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Hanging with the Muslim Brotherhood

I just met with a high-ranking member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo while large ongoing demonstrations against Egypt’s ruling military junta continue 24 hours a day in Tahrir Square downtown. Every political party in the country is at that square right now except the Muslim Brotherhood. If you want to meet with them, you have to take a taxi down to their headquarters.

My friend, colleague, and traveling companion Armin Rosen is with me. He and I have spoken to liberals, socialists, small-l libertarians, intellectuals, human rights activists, moderate establishment figures, professors, local journalists, Egyptian foreign policy experts, and a bunch of random people. The range of political opinion right now in Egypt is much wider than it was before. The January revolution really broke this place open. It’s physically and culturally the same country I visited before, but it’s politically unrecognizable as the Egypt I knew.

Everyone outside Egypt wants to know more about the Muslim Brotherhood, though, so I’m going to start by letting you read the entire conversation Armin and I had with one of its most prominent figures. Be careful, though. Don’t assume this man represents Egypt’s political center. He doesn’t. The Muslim Brotherhood speaks for itself and represents only a large minority.

It was the largest and best organized opposition group during Hosni Mubarak’s rule, but that was partly a function of it being the only sizeable organization that was semi-tolerated by the regime for its own reasons. Now that Egyptians are free to go their own way, there are roughly 40 different political parties. The Muslim Brotherhood isn’t the only available “protest vote” any more. I’ve already met people who have abandoned the Muslim Brothers to join liberals and leftists, partly because they’re tired of rigid old men, but also because more liberal options are finally viable. And the Brotherhood itself is rupturing into relatively moderate and reactionary fragments.

It is still a powerful force, though, powerful enough that the United States government thinks it might be a good idea to establish contacts with the party. And the Brothers will no doubt have an impact on regional politics even if they do end up, at the end of the day, smaller (and therefore with a harder core) than they recently were.

If you’ve been wondering whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood in its current form is a moderate or an extremist organization, I will let this interview with one of its senior officials, executive bureau member Esam El-Erian, speak for itself.

Muslim Brotherhood executive bureau member Esam El-Erian

Armin Rosen: Can you tell us about the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision for Egypt at this point?

Esam El-Erian: Egypt has changed, and change is ongoing. It has been changing not only in the last ten years, but for one hundred years. We have been struggling for freedom and independence for a long time, ever since we were occupied by the British in 1882. During this period we had two big attempts to build a democratic state. Both failed. One was a good attempt after the big revolution in 1919. We had a liberal life, a parliament, and a constitution, but the monarchy stopped everything. Then we had a military coup in 1952. We hoped to have a good democratic system, but when the military rules, you can forget about having a democracy.

This is our third attempt, and it’s different this time because the people themselves went to the streets to revolt. No one dares to say he’s a leader of the revolution or behind the revolution. The people are making this happen through their own efforts. We Muslim Brothers were among the people because we represent a sector of the population, but we’d never dare to say this revolution is an Islamic revolution. It’s a national revolution.

MJT: You guys were completely taken by surprise by this, weren’t you?

Esam El-Erian: We all need a free and independent democratic state. We have struggled for a strong and independent Egypt not only for 100 years, but for 200 years, since Mohammad Ali. He was also supported by foreigners. There was no USA at that time, but the French, British, and Germans put him under siege, and this was an insult to Egyptians. We were under the authority of the Ottoman Empire, and we respected Mohammad Ali and the Ottoman authorities, but he wanted reform within the empire and to have a good modern country as a symbol. He never achieved this. In 30 years, he was broken. And ever since we’ve wanted an independent and strong modern state.

MJT: What do you think of the liberal era before Nasser came to power in 1952? When you look back on that, does it look better than the current era or worse?

Esam El-Erian: The Bush Administration invaded Afghanistan, and it failed. You’re facing disaster there now and don’t know how to escape. [Laughs.] A safe escape from Afghanistan will just add another disaster added to the disaster of the occupation. And the Bush Administration tried to create a democratic model in Iraq. It also brought a disaster, not only to the Iraqi people, but to the nation of America and the values of America. And to the economy of America. [Laughs.]

