Democracy Now! correspondent and a fellow at the Nation Institute.
A mass protest has been called for Friday in Egypt after the killing of at least 11 demonstrators outside the Defense Ministry in Cairo. The attack came as hundreds protested the ejection of ultra-conservative Islamist candidate Hazem Abu Ismail from the pending presidential election because his mother has dual Egyptian-U.S. citizenship. The killings were the latest to fuel anger against the country’s ruling military council ahead of elections scheduled later this month. We get an update from Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Egypt, where at least 11 people were killed in clashes Wednesday between protesters and unidentified attackers outside the Defense Ministry in Cairo. The attack came as hundreds protested the ejection of ultra-conservative Islamist candidate Hazem Abu Ismail from the pending presidential election. He was disqualified because his mother has dual Egyptian-U.S. citizenship. Demonstrators had been camping out since Friday calling for his candidacy to be reinstated.
Some claim the clashes were instigated by plainclothes police officers. One protester told CNN, quote, "dozens of military men dressed in plainclothes started pelting" them "with stones, cement blocks, and fired tear gas from rifles." Parliamentary member Essam el-Erian accused the military of failing to protect the Egyptian people.
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: [translated] There is an obvious recurrence, and it is hurtful and sorrowful that there exists a precedent to these events with a failure and an honest accusation to the armed forces that they do not protect Egyptian blood and do not carry out their role in managing the transitional period efficiently and with integrity or with the handing over of power to the people through free will that is shown through free elections.
AMY GOODMAN: The Muslim Brotherhood also boycotted a meeting with Egypt’s ruling military council, which had been called to defuse tensions between the Islamist-dominated parliament and the army-backed government. Instead, the party called for mass protests on Friday.
ESSAM EL-ERIAN: [translated] I believe that everyone agrees to participating in this million man march, which is a continuation of what was called saving the revolution, handing over power to the people, the military staying true to what was promised, and an end to the Egyptian people’s bloodshed. This invitation isn’t just from the Revolutionary Youth Coalition or any other revolutionary faction. We have all agreed to participate, and I believe this million man march will be the practical response to everything that is occurring now, whether it is bloodshed or the confusion over the specified time for the handover of power and the confusion surrounding the upcoming presidential elections.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Muslim Brotherhood member and parliamentarian Essam El-Erian. Egypt’s elections are scheduled for later this month.
For more, we’re going directly to Cairo, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a fellow at the Nation Institute, as well.
Sharif, tell us what happened this week in Cairo.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, as you mentioned, Amy, a protest that began on Friday for supporters of the Salafist ultra-conservative candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, moved from Tahrir to an area called Abbasiya, which is a working-class area near the Ministry of Defense. They started a sit-in there. The very next day, that sit-in came under attack, and one person was killed. In response to that, several revolutionary youth groups joined those Islamist protesters at the Ministry of Defense. And a few days later, in fact, in the morning of Wednesday, early, a dawn attack came at the protest by unknown assailants. But they did use, reportedly, machine guns, guns, shotguns, tear gas, and at least 11 people were killed. Doctors at the field hospitals at the sit-in say up to 20 people have been killed. Those who have been at the morgue have said that the people who were killed mostly were killed by shots to the head with bullets. And this all happened in a very heavily guarded area. I mean, we’re right next to the Ministry of Defense. So, army troops and police deployed in the area did not intervene for hours. They finally did come at around noon on Wednesday, and the clashes stopped, and they have been—it has been relatively quiet since then.
And there was a huge march that went yesterday from—to join the sit-in. Two presidential candidates were in that march. But in response to this violence, four presidential candidates have temporarily suspended their campaigns. Let’s remember, the presidential elections are scheduled to begin in three weeks from now. Among them was the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, as well as a more liberal Islamist thinker who used to be in the Muslim Brotherhood by the name of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and two other leftist candidates. And there’s—as you mentioned, as well, there’s been calls now for a massive protest on Friday against this violence and against the military’s handling of it.
Just moments before this broadcast, the military council held a press conference to respond to the violence. As we’ve seen in the past, they denied any wrongdoing whatsoever. They said that their hands are clean of any Egyptian blood, that they did not kill a single Egyptian. There was also a warning by one of the generals in the press conference, who said, "You can protest in Tahrir, but if you come near the Defense Ministry, people should accept what will happen to them." So it’s the same kind of language we’ve seen over this transitional period from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. But right now, as has been so much with this transitional period, things are up in the air as to what will happen with the presidential elections and going forward from now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Sharif, what do you make of this announcement by the military leaders that they will cede power to civilians by May 24th?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, that was a confusing announcement that came out yesterday. The elections are supposed to begin May 23rd and 24th, two days, and that’s the first round. If no candidate wins above 50 percent, then there will be a rerun between the top two candidates on the 16th and 17th of June. What the chief of staff of the military council, Sami Anan, said yesterday was that if there was an outright winner on the 24th, that they would cede power then. However, the results aren’t meant to come out on the 24th, so it was a confusing statement that people asked about in the press here today, but really wasn’t made clear.
