, Islamists and non Islamists, with regard to 90% of the document which the Deputy Prime Minister prepared. But we have some differences with regard to issues such as, ‘Will the military be subject to control by elected civil authorities? Will the military have to disclose its budget and will it be discussed in parliament?’ We have to look into the details of the public institutions and how we are going to provide for oversight. We cannot issue a declaration of principles which only entails what we as citizens are entitled to.
I thought it was basically a bill of rights.
No, it’s a bill of rights and more. What we need in Egypt is not just a bill of rights. We have to set up a framework for the constitution in order to make sure real democratic values will be included. We have a contestation around the issue of what to do with the military and its place in Egyptian politics. And we have some disagreement with regard to issues related to censorship and media freedoms.
But these issues were not openly discussed in the public arena…
No, until now they have not been brought up for public debate. They are part of the debate going on between the group of experts established by the Deputy Prime Minister and the different political parties and groups. While there’s 90% agreement, the remaining 10% are tough issues that are yet to be clarified.
There is also a big debate about whether to issue the agreement in a constitutional declaration or not, and whether we should go back to the voters in a referendum for legitimacy before issuing. So there are three options; firstly: consensus and a declaration, secondly: consensus without a declaration and lastly: consensus with a declaration and a referendum in between. We are hoping to resolve this issue this month.
Which brings us to the next question… do you think elections will take place in their original time frame?
The regular time frame mandates that you start ‘elections procedures’ at the end of September and then you can extend for eight or nine weeks. The elections will probably take place at the end of November or the beginning of December and will take place in three or four phases. So by the end of the year, we should have an elected parliament.
Are there still debates about the election laws?
Yes, most parties have rejected what the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued in the law, which is to have 50% party lists (where voters choose between parties, not individuals) and 50% independent (individual) seats.The parties are asking for 100% party lists or at least two thirds party lists and one third independent seats. And this is being contested now. The same goes for the ‘Political Parties Law’; some parties are requesting modifications to the number of tawkilat (powers of attorney) you need to get to legalise your party. The present number 5000, is very hard for leftist parties to obtain. Not a single one of them has managed to get this number. So that issue is being revisited as well.
On a personal level, what kind of Egypt do you dream of achieving?
We have three big battles in Egypt. The first is the battle over politics, at the core of which is whether we’ll be able to establish the rule of law and rotation of power, two elements of any democracy which have been missing since 1952. This battle is between a triangle of actors, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the Islamist groups and the non-Islamist groups. Of course you can add to the non-Islamist groups, alliances and associations of different young Egyptians. That battle is about the defining principles of Egyptian politics.
The second battle is around the constitution, and it moves beyond politics. It’s not only about the rule of law and the rotation of power; it’s about the identity of Egypt. Are we going to be able to establish a country which grants all citizens equal rights regardless of their religious affiliation? Are we going to be a country that successfully secures everyone’s rights in a just and neutral manner before the law? Are we going to be a country which commits to universal standards of human rights, including the ones we have always been sensitive in addressing, such as domestic violence? And are we going to carve out a place for religion which does not contradict the formation of a democratic and just society? And this is a battle that will continue.
The third battle, which comes naturally after a revolution, is about testing the limits. Societies in post revolutionary phases have post revolutionary values as well; as value systems change in revolutions. The big question is, are Egyptians going to reflect the change in politics, in their society and value systems as well? And here testing the limits is really about individual freedom and the right of choice as opposed to societal constraints; whether they are sanctioned by religion, tradition or by anything else. My choice is to see a free Egypt.
Do you have any particular preference with regard to the type of political system? Parliamentary or presidential?
I’m for a parliamentary system. Politically, we have been suffering from the dominance of the executive over the legislative and judicial branches of government. The only way to check that is to have a parliamentary system. We are also trying to get out of the strictly centralised structure of the state, which never created incentives for democracy or democratisation at the national or local level. To push forward decentralisation you need to adopt a parliamentary system. As an academic, I know it is going to be difficult to establish a democratic presidential system in Egypt because of our long autocratic traditions; dominant presidents and pharaohs and so on…
Some people say a parliamentary system has its own difficulties as it’s likely to be fractured, with many fragile coalitions…
It will be weak and it will be fractured. But we’ll have to go through it. Muddling through is what new democracies are about. Democratisation has always been a messy process everywhere. There is no other solution than to muddle through.