This was, of course, not in the American interest, but in the interest of some people who are governing the think tanks and the media. Now that Obama is facing this disaster, the Republicans are putting this burden on his shoulders. This is a big lie. He inherited this.

It is time for you to respect others, to respect your values, and to be a real democracy. Respect multiplicity in the world. We are different. This county is different from Saudi Arabia. It is different from America and the U.K. This is the most important lesson of the Egyptian and Arab revolutions. You need to respect their choice. Don’t intervene in their domestic affairs. Treat them as equals, as human beings, not as an oil field. [Laughs.] People are not going to drink oil.

I hope after the success of the revolution, if the revolution has an impact in Saudi Arabia, that the Saudis will only produce the oil they need, not what you need. If they keep their own oil for their own future generations, that will teach the Americans to respect others and not to insult the Saudis and the Arabs.

Armin Rosen: How are Americans insulting the Saudis?

Esam El-Erian: Yes. Yes. Yes. I’ll give you some examples. Your administrations—while your people are silent—have been supporting tyrants and dictators all over the Islamic world for more than 60 years.

MJT: The government has, yes.

Esam El-Erian: You supported the Shah of Iran. You supported Suharto, the generals in Pakistan, all Arab leaders.

MJT: You do understand that was government policy.

Esam El-Erian: Yes, but the American government is an elected one. You don’t only vote on your taxes. You also vote for foreign affairs.

MJT: During our election campaigns we don’t get the choice between supporting or not supporting Mubarak.

Esam El-Erian: You insult Arab people.

MJT: You insult Americans.

Esam El-Erian: No.

MJT: There is a lot of anti-American sentiment in Egypt, especially from you.

Esam El-Erian: Please respect my intelligence. When you vote for Republicans who create wars in the Arab world, and when a million people take to the streets while having no effect on the administration, what can you call this?

The second thing, of course, and you know this from media reports and human rights organizations, that people are tortured and killed on American orders. The third is that you never respect the rights of Palestinians. You never give equal opportunities to Palestinians and Zionists. All the time you are biased. You’re biased now and will be in the future. You’re biased.

Hillary Clinton just said Bashar al-Assad is not important to Americans anymore. Before this declaration, he was important! You supported him! People here are intelligent. They consider every word.

How can people here explain or understand the last decision in Congress which prevents Mr. Obama from training the revolutionaries in Libya?

MJT: What do you think about what’s going on over there?

Esam El-Erian: Look, sir. It’s a big game. You cannot convince me that the American administration is sticking to American values. Qaddafi is your man.

MJT: He’s our man?

Esam El-Erian: Yes.

MJT: Now, wait a minute.

Esam El-Erian: Yes.

Armin Rosen: He bombed a disco full of Americans.

MJT: He has been an anti-American dictator since the day he took power.

Esam El-Erian: French people are now having secret talks with Qaddafi and his son. [Laughs.]

MJT: We are not French.

Esam El-Erian: You neglected everything about Qaddafi when he declared that he’d get rid of so-called nuclear weapons. You neglected to think about him killing people and destroying his country. Your administration neglected everything. So how can I understand that Qaddafi was behind the attack over Lockerbie, Scotland? El Megrahi [the supposed mastermind of the attack] is still living in Libya and is a very big symbol of the hypocrisy of the West. All the West.

MJT: I want to back up for a second. You said that Qaddafi is our man because we restored relations with Libya. Is that all it takes for a dictator to be “our man”? That we have diplomatic relations?

Esam El-Erian: Sir. Who protected Qaddafi’s military coup d’etat? Who protected him? You had all this military power. You could have stopped him.

Who protects all the dictators of the Arab world? Your men are there everywhere, from the king of Morocco to the king of Bahrain. They are your men.

MJT: The king of Bahrain is an American ally, but Qaddafi was never an ally.

Esam El-Erian: These men represent foreign interests. I study history. You might not be convinced by what I say, but this will all be clear after secrets become available in documents. Some people here in this country believe Nasser was protected by the Americans. You advised Mubarak during this revolution to stay in power by making reforms.

Armin Rosen: What sort of relations would you like to see Egypt have with the United States?