What’s also a big issue right now is the issue of the constitution. The military council had been pushing hard for the constitution to be written before the presidential elections, but that is very unlikely to happen, given that it’s in three weeks from now. The constituent assembly that was formed last month by, largely, the Muslim Brotherhood, they shoved through—Muslim Brotherhood, of course, had the majority in parliament with many of the Salafi parliamentary members, and they make up about 70 percent of parliament, and they stacked this constituent assembly very heavily with Islamists. Fifty members of the hundred-member assembly were from members of parliament themselves. The other 50 were stacked with Islamists. This caused outrage amongst many groups. And eventually, an administrative court ruled that the—it was illegal, the constituent assembly. So there’s been negotiations now to reselect these members of the constituent assembly that will write the constitution. But as it stands right now, Egyptians will go to the polls to elect a president without knowing precisely what powers that president will have.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, talk more about the candidate, especially Ismail, and the significance of the expulsion of him and the other candidates.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, late last month, the presidential election commission really reordered the presidential race by disqualifying 10 presidential candidates, including three of the top front-runners. One of them was Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who is a Salafist, which is an ultra-conservative Islamist movement. He’s also very against the military council, or has used that rhetoric, and had a very passionate following. He was disqualified because of the law that was passed in the constitutional declaration—in the constitutional referendum, I’m sorry, states that if any of your parents have or have ever had foreign citizenship, then you’re not allowed to run. And his mother apparently had American citizenship. His sister lives—is married to an American and lives in the United States, and his mother apparently had American citizenship. So [he] was disqualified, and this caused a lot of outrage.
Of course, another member that was disqualified was Khairat El-Shater, who is the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading strategist and financier. He was let out because of a military court ruling that was really very political against him during the Mubarak regime, and many felt that his expulsion or his disqualification was unfair.
And, of course, Omar Suleiman was disqualified, as well, for not having enough votes, Omar Suleiman being Mubarak’s top intelligence chief for many years.
So this threw the presidential race into a big—I mean, there was a very big and major change. And right now many see the leading candidates as being Amr Moussa, who served as Mubarak’s foreign minister for 10 years and later was secretary-general of the Arab League for 10 years leading up to the revolution, versus Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who, as I mentioned earlier, is a liberal Islamist thinker, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a kind of a reformist member, and was—left the group last year after he decided to run for president. They had earlier stated they would not field a presidential candidate, and he defied that order. And there’s also Ahmed Shafik, who was Mubarak’s—Mubarak appointed him prime minister. He was also a minister under Mubarak. And there’s several other candidates, leftist candidates and across the spectrum.
But there was supposed to be a debate today between Amr Moussa and Aboul Fotouh, who are seen as the two really front-runners. That was postponed until May 10th because of these clashes. So, a lot is happening in the lead-up to this election. And as we’ve seen over this past year, it’s a very unpredictable and unstable situation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Sharif, while these convulsions continue in terms of the political struggle in Egypt, what is the situation, the daily life, for Egyptians in Cairo and other parts of the country? How is the economy faring and the day-to-day situation that people face?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, there certainly has been an increase in crime. I wouldn’t say it’s been a huge increase. I think, given the fact that the police have not really been deployed, redeployed since January 2011 in full force, there—the level of crime has not skyrocketed. But having said that, there is, I think, the sense that we’re living in an unstable state, that there’s no one really in control. There’s the protest movement. There’s the military council. There’s parliament and the Muslim Brotherhood. And so, I think many people fear a breakdown of security and of order.
Having said that, also, the economy, many fear, is going into a tailspin with regards to—we’ve finished our—used up much of our foreign reserves. And, of course, we’re a country that spends heavily on imports. We’re the biggest wheat importer of the world. And so, there’s—and certain sectors, such as tourism, have been hit very hard, as well. So—and all this is happening under the guise—under the leadership, really, of the military council, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. So I think many people want them to hand over power, as they have pledged to do, but many are skeptical. But I think they’ve seen that this transition has been so badly mismanaged that they want a change of leadership.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, you wrote a very interesting piece in the Egypt Independent, saying, "As the Brotherhood strains" — talking about the Muslim Brotherhood — "As the Brotherhood strains to wrap its hands around the levers of state power in Egypt, my uncle finds himself having to confront the pressing reality that the group he has considered himself a member of for so long may very well be one he will have to begin openly protesting." Can you talk about who your uncle is and the dilemma he faces now?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, my uncle has been a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood for the past 36 years. And I think what’s happening with him and his fast-mutating and complex relationship with the organization is a reflection of what’s really happening with many of the rank and file of the Muslim Brotherhood. My uncle is not a typical brother. He’s a leading dissident against the Mubarak regime—he was. He’s famed for taking to the streets and leading protests, holding his megaphone and flag in his hand. He’s been arrested very many times. But he also built a lot of ties with groups like the April 6 Youth Movement, with Baradei’s group, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, his group, the National Association for Change. And so, these kinds of ties and these kinds of open actions of dissent were not very palatable to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had become much more conservative, especially in the last 20 years, and led predominately by Khairat El-Shater, who, as I said, was disqualified from being their presidential candidate.
And so, you know, my uncle’s relationship really after January 25th, 2011, with the Muslim Brotherhood has become—has begun to change, because he is, by his very nature, a dissident, and the Muslim Brotherhood is beginning—as it is, of course, the majority in parliament right now, is beginning to control many of the institutions of the state, or trying to, at least, and has upset many of the revolutionary youth in its actions, has been seen as cozying up to the military generals, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. And so, I think his relationship is beginning to change. He’s beginning to speak out more openly against them. And I think that’s indicative of really many of the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood and its rank and file about how what was once an opposition movement is becoming—has become the most powerful party in Egyptian politics, and that their membership, I think, is going to change and maybe split apart.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I want to thank you for being with us, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo, fellow at the Nation Institute. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.