Gehad Al-Haddad, Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson and senior advisor on foreign affairs, speaks with Omayma Abdel-Latif and Amira Howeidy on the myriad pitfalls of Egyptian politics
Eight months after the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate became president Egypt’s oldest Islamist organisation is facing unremitting criticism of its political performance. Critics charge that the group lacks not only the strategy but the political will to tackle Egypt’s myriad problems, and has shown no inclination at all to implement the goals of the revolution, including dismantling the machinery of corruption and of repression.
Egypt’s foreign policy agenda is also a point of contention. Little if anything has changed, MB opponents say: Egypt remains bound to its peace agreement with Israel and dependent on foreign aid from Washington and the Gulf. Relations with Tehran remain in the deep freeze and the Brotherhood has shown itself unwilling to openly support resistance movements in the region.
At 31 Gehad Al-Haddad is the Brotherhood’s official spokesperson. He was on the steering committee of the Renaissance project, the Freedom and Justice Party’s senior advisor on foreign affairs and a key member of President Mohamed Morsi’s presidential campaign team. More significantly, perhaps, he belongs to the rising generation inside the MB who are assigned leading roles in articulating the group’s post-revolution vision of politics.
Al-Haddad is responsible for dozens of files inside the organisation and is the son of Essam Al-Haddad, the president’s aide on foreign affairs. He spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly at his office in Nasr City.
Who are the key players shaping Egypt’s foreign policy under President Morsi?
Foreign policy has long been erratic, tailored to the whims of the president and subject to international pressure. Our objective now is to institutionalise foreign policy decision-making. The decisions still lie with the president but their making and support are supposed to rest institutionally with the state. During the current transition three individuals together direct foreign policy. They are the president, the foreign minister and the president’s aide for foreign affairs. Collectively they are the directors. They are supported by state institutions such as the Foreign Ministry, intelligence agencies, dedicated think tanks and the Information and Decision Support Centre affiliated to the Egyptian cabinet. The state is strengthened by different perspectives according to each foreign policy issue or dossier. That’s never happened before, at least not at the expected levels. Under the new constitution foreign policy remains the president’s remit. So even when a new government takes office it will handle domestic affairs much more closely while foreign affairs will remain in the president’s hand. The dossier will not become the focus of dispute in the event of power sharing.
How is this reflected in the foreign policy agenda?
Egypt was a major force in the region up to and until Sadat’s time. This diminished substantially throughout the Mubarak years. We have a very clear objective — to reinstate Egypt as a primary decision-maker and interest holder. We have a clear direction and plan for our foreign policy, zones of belonging — African, Arab, Islamic and international — in which priorities are set according to the interests of Egyptian citizens. When priorities conflict the president separates them.
Some argue that Morsi is maintaining the status quo policies. For example, before coming to power the Muslim Brotherhood had a negative view of the Camp David Accord...
We had a negative view of Camp David but did we have a position that it should be annulled?
At least modified?
Did we say that we wanted to modify it? I used to voice a position that was very carefully worded: although we believe Camp David was one of the most disastrous things to have happened in the history of the region we will not be the ones to break the treaty and we believe that within current dynamics it serves Egyptian interests.
As it stands?
At the time we made that decision we didn’t know. No one had actually read the documents.
So did something change?
Two things. First the president took office, so it became less a Muslim Brotherhood decision than one that must serve the Egyptian people. The second is the responsibility that comes from being pushed from the back seat to the driver’s wheel. When you take the responsibility for driving a lot of calculations need to be rethought.
The word for that is pragmatism?
I think we’re pragmatic but at the same time we are very clear in what we are trying to achieve. Foreign policy, or any issue within the state, does not change at the whim of an individual or due to changes in who wields political power. They are more institutionalised. There has to be a benchmark. Our reference point, our guideline, is the law — local and international.
On the issue of Israel during Mubarak’s time there were a number of files that we had very clear positions on. For example, we shouldn’t allow Israel to jeopardise our airspace, to bomb the Gaza tunnels on Egyptian soil or interfere in the security affairs of the Sinai region. They [Israelis] have stopped doing this because there is a very clear red line now in place.
When Israel used to retaliate in Gaza and the Palestinian territories and the US tried to play the biased mediator they always failed miserably. But when Egypt stepped into the equation, with full ownership of the dossier, public support of the presidential position and offering full support to the Palestinians, Egypt moved into the Palestinians camp. The US was standing in the camp of the Israelis, where it always had, and Egypt and Israel finalised a ceasefire deal in three days and it worked. So for the first time the administrations of Egypt and the US pragmatically and professionally enacted the ceasefire and agreed to it with the administrations of Palestine and Israel. This new dynamic within the region is supporting the process of institutionalisation.
What we work towards are values. How to serve these values is always contextual: time, place, ability and resources. The value that dictates the handling of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is justice. So we take a position that serves it.