Esam El-Erian: Ordinary relations. I think Americans are on the same track. And the world is not America. The world is very wide. We have Africa, we have Asia, we have the Arab world, we have Moscow, we have India. All those are ready to have ordinary relations with the Arab world. China is now the big purchaser of oil in the Sudan.

Armin Rosen: The government in Sudan is far more oppressive than the government in Libya.

Esam El-Erian: No. No. No. Look, sir. China, Iran, and France are the three players in Africa. America is now out. And the Arab world may be lost to America if it doesn’t revise its strategy. It may be lost. All the Arab world. This American attempt to stop the revolution in Syria and Libya and Yemen is going to fail.

MJT: Now, wait just a minute.

Armin Rosen: You think it’s okay for China to buy oil from Sudan, but it’s not okay for the U.S. to re-establish ties with Qaddafi after he gave up his nuclear weapons program? Isn’t that a double standard?

Esam El-Erian: China’s interests are economic only. It doesn’t link economics and politics. All your candidates say they will transfer your embassy from Tel Aviv to Al Quds [Jerusalem].

MJT: They always say that, but they never do it.

Esam El-Erian: But what’s the message to the Arab world? This is very dangerous for the image of Americans. You are biased!

MJT: Yeah, but you’re biased, too. You guys are completely biased toward the Palestinians.

Esam El-Erian: When Congressmen stood up thirty times to salute Netanyahu when he gave his speech in the Congress, it destroyed any dream for peace.

MJT: Why should Americans be unbiased, but it’s okay for you to be biased?

Esam El-Erian: We are fighting for and defending our interests.

MJT: So are we. That’s how the world works.

Esam El-Erian: This is our right.

Can you imagine a democratic Syria or a democratic Jordan assimilating Palestinians in their lands? They cannot. It is a matter of time. Those people must go back [to Israel]. You prevent Mexicans by force from secret immigration.

MJT: Only illegal immigrants, not legal immigrants.

Esam El-Erian: This is illegal. We cannot have non-citizens in our lands. They take our jobs.

MJT: Palestinian refugees have been living in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan for more than 60 years.

Esam El-Erian: No! Even if they’ve been there for 200 years, they must go back [to Israel].

MJT: What about all the Jews in Israel that got thrown out of places like Baghdad?

Esam El-Erian: Let them live together.

MJT: Should they go back to Baghdad?

Esam El-Erian: Let them live together. Why not? Live together.

MJT: They can’t live together because they don’t like each other.

Esam El-Erian: What about the Jews who came from Russia? Why do you put pressure on Syrian people, or Lebanese people, to compensate and tolerate Palestinians? You never put any pressure on Israel to compensate or tolerate Palestinians. Is this biased or not biased?

MJT: It’s biased, but why should we not be biased and not stick by our allies, while you are biased and stick by your allies? That’s just how the world works. Look, I don’t expect Egyptians to suddenly like Israel, so why…

Esam El-Erian: Our only war is the war for democracy. Those guys in Tahrir Square and Syria and Yemen are struggling for democracy. When democracy flourishes, it will solve everything, including the conflict with Israel. Democracy will solve it, peacefully, without bloodshed. We need democracy and freedom. These are human values. Are we an exception? We are not an exception!

You spend 40 million dollars here to promote democracy. This was declared in the Congress. This is good. But you can keep this for yourselves, and we can build our democracy without any aid.

MJT: You would rather that Americans who support Egyptian democracy not help you?

Esam El-Erian: Keep your money for poor Americans. It’s better for you.

MJT: Well, a lot of Americans would agree with you about that.

Esam El-Erian: You have trouble with your health care system. Sick people in America need this money. It would be good for them. And good for us.

Hosni Mubarak is Egyptian. If we dislike him, we will put him on trial. I was tortured in prison by Hosni Mubarak, but I am for giving him a fair trial and the opportunity to defend himself. I faced a military trial, but never called for a military trial for Hosni Mubarak. You know why he won’t face international charges? Because he will be asked about everything. And when he says everything, it will destroy the images of many leaders around the world. Your leaders are against a trial for Hosni Mubarak. There will be big surprises when we try Hosni Mubarak. Israel will send a spy to kill him before the trial! [Laughs.] We want to know why a former Israeli minister described Mubarak as a “treasure.”