So are you optimistic?
I am by default! But I feel that at the end of the day things will be just fine.
Has your party decided to support any of the potential presidential candidates?
No, we won’t concern ourselves with the presidential elections until we are done with the parliamentary elections. It’s more crucial now to sort out the issue of the constitution and see what kind of parliamentary elections we will have. The parliament will never live up to our expectations, but at least we have to do our part and see if the Egyptian Bloc will be able to function and compete in the elections. That’s where we are focused now.
There is a general observation that liberal parties are having difficulty getting to the grass roots. Are you finding that difficulty too?
No, I’ve been moving across the country since February 12th. But it takes time. For the last six decades freedom of expression and freedom of association were severely restricted. So we are reentering a social and political environment which we’re not familiar with. And in the background, some of our basic concepts and terms have been misused. On the other side, there is also a vicious campaign by religious forces trying to discredit us as secular or Koffar (non believers) and things like that! So we are fighting against all of that. But we are reaching out, and based on the parameters of what we are facing, we are doing quite well. Do we have to change the way we are going about it? Yes, we have to be less elitist and less urban focused. We have to focus on rural areas, and even there, not on the big cities but on the villages, which we already started doing. Every party, every group is building its outreach experience now and we are developing our skills. But this will not be effective enough for the next elections, because the time frame is too limited. You need years to change voters’ preferences and impact their behavior.
So what has your strategy been? Are you just trying to focus on a limited area?
Definitely. And we are quite conscious of our limitations, so this will be reflected in the number of candidates we will run as the Egyptian Bloc. Strategically, we need to get one third of the seats plus one seat to have blocking power.
I’d like to touch on your recent column in Al Shorouk, which although dealing with difficult issues, really fascinated a lot of people because it was, in effect, a beautiful expression of your feelings towards the actress Basma. Can you tell us about the background behind the column?
A few moments of silence. Actually, Basma and I decided not to talk about this again. What I wrote, I honestly wrote for Basma. I didn’t have the proper means to let her know how I feel, so I decided to go about informing the country in order for Basma to know… (he laughs).
So did you get her attention?
I would say so. (He laughs). In the end, I got her attention. But I was really writing against stereotypes and against a majority in society which treat certain sectors, and people associated with these sectors, in an unjust manner. I was writing against the stereotype of being a politician and therefore not disclosing what you feel. I needed to say what I felt, and no one is allowed to impose a pattern of behavior on me…
Have you really received criticism in that way?
Yes, and I needed to stop it. I needed to argue openly against attempts to influence me, what I feel and what I care for, away from the public space. I am against attempts to keep you wearing your political hat in the public space, with no soul and no feelings; attempts to tell me that my private life should be kept a secret. I cannot function this way. I would hate to have parallel lives.
So first, I needed to make an argument against separating the different spheres of your life. The way I function in the public sphere is exactly the way I live in my private sphere. And secondly, I wanted to argue against the stereotype which many in Egypt have about specific sectors in society such as fann (art) which are looked at as embodying immorality. I fully stand behind it and I’m not going to compromise on what I believe in. Art is not about immorality; art is a place where you find morality in society. Thirdly, I wanted to argue that it’s nobody’s business to evaluate my public role based on what I do in my personal life. I’m transparent in my public role and in my personal life. Any judgment should be related to what I offer and what I do.
What was the reaction to the column?
Very positive, I was dramatically surprised. I continue to receive phone calls from all over Egypt and the Arab world. I’m glad what I wrote is being looked at as ‘breaking the ice’ or testing the limits in one of the battles we are going through. But I really wrote it for Basma. That was my only intention and driving force.
How did she feel about it? She must have been touched by it.
(He laughs) Well, she gave me the attention I needed. So it worked.