The Palestinian question is a national security issue that affects our north-eastern border…
Between Egypt and Palestine that is. You have to separate the dossier to understand the relationships. Between Palestine and Israel it’s not a national security issue but one of justice. It’s a political file about justice in this region of the world. This is where all the anger in the Middle East comes from, but at the same time between Palestine and Egypt and Israel and Egypt this is a national security file and it is handled by national security services.
But they’re all intertwined, surely?
Yes they are, but these are the guiding values. This is what defines the relationship. We might have supported tunnels in Gaza when it was alleviating the pressure that the Egyptian government under Mubarak was putting on them. We have no need to support them now. Because in the end the value that we’re after isn’t in support of the tunnels.
Who takes decisions regarding the tunnels?
I don’t know.
What role do the intelligence services play in the issue?
State institutions provide recommendations. Politicians take the decisions. The three positions I referred to are politically appointed decisions-makers.
But there’s also a balance of power. There is an elected president but there are still very powerful institutions that could override his decisions and influence them.
No, we don’t have this in Egypt now.
The impression is that flooding the tunnels to Gaza with sewage water isn’t Morsi’s decision and is more an intelligence strategy?
I don’t know how specific relationships work or how the decision is taken. But the end result is, if that has been happening on the ground then the president is responsible for it. My understanding is that the Egyptian [intelligence] services are fully under the command of the president, and execute his orders.
Are you saying that he doesn’t face any kind of resistance from state institutions on any files?
He probably does. But I don’t think the resistance that occurs from the Egyptian state is retaliatory. Rather, it involves a slowdown in bureaucratic execution but at the end of the day they are executing his orders.
There is hostility because many services were trained and recruited on the basis of the Muslim Brotherhood being the enemy. There are various levels of professionalism within the state. Amongst the best of them are the foreign affairs and the intelligence services — they are the least political. The leadership might have been like Omar Suleiman, for example, but the institution itself — as far as I know — is one of the most professional within the state. And thus I do not expect it to do anything other than follow the president’s orders.
So you can’t envisage a situation in which Egyptian intelligence might feed the president misinformation?
Even if it is the case, it is the president’s job to find the right information because he takes the decision, whether ill-informed or fully informed. At the same time, the state’s information gathering systems were hit during the revolution and need a lot of support and upgrading.
Why is Egypt’s foreign policy supportive of armed resistance against Bashar Al-Assad but has failed to declare a similarly clear position on the Palestinian question which is, after all, what the Brotherhood was historically about?
I think they support resistance on both sides but perhaps by different means. We support resistance to any type of occupation. We support resistance of the people to regain their freedom be it in the Arab world, the Muslim world or any other place. At the same time there are different means by which we can secure this. When we look at Gaza, the blockade is the number one issue so providing a lifeline tops our agenda. It’s the role of the Egyptian government to secure that lifeline. Now no one will disagree that the situation in Gaza is much better than it was under Mubarak. Entry and exit is much easier, and the transfer of goods, medicine and of local needs.
What happened with the Palestinian reconciliation talks?
They take on their course. This is not a click and go, it’s a political process, it’s a bureaucratic process and it’s an intelligence process and lots of people are involved in it. But at least now the process is fair, the representation is fair there’s no pick and choose. It is not who I want to deal with, and the relationship is not I’m going to tell you to do something and you do it. We don’t accept that kind of relationship from any country and we don’t offer it to any country.
But you said Bashar should go. There was a very clear intervention when it came to Syria?
Do you think the situation in Syria is confused?
Do you think the foreign policy agenda now reflects the aspirations of post-Mubarak Egypt?
I think it is too early to judge. You cannot compare a few months in office with 40 years of destabilising Egypt’s position internationally. Is it working in the right direction? Yes, of course it is.
But every single position Egypt takes regarding the Palestinian question, Syria, Iran and the Gulf is predictable…
Because the same people continue to write them. It takes time for a leadership to transfer its vision to a bureaucracy of seven million employees. The bureaucracy never used to do anything on its own. It is still carrying out the same thing. How do you think you change that culture? In a couple of months?
So it’s a question of the bureaucracy moving slowly rather than the lack of a clearly articulated vision?
The articulation you can see very clearly in the statements that come out of the presidential office. But these have to percolate through state institutions. If they don’t know how to function properly they’re not going to learn overnight. It’s going to take time to promote the right cadres to take on the right responsibilities to execute them with professionalism. The bureaucracy is mostly a bunch of losers.
But any successful vision must be capable of promoting change and that seems not to be happening. Take reform of the security apparatus, for instance…
I know it is not happening but you need to question the government. Was the police force in Egypt ever trained to deal with political opposition apart from bashing them? Were they ever trained to deal with protests? They weren’t.
Has anybody tried to push for such training?