Please, if you want to describe what is going on in Egypt and the Arab world, it is a big change. No power can stop this change because it’s the will of the people, the power of the people. People want to live in peace, not in war, in independent democratic states, preserving their human dignity, keeping their wealth for themselves and future demonstrations.

MJT: Do you think they’ll win in Syria? Assad is killing lots of people.

Esam El-Erian: Others killed even more. His father killed 20,000 people in one day in Hama. Change can reach every place. The kings of Morocco and Jordan are making reforms.

MJT: What do you think of the Saudi government?

Esam El-Erian: They are intelligent. Kings are more intelligent than tyrants. They have the wealth and the power. If they give some power to the people, they keep the wealth. And this is good.

I hope you transmit the truth to the American people, and also advise politicians that they must revise their strategy.

MJT: What would you like American foreign policy to look like?

Esam El-Erian: Of course, that is up to Americans. You should advise them. I cannot advise them. You in the media play a very important role.

MJT: A little role.

Esam El-Erian: The media and think tanks play a very important role. You created a ghost, a monster, this terrorism. You magnify terrorism, and we face its vengeance. You in the media link every Arab, every Muslim, to terrorists. We were pushed to take off our shoes in your airports.

MJT: I have to take off my shoes, too.

Esam El-Erian: Why?

MJT: I don’t like it either.

Esam El-Erian: You make people live in terror.

MJT: Who does?

Esam El-Erian: You do. The media.

MJT: Who is living in terror?

Esam El-Erian: Your politicians. Your media. Your media.

MJT: We don’t live in terror. I don’t know a single person in the media who lives in terror.

Esam El-Erian: Can you answer one question? Why don’t we hear about trials for September 11?

MJT: Because the people who did it are dead. They killed themselves in the towers.

Armin Rosen: There was a civilian trial.

Esam El-Erian: Four thousand innocent people were killed, and there has been no trial.

MJT: That’s because the people who did it are dead.

Esam El-Erian: Nobody was put in a cage to face a trial.

MJT: They were on the planes. They blew themselves up in the towers.

Esam El-Erian: No. Who was behind it?

MJT: Osama bin Laden. And we just killed him, too.

Esam El-Erian: We know you have about 600 people in Guantanamo Bay. None of them have faced trials. Why? This is a very big mystery.

MJT: Well, what do you think happened? What’s your theory?

Esam El-Erian: And another 4,000 Americans were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. You have almost 10,000 innocent Americans killed. Never mind the millions killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. You never put anyone on trial. Who is behind all this? Who made the conspiracy? Is Osama bin Laden alone? Who is behind Osama bin Laden?

Armin Rosen: Who do you think is behind Osama bin Laden?

Esam El-Erian: I want to know!

MJT: What’s your theory?

Esam El-Erian: You have the documents now that Osama bin Laden is dead.

MJT: What’s your theory?

Esam El-Erian: I don’t know.

MJT: You have a theory.

Esam El-Erian: I want to know. That is the question.

MJT: Everybody has a theory. What’s yours?

Esam El-Erian: Why 10,000 Americans killed? Why? Without any investigation.

MJT: Why does it have to be a conspiracy? It really isn’t that complicated.

Esam El-Erian: Is Osama bin Laden alone, or is somebody with him?

MJT: Why does anyone have to be behind Osama bin Laden?

Esam El-Erian: This must be investigated in America! There is this case in the U.K. about hacked telephones. 160 news people were fired.

MJT: [Laughs.] That has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden.

Esam El-Erian: A very old newspaper was closed. There was no drop of blood. If 10,000 Americans don’t expect to have a full investigation about the killings in New York, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we want to know.

MJT: Look, it really isn’t that complicated. Osama bin Laden had some support in Saudi Arabia and from Pakistan’s ISI.

Esam El-Erian: Look, sir. It is not enough that Osama bin Laden admitted in public that he did it. Osama bin Laden can’t do it alone.

