Interview: Tariq Ramadan on Tunisia and Egypt

The system in Egypt is corrupt, there is no democracy and the difficulty for the next election is posed by Mubarak’s role and his son’s succession, and not just that – says the influential Swiss-Egyptian philosopher, teacher and writer TARIQ RAMADAN.

Nina zu Fürstenberg / ResetDoc   

Were the Tunisian events a pleasant surprise for you too? What kind of developments will there be?

I have stood against the regime for almost fifteen years. What is happening is great. But we still have to be very cautious. Even if the dictator is out, the system is still in place and we are in a transitional period. Some of his people are still around, and we are in a very tricky situation. In this transitory period the reformers must show moderation. At the same time, the whole system should be dismantled; the fact that the dictator is out is not enough. We still have to be very cautious about the “true” results of this situation. It is clear that there will be no going back; we are moving towards a more democratic system, but this democratic system should be truly democratic, with transparent elections and all the rest.

Now, would you expect similar upheavals in other countries in the area?

Change is the hope we all have. In Tunisia, we saw people being killed, killing themselves just to try to create, to provoke something… but, so far, nothing similar has taken place in other countries and I don’t think that over the short term anything will happen. It will be a long process. All countries are worried, that is certain.

Is it going to happen in Egypt?

The system in Egypt is corrupt, there is no democracy and the difficulty for the next election is posed by Mubarak’s role and his son’s succession, and not just that. The problem is posed by powerful and influential people and the whole authoritarian system that is supporting this regime. Ben Ali’s regime was powerful too. You ask me if something similar to like Tunisia could happen in Egypt? I would not exclude this. I have heard that they want to organize large demonstrations.

DON’T BUT ME … French president Nicolas Sarkozy with Ben Ali and Mubarak

Do you think the Egyptian regime could reveal itself as weak as the Tunisian one?

I wouldn’t say that the Tunisian regime was weak. I think it was powerful, but there was a critical moment when all powers, including the army, decided not to remain on the dictator’s side. I am not sure whether the Egyptian army would act the same way. Still, I would not totally exclude the army’s refusal to support the regime, because it is very corrupt.

By “weak” I meant weak in consensus, in other words unpopular.

Yes, there is indeed no support for the Egyptian regime. It is very unpopular, the people are suffering and they are against what is happening. Demonstrations or other events that symbolize something new, something bigger, might trigger some change, but honestly, I don’t really see this happening, because the Egyptian regime has totally taken control of the country for the last ten years. The American administration and supporters of the current Egyptian regime are far more scared here, I think, than they are in the case of Tunisia. Egypt is too critical.

What is happening to the entire region in terms of the involvement of the Islam and political religious movements? Are Islamists important in this situations? The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt should play a more relevant role than it has in Tunisia.

I think that in Tunisia the Muslim Brotherhood has decided not to be visible, not to become really involved and just support change. What happened there did not come from Islamists, it came from the people. It would have been wrong for them to be seen as a driving force. They want to be acknowledged as a player within the system, and this is happening. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is more like a force of resistance, especially since the last elections, when they withdrew after the first round. They play a critical role. If anything happens in Egypt, they will join, like in the Kefaya, the ‘enough is enough’ movement, (a grass roots movement against Mubarak’s regime, editor’s note.). They are all involved in that, and they have a lot of support. It is not a majority support, and the Islamists know that. But they also know that they will play a role. Things are different in Tunisia; no one can say the Islamists are part of the process of change, because this is not true. But if something happened in Egypt, it would be labelled as a turning point towards Islamism, and that could be used by Mubarak.

Do you think that, after having been excluded from the political process in Egypt, the movement inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood will be more or less radical, more or less democratic?

I think that if you look at what the Muslim Brotherhood has been saying over the last twenty years, it has already changed a lot. They were against democracy, now they are for democracy, for the involvement of the movement. They are changing. They have not reached a “Turkish” level yet. There still is a gap between the Turkish Islamists and the Egyptians. The current Muslim Brotherhood leadership is quite old, closer to Erbakan (old Turkish Islamist leader and Prime Minister, removed from power by a 1997 Army coup, editor’s note.) than to Erdogan (today’s PM and AKP leader, editor’s note.). Strictly speaking I don’t think there will be a revolution. I would rather say that today they will remain legalists, by trying to play the game at the grassroots level.

Are Egyptian and Tunisian Islamists – part of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups – very different from each other? And are there different approaches to democracy and human rights?

This is a critical question. The West should understand that there are many kinds of Islamists, even in Tunisia. For example, Rachid Ghannouchi comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, but in the sixties and seventies he was the only one in this group to say that democracy is the right thing, while the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was saying no. He did not have a problem with democracy. He had a far more liberal and advanced view, even in what he wrote about women, compared to other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, even from within this group! So there was a debate. In Tunisia you also have different trends arising from those who are much more Salafite, literalists.

So there is an internal debate. But who is stronger, who will prevail?

I think that today the mainstream reference in Tunisia is much more advanced. And I would say, that between Ghannouchi and Erdogan, for example, you can see many mirroring positions on democracy, dealing with the West and dialogue. I think they are going the same way. In Egypt it is different. Here, once again, it is not a question of trends, but a question of generations. In the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood “to be younger” means to be sixty! It was not like in the 40s. There is an internal struggle between generations and between trends, and I think that there is no monolithic reality of Islamism today.

In comparing the two countries, one can see that the driving force in Tunisia is much more advanced in dealing with democracy or with women. This is very important. A movement like Kefaya would have been impossible twenty years ago in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood had refused to deal with other political views, such as those of communists, “leftists” or atheists, but they changed, because they understood that you cannot resist the Mubarak dictatorship if you are isolated. If we don’t want to buy what dictators are saying, “it’s us or them” – meaning the Islamists –, and if we want to get a better sense about what the opposition could be, we need to get a better sense of what these trends within Islamism are. There are people who are moving, changing, and others who are resisting and who are more traditionalist, and sometimes even violent.