Interview with Michael J. Totten
I’ve spent enough time in Egypt and interviewed enough people there to know that authentic liberals (in the general, classical, sense of the word) are thin on the ground, but they do exist and Samuel Tadros is one of them.
Fortunately for us—and unfortunately for his country—he left and lives now in Washington.
Last year he published his first book, Motherland Lost, which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal, and he returns now with a short book (a long essay between covers) called Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt published by the Hoover Institution.
He and I spoke about it a couple of days ago.
MJT: You make a strong case in your book that the Egyptian revolutionaries commonly described as liberals are not really liberals. So who are these people really, and why do you suppose the West misunderstood them?
Samuel Tadros: They are really an amalgam of groups and individuals who took a stand against Mubarak. Some of them were Nasserists whose complaint with the regime was that it abrogated the promises made by Gamal Abdel Nasser [after the military coup of 1952]. They were upset about Mubarak’s internal policies as well as his policies toward Israel and the United States. Others were revolutionary socialists unhappy with the regime’s economic policies.
Most of the original revolutionaries before the crowds joined in were Nasserists and socialists, though some were what we could call proto-liberals. These were intellectuals who didn’t have strong convictions, and they didn’t really understand political liberalism, but the word “liberal” sounded good to them. Communism was less attractive to these people after the fall of the Soviet Union. Everyone abroad was talking about liberalism in Egypt, donors were seeking like minded Egyptians, so some Egyptians adopted the label for themselves without really understanding liberal ideas.
The West misunderstood them because of the natural tendency to find a good guy in the story, someone who looks like yourself. It’s hard to tell Americans there are no good guys. Everyone who was not an Islamist and not a supporter of the Mubarak regime assumed that role, but hardly anyone examined what these people were actually saying. Many of the revolutionary socialists, for instance, were offended when they were called liberals.
MJT: When the revolutionary socialists hear the word “liberal,” what do they think that means?
Samuel Tadros: Of all the groups in Egypt, the revolutionary socialists have the best understanding of political liberalism, partly because they are so strongly against it. They are especially against liberal economic policy. They don’t want an open economy. They’re also strongly opposed to procedural democracy. They don’t want to limit it only to the political sphere. They think it should be implemented everywhere, especially in the workplace. They want it inside companies between owners and employees.
The revolutionary socialists understand liberalism, but the other groups have only a shallow understanding of it. Some of them claimed to be liberals, but their behavior was extremely anti-liberal. They say they support human rights, but only for themselves, not for other people, especially people they’re against politically. Their discourse is extremely anti-Semitic and they tortured people in Tahrir Square.
This should not come as a surprise to anyone given the lack of liberal discourse in Egypt. It would be impossible to find five books in Arabic that stand for liberalism. The great canon of Western civilization is not available in Arabic.
MJT: Expand a bit on that torture business. Those incidents aren’t widely known outside Egypt.
Samuel Tadros: The core revolutionaries believed the Mubarak regime was pure evil, that it was all powerful, and that nobody supported it. So any person they encountered who was against the revolution was automatically assumed to be working for this enormous powerful state. Anyone who disagreed with the protestors was accused of working for the secret police.
I’m sure Mubarak had informers in Tahrir Square. Any regime would have sent informers down there. But the revolutionaries didn’t know who these people were, and they created a small prison inside the square for people arrested by the revolutionaries. They conducted justice in the square as if it were an independent state. You can see videos on YouTube of people who were tortured by the revolutionaries, who were arrested and beaten.
This revolutionary justice, the taking of the law into their own hands, was seen again when police stations were attacked with Molotov cocktails. Policemen were beaten and killed in the streets. The revolution is often described as peaceful, but that’s not entirely correct. It was peaceful compared with the civil war in Syria, but more than 800 people were killed during the 18 days before Mubarak was removed from power. Police stations were burned and ransacked. Weapons were stolen. There was a lot of violence then.
MJT: Your book includes a sentence that really struck me. You wrote that the revolutionaries were completely ignorant of the country they sought to transform. How could they be so ignorant of their own country, and what exactly did they not understand?
Samuel Tadros: Egypt is a large country. There are around 90 million people, but 20 million people live in one city. It’s tempting to be blinded by Cairo. It’s a humongous city. So it’s not surprising that people who spend all their days in Cairo and only leave to go to the north coast on vacation would mistake Cairo for Egypt. Many of them have hardly seen the rest of the country.
They also saw the revolution as a struggle between black and white, between good and evil, between a corrupt regime and forces for change. That kind of struggle doesn’t require people to get involved in the details of the society. They didn’t want to see any gray in the story. For them, it had to be black and white.