MJT: He had some support in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Esam El-Erian: If you’re saying Saddam Hussein supported him, it’s a lie. Colin Powell said Saddam Hussein had biological weapons, but this was a lie. Colin Powell now regrets this.

We want to know.

MJT: What is it that you don’t know?

Esam El-Erian: You tell me.

MJT: This isn’t complicated.

Esam El-Erian: Yes, it’s complicated. I agree!

MJT: No. It’s not complicated.

Esam El-Erian: I am a physician. If a lady comes to me and suffers from any complaint, I will investigate. A complicated case must be fully investigated.

It has been ten years. When will Americans will know the truth about who killed 10,000 people?

MJT: The American people are satisfied that we know who did it.

Esam El-Erian: No.

MJT: Yes, we are.

Esam El-Erian: No.

MJT: You aren’t, but we are.

Esam El-Erian: The people cannot forget. The victims and their families will face everyone who keeps silent and protects the real people who were behind this and have drawn a curtain over the truth.

MJT: Who do you think did it? You think the United States government did it?

Esam El-Erian: The American people faced Joe McCarthy. And there were the Chinese people after the Cultural Revolution.

MJT: Are you suggesting the United States government was behind 9/11?

Esam El-Erian: Nobody knows! I don’t know.

Armin Rosen: Let me suggest…

Esam El-Erian: You are very naïve people.

MJT: I’m not naïve. I do this for a living.

Esam El-Erian: So Osama bin Laden admits he’s the murderer. You gave him 25 million dollars, then you killed him, so fine, now the file is closed. For me, it is not closed.

Armin Rosen: Let me be even more blunt than Michael. There is a clear line between the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ideology that inspires Al Qaeda.

MJT: That’s absolutely true.

Armin Rosen: Is there some queasiness on your part in blaming 9/11 solely on him as opposed to the dictators that you believe the U.S. supports?

Esam El-Erian: Of course. We are victims of 9/11.

MJT: Ayman al-Zawahiri was a member of your organization.

Esam El-Erian: This region [pounds table] is a victim of 9/11. This region was put under dictatorship because we were accused as a nation of being behind 9/11.

MJT: Nobody thinks Egypt committed 9/11.

Esam El-Erian: Mohammad Atta is from Egypt.

MJT: Yes, he’s from Egypt, but he himself is not Egypt.

Esam El-Erian: We were all called criminals. The entire nation.

MJT: Nobody thinks that.

Esam El-Erian: Yes. For ten years. Why do you support those dictatorships that torture us in our prisons?

Armin Rosen: Do you see any relation between the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda? There is a history there.

Esam El-Erian: Al Qaeda has been against the Muslim Brotherhood all its life.

MJT: That’s true, but Ayman al-Zawahiri was once a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Esam El-Erian: I was surprised when a Congressman visited me last week and said it is well-known in America that the Muslim Brotherhood is linked to Al Qaeda.

MJT: I’m not saying you are Al Qaeda.

Esam El-Erian: You know, but he is a decision-maker. He says the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda are the same.

MJT: If you were Al Qaeda, I wouldn’t be sitting in your office.

Esam El-Erian: Look, sir. If you don’t dare to learn the truth about 9/11, we will. We were victims of this dirty and bloody crime.

MJT: You think you’re victims because Egypt was blamed?

Esam El-Erian: All the nation. The whole Arab and Muslim nation was called terrorists. And you put these nations under dictatorship to face this ghost.

MJT: We didn’t put Egypt under dictatorship.

Esam El-Erian: Your administration did.

MJT: Mubarak was already in power.

Esam El-Erian: And you put Hamas in the same cage as Al Qaeda. They are fighting for their liberty, but you describe them as terrorists.

MJT: What do you think of Hamas’ martyrdom operations [suicide-bombings]?

Esam El-Erian: Hamas was elected in a democratic process that your former president Jimmy Carter witnessed, but you neglect everything and call them terrorists.

MJT: So you think they aren’t terrorists.

Esam El-Erian: Of course. They are fighters for liberty. Their land is occupied by the real terrorists. Real terrorists who kill innocent farmers in Qana and children in Egypt. They killed children in school here in 1968. They are the real terrorists.

MJT: Hamas kills children in schools.