Yes, we connected them to institutions and we pushed the Ministry of Interior to interact with other police forces in other countries. We tried to induce them to take training.
Did it happen?
I don’t know. We — in the presidential campaign — designed a rehabilitation programme for the police force. Its execution is the role of the government. You should ask the government about this issue.
Many expected that the Brotherhood would deliver on its promises…
The Muslim Brotherhood is not a magic name. They are human beings. I was part of the team that wrote the presidential programme. In the very first paragraph we said we faced a near impossible mission and it would take years to accomplish it. When we compiled the Renaissance project we said rewards would begin to accrue in 2025. We never said the first six months.
What exactly is the direction of relations with Iran?
We articulated what the guidelines should be in our presidential programme. We said that Iran is a powerful country and under no circumstances are we going to cut relations with Iran regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. We believe it has the right to decide its own choices, including whether or not it wants to develop nuclear energy, but at the same time we have huge concerns about Iranian activities in the region in Syria, the Gulf and even in Egypt.
US activities in the region cause even greater concern yet relations with Washington remain warm?
And who says we don’t open these dossiers with Washington?
We don’t talk to Obama and Kerry and tell them to stop occupying Afghanistan or to stop supporting Israel?
Who said we do not?
You said you have reservations about what Iran is doing in the region…
We have reservations as well about what the US is doing and each file is dealt with accordingly.
What will be the decisive factors in restoring full diplomatic relations with Tehran?
Two factors, as variable as they come: national interest and Gulf interests. I said at the beginning there are three levels of belonging. Where does Iran lie? Where does the Gulf lie? Our relationship with the third one is to the extent that is comfortable with the second one. Understand the equation, because it gives you variables.
Why should the Gulf be a determining factor in Egypt’s relations with Iran?
That’s our position. Who do we serve? The Egyptian populace. So when I look at the interests of the Egyptian populace I ask how big is the expatriate population in Iran and in the Gulf? You can look at the mess we have now with the UAE because of nothing more than misconceptions and misunderstandings.
Is it just a misunderstanding or an ideological issue with the UAE government?
Very few have managed to read through the scarecrow image the Mubarak regime projected of the Muslim Brotherhood, so when they hear about the MB coming to power it evokes images for many in the region. Very few have managed to see beyond. At the moment within the Gulf the Egyptian diaspora is coming under pressure because many Gulf monarchies and families and governments are sceptical of the role that Egypt will play in the region.
Do you see a problem there?
Yes, there is of course a problem with the Gulf. I think it’s a problem of misunderstanding and what should be done about it is to engage in interaction and dialogue with as many points in the leadership of the Gulf as possible. As a change in perception happens there can be more pragmatic approaches to problem solving.
You talk about Egypt’s failing state, yet didn’t the MB manouvre to inherit that state alone? Why didn’t you create a national front to power-share?
You think we did not try. We never wanted to be in this position. We never planned the Renaissance project for such a mess, or to assume leadership in this mess. We declared this very clearly when we said we would not field a presidential candidate or take over the parliament. We didn’t change that position until we were faced with a list of potential presidential candidates. We went through them one by one and they either declined or apologised. So we ended up with either having to choose one of the remaining presidential candidates or to nominate our own. We scrutinised each and every one of them: can he be the next leader of Egypt? Can he challenge the forces that don’t want Egypt to succeed? We decided none of them could. The choice we faced was either to risk Egypt’s disarray in the transition or go back on our word. When responsibility presents itself we don’t shy away, we take, and we know there’s a price. Egypt now is a fireball and whoever is holding it is going to get burnt.
How do you respond to claims about the Ikhwanisation of the state?
It is a fantasy. In fact many current cabinet members are people about whom we could justifiably have reservations. We suggested names to the president, people who we would like to have seen taking on portfolios and in many cases he refused our nominations. The president makes his own decisions. And he makes them based on the vetting process of state institutions.
But there’s a general perception of the Muslim Brotherhood as desperate to take over the state machinery…
If someone believed it they would take it to court. If someone believed we did something illegal they could take it to court. In the end this is not a Muslim Brotherhood government or even a Freedom and Justice government. A political party would lead its own government. We’re not leading it, in fact we don’t like most of what this government is doing, but we support the president to be in office. We don’t have a fully functioning political system yet and like I said we don’t shy away from responsibility when it presents itself. We did not want to be in this position but we were chosen to be in this position. In the next parliamentary elections if the Egyptian people choose us to be in this position we’ll take full responsibility for it.
What is the Muslim Brotherhood’s end game?
We’re not going to let Egypt fall. Never. We’ve stepped in, taken responsibility and under no circumstances we will let Egypt fall. I look at the Muslim Brotherhood as the anchor to a ship that has had no maintenance for a long time and is in turbulent waters. Without that anchor I believe Egypt would sink.