And they don’t understand how politics really works. They entered politics through the human rights NGOs, which are inflexible and demanding, rather than the traditional method which requires you to visit villages, campaign, mobilize the vote, and make compromises with your opponents.
MJT: What do you think of Egypt’s new ruler General Sisi?
Samuel Tadros: He’s an extremely problematic figure. For someone who is now becoming Egypt’s president, for a long time we didn’t know much about him. He’s had an exceptional rise to power to say the least. But now we can see who the man really is, and it’s not pretty.
His view of the state’s relationship to the society is totalitarian. He’s not Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, but he sees no separation between the state and anything else. He views every aspect of the public and private sphere as an organic part of the state. When he talks about religion, for example, he says it’s his job as Egypt’s president to oversee the morals of the society. He thinks the media must work in harmony with the state in order to further Egypt’s national interest. Every businessman is expected to work in a harmonious way with the state.
MJT: He isn’t Hitler, but he does look a bit like Mussolini.
Samuel Tadros: He’s completely ignorant of how economics works. He’s probably a competent military officer. He can do the things he’s supposed to be good at—managing soldiers and tanks, etc. But he doesn’t understand the complexity of the modern economy.
And he did not view himself as a candidate who needed to win the support of the people. He viewed the people’s demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood as support for himself. He expects people to support him. He does not seem to think anyone should expect anything from him as a candidate. He had no campaign platform.
And lastly he’s a man with a very bad temper. Ministers who served with him after the coup said he banged his fists on the table whenever he heard something he didn’t like. He was easily provoked during media interviews, and these interviews were completely controlled by the military. Even then we saw outbursts of anger.
MJT: What’s the deal with his government claiming it found the cure for the HIV virus?
Samuel Tadros: That’s North Korean level lunacy. The military held a press conference and claimed Egypt found the cure for HIV and Hepatitis C. They say they can cure it with a device that looks similar to the device used to find bombs.
The public was shocked when the military announced this.
Ibrahim Abdel-Atti says the machine transforms the virus into nutrition. “I take AIDS from the patient,” he said, “and feed the patient on AIDS. I give it to him as a kebab skewer to feed on. I take the disease and I give it to him as food.” I’m not exaggerating. That’s actually what he said. The military claimed that by next year the entire country will be cured of HIV and Hepatitis C.
MJT: Did anybody actually believe this?
Samuel Tadros: Unfortunately, yes. There are those who under pressure will relent and say it’s probably crazy, but many people are afraid of what this tells us about our military. They don’t want to face the fact that lunatics are running the country.
MJT: Sisi has basically declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood, but I doubt that’s a war he can win.
Samuel Tadros: It depends on how you define the word “win.” The Brotherhood’s organization has been dealt a heavy blow, but that’s different from political Islam as an ideology. Political Islam won’t disappear any time soon, the reasons for the emergence of Islamism, the crisis of modernity and Egypt’s failure to find a place for itself under the sun are still there and there is no political ideology that can compete with Islamism at the moment, but the organization itself has really been hurt. The Brotherhood recruitment has stopped for eleven months. There are no new members joining the ranks.
The weekly meetings have been disrupted. Not only the first tier of leadership, but also the second and third tiers of leadership are in prison. So I think it’s possible for Sisi to win a war against the organization.
But where will the rest of the members go if there is no organization? There are hundreds of thousands of them. And these are not like people who decide to join the Democratic or Republican parties in the US where they can leave any time they want at the first sign of trouble. Muslim Brotherhood members commit five to eight years of their lives to become accepted. They study hard and are examined five times, and they go through all this despite personal risk to themselves. It was no fun becoming a Muslim Brotherhood member under Hosni Mubarak. They were often arrested. They spent time in jail. Their promotions might have been affected. Their businesses might have been confiscated. These people were extremely committed to the cause.
Where will they go? That’s the big question.
MJT: I worry they’ll become more extreme and violent. What else are they going to do? It’s either that or quit, right? And like you said the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t an easy thing to quit.
Samuel Tadros: Definitely. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they will become jihadis.
Islamism has been dealt tremendous blows. It’s still powerful as an ideology, but all the methods attempted to achieve it have failed. Ayman al-Zawahiri may be correct in pointing out to the Muslim Brotherhood that their attempt to work within the political system has failed, but his approach hasn’t been successful either. Thirteen years after the September 11 attacks, what has he accomplished? The jihadis are no closer to achieving the dream than the Brotherhood.
Look at the failures of the jihadists and the fighting between jihadists in places like Syria between ISIS and Nusra. Is that what people should aspire to? Salafism hasn’t been successful either, nor is educating people and transforming them one step at a time.
So we’ve reached an interesting moment in history. The ideology remains coherent and powerful, but all the means to achieve it are proven failures. Where does that leave us? That’s the question.