Esam El-Erian: Why do you describe one as terrorist, but not the other? Say both are terrorists. If you make an excuse for someone, you must have this excuse for others.

MJT: Not all violence is terrorism.

Esam El-Erian: Israelis kill children. They killed 300 children in Gaza. Those 300 children were fighters?

MJT: Children get killed in every war, but that doesn’t mean everyone who fights in a war is a terrorist. Egypt sent troops to Yemen to fight there and help the revolutionaries. Is Egypt a terrorist state? Do you seriously believe that no Egyptian soldier ever killed a child in Yemen?

Esam El-Erian: Look, sir.

MJT: I asked you a serious question.

Esam El-Erian: For three centuries your grandfathers killed the Indians.

MJT: We can do this all day.

Esam El-Erian: If you want to go to history, we can walk through history together. But we are speaking about the present. [Bangs table.] In the present, you are biased.

MJT: Of course we’re biased. So are you.

Esam El-Erian: Your media and administration are biased.

MJT: Everyone is biased.

Esam El-Erian: The politicians are no longer making the rules here. The people are. And the people are very intelligent in Egypt, even farmers in Upper Egypt. They know who is our enemy. Don’t link yourself and your nation to the enemy of the Egyptian people.

MJT: Who is the enemy of the Egyptians?

Esam El-Erian: Israelis.

MJT: You guys have a peace treaty with Israel.

Esam El-Erian: If they respect it, the Egyptian people will respect it, but the Israelis do not respect it.

MJT: Israel is not attacking Egypt.

Esam El-Erian: Israel attacks everybody.

MJT: Israel is not attacking Egypt.

Esam El-Erian: Why are you neglecting the attack on Gaza?

MJT: Gaza is not Egypt.

Esam El-Erian: Bombs came over our borders. Why do you neglect the treaty? We have no comprehensive peace and no Palestinian state.

The whole world is changing. This is a time to revise the whole world order, as George Bush the father said. We need a new world order. Human beings should have equal lives and equal opportunities with the West. We must share in this new order and not be neglected all the time.

Armin Rosen: There are a lot of people in the U.S. who think the Muslim Brotherhood wants a moderate Islamist state supported by the military like they have in Sudan.

Esam El-Erian: Sudan is not an Islamist state. [Laughs.]

Armin Rosen: It’s a constitutionally Islamist state backed by the military.

Esam El-Erian: All the Arab states are constitutionally described as Islamic states. All of them.

Armin Rosen: Well, what sort of ideal state structure do you want?

Esam El-Erian: An Egyptian state.

Armin Rosen: What does that mean?

Esam El-Erian: All of your colleagues ask me that question. The British made a democracy, and the French made another one, and the Americans made a third one, and the Germans made a sixth one. All are democratic. We have diversity and different interpretations, so we can have different models of democracy.

MJT: Lebanon has its own model of democracy, and Iraq has a slightly different one. What would Egypt’s look like structurally?

Esam El-Erian: Lebanon is a special circumstance.

[His cell phone rings. He has been ignoring most incoming calls, but he has to take this one and he talks for ten minutes in Arabic. He eventually hangs up and switches back to English.]

Thank you, sirs. It was a nice hot meeting. [Laughs.]

MJT: Before we go, can I at least ask why you aren’t down in Tahrir Square with everyone else? Every party in the country is demonstrating against the regime except the Muslim Brotherhood.

Esam El-Erian: We were in Tahrir Square.

MJT: But you aren’t there now.

Esam El-Erian: Because now is very confusing. I went down there yesterday. I looked at the faces of the people, and they are not the people I know.

MJT: The people down there are liberals and socialists.

Esam El-Erian: It’s chaos.

Armin Rosen: We’ve talked to a lot of activists there, and almost all of them say the Muslim Brotherhood is not on their side, that you’re opportunists.

Esam El-Erian: We were there on Friday, but we are not backing the sit-in.

Armin Rosen: I mean in general. They don’t feel like you’re on their side.

Esam El-Erian: Look, sir. When the history of this revolution is written, everything will be clear. We are not going to say anything about our role in the revolution. Let the others say what they want.

*

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