MJT: Do you know the answer?
Samuel Tadros: Some of the Muslim Brotherhood members will become jihadis, but others will move to what I would call revolutionary Islamism, which would be violent but not jihadist. That may sound contradictory, but I’m talking about a low-level violent insurgency within the cities. Not car bombs in markets, but throwing Molotov cocktails at police stations. They will kill police officers, but they won’t mount sophisticated military operations like the jihadists in Syria. They will focus on traditional revolutionary activities in the streets.
We already have seen the beginnings of such a movement even before the coup. Young people who gathered around azem Salah Abu Ismail and formed Hazemoon. It would make Ali Shariati, the Iranian Shia scholar, quite proud. It’s a mixture of Islamism and a Marxist discourse on the people in one package. This would be a tremendous development. Sunni Islam has never been revolutionized in this way before.
MJT: Right. The Iranian revolutionaries were like that in 1979.
If President Obama were to ask you for advice on formulating a new Egypt policy, what would you tell him?
Samuel Tadros: That’s the toughest question in the world.
A lot of people think the US is extremely limited in what it can accomplish, but I disagree. The Brotherhood strongly reacts to public pressure, especially Western public pressure. If Washington had tried to force the Brotherhood to abide by certain standards, the Brotherhood might have decided to take a slower route.
As for Sisi, there is an important debate in Washington about human rights, about American values versus American interests, but I think that blinds us to another serious question. Will Egypt’s new regime advance American interests in the first place?
MJT: I don’t think so.
**Samuel Tadros: **Two points concern me in particular. One is the very strong anti-American conspiracy theories that are being sponsored and spread by the Egyptian regime. This government isn’t acting at all like a friend or ally of the United States and what it’s doing will have powerful ramifications, not only on Egyptian views of the US but also on actual events.
For instance, the names of Egyptian employees at the US Embassy were published in newspapers and they were attacked as traitors. An employee at the embassy was arrested and accused of being a secret link between the American conspiracy and the Muslim Brotherhood.
And there’s the question of whether Sisi’s policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood is creating a larger problem for the US in the future. He might think he can control the situation in the Sinai, but that will take a very long time if it ever even occurs. Will his actions create a higher risk of attacks in the Suez Canal? Will his actions create more radicalization in Egypt? These are things the US needs to be thinking about.
I haven’t yet answered you about what President Obama should do, but I think the real question should be whether or not the regime will help US interests.
MJT: I doubt it.
Samuel Tadros: I doubt it too. But that doesn’t mean the US and Egypt should become completely detached. US interests in Egypt are complicated—stability, the right of passage on the Suez Canal, the right for planes to cross Egyptian air space, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and Egypt as a potential moderate force in the region in general.
But I think there is a tendency in the US to view Egypt as more important than it really is. That’s partly a result of the Cold War. The Egypt that forged a strategic relationship with America in the 1970s no longer exists. Egypt is not such a powerful state anymore. Egypt’s previous role has been filled by a variety of states, including Saudi Arabia and even Qatar. I don’t think this realization has hit Washington yet.
MJT: What about the US aid money to the Egyptian government? Should we cut if off? I’m increasingly convinced that we should.
Samuel Tadros: If you cut off the aid money the question is, what happens next? Egypt would be shocked, partly because the government views that money as its natural right. They signed the treaty with Israel for US money. That was the deal. And Egypt kept its end of the bargain. There’s a strong sense of entitlement there.
The government even thinks it should get more money because inflation has made it worth less than in the 1970s.
Thanks to the rampant conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, the government believes the US is completely controlled by the Jews, which means they’re safe as long as they maintain the relationship with the United States and keep the peace. As long as they do that, the US would never dare touch them.
They think they understand the US, but they don’t. And US policy has reinforced this belief. They truly believe that no matter what they do, the aid will never be touched.
If the aid is cut tomorrow, it will send powerful shock waves through Egypt. And Egypt will not turn to Russia. Russia can’t sustain or become a sponsor of a country like Egypt. And Egypt can’t just change its military doctrine, its equipment, and its weaponry over to the Russian system. That would take a generation.
So if you cut off the aid money, it will create an enormous shock in Egypt that would lead to a reassessment of everything. They would be forced to re-examine their policies and how they’ve been conducting themselves. Money from the Gulf might replace the money Egypt receives from the US, but it can’t replace the prestige attached to its relationship with the US. Sisi studied at a US military academy for a year. So did the minister of defense. Those relationships are much more important than the money the Gulf can supply.
MJT: Would the Egyptian government’s reassessment push it in a good direction or a bad direction?
Samuel Tadros: In a good direction, I think. It would destroy their entire understanding about how the world works and force them to change.